Why Nietzsche is a Destiny: Epicurean Themes in Ecce Homo

Alert to the obvious similarities between himself and Jesus (and Epicurus), Nietzsche proceeds to reveal the difference that most obviously sets him apart from them. Whereas Jesus and Epicurus were physiologically ill disposed toward any act of resistance, struggle, or negation (A §30), Nietzsche introduces himself in Ecce Homo as uniquely authorized to carry out “two negations” [Verneinungen], which he directs, respectively, against Christian morality and the “good man” whom Christian morality pronounces “supreme” (EH “Destiny” §4).[15] Content earlier in his career to aspire to a posture of indiscriminate, unconditional affirmation (GS §276),[16] Nietzsche presents himself in Ecce Homo as secure in his understanding that “negating and destroying are conditions of saying Yes” (EH “Destiny” §4). In other words, he now understands that affirmation is not the opposite of negation, but its prelude.


Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.[17]

In his pre-Zarathustran writings, Nietzsche praises Epicurus for his efforts to dispel the irrational fear of death. Immodestly associating his own teachings with those of Epicurus, he gleefully remarks that “the ‘after-death’ no longer concerns us!—an unspeakable benefit, which would be felt as such far and wide if it were not so recent.—And Epicurus triumphs anew!” (D §72).[18] In the spirit of Epicurus, moreover, Nietzsche and Zarathustra both extol the practice of “free death,” wherein one regards one’s inevitable demise not as a transition to a next or better world, nor as a portal guarded by a priestly elite, but as the natural, anticipated conclusion of a life well lived (TI “Skirmishes” §36; Z I §21).[19] Embracing this interpretation of death, they believe, will free mortals to sample widely and voraciously from the full menu of worldly pleasures.[20]

While rehearsing these Epicurean themes, however, Nietzsche is also keen to acknowledge the countervailing influence of the Christian acculturation that has shaped the development of European culture over the course of two millennia. In this respect, it may be more accurate to describe his position in Ecce Homo as neo-Epicurean, for he is determined to account for the intervening, world-historical influence of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.[21] Indeed, Nietzsche’s most notable departure from the Epicurean orthodoxy is his promulgation of a teaching of (Dionysian) immortality, which he attaches not to the individual souls that supposedly are saved (or not) by grace and good works, but to life itself, which, as Zarathustra relates, is “that which must always overcome itself” (Z II §12).

As I have argued elsewhere,[22] Nietzsche apparently believes that our protracted training in Christianity has produced in us an indelible taste, habit, and predilection for immortality. Very recently, he insists, our training in Christianity has compelled us to accommodate a distinctly modern (and distinctly scientific) estimation of the value of truth (GS §357).[23] According to Nietzsche, the improbable merger of Christian morality and scientific rigor has positioned us to renounce the hoariest prejudices of folk psychology, including the scientifically untenable belief in the immortal “soul atomon” (BGE §12).[24]

Aiming to exploit this training, Nietzsche offers the readers of Ecce Homo an alternative, Dionysian doctrine of immortality.[25] He does so, of course, neither as an abstract teaching nor as a purely academic exercise, but as the embodied truth of his newborn existence. As it turns out, in fact, the story of his life is also the story of his inadvertent, halting progress toward an affirmation of his own immortality—not as a deathless, indestructible soul, but as a contingent (and recurring) configuration of the finite quanta of force arrayed throughout the ceaselessly verging cosmos.[26] Hence his provocative assertion in Ecce Homo: “One pays dearly for immortality: one has to die several times while still alive” (EH “Books” z 5).


The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.[27]

This maxim has been widely debated and, some would say, widely misunderstood. The dominant concern here is that Epicurus appears to equate pleasure in its greatest “magnitude” with the “absence of pain.” This concern has led many critics, including Nietzsche (GM III §17), to suppose or conclude that this maxim trades on an unfortunate (and probably unintended) equivocation on the word “pleasure.” For Nietzsche, of course, this equivocation is decisive, for it faithfully reflects the décadence of Epicurus. In the event that Epicurus has no irreducibly positive account of the experience of pleasure, in excess of “the absence of suffering” (GM III §17), he hardly would qualify as a proper hedonist, much less as a proper epicure.

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