Thoughts on Epicurus, Politics, “The Crowd,” and Nietzsche’s “The New Idol”
There are varying interpretations of what Epicurus meant when he advised us to avoid “the crowd” and to avoid devoting ourselves to a life of politics. In the pursuit of greater accuracy on this, let’s consider several of the most relevant texts (selected here from Epicurus.net):
PD6. In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.
PD7. Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature’s own prompting they originally sought.
PD14. Protection from other men, secured to some extent by the power to expel and by material prosperity, in its purest form comes from a quiet life withdrawn from the multitude.
PD39. The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.
PD40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.
VS7. For an aggressor to be undetected is difficult; and for him to be confident that his concealment will continue is impossible.
VS45. The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances.
VS58. We must free ourselves from the prison of public education and politics.
VS67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.
VS77. Freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency.
VS81. The soul neither rids itself of disturbance nor gains a worthwhile joy through the possession of greatest wealth, nor by the honor and admiration bestowed by the crowd, or through any of the other things sought by unlimited desire.
In this post I will skip over what I think is perhaps the next best point of reference (after the texts), which is the example of the lives of ancient Epicureans who had all the texts and much greater opportunity to known what Epicurus meant in full than we do today.
For now, I am simply considering the consider the thoughts of Nietzsche on the modern manifestation of the crowd at is worst, the phenomena of “the state.” The following is from Thus Spake Zarathustra, and it makes a lot of sense to me from an Epicurean starting-point:
11. The New Idol
Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brethren: here there are states.
A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears unto me, for now will I say unto you my word concerning the death of peoples.
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life.
Destroyers, are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them.
Where there is still a people, there the state is not understood, but hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs.
This sign I give unto you: every people speaketh its language of good and evil: this its neighbour understandeth not. Its language hath it devised for itself in laws and customs.
But the state lieth in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it saith it lieth; and whatever it hath it hath stolen.
False is everything in it; with stolen teeth it biteth, the biting one. False are even its bowels.
Confusion of language of good and evil; this sign I give unto you as the sign of the state. Verily, the will to death, indicateth this sign! Verily, it beckoneth unto the preachers of death!
Many too many are born: for the superfluous ones was the state devised!
See just how it enticeth them to it, the many-too-many! How it swalloweth and cheweth and recheweth them!
“On earth there is nothing greater than I: it is I who am the regulating finger of God.”—thus roareth the monster. And not only the long-eared and short-sighted fall upon their knees!
Ah! even in your ears, ye great souls, it whispereth its gloomy lies! Ah! it findeth out the rich hearts which willingly lavish themselves!
Yea, it findeth you out too, ye conquerors of the old God! Weary ye became of the conflict, and now your weariness serveth the new idol!
Heroes and honourable ones, it would fain set up around it, the new idol! Gladly it basketh in the sunshine of good consciences,- the cold monster!
Everything will it give you, if ye worship it, the new idol: thus it purchaseth the lustre of your virtue, and the glance of your proud eyes.
It seeketh to allure by means of you, the many-too-many! Yea, a hellish artifice hath here been devised, a death-horse jingling with the trappings of divine honours!
Yea, a dying for many hath here been devised, which glorifieth itself as life: verily, a hearty service unto all preachers of death!
The state, I call it, where all are poison-drinkers, the good and the bad: the state, where all lose themselves, the good and the bad: the state, where the slow suicide of all—is called “life.”
Just see these superfluous ones! They steal the works of the inventors and the treasures of the wise. Culture, they call their theft—and everything becometh sickness and trouble unto them!
Just see these superfluous ones! Sick are they always; they vomit their bile and call it a newspaper. They devour one another, and cannot even digest themselves.
Just see these superfluous ones! Wealth they acquire and become poorer thereby. Power they seek for, and above all, the lever of power, much money—these impotent ones!
See them clamber, these nimble apes! They clamber over one another, and thus scuffle into the mud and the abyss.
Towards the throne they all strive: it is their madness—as if happiness sat on the throne! Ofttimes sitteth filth on the throne.- and ofttimes also the throne on filth.
Madmen they all seem to me, and clambering apes, and too eager. Badly smelleth their idol to me, the cold monster: badly they all smell to me, these idolaters.
My brethren, will ye suffocate in the fumes of their maws and appetites! Better break the windows and jump into the open air!
Do go out of the way of the bad odour! Withdraw from the idolatry of the superfluous!
Do go out of the way of the bad odour! Withdraw from the steam of these human sacrifices!
Open still remaineth the earth for great souls. Empty are still many sites for lone ones and twain ones, around which floateth the odour of tranquil seas.
Open still remaineth a free life for great souls. Verily, he who possesseth little is so much the less possessed: blessed be moderate poverty!
There, where the state ceaseth—there only commenceth the man who is not superfluous: there commenceth the song of the necessary ones, the single and irreplaceable melody.
There, where the state ceaseth—pray look thither, my brethren! Do ye not see it, the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman?—
Thus spake Zarathustra.
That passage is important enough that it deserves the most clear English translation possible. Here is the version by Walter Kaufmann (the earlier version was Thomas Common).