On Nietzsche’s Search for Happiness and Joy: Thinking with Epicurus


Another paean to Epicurus from the middle period can be found in the earlier text, The Wanderer and his Shadow. In aphorism 295 Nietzsche depicts an idyllic scene entitled “Et in Arcadia ego,” involving looking down “over waves of hills, through fir-trees and spruce trees grave with age, towards a milky green lake.”[11] Whilst cattle graze on their own, and gather in groups, the narrator of the aphorism experiences, “everything at peace in the contentment of evening.” Whilst looking upon the herders in the field, he witnesses mountain slopes and snowfields to the left and, high above him, to the right two gigantic ice-covered peaks that seem to float in a veil of sunlit vapour: “everything big, still and bright” (ibid.). The beauty of the whole scene induces in him an experience of the sublime, “a sense of awe and of adoration of the moment of its revelation”; involuntarily, as if completely natural, he inserts “into this pure, clear world of light,” free of desire and expectation, with no looking before or behind, Hellenic heroes, and he compares the feeling to that of Poussin and his pupil (probably Claude Lorrain), at one and the same time heroic and idyllic, noting to himself that some human beings have actually lived in accordance with this experience, having “enduringly felt they existed in the world and the world existed in them” (ibid.).[12]  Epicurus is singled out for special mention.

The title of this aphorism is borrowed from two paintings of Poussin and was also adopted by Goethe as the motto of his Italian journey (1829).  In fact, Poussin’s paintings were inspired by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) and his painting of around 1618-22 entitled “Et in Arcadia ego.”  This painting depicts the discovery of death in Arcady, a region of Greece thought to be an earthly paradise:  we see two shepherds gazing out of a wood at a skull that has been placed on a masonry plinth, and underneath the skull the inscription “Et in Arcadia ego” can be read.  Such words seem to be intended as a message spoken by death itself, “I, Death, am also in Arcady.”[13]

There are several striking things about Nietzsche’s turn to, and portrait of, the idyllic.  First, we can note the contrast with his earlier critique of the idyll in The Birth of Tragedy where it is equated with the superficial and the optimistic (BT 8, 19). Second, in his depiction of the heroic-idyllic scene the reality of death is completely absent from it.  What might be informing Nietzsche’s decision to leave death out of the picture is the Epicurean inspiration that the fear of death has been conquered and death is nothing to us.[14] Thus, Nietzsche does not wish the image of the tombstone to cast a shadow over the idyll he is focusing our attention on: for this reason it is both heroic and idyllic.  And third, for Nietzsche the idyll is not in any inaccessible celestial heavens but belongs in this world and is within our reach, and what takes place after death does not concern us anymore.[15]  Nietzsche writes in Dawn: “…the after-death no longer concerns us! An unspeakable blessing…and once again, Epicurus triumphs!” (D 72)[16]

The heroic-idyllic is heroic, then, at least in part, because conquering the fear of death is involved and the human being has the potential to walk on the earth as a god, living a blessed life, and idyllic because Epicurus philosophised, calmly and serenely, and away from the crowd, in a garden. In Human, all too Human Nietzsche writes of a refined heroism, “which disdains to offer itself to the veneration of the great masses…and goes silently through the world and out of the world” (HH 291).[17] This is deeply Epicurean in inspiration:  Epicurus taught that one should die as if one had never lived.  There is a modesty of human existence in Epicurean teaching that greatly appeals to the middle period Nietzsche.

The garden appeals to Nietzsche in his middle writings as a place of contemplation and relaxation.  He wants a new vita contemplativa to be cultivated in the midst of the speed and rapidity of modern life; we need to slow down, to go slowly, and to create the time needed to work through our experiences.  Even we godless anti-metaphysicians need places for contemplation and in which we can reflect on ourselves and encounter ourselves. However, we are not to do this in the typical spiritual manner of transcendent loftiness, but rather take walks in botanical gardens, the gardens that will replace the churches of old, and look at ourselves translated, as Nietzsche memorably puts it, into stones and plants (GS 280).  We free spirits have more in common with phenomena of the natural world than we do with the heavenly projections of a religious humanity: we can be blissfully silent like stones and we have specific conditions of growth like plants, being nourished by the elements of the earth and by the light and heat of the sun.

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