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

Book Four of The Gay Science opens with an affirmation made for the New Year: “Amor fati: let that be my love from now on!” (GS 276). Vowing to love fate, Nietzsche speaks about wanting only to be a “Yes-Sayer” and not an “accuser” (GS 276). Again, the proximity of Epicurus is felt in Nietzsche’s writings for this section is directly followed by a passage entitled “Personal providence” which affirms the beauty of chance and commends the “gods of Epicurus” to the extent that these “carefree and unknown ones” have no involvement with the petty concerns of mortals (GS 277). In Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot alludes to E. Hoffman’s claim that “it is precisely because the Epicurean considered existence to be the result of pure chance that he greeted each moment with immense gratitude, like a kind of divine miracle” (Hadot, 252). Indeed, to feel good will to all nearest things is to mark a decisive break with the forces which “accuse life” and to affirm a this-worldly love of the here and now. This bears on the relation of thought to its “physical” context because Epicurean philosophy cannot thrive with the big cities which lack quiet and expansive places for reflection and which are dominated by ostentatious monuments to ‘other-worldly’ discourse (GS 280). In “Architecture for those who wish to pursue knowledge”, Nietzsche writes that the abandoned churches will not meet the needs of the secular thinker: “we godless ones could not think our thoughts in such surroundings” (GS 280). The environment for god-less philosophy must be conducive to its this-worldly flourishing: “We want to see ourselves translated into stone and plants, we want to take walks in ourselves when we wander around these buildings and gardens” (GS 280).

To see ourselves translated into stones and plants, to take circuitous paths “in ourselves” as we stroll around buildings and gardens is to refuse the basic Platonic-Christian presumption of the “inner” sanctum of thought. In section 291 of The Gay Science entitled “Genoa”, Nietzsche says that he has studied the buildings and landscapes of this city for a long time and declares that he can see the “faces” of past generations.

Genoa. – I have looked upon this city for a good while, its villas and pleasure gardens and the wide circuits of its inhabited heights and slopes. Finally I must say this: I see faces of past generations. This district is strewn with the images of bold and autocratic men.  They have lived and have wanted to live on – they say so with their houses, built and decorated for centuries, and not for the fleeting hour: they were well disposed to life [sie waren dem Leben gut], however ill-disposed they may often have been towards themselves. (GS 291)

To become well-disposed to life manifests itself as a desire to live on. This is not a desire for immortality but for the externalization of desire, its manifestation in things.  For Nietzsche, thought is in the world, not in the thinker. All the default settings of language militate against travelling with this idea. To think of the soul or self as an internal entity is a Christian prejudice. For Nietzsche, souls are not unitary, immaterial, ghosts of another world. On the contrary, rare human beings of an age are best thought of as “the suddenly emerging after-shoots [plötzlich auftauchende Nachschösslinge] of past cultures and their powers: as atavisms of a people and its ethos” (GS 10).  In a wonderful passage, “Why we have to travel” (AOM 223) Nietzsche claims that “the past continues to flow within us in a hundred waves; we ourselves are, indeed, nothing but that which at every moment we sense of this continued flowing” (AOM  223). The traveller soon discovers that one cannot step into the river of one’s most intimate being twice. Moreover, the one who becomes adept in the “subtler art of travel” will rediscover the adventurous migrations of his ego “in the process of becoming and transformation” in many countries and ages, in Egypt and Greece, Byzantium and Rome, “in the Renaissance and the Reformation, at home and abroad, indeed in the sea, the forests, in the plants and in the mountains” (AOM 223). One rediscovers the flows of the past in oneself with every fresh encounter, finding within this world hitherto unguessed at depths.

Directly after this passage in Assorted Opinions and Maxims, Nietzsche speaks of ages in which the senses are so blocked that they are incapable of hearing the voice of reason and philosophy or of seeing “wisdom that wanders in bodily form [die leibhaft wandelnde Weisheit] whether it bears the name of Epictetus or of Epicurus” [AOM 224]. “Wisdom walking in bodily form” implies a thinking relationship with the material environment, an alertness to the sensory richness of air, temperature, fragrance and light. Like Epicurus, who embodies this wisdom, Nietzsche traces thought-paths which meander through the landscape, through buildings and gardens, translating themselves into stones and plants. Whatever is read or heard by Nietzsche is carried into the open where it quickly sloughs off its scholarly scent. His habit is to “think outdoors [im Freien zu denken], walking, jumping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or close by the sea where even the paths become thoughtful” (GS 366). In this way, thoughts belong to a particular atmosphere, to a time and place of their genesis. It is a rationalist prejudice to separate ideas from their conditions as if their blossoming was independent of all nutrients. When Nietzsche declares that paths become “thoughtful”, this is not a metaphor for an intellectual journey but a description of how thinking is part of a climate and a landscape. A provisional title for The Wanderer and his Shadow was “Thought-paths of St Moritz” (KSA 8, 610). Almost all of it was written in six pocket-sized notebooks that Nietzsche carried with him on hikes through the hills and around the lakes of St. Moritz, Silvaplana and Sils Maria.[8] Among the few notes gathered under this title, Nietzsche describes a sublime experience of “heroic-idyllic” power.

The day before yesterday, towards evening, I was completely immersed in Claude Lorrainian raptures and finally burst into lengthy, intense crying.  That I was still to experience this! I had not known that the earth could display this and had believed that good painters had invented it. The heroic-idyllic is now the discovery of my soul; and everything bucolic of the ancients has become all at once unveiled to me and made manifest – until now I did not understand anything of this. (KSA 8, 610, 43[3])

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