Great Politics and the Unnoticed Life: Nietzsche and Epicurus on the Boundaries of Cultivation

The Agonist : A Nietzsche Circle Journal 10 (2):59-74 (2017)
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Abstract

This paper examines Nietzsche’s conflicted relation to Epicurus, an important naturalistic predecessor in the ‘art of living’ tradition. I focus in particular on the Epicurean credo “live unnoticed” (lathe biōsas), which advocated an inconspicuous life of quiet philosophical reflection, self-cultivation and friendship, avoiding the public radar and eschewing the larger ambitions and perturbations of political life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea looms largest and is most warmly received in Nietzsche’s middle period writings, where one finds a repeated concern with prudence, withdrawal and concealment, and where the primary emphasis is on private pluralistic experiments in therapeutic self-cultivation among small groups of free spirits. The idea of the Epicurean Garden appeals greatly to Nietzsche at this time as well, and I suggest that Zarathustra’s Blessed Isles are best understood as a friendship community along these lines. However, Nietzsche’s growing impatience with human imperfections and the siren song of great politics eventually lead him away from Epicurus and back to Plato. Beginning with Zarathustra, the paradigm of the modest, hidden helpful philosopher-therapist is replaced by the more ambitious philosopher-legislator who takes upon himself the task of determining the future of humanity. Nonetheless, I argue that we can profit more from the modest, practical insights of Nietzsche’s Epicurean art of living. (short version)

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Peter Groff
Bucknell University

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