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

The tale of Philoctetes serves for Nietzsche, or so I interpret his enigmatic aphorism, to capture an essential aspect of the search of the free spirit and its way of life: an outsider to normal society, enduring long periods of agonising solitude, and yet committed to the on-going labour of free-spirited thinking, is the figure that may eventually be of great benefit to others and to society.  The task, however, is not to resolve the problem of existence once and for all but to persist in the search for knowledge, and in so doing resist the temptation of tranquil rest offered by the peaceful and enchanted gardens of Armida.

But what of the garden of Epicurus: does this not offer an idyllic mode of retreat? For Nietzsche the garden of Epicurus does not represent, as might be supposed, a retreat from existence, but is for him a place where one can find the time necessary to undertake the labours of the free spirit. The Epicurean attachment of life entails a specific mode of being in the world, a new attunement to nature as a source of pleasure, removing oneself from the false infinite and stripping away various disabling phantasms such as the idea of immortality with its regime of infinite pleasures and eternal punishments. There remains a strong and firm desire for life but, as Nietzsche points out, this voluptuous appreciation and enjoyment of life is of a modest kind: it is modest in terms of the kinds of pleasure it wants from existence and cultivates, and in terms of its acknowledgment of the realities of a human existence.  This is a happiness that Nietzsche appreciates and admires, seeing it as the essential component of the heroic-idyllic mode of philosophizing in which the mind’s illusions about the world are stripped away and one is left with a way of being in the world that brings true pleasure since the mind has been liberated from the terrors, superstitions, and phantoms that disturb it. Epicurus is one of the first naturalists since he speaks about nature rather than the gods and wants us to focus our attention on this. This, then, is a philosophy as a project of demystification and a new way of life, with the human being living a modest life. This Epicurean way of life and of being the world is based on a free-spirited search for knowledge, and this might be the reason why even the late Nietzsche, who is critical of Epicurus, can continue to write of an Epicurean “bent for knowledge” that does not easily let go of the questionable character of things (GS 375).

Joy over Pleasure

In the preface to On the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche associates philosophical cheerfulness (Heiterkeit) with the gay science and he speaks of this cheerfulness as a reward: “a reward for a long, brave, diligent, subterranean seriousness…” (GM Preface 7)[21]  The idea that cheerfulness constitutes a cultivated philosophical disposition is of Democritean and Epicurean ancestry; the idea that it may be a reward for intellectual seriousness is of Epicurean inspiration.  In De Rerum Natura Lucretius, the great disciple of Epicurus, address the “joyless hearts of men” (see the opening of book two of the text), and writes of the joyful character of his intellectual labours as a reward, specifically as a “reward for teaching on these lofty topics” and “for struggling to loose men’s minds from the tight knots of superstition and shedding on dark material the bright beam of my song…”[22]

Nietzsche is strongly wedded to the rewards of joy over the less intense and more comfortable experiences of pleasure.  In the preface to the second edition of The Gay Science, composed near Genoa in the autumn of 1886, Nietzsche writes importantly on this topic, seeking to highlight his commitment to a joyful enlightenment as his principal intellectual project.   He is not seeking to become a “better” human being, but only a more “profound” one, and this preference is what informs and guides the kind of inquiry undertaken by the gay or joyful science as an enlightenment endeavour:

The attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an x, however, is so great in such more spiritual, more spiritualized men that this delight flares up again and again like a bright blaze over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the danger of uncertainty, and even over the jealousy of the lover.  We know a new happiness (GS Preface 3).

The joys of experience, as well as the joys of the gay scientist, are born from privation and abysses, including abysses of sickness; here, however, one returns to life newborn and “with a more delicate taste for joy (Freude)” (GS Preface 4).  Indeed, Nietzsche writes of “a second dangerous innocence in joy” in which one is now more childlike “and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before” (ibid.).  One has returned to life from the abysses of existence not with abjectness or with cynical despair, not with jadedness or unwarranted loftiness, but with this innocence in joy that restores one to childhood – one is full of hope and anticipation – and yet one has acquired all the subtleties of age and maturation.  There is clearly an element of surprise in the experience of joy, and this is a dimension Nietzsche captures well in his preface:  as sick one was deprived of hope but one is now suddenly attacked by the hope of great health.  As a convalescent Nietzsche is surprised by the hopes given to him in his return to health and to life.  In his study of the story of joy Adam Potkay notes that in Greek joy (chara) is etymologically connected to grace (charis) and as the gift that is freely given.  He notes further: “One may feel satisfied or relieved by a success one feels one deserves; one rejoices, however, in what comes as more or less a gift or surprise.”[23]  Only in the course of the slow and painful maturation of his ideas, of his philosophy, and of the gay science, does Nietzsche come to experience the reward of his intellectual pursuits, and this makes the joyful character of his scientific practice all the sweeter and more delicate.

Pages ( 4 of 6 ): « Previous123 4 56Next »