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

Nietzsche favours this delicate art of a gay science over the intellectual experiences of pleasure that characterize modernity.  Indeed, he tells us in the preface that the “crude, musty, brown pleasure” of the ‘educated’ (Gebildeten) strikes him as repulsive, whilst the sublime of the “romantic uproar” – “elevated, inflated, exaggerated” – hurts his senses, including his sense of hearing (the reference is surely to Wagner’s music).  Writing as a convalescent – since he has returned from sickness and its abysses – he finds himself in need of an ‘art’ that is ‘mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled’ (ibid.).  The will to truth that pursues truth at any price is to be viewed as a piece of youthful madness and as bad taste:  gay scientists are “too experienced, too serious, too merry, too burned, too profound” to have belief in a simple-minded love of truth. Moreover, “Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, or to be present at everything, or to understand and ‘know’ everything” (ibid.).

Nietzsche’s fundamental teaching in the preface to the second edition of The Gay Science is that without sickness and great pain we cannot be genuine questioners of existence.  If we are to become such questioners we need to be shaken out of our familiar and complacent attitude towards life and out of a secure being in the world. However, this questioning out of the abysses of existence and the depths of experience is not to be motivated by despair or disappointment but rather by the rewards of joy, including the joy of anticipation, expectation, and amazement: in short, there are now “new seas” to navigate and explore.


In this short essay I have sought to illuminate aspects of Nietzsche’s search for happiness and joy.  I have not covered, owing to lack of space, one important contrast and opposition we encounter in the late Nietzsche, namely, that between “Dionysian joy” (Lust) and “Epicurean delight” (Vergnügen).[24]  However, Karl Jaspers notes that one enters the garden of Epicurus in order, overcoming oneself, to abandon it once again, and this neatly captures something of the character of Nietzsche’s attachment to Epicurus in the course of his intellectual development.[25]

In his attachment to pleasure and need to flee from pain with a religion of love Nietzsche comes to see him as a typical decadent (AC 30),[26] and we need to reflect carefully on whether this is an accurate and fair-minded conception of Epicurean way of life.  We might see, as Schopenhauer did, the Epicurean quest for ataraxia as akin to the Buddhist attainment of Nirvana.[27] This is how one commentator has seen the Epicurean philosophy, entailing the attainment of the highest enjoyment in the removal of all vivid sensations, including pain, desire, and activity.[28]  However, the garden of Epicurus is not an idyll that seeks escape from being or that refuses to acknowledge the terrible character of existence.  As one commentator on Nietzsche’s reception of Epicurus has put it, Epicurus’s denial of immortality, “affirms the most terrible character of existence as one of the first principles of the good life.”[29]  It is even suggested that we find in Epicurus a conception of human existence and the world that is more finite and hence more terrible than Nietzsche’s (Epicurus lives without the consolation – if that is what it is – of eternal recurrence).  Moreover, Epicurus’s remaining true to the earth “was not pathologically conditioned by his desire to put an end to suffering and pain”; rather, it is the case that his “insight into the unity of truth and appearances arose out of a profound recognition of human finitude.”[30] In Epicurean ataraxia we encounter “the calm of strength and nothing of the calm of weakness.”[31] Far from being the repose of the deepest sleep, as the late Nietzsche supposes, such ataraxia is “an awakening of the active forces of life, an affirmation of the world as an aesthetic outpouring.”[32] This is to say that for the Epicurean ataraxia “is a direct experience of the intrinsic pleasure of life itself, of the active forces of a life form freed from the reactive force of desire.”  We now directly participate in the blessed life of the gods, “dwelling in the divine state of forbearance from reaction.”[33]

The later evaluation of Epicurus we find in Nietzsche clearly stands in marked contrast to the appreciation we find in his free spirit period.  In the middle writings Epicurus is deployed, at least in part, as a way of breaking with fanatical enthusiasms and intoxications, including quite possibly Nietzsche’s own early Dionysian ones. The serene teaching of Epicurus provides Nietzsche with one way of shedding his previous skin, that of The Birth of Tragedy, and now conducting the patient labour of self-analysis and self-cultivation as a therapy of body and soul. For the middle period Nietzsche Epicurus is the philosopher who affirms the moment, having neither resentment toward the past nor fear of the future.[34]  Moreover, he teaches us the value of self-sufficiency and his cultivation of a refined egoism greatly appeals to Nietzsche.  Nietzsche finds in Epicurus a victory over pessimism in which death becomes the last celebration of a life that is constantly embellished.[35] This last of the Greek philosophers teaches the joy of living in the midst of a world in decay and where all moral doctrines preach suffering. As Richard Roos puts it, “The example of Epicurus teaches that a life filled with pain and renunciation prepares one to savour the little joys of the everyday better. Relinquishing Dionysian intoxication, Nietzsche becomes a student of this master of moderate pleasures and careful dosages.”[36]  Like Epicurus, then, Nietzsche seeks to live and philosophize “away from the masses, without masters or gods, idyllically and heroically.”[37] Here we encounter that “refined heroism” that accepts death without fear and chooses not to even speak about it.  Roos asks what I think is the decisive question concerning this appropriation of Epicurus:  can this teaching fill the void left by the loss of faith, the abandonment of Schopenhauer, and the renunciation of Dionysian music?  His answer to the question is incisive: “he clings to Epicurus and his consolations with a vigour proportional to the violence of the Christian temptation.”[38]  In Epicurus Nietzsche discovers what Roos calls aptly an “irresistible power” and a rare strength of spirit, and quotes Nietzsche from 1880: “I found strength in the very places one does not look for it, in simple, gentle and helpful men…powerful natures dominate, that is a necessity, even if those men do not move one finger. And they bury themselves, in their lifetime, in a pavilion in their garden (KSA 9, 6 [206]).”[39]

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