In Proximity to Epicurus: Nietzsche’s Discovery of the Past Within

Nietzsche writes to Peter Gast and to his mother and his sister on the same day, repeating the lizard image and enthusing about the beneficial effects of the sea and clear sky on his health (KSB, 6, 56-57). As is immediately apparent from these remarks, Nietzsche’s description of himself sequestered among the rocks in the afternoon sun calls to mind his representation of Epicurus. Writing to friends about this Genovese coast he likens its solitude to that of “an island of the Greek archipelago” (KSB, 7, 259); “no doubt about it, there is something Greek about this place” (KSB, 7, 261). In such a setting it is possible that lines of Epicurean verse lap at the edge of his consciousness, as he takes pleasure in watching the sea.[4] It is also worth noting that in this letter to Overbeck the blessings of the climate (sea air and clear skies) are married with more domestic matters (diet, division of the day) to form the indispensable requirements for the thinker. As this letter and many similar ones indicate, philosophy for Nietzsche is shaped by the vital forces of the body and its environment and, reciprocally, thought belongs to particular locations and climatic conditions. In Dawn, Nietzsche suggests that his philosophy might be seen as a “translation” into reason of the “circuitous paths” of his drives: drives for “gentle sunlight, bright and buoyant air, southerly vegetation, the breath of the sea, fleeting meals of meat, eggs and fruit ..” (D 553). To “embark on some adventure of the spirit” – as Nietzsche reports doing in his secluded cliffs along the coast – it is necessary to attend to an array of “worldly” things.

Such material concerns are constant features on Nietzsche’s horizon. In correspondence to Overbeck from St. Moritz, Nietzsche likens his fastidious attention to small details to a classical style of living:

The air is almost better than Sorrento, and is full of fragrances, the way I like it. The way I divide my day, my life-style, my diet – these things would not have dishonoured a wise man of old: everything very simple and yet a system of fifty sometimes very delicate considerations. (KSB, 5, 425)

As is well known, Epicurus commends the wisdom of the simple life and liberation from unwholesome desires.[5] Keith Ansell Pearson proposes that “Nietzsche is attracted to the Epicurean emphasis on the modesty of a human existence”, exemplified by simple pleasures and philosophising in a garden, away from public view (Ansell Pearson 2014, 3): “A small garden, figs, little cheeses and in addition, three or four good friends – that was the opulence of Epicurus” (WS 192). In his letters to Peter Gast during the 1880s, Nietzsche makes frequent reference to the idea of Epicurus’s garden, reflecting repeatedly on the environment in which Epicurus thinks: “Where are we going to revive the garden of Epicurus?” (KSB, 5, 399); “What I envy in Epicurus are the disciples in his garden..” (KSB, 6, 436). He even compliments Gast for “everything redolent of the air and fragrance of Epicurus’s garden” that has emanated from his recent letters (KSB, 6, 428-9).

The importance of these physical conditions and parochial concerns is formulated most explicitly in The Wanderer and his Shadow, where Nietzsche claims that the discipline of philosophy has been wrongly orientated towards the “farthest things” such as metaphysical questions of immortality, god and the soul (WS 6). By contrast, the most immediate “nearest things” [nächste Dinge] such as the division of the day, eating, sleeping and other “small and everyday” matters have been poorly regarded, a fact which Nietzsche claims accounts for “almost all the physical and psychical frailties of the individual” (WS 6).  Undoubtedly this failing stems from the Platonic-Christian legacy that the “nearest” and “farthest things” are fundamentally different in kind, the latter having been prized as idealities, ungrounded in matter and removed from active processes of materialization (“culture”). Because these realms have been regarded as mutually discontinuous, the world is perceived as a mass of isolated beings, unitary souls and brute material forms. However, for Nietzsche, the “nearest things” embrace “systems” rather than entities (“health”, “upbringing”, “nature”),[6] and share with Epicurean thinking  idiosyncrasies such as “retreat from politics” and “use of moods and atmospheric conditions”.[7] The overarching factor uniting the two philosophers is their faith in the wisdom of the earth, their sensitivity to matters that are “close”.

The “nearest things” include personal preferences and some eccentric proclivities, but attention to these things is not about knowing “who” you are; it is about knowing the formative forces that progressively “make” you. For example, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche identifies the impact of the nearest things in terms of the task of “becoming what one is”:  “little things” like nutriment, place, climate and recreation “are more important than anything that has been considered of importance hitherto” (EH, ‘Clever’, 10). However, lest this seem a simple determinism it is essential to recognise that the physical environment in which writing and thought are possible is reciprocally conditioned by prevailing beliefs. Material forces influence thought but ideas also have physical effects on the body. Nietzsche integrates this idea into a draft for section 341 of The Gay Science in which the thought of the eternal return is first announced. To the anticipated question “But if everything is necessary, how can I be in charge of my own actions?” (KSA/9/11[143]) Nietzsche gives the following response: “You say that food, place, air, society shape and determine you? Well, your concepts do still more for these determine you to this food, place, air, society” (KSA/9/11[143]).  The fundamental point is that if you “incorporate” (einverleiben) the “thought of thoughts” it will physically change you (9/11[143]). Such an outlandish proposition is unthinkable within the Platonic-Christian worldview which can only understand matter by recourse to the powers of a ‘higher’ realm. Things may be otherwise for Nietzsche’s Epicurus, his eye never straying beyond the horizon. Alert to the turbulent depths of existence, he never tires of contemplating the surface of ‘this world’.

According to Keith Ansell Pearson, it is “from Epicurus that Nietzsche gets the inspiration to give up on what he calls the first and last things, the questions of a theologically inspired metaphysics, and devote attention to the closest things” (Ansell Pearson 2013, 104). This view is supported by the fact that the two sections of The Wanderer and his Shadow (WS 5 & 6) which introduce the doctrine of the nearest things are directly succeeded by a lengthy passage on the consolations of Epicurean teaching. The “wonderful insight” which Nietzsche attributes to Epicurus is the realisation that to quell the tempests of the soul “it is absolutely not necessary to have resolved the ultimate and outermost theoretical questions” (WS 7). Faith in the notion of ultimate truth is undermined by Epicurus’s embrace of a “multiplicity of hypotheses” and by his insistence on the gods’ disregard for the affairs of mortals (WS 7). The proximity of Epicurus is also felt in the closing section of The Wanderer and the Shadow:

Only to the enobled man will the freedom of spirit be granted; to him alone does the alleviation of life approach and salve his wounds; he first must say that he lives for joy and for the sake of no further goal; and in any other mouth his motto would be dangerous: Peace around me and goodwill to all nearest things. (WS 350)

To live for joy and for the sake of no other goal is to make a profound affirmation. The state of serene calmness (ataraxia) so highly valued by Epicurus is achieved through a grateful embrace of life and particularly an embrace of the nearest things, the gifts of the earth.

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