Pleasure and Self-Cultivation in Guyau and Nietzsche

Authors: Federico Testa & Matthew Dennis

Guyau and Nietzsche: Brothers in Arms?

Until recently Jean-Marie Guyau only made a slight mark in the history of philosophy in the Anglophone world, although his work has been significantly more prominent in the Francophone tradition. Such an oversight is inexplicable if one thinks back to the avid reception of Guyau’s work in the late 1870s and early 1880s.[1] By the time of his premature death at 33 years old, Guyau was a well-known figure in France, to some extent due to the steadfast championing of his life-long mentor and interlocutor, Alfred Fouillée. While Fouillée’s promotion helped create an explosion of receptive literature in France during Guyau’s lifetime, many contemporary philosophical heavyweights also engaged with his work, including Henri Bergson,[2] Emile Durkheim,[3] Herbert Spencer,[4] and the anarchist thinker Piotr Kropotkin.[5] Furthermore, even after Guyau’s death in 1888, interest in Guyau’s work remained strong enough that Harald Høffding, the Danish historian of philosophy, thought it fitting to devote a sizable entry to Guyau in his influential A Brief History of Modern Philosophy,[6] sandwiching a synopsis of Guyau’s major works between similarly-sized entries on William James and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Despite catching the attention of figures like Høffding, Guyau’s influence penetrated significantly deeper into nineteenth-century philosophy than featuring in the philosophical anthologies of this era. Partly on account of the scope of topics that Guyau engaged in, partly because of the contemporary relevance of his project, his work directly influenced some of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers, including philosophical giants such as Bergson and Nietzsche. As early as 1902, Fouillée compared Nietzsche and Guyau, heavily criticizing what he understood as the elitism and conservative aristocratic views of the former,[7] and claiming that although Guyau is one of Nietzsche’s processors he ‘does not fall into the errors of Nietzsche’ (1902: 19).

Recently – in a less polemical line – a new wave of Guyau scholarship has focused on Guyau’s influence on Nietzsche, which has been shown to be subtle but significant. A bi-lingual edition (French and German) of Guyau’s A Sketch of Morality Independent of Obligation or Sanction[8] was published in 2012, which includes Nietzsche’s (mostly strongly approving) marginalia from his personal copy of this text.[9] Guyau’s Sketch of Morality, often read in conjunction with Nietzsche’s marginalia, has provided the first point of comparison between these two thinkers for this recent wave of Guyau-Nietzsche scholarship,[10] although we hope to show below that there are also informative comparisons to be made by putting Guyau’s La morale d’Épicure[11] alongside Nietzsche’s middle period writings on Epicurus.

Nietzsche’s bibliographical records do not reveal whether he read The Ethics of Epicurus, so any comparative approach must rely on overlaps and synchronicities between his and Guyau’s texts. Such overlaps are both methodological and thematic. As well as patent similarities in thematic concerns (pleasure, life, self-cultivation), Nietzsche’s middle period works are methodologically heterodox insofar as they bring to bear the results of recent natural science (Darwinism, Lamarckism) and new modes of historical enquiry (genealogy)[12] to his most pressing philosophical concerns in ethics and axiology. As we will see, Guyau’s method is equally as synergistic, since he seeks to apply his knowledge of classical philosophy to new developments in natural science, both aiming to show how recent scientific discoveries can corroborate the philosophical claims of Epicureanism, as well as showing how scientific developments often further ancient lines of inquiry.

In The Ethics of Epicurus, Guyau’s interpretative enterprise is twofold: on the one hand, he engages in an effort of systematic interpretation of ancient philosophy; on the other he distances himself of an antiquarian approach, by taking up the task of unfolding questions that ancient thought could present to modern ethics. Although these two vectors clearly mark Guyau’s interpretation of Epicurean philosophy, La morale d’Épicure could as well be characterized by a movement which surpasses the history of ideas in the direction of reviving the ancient, especially Hellenistic, idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’. Guyau is concerned with the way in which we can live a fulfilled life, the ways in which we could cultivate ourselves in order to resist superstition, fear, and death. For him, rational emancipation is at the core of Epicurus’ system.

As we will see, Guyau found in Epicurus what, according to Keith Ansell-Pearson, Nietzsche found in the ancient philosopher after him, namely an ‘ethos of Epicurean enlightenment’,[13] for ‘[i]n the middle-period, Epicurus is one of Nietzsche’s chief inspirations in his effort to liberate himself from the metaphysical need, to find serenity within his own existence, and to help humanity in its need now to cure its neuroses’ (Ansell-Pearson 2013: 104). In 1933, A.H.J Knight inaugurated this interpretative line in the English context, claiming that ‘Epicurus and Nietzsche are both liberators of human life from religious superstition and mystification, and both place ethics at the centre of philosophy’ (Knight 1933: 437).[14] We believe the same can be said of Guyau’s The Ethics of Epicurus.

In terms of methodology, both Guyau and middle-period Nietzsche propose a reflective and critical approach to the history of philosophy, one that aims to support each of their versions of ethical naturalism with the empirical findings of contemporary science. Just as Nietzsche fashions the source material for his middle-period work into an original set of philosophical theories, so too Guyau uses the approaches of utilitarianism and evolutionary theory to explain his markedly unorthodox reading of Epicurus’s philosophy, and to offer us an updated account of Epicureanism for the modern world.

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