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

Nietzsche’s discovery of the “heroic-idyllic” in St Moritz is an encounter with ancient forces “living on” close beside him. This profound experience is the inspiration for a striking passage in The Wanderer and his Shadow entitled “Et in Arcadia ego” (WS 295), in which Nietzsche describes stumbling upon an uncannily mythic landscape. The ground is vivid with flowers and grasses, “waves of hills” cascade to a “milky green lake”. Overwhelmed with the beauty of the place, he trembles in wordless adoration of “the moment [Augenblick] of its revelation”:

Unconsciously, as if it were only natural, one transposed Hellenic heroes into this pure, clear world of light (which had nothing about it of yearning or expectancy, no looking forward or backward); one had to feel it as Poussin and his pupil would have done — at once heroic and idyllic. And so too have individual people lived, and have constantly felt themselves to be in the world and the world in them and among them one of the greatest men, the inventor of a heroic-idyllic form of philosophy: Epicurus.  (WS 295)

Epicurus is ‘experienced’ on Nietzsche’s thought path in the midst of the Swiss mountains. Charged with ancient sensibilities, the traveller conjures Hellenic spirits from a newly enchanted earth. Without forethought Greek heroes are summoned forth, with no trace of yearning or expectancy, no “looking forward or backward”. To live without desire or expectation, without longing for the future or lingering in the past, is to live in the eternity of the moment. e future or lingering in the past a Philosophy of Ecstasy (Palgrave 2002) and a range of articles on continentIn St Moritz, Nietzsche realises that this is how individuals have actually lived; more, this is how “they have enduringly felt they existed in the world and the world existed in them” (WS, 295). When Epicurean affects are transmitted is this entrancing “clear world of light,” heroic idyllic philosophy is lived and felt as a profound affirmation of the earth. The character of Epicurus, one “of the greatest men,” is experienced by Nietzsche as overwhelming love of fate: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati .. that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not forwards not backwards, not in all eternity.” (EH, “Clever”, 10).

Love of fate is only possible when one feels oneself to be part of the world. To live without ressentiment, to love the things of the earth, is to achieve a state of Epicurean tranquillity. On the untitled page that lies between the foreword and the first section of Ecce Homo, Nietzsche expresses a supreme gratitude to his “whole life”.[9] The image is a rich and fertile one, a perfect moment of sun-lit brilliance:

On this perfect day, when everything has become ripe and not only the grapes are growing brown, a ray of sunlight has fallen on to my life: I looked behind me, I looked before me, never have I seen so many and such good things together.

This ‘goodwill to all nearest things’ is an expression of gratitude for the bounty of the earth.  To become ‘so well disposed’ to life that you would fervently desire its eternal return it is necessary to make an affirmative pact with fate. As Joseph P. Vincenzo writes, for both Nietzsche and Epicurus, “the world can show itself as it is only when one steps out of the subjective, servile will and into the state of cessation of all need” (Vincenzo, 394). To feel oneself to be in the world and to embody its vital forces, is to “realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming” (TI, “Ancients”, 5).

For Epicurus, ataraxia is an experience of the maximum pleasure of the aesthetic world and of oneself. It is a direct experience of the intrinsic pleasure of life itself, of the active forces of a life freed from the reactive force of desire. (Vincenzo 1994, 392)

The announcement of  eternal return in section 341 of The Gay Science it is prefaced by “The Dying Socrates” (GS 340), a section in which Nietzsche presents his ultimate indictment of Platonism. Facing death, Socrates asks to make an offering to the god of medicine. The words, “O Crito, I owe Asclepius a rooster” betray his secret suffering of the “disease” of life (GS 340), his craven desire to live “beyond”. In the wake of Platonism it may be necessary to “overcome even the Greeks” (GS 340) but an exception must be made for Epicurus, a fellow traveller of the earth. It is reputed that on the last day of his life Epicurus wrote to Hermarchus of his suffering and imminent death:

I am suffering from diseases of the intestines and bladder which could not be more severe … However, all these sufferings are compensated by the joy of remembering our principles and our discoveries. […] My joy compensates the totality of pain. (Gaskin 1995, 66)

Whatever torments they may each have known, there is no hint in the writings of Epicurus or of Nietzsche of ill will towards fate. Nietzsche to Peter Gast, 22nd January 1897:

My health is abominable – rich in pain, like before; my life much more severe and lonely; I myself live on the whole almost like a complete saint, but almost with the disposition [Gesinnung] of the complete, genuine [ächt] Epicurus – very calm in soul and patient and yet watching life with joy (KSB, 5, 383).

When Nietzsche claims to experience the character of Epicurus differently to perhaps anyone else he feels a resurgence of the extraordinary affects of Epicurus, a stirring of the “past within”. It seems likely that when he extolls the pleasures of the afternoon of antiquity he is recounting his rapturous experiences in the thought paths of St Moritz. This delight resurfaces on many an afternoon when on the rocky Genovese coast he lies like a lizard in the sun. The most serene possibility would be to live quietly and unknown, yet watching life with joy.

To “want” something, to “strive” after something, to have a “goal”, a “wish” in view – I do not know this from experience. Even at this moment I look out upon my future – a vast future! – as upon a smooth sea: it is ruffled by no desire. I do not want in the slightest that anything should become other than it is; I do not want myself to become other than I am. But that is how I have always lived.  (EH, “Clever”, 9)

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