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
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)
'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),