Guest Editor’s Introduction by Keith Ansell-Pearson

Guest Editor’s Introduction

by Keith Ansell-Pearson

With a few notable exceptions the extent to which Nietzsche sought in his writings to revitalize the teaching of Epicurus has been overlooked in the literature on him.  Epicurus was important to Nietzsche on account of the nature of his philosophical practice – “heroic-idyllic” – and the fact that this practice involved philosophy as a mode of life, an art of existing, and a unique way of being in the world.  Nietzsche was keen in his lifetime to create and cultivate his own Epicurean garden.  As he puts it in a letter to his amanuensis Peter Gast, dated March 26, 1879: “Where do we want to renew the Garden of Epicurus?” (KSB 5, 399).

Although Nietzsche claimed to have experienced the character of Epicurus differently, to everybody else he was not alone in the nineteenth century in employing the name of “Epicurus” to signal the need for a reformation of philosophy in accordance with Epicurean principles of living.  For Marx, writing in the 1840s, and in defiance of Hegel’s negative assessment, Epicurus is the “greatest representative of the Greek enlightenment,”[1] whilst for Jean-Marie Guyau, writing in the 1870s, Epicurus is the original free spirit, “Still today it is the spirit of old Epicurus who, combined with new doctrines, works away at and undermines Christianity.” [2]  For Nietzsche, Epicurus is one of the greatest human beings to have graced the earth and the inventor of “heroic-idyllic philosophizing” (WS 295). Nietzsche’s interest in Epicurus, which is most prominent in these writings, is, on the face of it, curious:  what interest does he have in a philosopher of antiquity who was an egalitarian, offered what Cicero called a “plebeian” philosophy, and who espoused a simple-minded hedonic theory of value?  These are all positions we would expect Nietzsche to have no truck with.  And yet, especially in the middle period, he is full of praise for the figure of Epicurus.  This set of specially commissioned essays seeks to explore Nietzsche’s interest in Epicurus in fresh and innovative ways.

Like the other nineteenth century interpreters I have referred to, Nietzsche is acutely aware that Epicurean doctrine has been greatly maligned and misunderstood in the history of thought.  One commentator on Epicurus’s philosophy speaks of the “slanders and fallacies of a long and unfriendly tradition” and invites us to reflect on Epicurus as at one and the same time the most revered and most reviled of all founders of philosophy in the Greco-Roman world.[3]  Since the time of the negative assessment by Cicero and the early Church Fathers, “Epicureanism has been used as a smear word – a rather general label indicating atheism, selfishness, and debauchery.”[4] As Nietzsche observes in The Wanderer and His Shadow:

Epicurus has been alive in all ages and lives now, unknown to those who have called and call themselves Epicureans, and enjoying no reputation among philosophers. He has, moreover, himself forgotten his own name: it was the heaviest burden he ever cast off  (WS 227).

Two aphorisms from Assorted Opinions and Maxims reveal the importance Epicurus holds for Nietzsche in his middle period.  In the first Nietzsche confesses to having dwelled like Odysseus in the underworld and says that he will often be found there again. As someone who sacrifices so as to talk to the dead, he states that there are four pairs of thinkers from whom he will accept judgement, and Epicurus and Montaigne make up the first pair he mentions (AOM 408).[5] In the second aphorism Epicurus, along with the Stoic Epictetus, is revered as a thinker in whom wisdom assumes bodily form (AOM 224). The point is perhaps obvious:  philosophy is not simply sophistry or mere paideia but an incorporated practice that enables the individual to negotiate and affirm the most demanding and challenging questions of existence, including, notably, such tests of the self as the fact of our mortality and the question of how to live.

In what follows the contributors to the special issue of The Agonist undertake a fresh exploration of Nietzsche’s appreciation of Epicurus and of the Epicurean motifs that characterize his writings.  In her essay Jill Marsden asks how Nietzsche “experiences the character” of Epicurus. It is argued that Nietzsche “discovers” Epicurus on his thought paths during the middle period of his writings and that his very physical way of philosophizing develops in proximity to Epicurus as part of a thinking relationship with the earth. Taking the “happiness of the afternoon of antiquity” (GS 45) as a clue, it is suggested that Epicurus is a surprising source for Nietzsche’s experience of amor fati as the affective precondition for eternal return.

Next Willow Verkerk explores how Nietzsche’s joyful friendship, active especially in the free spirit texts of the middle period, shares with Epicurus an emphasis on health, community, and freedom from the fear of death. Nietzsche wants to renew the Epicurean garden by creating a community of free spirits who will experience pleasure through shared reflection and self-affirmation. In The Gay Science (aphorism 338) Nietzsche emphasizes that friends should share joy not suffering and in Human All Too Human he writes that “Fellow rejoicing (Mitfreude), not fellow suffering (Mitleiden) makes the friend” (HAH 499). After examining how Epicurus’ writings on community and health are reflected in Nietzsche’s middle period, this essay focuses on the therapeutic role of Nietzsche’s joyful friendship. She argues that the joyful friendship is most praised by Nietzsche for its capacity to become a healing balm for the wounds of pity (Mitleid), which represent our more fundamental feeling of the fear of death. In Nietzsche’s joyful friendship, the friends turn away from the burden of mortality and, in an Epicurean fashion, turn to the lived activities of the everyday to heal the self.

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