Pleasure and Self-Cultivation in Guyau and Nietzsche

[13] ‘My contention is that an ethos of Epicurean enlightenment pervades Nietzsche’s middle period texts with Epicurus celebrated for his teachings on morality and the cultivation of modest pleasures […] The aim of philosophy for Nietzsche is to temper emotional and mental excess, and here Epicurus’ teaching has a key role to play’. Ansell-Pearson (2014a: 7).

[14] Ansell-Pearson 2014a: 5. See also Knight, A. H. J. (1933). ‘Nietzsche and Epicurean Philosophy’, Philosophy, 8: 437.

[15] A first English translation of the conclusion to The Ethics of Epicurus was made by Mitchell Abidor. His translation is available at the Marxist Internet Archive: We would like to thank Mitchell for providing us with useful information about Guyau and relevant sources.

[16] Heidegger 1984 [1961]: 52. ‘Solitude for a time necessary, in order that the creature be totally permeated – cured and hard. New forms of community, asserting itself in a warlike manner. Otherwise the spirit grows soft. No ‘gardens’ and no sheer ‘evasion in the face of the masses.’ War (but without gunpowder!) between different thoughts! And their armies!’ (Nietzsche KSA 7.368)

[17] ‘The ‘Christian’ […] is really simply a kind of Epicurean’ (GS §370).

[18] See also D §453 and GS §45.

[19] See also Nietzsche’s letter to Gast on July 1st 1883. Here he reports (figuratively, we can assume) that he has ‘once again contemplated Epicurus’ bust’ and has found ‘strength of will and spiritually […] expressed in the head to the highest degree’.

[20] GS §45. Nietzsche, F. (1974) [1882]. The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann. Vintage.

[21] See GS §3 and GS §12.

[22] See Guyau 1878: 40-41.

[23] In the 1880s, Nietzsche he characterises excessive gustatory pleasure, ‘erotic precociousness’, and the habit of drinking alcohol as ‘decadent’ (KSA 13.15[80]; WP §49).

[24] One could rightly object that Nietzsche does not emphasise the use of moderate pleasure as he did in his middle-period writings. If on the one hand, we believe it is possible to note a subtle permanence of the theme self-cultivation (e.g. the culinary metaphors in EH); on the other, we must note the fact that Nietzsche’s tenor and tone in this period emphasises risk, struggle, and the overall dissolution of the sovereign self (as emphasised by authors as Bataille, Blanchot and Foucault) – recovering the themes of tragedy and of a ‘Dionysian worldview’ of his early writings, now understood within a philosophy of power and will to power. In a footnote to the Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann says that ‘Nietzsche’s reason for finally being dissatisfied with Epicurus is stated most succinctly in The Will to Power, note 1029: “I have presented such terrible images to knowledge that any ‘Epicurean delight’ is out of the question. Only Dionysian joy is sufficient” In the end, Nietzsche was not willing to renounce enthusiasm and passion.’ (Nietzsche 1974: 111-112).

[25] Guyau. La morale d’Épicure, Book 1, chapter III, (Guyau 1878: 42). The analogy is with painting.

[26] For example, Guyau sees the éthique de l’intérêt as both contemporary and ancient: ‘The ethics of interest [éthique de l’intérêt], espoused for a hundred years by the greatest French thinkers and the English philosophers, is not such a historical novelty. We know that a similar doctrine – under the name of Epicureanism – seduced antiquity’. For Guyau, the Epicurean calculus of pleasures and pains, aiming at achieving happiness, prefigures the emergence of utilitarianism.

[27] I take the idea of anachronism from Georges Didi-Huberman. In Devant le temps (2000), he develops the concept in a particular approach to the history of art.

[28] Guyau’s approach consists in [i] projecting forwards ancient standards, showing how ancient philosophies lie historically before modern positions (e.g. showing that modern utilitarianism is a continuation of ancient Epicureanism), but also [ii] projecting backwards contemporary standards (e.g. showing that Epicureanism is a form of utilitarianism, or that it could be read from the perspective of evolutionism and positivism). I thank Matthew Sharpe for pointing out some problems in the use of the term ‘anachronism’ in Guyau’s case.

[29] ‘Once one views a system from within, one can see its birth, its gradual growth, and evolution, similar to how one can observe such a life cycle in a living being’ (Guyau 1878: 5). For an analysis of the implications and philosophical grounds of this analogy and of Guyau’s method, especially regarding the arts. See Testa, 2011.

[30] ‘First, one should grasp the key idea [idée maîtresse] of the doctrine’ (Guyau 1878: 4).

[31] Lampert, L. (1993). Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche. New Haven: Yale University Press: ‘Epicurus becomes a central figure. Rethinking Epicurus led to essential advances in the new physio-psychology. Reciprocally, those advances required the whole history of philosophy to be reordered’ (Lampert 1993: 395). Also see: ‘The new future […] reestablishes the proper relationship between science and philosophy by reinterpreting the history of philosophy, and in particular, Epicurus’ (Lampert 1993: 389). See Ansell-Pearson 2012: 100.

[32] Ansell-Pearson, 2013: 97.

[33] As he says, ‘Their adversaries, the Stoics, vainly struggled against the Epicureans and this struggle lasted for the duration of the Roman Empire. The Stoics, however, could neither weaken nor defeat the Epicureans, nor could they escape their influence’ (1878:12). Nietzsche in WS 227 also speaks of a complementarity of Epicureanism and Stoicism – ‘Epicurus relate to the Stoics as beauty does to sublimity; but one would have to be a Stoic at the very least to catch sight of this beauty’. See also Hadot who tell us: ‘In the Metaphysics of Morals (theory of ethical method), Kant declares that the exercise of virtue must be practiced with Stoic energy and Epicurean joie de vivre. This conjunction of Stoicism and Epicureanism can be found in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, in which there is both the pleasure of existing and the awareness of being part of nature. Goethe describes beings who, by their innate tendencies, are half Stoic and half Epicurean.’ And one can also make out an attitude of this kind in Thoreau’s Walden. In a posthumous fragment, Nietzsche says that one must not be scared of adopting a Stoic attitude after having benefited from an Epicurean recipe.’ Ultimately, an attitude like this one is what is called eclecticism. This word is often rather poorly viewed by philosophers. In general, from Kant to Nietzsche, we have spoken of Stoicism and Epicureanism. But there are many other models (Hadot 2011: 102). In Hadot, P. (2011). The Present Alone is Our Happiness. Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, translated by M. Djaballah and M. Chase, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[34] ‘When religious enthusiasm burns itself out, when mysteries no longer obfuscate problems, when faith cannot restrain the strongest minds, then moral and metaphysical questions can be posed again [….]. The strength of moral feeling that produced the [French] Revolution shows how religious feeling was too weak to prevent it […]. The crowd was driven by a purely moral and social idea. This will probably happen again […]. When religious beliefs are no longer strong enough to move people, they will increasingly turn to moral and then to the social ideas which will eventually predominate […]’ (Guyau 1878: 13).

[35] For Nietzsche, this emphasis on mortality is one of the ‘heroic’ features of Epicureanism. In Vincenzo’s perspective, Epicurus’ denial of immortality ‘affirms the most terrible character of existence as one of the first principles of the good life’. Also see Ansell-Pearson 2014: 25.

[36] The convergence with Nietzsche’s account of the same process is striking. According to Lampert, ‘Platonism triumphed over Epicureanism through the medium of Christianity but now, after modern science has reconquered the teaching of life after death in favour of the idea of ‘definitive death’, Nietzsche can say: ‘And Epicurus triumphs anew!’ (D §72)’ (Lampert 1993: 425).

[37] ‘As the centuries passed, human beings became tired of having their eyes restlessly turned to heaven [le ciel], and the earth [la terre] assumed a greater importance for everyone’ (Guyau 1878: 13).

[38] Guyau speaks of a ‘resurrection, both in France and England of the complete system of Epicureanism’ (1878: 13).

[40] Guyau 1878: 40.

[41] See for example Hadot and Nietzsche. Hadot understands the importance of the present as realisation of the spiritual exercise of meditation on death, which opens the perspective gratitude to the gift of existing. He quotes Horace’s understanding of each particular moment is the product of chance, an unexpected gift, that we should accept with immense gratitude (Hadot 1995: 196). Similarly, for Nietzsche, according to Ansell-Pearson: ‘For the middle period Nietzsche, Epicurus is the philosopher who affirms the moment, having neither resentment toward the past nor fear of the future’ (Ansell-Pearson: 2013: 111). As Ansell-Pearson explains in a later article  ‘[i]n Epicurus’ teaching Nietzsche locates an appreciation of the moment’ (Ansell-Pearson 2014a: 2).

[42] Undoubtedly, the present plays a key role in every hedonistic philosophy, but that is not the final word when it comes to Epicurus; in the same way, the future plays a key role in utilitarianism and in every form of utilitarian calculus, which according to Guyau is the compass that guides the Epicurean in the present.

[43] We could recall Kant’s phrase according to which ‘the pleasure of the Epicurean is the pleasure of the sage’ (Ansell-Pearson 2014a: 14). On the other hand, it is possible to object that the Epicurean gods play this exemplar role which is more important than that of the sage. According to Hadot (1995: 190), the gods provide a vision of the ‘model of wisdom’, being the ‘projection and incarnation of the Epicurean ideal of life’, for their life consists in the enjoyment of their own perfection, of the pure pleasure of existing. See also Brun 1959: 93. See also Diogenes Laertius, X, 123; Lucretius, II, 646 – 651 and III, 14-24. Strodach identifies this role of the gods (2012: 40-43). The blessedness of the gods and the possibility of achieving a godly state among men is well expressed by Epicurus in the closing of his Letter to Menoeceus, 135.

[44] This concern is shared with Nietzsche, who finds in Epicurus someone ‘who teaches a new way of life by remaining true to the earth’ (Ansell-Pearson 2014a: 4).

[45] Ansell-Pearson, 2014a: 4. Roos, 2000: 298.

[46] Nietzsche, KSA 9, 15 [59]. Cited by Hadot 2002: 277 and 2011: 102. See also Ansell-Pearson 2014: 240 for Nietzsche’s account of the ‘modern conditions’ affecting how such ‘recipes for the art of living’ are implemented.

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