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Nietzsche, Epicurus, and happiness

A new biography of Nietzsche, and Scott Horton, who I should really read much, much more often, has a terrific interview with the author. This caught me eye:

The aim of Epicurus’ philosophy was happiness. Specifically it was about achieving happiness whatever happens, happiness in the face of an uncertain, usually hostile, fate. Since suffering is caused by a dissonance between desire and reality, and since we can usually do little about the latter, Epicurus’ advice is to reduce one’s desires as much as possible, particularly those that are uncertain of satisfaction, such as the desire for power and influence.

Nietzsche’s health reached its nadir in 1879, forcing him to abandon his Basel professorship. Since bodily sickness is a paradigm of the hostile fate Epicureanism was designed to raise one above, it is unsurprising that his affection for Epicurus reached its peak during that year. We find him advocating self-control, the reduction of desire, and withdrawal into the world of thought, a realm in which, despite his bodily ‘torture’, he could still experience pleasure, the joy of intellectual adventuring.

By the time he had completed Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883 to 1885, Nietzsche’s health had somewhat improved and he had made two important discoveries. First, that the “will to power”–or “growth”–constituted the human essence. And second, the paradox of happiness. “What does happiness matter to me!,” exclaims Zarathustra, “I have long ceased to strive after happiness, I am striving after my work.” To which his animals reply, “But Zarathustra, are you not lying in a sky-blue lake of happiness?”, forcing him to admit that he indeed is. Nietzsche’s point is that aiming directly at happiness is a bad strategy, since true happiness is a byproduct of aiming at something else, of passionate commitment to a meaningful goal. (This is surely correct: Jefferson’s remark about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has mislead Americans for hundreds of years.) Given these twin discoveries, a farewell to Epicurus became inevitable. We can no more abandon the will to power/growth–the life of “victories” and, of course, defeats–than we can abandon the will to live. And the possibility of happiness lies, not in following a philosophy aimed at happiness, but in forgetting about happiness and directing one’s will to growth in a meaningful direction. This is why, in 1888, Nietzsche describes Epicurus (together with Jesus) as a “décadent.”

Readers, thoughts?

NOTE I'll stipulate that Wagner and Nietzsche, along with Freud, should not be cited as authorities or looked to as exemplars. But since "your argument is not you..."

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Submitted by gob on

I'll start with the caveat that, ever since reading a biography of Lou Andreas-Salome, I've had an otherwise rather uninformed dislike for the Great Man. But in particular, this strikes me as a typical problem I have with many philosophers: 'the "will to power" or "growth"' is a formulation that requires a great deal of explanation before it means anything to me. Since when is a will to power the same as a will to growth? What kind of power: power-for, power-against, power-over, or what? Like so many other philosophers, FN strikes me as a guy who looked deep into his own soul and saw what he believed everyone else would see if only they were as perceptive as he was.

The little lesson about happiness being a by-product of other endeavors contains a lot of truth, but nothing you can't get at your local bookstore on the self-help shelf.

Finally, agreed, Scott Horton should be read!