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

Nietzsche distinguishes the free spirit from the fettered spirit by placing them into opposition to one another, stating that the fettered sprit follows habit and seeks out experiences that re-assert their habituated beliefs (HH §225). On the other hand, the free spirit pursues the exception to the rule and is themselves an exception to the rule which is obtained through inquiry, reason, and liberation away from tradition (HH §225). Nietzsche emphasizes that the free spirit is someone whose beliefs and way of life differ from the majority and more specifically from their class, profession, origins, and environment (HH §225). Does Nietzsche mean to open up his hope for a shared community of free spirits to women and people from various kinds of backgrounds?

Epicurus did not restrict his teachings to men or the youth, his teachings were for people, both men and women of all ages, “whether slave or free.”[12] For this reason, one would be inclined to suppose that Nietzsche’s reinvention of the Epicurean garden would embrace all people, in his own words, “who think differently from[…]the dominant views of the age” (HH §225). However, this is not exactly the case for Nietzsche because, according to him, the free spirit cannot be ideologically enslaved and he believes that this is the general predicament of women.

Nietzsche writes that although women are attracted to free spirited endeavors, they have been socialized “for millennia” to be subservient to societal authorities more than men (HH §435). The feminine inclination to service (HH §432) in conjunction with the social position of women that Nietzsche writes is one of slavery (GM III§18 and Z I “On the Friend”) makes it extremely difficult for women to become free spirits. Nevertheless, if we approach Nietzsche’s notion of the free spirit specifically in terms of how he describes it in Human (§225), exceptional women should be able to become free spirits through the progressive emancipation from those traditional roles to which they are subjected (HH §225).

Nietzsche characterizes free spirits as those who pursue probity through demanding reasons for their beliefs (HH §225). In doing so, they question their attachments to their convictions and habits and relinquish the certitudes of faith (HH §226; GS §347). I have argued elsewhere that agonistic friendship is central to the process of overcoming required to become a free spirit.[13] However, in the middle texts the kind of friendship most emphasized by Nietzsche, and connecting to the building of a Epicurean inspired community, is one of joy in which free spirits come together to experience pleasure through shared reflection and self-affirmation.

The Joyful Friendship as a Healing Balm

In The Vatican Collection of Epicurean Sayings we can read the following: “Friendship dances around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to blessedness.”[14] The joyful aspect of friendship that is accentuated by Epicurus is taken up by Nietzsche in the free spirits texts when he writes that friends should share joy not suffering (GS §338) and states: “Fellow rejoicing (Mitfreude), not fellow suffering (Mitleiden) makes the friend” (HH §499). The importance of sharing joy is further emphasized by Nietzsche in Daybreak (§422) as a life activating principle that creates a feeling of fullness in the individual. This shared feeling of fullness is a remedy for the sicknesses of the modern human soul such as pity, guilt, and consumerism.

In The Gay Science (§338) Nietzsche encourages those who seek “one’s own way” (free spirits) to separate themselves from society and even to “live in seclusion.” He qualifies this by stating that it is sure that one will want to share community and help others, but one should help only one’s friends who “share with you one suffering and one hope” and in doing so help oneself. Nietzsche ends this section by proclaiming in response to the “preachers of pity: to share not suffering but joy” (GS §338). Nietzsche is outlining the significance of the joyful friendship in terms of its ability to act as a healing balm for the experiences of pity.

Nietzsche thinks that the expression of pity hides more self-serving motivations that seek to overpower the other or to turn away from one’s own fear of suffering (D §133; HH §103) and with this the fear of death. He also thinks that one who demands pity may in fact be motivated not by the desire to be cared for but instead by the desire to hurt someone else (HH §50). Pity, associated with care and kindness, is often a cloaked expression of egoism according to Nietzsche. The burden of pity is one which is self-destructive.

Why double your ‘ego’!—To view our own experiences with the eyes with which we are accustomed to view them when they are the experiences of others—this is very comforting and a medicine to be recommended. On the other hand, to view and imbibe the experience of others as if they were ours—as is the demand of a philosophy of pity (Philosophie des Mitleidens) —this would destroy us, and in a very short time (D §137).

Pity (Mitleid) or suffering-with, is a likely reaction to the suffering of another person, but Nietzsche considers it to be an inevitable strain by frustrating the one who is being pitied. Nietzsche views pity to be a largely disabling and reductive perspective that fails to adequately acknowledge the situation and feelings of the suffering friend. On the most shallow level, there is a condescension involved in the expression of pity (‘poor you’) that disempowers the friend, promotes an atmosphere of hopelessness, and a nihilistic attitude toward life. The individual experience of suffering cannot be grasped by another person, yet sometimes the one who pities presumes that they can and thus does so superficially. When they make the move to ‘help’ the friend, they do so with an idea in mind that is so results-driven in its impatience that it overlooks the friend’s actual struggle. Rather than being motivated by care for the friend, Nietzsche states that pity is moved by a fear that wants to abolish suffering (BGE §225). At the core of pity is a perspective on life that is dominated by the need to avoid all pain and discomfort, which are inevitably reminders of one’s mortality. Generally speaking, Nietzsche thinks that people are too anxious about their mortality (D §174). Behind the pity that one experiences for the friend is an anxiety about death. One wants the friend to feel better, but they want the friend to feel better because the friend’s suffering is disturbing. This dismissive gesture lacks sympathy, or a genuine attempt to feel-with (Mitgefühl) the friend and respect their struggle.

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