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

In the middle works, Nietzsche is bringing a probity to his philosophy that is motivated by what he considers to be the “profits” (Gewinn) given to him by his experience of prolonged illness (GS P§3). These profits include new philosophical ideas such as the free spirit, which he states that he conceives to act as his imaginative companions during difficult times (HH I P§2). Nietzsche links his generative notion of suffering to Epicurus when he states that he experiences Epicurus differently from other people. Of Epicurus Nietzsche writes,

Such happiness could be invented only by a man who was suffering continually. It is the happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of existence become calm, and now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea. Never before has voluptuousness been so modest (GS §45).

In an Epicurean sense, Nietzsche is stating that human frailty and mortality should not deter us from enjoyment; instead, knowledge of our human limits should reinvigorate us to pursue the pleasures of life with intelligence and modesty. Epicurus writes in his letter to Menoeceus, “a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, but by ridding us of the desire for immortality.”[4] As one commentator points out, the Greeks of antiquity took the precariousness of life as a given; what Epicurus brought to this familiarity was its ability to inspire action.[5]

The capacity to come to terms with one’s mortality allows for life to be infused with an enthusiasm in which one recognizes following Epicurus that “to practice living well and to practice dying well are one and the same.”[6] According to Keith Ansell-Pearson, Nietzsche is able to evoke an important aspect of Epicurus’s thinking, namely that even though we suffer, this life is the only life for us and it is “worthy of our attachment and affirmation”: this in turn helps us to accept the inevitability of our place within the world so that we can find meaning here within the pleasures and delights that it offers.[7]

The reminder of one’s mortality through suffering is generative not only because, as Nietzsche writes, “we have to give birth to our thoughts out of our pain” (GS P§3), but also because it allows for us to focus our attention to the lived experience of the everyday. Through the middle works we can see that Nietzsche develops and introduces core aspects of his substantive philosophical thinking as life philosophy with a therapeutic Epicurean aim.

Human All Too Human is considered the start of Nietzsche’s middle period because it indicates his initiation into aphoristic writing and his own declaration that with this text, he freed himself from ideals that were no longer meaningful to him. He writes:

Human, All Too Human is the monument to a crisis. It calls itself a book for free spirits: almost every sentence is the manifestation of a victory – I used it to liberate myself from things that did not belong to my nature. Idealism is one of them: the title says ‘where you see ideal things, I see – human, oh, only all too human!’ (EH “Human All Too Human” §1).

Nietzsche is referring to his disenchantment with and disconnection from Schopenhauer and Wagner, as well as his move away from Romanticism toward a more scientific approach to knowledge-seeking inspired by Paul Rée. In Human Nietzsche problematizes morality for being unegoisitc and, in doing so, writes to demonstrate the impossibility of this kind of morality. He invents the notion of the free spirit as a therapeutic model as well as a replacement for those persons and ideals he has abandoned. He views free spirits as his future friends and writes about them with the intention of bringing them into existence (HH I P§2).

The two spiritual objectives of Human are made explicit by Nietzsche during his later reflections on the book when he states that Assorted Opinions and Maxims and The Wanderer and his Shadow are “a continuation and redoubling of a spiritual cure, namely of the anti-romantic self-treatment that my still healthy instinct had itself discovered and prescribed for me against a temporary attack of the most dangerous form of romanticism” (HH II P§2). He states that these texts contain principles for those inclined toward self-discipline and spiritual health (HH II P§2). In addition to being an early analysis of our collective moral prejudices that is developed in Daybreak and Genealogy, Human is a text that is profoundly therapeutic with the aim of transforming both the author and its readers through its constructive, yes-saying ethics of the free spirit.

To become free Nietzsche writes that one must experiment with conflicting beliefs (HH I P§4), employ the “almost cheerful and inquisitive coldness of the psychologist” (HH II P§1), and be prepared to suffer and renounce former things that were once highly valued (HH I P§4; HH I P§6). Nietzsche states that this process includes periods of convalescence and it is very painful, but one is propelled onward by “a tenacious will to health” (HH I P§4). Although Human is a yes-saying book, Nietzsche enacts the no-saying voice when he undermines the values associated with the Christian-Platonic moral heritage and its desire for an afterlife. For Nietzsche, no-saying is an implicit part of yes-saying required for re-evaluation. In Human, Nietzsche avoids a destructive atmosphere, more characteristic of his later no-saying texts like Beyond Good and Evil, by his notion of the free spirit who becomes the figure of possibility for a more individuated ethical approach to life.

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