Guest Editor’s Introduction by Keith Ansell-Pearson

In his contribution Keith Ansell-Pearson seeks to illuminate some fundamental aspects of Nietzsche’s search for happiness and joy.  As Richard Bett has noted, Nietzsche likes to give the impression that he is against happiness altogether.[6]  A well-known aphorism in a late text, Twilight of the Idols, is typical in this regard:  “Humanity does not strive for happiness; only the English do that” (TI “Maxims and Arrows,” 12).  However, an examination of Nietzsche, especially of the neglected middle period texts, can show that he is deeply concerned with the fate of happiness and also that he develops rich conceptions of pleasure and joy. Ansell-Pearson explores various renditions of happiness and joy in Nietzsche’s writings, offering a series of perspectives on the topic.  He focuses on some key aphorisms – GS 45 and WS 295 – in which Nietzsche celebrates Epicurus for his modest but voluptuous appreciation of existence and for inventing the practice of “heroic-idyllic philosophizing.”

Peter S. Groff examines Nietzsche’s conflicted relation to Epicurus. He focuses in particular on the Epicurean credo “live unnoticed” (lathe biōsas), which advocated an inconspicuous life of quiet philosophical reflection, self-cultivation and friendship, avoiding the public radar and eschewing the larger ambitions and perturbations of political life, and track its influence on Nietzsche’s thought and life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea looms largest and is most warmly received in Nietzsche’s middle period writings, where one finds a repeated concern with prudence, withdrawal and concealment, and where the primary emphasis is on private pluralistic experiments in therapeutic self-cultivation among small groups of free spirits. The idea of the Epicurean Garden appeals greatly to Nietzsche at this time. However, Nietzsche’s growing impatience with human imperfections and the siren song of great politics (grosse Politik) eventually lead him away from Epicurus and to Plato. The more ambitious philosopher-legislator who takes upon himself the task of determining the future of humanity now replaces the paradigm of the modest, hidden helpful philosopher-therapist. Nonetheless, Groff argues that we can profit more from the modest, practical insights of Nietzsche’s Epicurean art of living.

In his contribution Daniel Conway’s aim is to document the Epicurean themes that Nietzsche imports into Ecce Homo (1888). Intent on presenting himself as having surpassed Epicurus as a teacher and healer, Nietzsche acknowledges his own share in the décadence that grips late modern European culture, only to assert nonetheless that he remains a destiny. According to his own presentation of himself and his newly consecrated way of life, Nietzsche is poised to succeed precisely where Epicurus failed—namely, in providing an exemplified way of life that caters to those who are healthy, those who reasonably may hope to convalescence, and those who may actively “oppose” the décadence imprinted on them by the late modern epoch.

In their contribution Federico Testa and Matthew Dennis explore a comparison between Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-88) and Nietzsche centred on the importance and place of Epicurus and Epicureanism in their works. In order to contribute to the development of this intersection between the two authors through the shared reference to Hellenistic tradition, they also present a translation of Guyau’s ‘Introduction’ to his book La Morale d’Épicure from 1878. In the introductory essay which precedes the translation, they show how both the young Guyau and Nietzsche in his middle period writings are inspired by Epicurean philosophy, especially in their commitment to an ethics of pleasure and pleasurable living. Both Nietzsche and Guyau stress the importance of the Hellenistic model of self-cultivation, consisting of the active and rational processes of shaping one’s life through philosophical practice. The Epicurean sage is for the young Guyau an “artist of existence”; similarly Nietzsche finds in Epicurus a master of self-cultivation through “modest voluptuousness.” Although it can only be speculated whether he read Guyau’s monograph on Epicurus, Nietzsche’s annotations to other texts of Guyau’s, such as his A Sketch of Morality Independent of Obligation of Sanction, reveal an enthusiastic reading of Guyau, which is perhaps unsurprising given the many congruencies in theme and method that each philosopher shares.

It is to be hoped that this set of essays serves to inspire future research into Nietzsche’s relation to Hellenistic philosophy, especially Epicurus and Epicureanism, and into the re-invention of philosophy as a way of life in the modern period.  In conclusion let me indicate why I think a focus on Nietzsche’s Epicureanism is so important for research and our thinking today.

In recent writings I have contended that an ethos of Epicurean enlightenment pervades Nietzsche’s middle writings with Epicurus celebrated for his teachings on mortality and the cultivation of modest pleasures. Although the late Nietzsche has some problems with Epicurus, in his middle writings he writes in praise of him and draws upon his philosophy as a way of promoting what we can call an Epicurean care of self and world.  We need to discover this Nietzsche for ourselves and in part as a way of contesting Martin Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche that focuses on the late writings, mostly the Nachlass, and construes all the major concepts of the late period, notably the will to power and the overman, as indicating that Nietzsche is the “technological” thinker of our age and whose major concept is the will to power and its desire for mastery of the earth though the will to will. My view is that we need a much more subtle and nuanced appreciation of Nietzsche than the Heideggerian reading permits, and one way to develop this is to focus on the neglected middle writings and especially the reception of Epicurus.

Within so-called continental philosophy Heidegger’s “Nietzsche” has perhaps been the dominant influence.  It has at least two main contentions:  first, that the real Nietzsche is to be found in the Nachlass of the mid to late 1880s, and second that Nietzsche does not overcome metaphysics, as he claims to do, but merely inverts it.[7]  For all the impressive brilliance of his reading, Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche carries real dangers: the thesis that Nietzsche is the last metaphysician of the West has arguably led to sterility in continental receptions of Nietzsche and, more pressingly perhaps, we lose sight of the practical-therapeutic dimension of Nietzsche’s philosophy and its attempt to overcome metaphysics; and we stop reading the published texts.  In my view the costs have been high and it is now time to focus our attention on the published texts and the actual and, in many instances, neglected details of Nietzsche’s search for philosophy.

Let me list what I see as some of Nietzsche’s principal concerns in his middle period writings and that serve to inspire him to pursue an Epicurean path:

  • A critique of commercial society and an emerging consumer culture.
  • A commitment to stable pleasures and mental equilibrium over the need for perpetual change.
  • An attempt to live free of the delusions of human exceptionalism, and free from the gods, especially the fear of the gods.
  • An emphasis on a therapy of slowness and the vita contemplativa, including a tempering of the human mind in order to liberate it from moral and religious fanaticism.
  • The search for a simpler existence purified of the metaphysical need with an attention to the importance of the closest things.
  • A care of self that is intended to be coextensive with the whole of life, suggesting an ecological rather than atomistic approach to the art of living.
  • The need to conquer unjustified fears and to reinstitute the role played by chance and chance events in the world and in human existence.
  • In contrast to a teaching on the salvation of the soul Nietzsche favours one that attends to the needs of the body and that takes the body as its starting-point. A neglect of the body, for example, through a teaching of pure spirituality, leads one to self-hatred and produces melancholic individuals.

In his middle period, then, Epicurus is one of Nietzsche’s chief inspirations in his effort to liberate himself from the metaphysical need and to aid humanity in its need to now cure its neuroses. It could be argued that this endeavour – to heal the earth and cultivate a new human relation to it – remains a pertinent one today: we live in a world facing ecological catastrophe and driven by anthropocentric pollution. The task of an Epicurean enlightenment, of the kind Nietzsche undertakes in his middle period writings, has never been more pressing or urgent.

 Works Cited: 

Bett, Richard. ‘Nietzsche, the Greeks, and Happiness (with special reference to Aristotle and Epicurus),’ Philosophical Topics, 33: 2, 2005, 45—70, 45.
De Witt, Norman Wentworth. Epicurus and His Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954).
Guyau, Jean-Marie. La Morale D’Epicure (Paris: Librairie Gemer Baillière, 1878).
Leddy, Neven  & Lifschitz Avi S. (eds.), Epicurus in the Enlightenment (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2009).
Marx, Karl. ‘Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ in K.
Marx & F. Engels, Collected Works: Volume One 1835-43 (London: Lawrence Wishart, 1975).
[1]  Marx, Karl. ‘Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’, 73.
[2]  Guyau, Jean-Marie. La Morale D’Epicure , 280.
[3]  De Witt, Norman Wentworth. Epicurus and His Philosophy, 3
[4]  Leddy, Neven  & Lifschitz Avi S. (eds.), Epicurus in the Enlightenment, 4.
[5] The other three pairs are: Goethe and Spinoza, Plato and Rousseau, and Pascal and Schopenhauer. On Montaigne’s relation to Epicurean doctrine see Howard Jones, Nietzsche and the Epicurean Tradition (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 159-62.
[6]  Bett, Richard ‘Nietzsche, the Greeks, and Happiness’ 45—70, 45.
[7]   On the one hand, Heidegger contends that Nietzsche finds himself as a thinker in the years between 1880 and 1883 – but this period covers core texts, such as Dawn, that he never subjects to analysis and about which he has nothing to say (with the exception of some remarks about, and analysis of, The Gay Science).  On the other hand, he maintains that, “Nietzsche’s philosophy proper…did not assume a final form and was not published in any book, neither in the decade between 1879 and 1889 nor during the years preceding. What Nietzsche himself published during his creative life was always foreground”.  M. Heidegger, Nietzsche. Volume One. The Will to Power as Art, trans. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 8-9.

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