Why Nietzsche is a Destiny: Epicurean Themes in Ecce Homo

In typical fashion, Nietzsche renews his allegiance to Epicurus by claiming to surpass him. Epicurus, he now realizes, was every bit as wise and heroic as the pre-Zarathustran writings asserted, even if his appreciation of ataraxia was tinctured by the décadence that came to light in the post-Zarathustran writings. Despite promising his followers a life of positive pleasures, Epicurus instead delivered a welcome remission of their pain and suffering. What this means, according to Nietzsche, is that Epicurus was not a genuine healer or physician. (In his post-Zarathustran writings, Nietzsche levels a similar charge against Socrates, Wagner, the ascetic priest, and virtually every other nemesis he cares to diagnose.)[9]

Unlike Epicurus, who was obliged to accept his decay and rebrand it as “happiness,” Nietzsche has remade himself anew, in brazen defiance of the décadent trends and norms of his day. Despite being very much a “child of his time” (CW P),[10] he refuses to allow this accident of historical contingency to determine his destiny. As a preliminary outcome of his efforts thus far, he claims in Ecce Homo to have performed with respect to himself the “revaluation of all values,” which, as he says, he had intended to demand of humankind as a whole (EH “Preface” §1). With any luck, humankind will discover that it, too, is décadent only “as an angle, as a speciality,” and that it, too, is fundamentally healthy (EH “Wise” §2).  In that event, presumably, Nietzsche will be remembered not as a “holy man” or “saint,” but as the “destiny” [Schicksal] he claims to be.

Section Two

Let us turn now to consider some of the prominent Epicurean themes to be found in Ecce Homo. For the sake of brevity, I will limit my consideration to four such themes, which correspond to the first four of the Sovran Maxims (or Principal Doctrines) [Kuriai Doxai] of the Epicurean philosophy, as recorded by Diogenes Laërtius.[11]


A blessed and eternal being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; hence he is exempt from movements of anger and partiality, for every such movement implies weakness.[12]

As this famous maxim is meant to confirm, fear of the gods should never be permitted to spoil or disturb one’s enjoyment of earthly pleasures. If the gods exist qua gods, Epicurus taught, they have no business with us that should cause us consternation.[13] In the spirit of this maxim, Epicurus and Lucretius regularly inveighed against those priests and magi who mongered fear of the gods in order to consolidate their secular authority. According to Nietzsche, in fact, Epicurus and Lucretius were especially effective in discrediting those proto-Christian “subterranean cults” in which “concepts of guilt, punishment, and immortality” were promoted (A §58).

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche is concerned both to declare his adherence to the this-worldly religion of Dionysus and to discredit pre-emptively any attempt by religious leaders to appropriate him for their otherworldly designs:

I know my lot. Some day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous, of a crisis as yet unprecedented on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision conjured up against everything hitherto believed, demanded, hallowed. I am not a man, I am dynamite.—And for all that, there is nothing in me of a founder of religions—religions are for the rabble; I need to wash my hands after contact with religious people…I don’t want any “disciples”…I have a terrible fear of being declared holy one day…I don’t want to be a saint, and would rather be a buffoon…Perhaps I am a buffoon…(EH “Destiny” §1)

Here Nietzsche voices the understandable concern that his (as-yet-unannounced) “revaluation of all values” may be mistakenly associated with the founding of a religion (sneer quotes implied). In that event, of course, he too might be pronounced “holy,” despite his efforts to promote a way of life that is not reducible to a set of abstract doctrines or teachings.

Like Epicurus and Lucretius, Nietzsche understands religion broadly and pejoratively, and in contrast to the worldly way of life he recommends (GM III §17). As this extract confirms, in fact, Nietzsche sees “religion” as a set of beliefs and practices that is designed to exploit the suffering of the “rabble,” i.e., those for whom no realistic expectations of salvation or redemption are likely to be formed. Those who are pronounced “holy” are those who have flattered the rabble with reckless promises of personal immortality and otherworldly revenge. To be sure, however, Nietzsche wishes in particular to avoid the clutches of a “religion” that was unknown to Epicurus and Lucretius in its most virulent form: Pauline Christianity. If the humble, unassuming, omni-affirmative Nazarene could be conscripted as “The Crucified One,” i.e., as the founder of a religion, and as desirous of unthinking, hate-fueled disciples, how can Nietzsche hope to safeguard his prescribed way of life from a similar act of strategic appropriation by a similarly diabolical world-historical genius? The larger worry here is that any alternative teaching that is encoded in an exemplified way of life may be ripe for eventual misunderstanding and misappropriation.[14]

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