Pleasure and Self-Cultivation in Guyau and Nietzsche

In this introductory article we will sketch the key dimensions of Guyau’s and Nietzsche’s readings of Epicurus in order to contextualize the translation of The Ethics of Epicurus which appears in English for the first time below.[15] We contend that reading Nietzsche and Guyau on Epicurus in tandem gives us greater insight into how Epicurus is a vital philosophical influence on Nietzsche’s middle period, as well as allowing us to understand Nietzsche’s well-known criticisms of Epicurus in his later work. We begin by examining some of the most brutal criticisms of Nietzsche’s alleged Epicureanism in the second volume of Heidegger’s monograph on Nietzsche, and argue that these criticisms are not only textually tenuous but also cannot account for the pervasive influence of Epicurus on Nietzsche’s conception of philosophical self-cultivation which he retains throughout his work. After this we introduce The Ethics of Epicurus, identifying Guyau’s characterization of the Epicurean sage as an ‘artist of existence’ as in some ways precursory to Nietzsche’s understanding of the active and rational processes of philosophical self-cultivation.

Nietzsche’s Epicurus

Perhaps it is no accident that commentators who emphasise the importance of Nietzsche’s later writings and Nachlass view his relationship with Epicurus as predominantly negative. In a 1884–86 note in The Will to Power Nietzsche tells us that he regards ‘‘Epicurean delight’ (Vergnügen) [as] out of the question’ because he now believes that ‘[o]nly ‘Dionysian joy’ (Lust) is sufficient’ for his understanding of ‘the tragic’ (KSA 11.25 [95]; WP 1029). As Joseph Vincenzo notes, Heidegger emphasises how Nietzsche regards Epicurus’ influence on the history of philosophy as woefully deleterious, which Heidegger argues can be seen if we pay attention to the allegorical nature of the chapter entitled ‘The Convalescent’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Vincenzo 1994: 384). On Heidegger’s account, when Zarathustra’s animals tell Zarathustra that, ‘[t]he world outside is like a garden that awaits him’ (Heidegger 1984 [1961]: 52), we must understand this claim as a reference to Epicurus’ garden as well as to the ethical ideal of ataraxia which Epicurus promotes. Zarathustra, Heidegger claims, is rightly sceptical towards this promise as he is able to see beyond the seductions of the ataraxic ideal, which merely beautifies the ‘terrible thing that being is’. Zarathustra, on this reading, knows the ‘world is no garden […] especially if by ‘garden’ we mean an enchanting haven from the flight from being’. To support this interpretation – which is much needed since there is no direct reference to Epicurus in Nietzsche’s original passage – Heidegger invokes KSA 7.368, an unpublished note from 1882–84, which includes an apparently dismissive reference to ‘gardens’.[16] Heidegger uses this to support his claim that ‘Nietzsche’s conception of the world does not provide the thinker with a sedate residence in which he can putter about unperturbed, like the philosopher of old, Epicurus, in his ‘garden’’ (Heidegger 1984 [1961]: 52).

While readings such as Heidegger’s were influential for initial scholarship on Nietzsche’s relationship to Epicurus, over the last decade they have been challenged by a wave of new commentaries that stress the importance of Hellenistic ideas in Nietzsche’s middle period. Rather than emphasising Nietzsche’s own biographical remarks from 1885 onwards, in which he tells us that he had ‘gradually came to understand Epicurus [as] the antithesis of a Dionysian pessimist’ and a proto-Christian,[17] this scholarship has sought to show that Nietzsche not only regards the historical Epicurus as an ally, but that (like Guyau) he was also inspired by the quintessentially Epicurean themes of pleasure and ascetic moderation, friendship and sociality, as well as rational practices of self-cultivation. Such claims complement recent and persuasive work on the Stoic influence on Nietzsche’s engagement with these themes (Ure 2008, 2009; Nussbaum 2011), and aim to redress the balance of Hellenistic influences that were crucial to Nietzsche at this time. Both Nietzsche and Guyau do not merely take up a Hellenistic philosopher as an object of study, but also aim to show how this transforms philosophical activity, especially insofar as Hellenistic thinkers such as Epicurus offer techniques of self-cultivation that have the potential to be reactualized today.

The evidence that middle-period Nietzsche regarded himself as close to Epicurus, and aligned with Epicureanism, is copious and persuasive. He frequently makes approving references to the ancient philosopher from the beginning of the second edition of Human All Too Human (AOM §224; AOM §408; WS §112; WS §227; WS §295),[18] as well as writing warmly of him in his correspondence with Peter Gast (also an Epicurus-enthusiast) at this time. For instance, on January 22nd 1879 he confides to Gast that, ‘I live on the whole […] with the outlook of the complete, genuine Epicurus – with my soul very calm and patient and yet contemplating life with joy’.[19] Furthermore, in the 1882 edition of The Gay Science, he dedicates a whole aphorism, ‘Epicurus’, to the Hellenistic philosopher, telling us that:

I am proud to experience Epicurus’ character in a way unlike perhaps anyone else and to enjoy, in everything I hear and read of him, the happiness of the afternoon of antiquity: I see his eye gaze at a wide whitish sea, across shoreline rocks bathed in the sun, as large and small creatures play in its light, secure and calm like the light and his eye itself.[20]

GS §45 reveals much of what Nietzsche thinks he shares with Epicurus. While the initial gilded imagery might suggest this would be a mutual love of pleasure, in the second half of the aphorism Nietzsche tells us that he believes Epicurus’ account of pleasure was unique because (until perhaps his own account) ‘never before has voluptuousness been so modest’. Admiring the transformative power of Epicurean simple pleasures – instead heady narcotic pleasures which Nietzsche typically rallies against[21] – is a constant theme in the middle period, although as we will see it is the pleasure’s potential role in self-cultivation that interests Nietzsche most.

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