I heard people talking about Epicureanism on the radio this morning and it struck me that I am an Epicurean. Apparently it was a popular philosophy in the Ptolemaic era, as Greece and Rome coexisted culturally. It suggests that the best life is one in which pleasure is maximised. But not like hedonism. Real pleasure comes from taking it when it comes, and avoiding stress and confrontation by remaining private and working where necessary to prevent later hardship etc. The ideal state of Epicureanism a bit like a pragmatic and attainable nirvana, called 'ataraxia'. Having read Voltaire's Candide, I think he was an Epicurean. Are there any more modern epicureans?
Nietzsche (1844-1901) held a dual attitude to Epicureanism. (1) He associated 'plebeian' Epicureanism with utilitarianism and rejected it contemptuously. He also linked plebeian Epicureanism somewhat convolutedly with Christianity, not a plus in Nietzsche's eyes. In contrast (2) he thought that a form of Epicureanism is the safest, least harmful philosophy for the weak majority, the most effective barrier to their impeding the 'aristocrats of the spirit'.
Discovering the 'real' Epicurus
Nietzsche is - contrary to a popular opinion - a philosopher of strife and dialogue. He does not want to speak with everyone, as not everyone is worth speaking with, and not everyone can take part in a conversation. He wants to participate in a debate between philosophers (UB, II). Being untimely, he sought for interlocutors not in his own times. He found them in the past, when he has, as Ulysses, been to Hades, so as to listen to a few of the dead when they told him whether he had been right or wrong (W, 1,408). 'The great philologist' mentions Epicurus as one of the philosophers he esteemed highest.
Every philosopher Nietzsche speaks with becomes an exemplar, Epicurus became an exemplar, too. He was the model of a misinterpreted philosopher. It was not easy to get acquainted with him, so it took some time (FW, 370), and the view of the philosopher of the Garden, presented by Nietzsche, is completely original (FW, 45; A, 30). Therefore, it is worthwhile to reconstruct this view, especially because it is usually, unfortunately, omitted in rendering Nietzsche's view of history of philosophy.
The formula that Nietzsche employs to describe Epicurus is: "the inventor of heroic-idyllic mode of philosophizing' (W, , 295; cf. 13/276 f.). Idyllic heroism or even "refined heroism' (verfeinerter Heroismus) (8/506) is an oxymoron, which describes the mask of Epicurus and Epicurus himself. Epicurean philosophy is usually conceived as idyllic but it so happens only because Epicurus was an esoteric philosopher. He was a hero and only a few can see that.
Let us begin with a riddle describing Epicurean philosophy. In The Wanderer (W, , 227) Nietzsche writes:
'Eternal Epicurus' - Epicurus has always lived and still lives today, unknown those who called and call themselves Epicureans, and of no renown among philosophers. He has his own name forgotten: that was the heaviest burden that he has ever thrown away.
Epicurus' real face has been unknown and that is why Nietzsche is eager to discover it.
Nietzsche contra plebeian Epicureanism
What can we see on the surface? A hedonist, a man of idyllic charm, that is, a decadent. Let us trace the way Nietzsche sees Epicurus' mask, so as to look at the one that hides underneath. Nietzsche's attitude to the plebeian version of Epicureanism is univocally negative. The radical aristocrat abhors it. Epicurean ideals are praised by men 'of the times of decay' (JGB, 200). In his notes from the period Spring 1884 - July 1885 (11/72) Nietzsche considers the future - the twentieth century. According to him, the twentieth century will have two sides.
Nietzsche as desirable for the weak
One of them is the decadence of weak souls, which can be characterised as sui generis European Chinese with a delicate buddhist-christian faith, in the practical sphere - Epicurean-clever one'. The majority of the people will be weak and reduced. For Nietzsche, of course, this process is not outrageous nor strange. It is even desirable. In the earlier note (1880-1881) his stance is clear (9/337). He writes that workers should be taught to 'enjoy life, have petty needs, be satisfied, take smallest burdens (no women nor children)' - in other words, to be Epicurean. Nietzsche wants to weaken the weak, so their resentment creates no danger for the noble.
However, general acceptance of the Epicurean lifestyle can preserve the masses from decay. Epicureanism is not destructive for its followers. That is why Nietzsche seems to ponder the question whether popularity of Epicurus is desirable or not. In the note from the period Spring 1884 - July 1885 (11/456) he claims that democratic movements will surely gain acceptance in the future but this process may be slower or faster.
Generally, Nietzsche thinks that Epicureanism as a worker's lifestyle is safer for the aristocrats of the spirit than any other way of life, especially the one that lets the proletariat retain some hope. We can conclude that Epicureanism for the masses is only the lesser of two evils. As popular it can become dominant and oppressive. That is why Nietzsche wants to slow down the process of spreading this cultural pattern but at the same time he prefers workers' having petty needs rather than establishing trade unions.
NIetzsche, utilitarianism & Christianity
Such an attitude to plebeian Epicureanism will become more intelligible, if we realize that its hedonist anthropology can be identified with utilitarian one. It is clear that Bentham's utilitarianism is based on some simplified version of Epicureanism. No wonder that Nietzsche uses identical arguments against utilitarianism and popular Epicureanism.
Plebeian Epicureanism is not only similar to utilitarianism, but also to Christianity (W, 1,96) in its delicate flavour, where moral perfectionism is not demanded. Such Christianity is contented with what men can achieve - 'small happiness.' In a note dated Autumn 1885 Nietzsche writes that François de Sales belongs to the Epicurean type of Christianity. Nietzsche not only recognizes the Epicurean type of Christianity, but also thinks that Christianity itself can be described as a kind of Epicureanism ? - 'I gradually learned to understand Epicurus, the opposite of a Dionysian Greek; also the Christian, who is, in fact, only a kind of Epicurean' (FW, V, 370). (Marcin Milkowski, 'IDYLLIC HEROISM: NIETZSCHE'S VIEW OF EPICURUS', Journal of Nietzsche Studies, No. 15 (Spring 1998), pp. 70-79: 71-2.)
Note on 'esteemed the highest'
I think what Nietzsche has in mind here, somewhat hyperbolically, is that Epicurus was a pioneering philosopher whom no-one or only a few have understood and that Nietzsche sees a parallel in this respect with his own predicament.
UB - Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Untimely Meditations)
W - Der Wanderer (The Wanderer)
FW - Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (The Joyous Science)
JGB -Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil),