Nietzsche’s Joyful Friendship: Epicurean Elements in the Middle Works

Author: Willow Verkerk

In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes about the temperaments of Stoics and Epicureans stating that those whose “work is of the spirit” make “Epicurean arrangements.” He writes:

The Epicurean selects the situation, the persons, and even the events that suit his extremely irritable (reizbaren), intellectual constitution; he gives up all others, which means almost everything, because they would be too strong and heavy for him to digest. The Stoic, on the other hand, trains himself to swallow stones and worms, slivers of glass and scorpions without nausea; he wants his stomach to become ultimately indifferent to whatever the accidents of existence might pour into it […] For those with whom fate attempts improvisations—those who live in violent ages and depend on sudden and mercurial people—Stoicism may indeed be advisable. But anyone who foresees more or less that fate permits him to spin a long thread does well to make Epicurean arrangements. That is what all those have always done whose work is of the spirit (alle Menschen der geistigen Arbeit). For this type it would be the loss of losses to be deprived of their subtle irritability and be awarded in its place a hard Stoic hedgehog skin (GS §306).

In Nietzsche’s middle works one finds a definitely Epicurean mood in which Nietzsche seeks out, as specified in the above quote, the persons, situations, and events that will suit his contemplative irritability. Nietzsche’s life during the free spirits trilogy of Human all Too Human, Daybreak, and The Gay Science was punctuated by illness and the need for convalescence which was then followed by periods of recovery in which Nietzsche wrote his texts. Although Nietzsche’s struggles with sickness never left him, these experiences were relatively new to him during the free spirit writings of the middle period and allowed for a sensitivity to emerge in his work in which his writings become a search for moderation and companionship. One reason why the Nietzsche of the middle works has been too often neglected is that this Nietzsche is one who does not fit with the provocateur of the late period who performs cold rationality and active nihilism. In his own words, the late Nietzsche may be considered to have grown, through prolonged suffering, “a hard Stoic hedgehog skin.”

The Nietzsche of the middle period is one who remains hopeful, one who wants to renew the Epicurean garden. In the free spirit writings Nietzsche can be recognized as sharing with Epicurus an emphasis on health, community, and freedom from the fear of death. Nietzsche’s renewal or reinvention of the Epicurean garden is exemplified through his attempts to bring free spirits into being so that they can create a community that joins in friendship to share reflection and affirmation.

This essay elucidates how Nietzsche’s middle period reflects a number of Epicurean elements specifically in regards to community and health through focusing on Nietzsche’s free spirits as well as his praise of joyful friendship and its therapeutic role. I will argue that the joyful friendship is most celebrated 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.

Nietzsche’s Middle Works

Lou Salomé introduced the method of reading Nietzsche in periods as a practical way in which to connect his personal development with his writings and explain the diversity of his reflections;[1] it has since become a popular method in Nietzsche research. In general the periods are understood in the following way: the early period consists of Nietzsche’s works from 1872-1876, the middle period is from 1878-1882, and the later works are those from 1883-1888. In addition to looking at the middle period, this essay turns to what may be considered Nietzsche’s autobiographical works (which are part of his late period) in order to receive insight into the conceptual intentions of these books: this includes all of his prefaces and Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is.[2]

Nietzsche’s writings have a “living entelechy, in which later stages recuperate earlier ones and earlier ones hold in themselves all grounds of future unfolding.”[3] For this reason, reading Nietzsche strictly in periods rather than approaching his texts as an oeuvre can be problematic. There are numerous examples in Nietzsche’s text that support this supposition, one such example can be found in the preface to On the Genealogy of Morality:

My thoughts on the descent of our moral prejudices – for that is what this polemic is about – were first set out in a sketchy and provisional way in the collection of aphorisms entitled Human, All Too Human. A Book for Free Spirits, which I began to write in Sorrento during a winter that enabled me to pause, like a wanderer pauses, to take in the vast and dangerous land through which my mind had hitherto travelled. This was in the winter of 1876-7; the thoughts themselves go back further. They were mainly the same thoughts which I shall be taking up again in the present essays – let us hope that the long interval has done them good, that they have become riper, brighter, stronger and more perfect! (GM P§2)

What is also important to note is that in the same preface, Nietzsche states that in order to understand his Genealogy, one must have read his earlier texts (GM P§8). These proclamations of Nietzsche’s demonstrate that he considers his works to have an overarching project that is developed over time. From the above quotation one might argue that there is a refinement of ideas that occurs in Nietzsche’s later works; however this should not discount his earlier writings from being taken on their own terms. Nietzsche considers his yes-saying work, characteristic of the middle period, to be just as important as his later no-saying work for achieving a transformation of culture. It is in the free spirits texts along with Thus Spoke Zarathustra that Nietzsche reveals how vital one’s life praxis and social relationship are to one’s philosophical work for achieving a re-evaluation of values.

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