The Happiness of the Free Spirit
What kind of happiness does the free spirit seek? In Human, all too Human Nietzsche writes of “the desire for a blissful, serene mobility” as the philosopher’s – and artist’s – vision of happiness (HH 611). Indeed, a few aphorisms before this one he notes how human beings construct for themselves “gardens of happiness” in the midst of the sorrow of the world and upon its volcanic ground. They do this in multiple ways, be it in the manner of someone who observes life and has the eye for wanting knowledge from existence, or of someone who submits and resigns himself to life, or of a person who rejoices in their overcoming of the difficulties of life: in each case of happiness sprouts beside the misfortune (HH 591). The longing for “blissful” and “serene” mobility seems to provide the kind of happiness or joy sought by the wandering free spirit prized in the middle period texts, and anticipates something of the character of the joyful wisdom of the gay science. Of course, Nietzsche does not have a univocal conception of happiness and severely criticizes one form of happiness in particular, which he finds contemptible because it rests on a smug ease and amounts to a religion of comfortableness (see GS 318 & 338). It is against this kind of happiness that Nietzsche advises his readers to build their houses on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and to live dangerously. In The Gay Science, and as we have seen, Nietzsche notes how the happiness of Epicurus is born out of suffering from existence, and yet it is this suffering that makes its precarious attainment something meaningful. Further in this text he notes how the happiness of Homer’s soul is a “melancholy happiness”; it is one that makes you more liable to suffering, simply because there is the fact that one may lose it at any time and in which just a little displeasure and loathing will suffice in the end to make you disgusted with life (GS 302). The idea of loss and mourning is continued in the next aphorism where Nietzsche perceptively writes of the worth and sum of life as meaning more for the person who knows more of life precisely because they have been so often on the verge of losing it, and so they have “more of life” than those who have never had this experience. This is a kind of joy and happiness in life that is, in fact, based on experience and as something actually lived. Perhaps the highest kind of personal happiness Nietzsche prizes is the one described in The Gay Science 326. Here Nietzsche attacks preachers of morality, as well as theologians, for painting a too dramatic portrait of the human condition in which the human animal is portrayed in fatally sick terms and the only cure for its malaise is a radical and final one: the pain and misfortune of existence are painted in a far too exaggerated manner. Instead, Nietzsche favours the capacities individuals have for overcoming and conquering their pains and misfortunes, pouring sweetness on their bitterness, and finding remedies in their bravery and sublimity: all of this can give rise to new forms of strength. The happiness of the free spirit appears to be one of an “eternal liveliness” (WS 350), in which one is open to new experiences and that allow for the emergence of new sources of strength and maturation, and also make one attentive to the complex needs of our bodily and spiritual economy.
In aphorism 309 of The Gay Science entitled “From the Seventh Solitude,” Nietzsche writes of the wanderer as being driven by a penchant and passion of for the true – for the real, the non-apparent, and the certain – and that allows no rest and that perpetually seduces him to tarry. Although the gardens of Armida beckon he must keep tearing his heart away so to experience new bitternesses, and so he goes on since he “must go on,” even if it is with weary and wounded feet and looking back in wrath at the most beautiful things that could not detain him and because they could not detain him.
The deployment in the aphorism of wounded feet may be a reference to Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. Philoctetes has been bequeathed a bow by Heracles and becomes a master of the weapon and sets forth against Troy with some companions, including Agamemnon. On the way to Troy, however, he and his companions make a stop at an island so as to make a sacrifice to the local deity. As he approaches the shrine Philoctetes is bitten in the foot by a snake, and as the infection becomes virulent his groans mean that it becomes impossible to make the sacrifice, as the act would be ruined by these ill-omened sounds. On account of his foul smelling, suppurating wounded foot his companions make the decision to desert him since they cannot bear the smell and they remove him to a nearby island and sail off to Troy without him. Philoctetes then endures years of solitude as a social outcast and wanderer, and is eventually rescued from his plight by the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus who is sent to the island on which he dwells and as part of a mission to bring him back with his bow so the Trojans can be finally defeated. The key lesson of the play, or at least one of its key lessons, has been captured well by Edmund Wilson as follows: “The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man feels he needs.”