Happy 20th of September to all the Epicureans everywhere. This month I’ll be following up on my Atheism 2.1 piece, which discusses the tensions between militant atheism and ataraxia, and sharing a precept given to us by Grandfather Nietzsche which might apply specifically to contemporary atheist fanatics.
Yes, there is such a thing. The increased frequency of terrorist attacks and the rise in rabid, insolent homophobia after the legalization of gay marriage, understandably have the power to anger people of atheistic conviction who are already indignant. However, it is up to us to guard our minds and our characters constantly when we live in a world plagued by so many evils, both religious and secular.
We are not, as mere individuals, going to fix the world and all of its problems. We’re only going to have to live in it, and very few people attain the stamina to be able to “not give a shit”, which is what philosopher and comedian George Carlin suggests we do, but we would be wise to adjust our art of living to the nature of things, and to accept the limits of how much we can do to beautify the world so that we can still enjoy our walking on this Earth.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche beautifully provides us with medicine for this disease in the form of the Passing-by precept. He first must diagnose the disease. The sick man is a “foaming fool” who “lives in a swamp” against the backdrop of the great city, and asks Zarathustra to spit on the scum of the great city.
The following teaching is for the “apes of Zarathustra”, a specific kind of atheistic soul which is endlessly indignant at the world and has not allowed himself to create a pleasant life–always complaining about what’s wrong with society and parroting the teachings of the philosopher. Keep in mind that in the allegorical world of TSZ, the ape is something that we are called to overcome, that we must challenge ourselves in a process of constant self-betterment in order to be superior to the ape we are evolving from.
But the fool is also called a grunting pig–because he chose to settle in filth, in a swamp. But we can also read this as a reference to the members of Epicurus’ herd who are failing to live according to the teachings, who should know better.
Stop this at once! called out Zarathustra, long have your speech and your species disgusted me!
Why didst you live so long by the swamp, that you yourself had to become a frog and a toad?
… Why did you not go into the forest? Or why didst you not till the ground? Is the sea not full of green islands?
… They call you my ape, you foaming fool: but I call you my grunting pig, – by your grunting, you spoil even my praise of folly.
What was it that first made you grunt? Because no one sufficiently flattered you: – therefore didst you seat yourself beside this filth, that you might have cause for much grunting,-
-That you might have cause for much vengeance! For vengeance, you vain fool, is all your foaming; I have divined you well!
But your fools’-word injures me, even when you are right! And even if Zarathustra’s word were a hundred times justified, you would ever – do wrong with my word!
… This precept, however, give I to you, in parting, you fool: Where one can no longer love, there should one – pass by! –
Thus spoke Zarathustra, and passed by the fool and the great city.
In Epicurean teachings, the great city could be equated with the polis, the state, or the mobs: Epicurus told us to not be too concerned with the polis and instead to take refuge in our familiar communities, and that politics is not the way to happiness. Zarathustra here says that life can only be pleasant if we live in a place where we can love.
Look for opportunities in your life in which you may be able to take the advise given here: whenever you encounter a swamp, whenever you encounter the scum of the great city, do not take refuge there and do not become habituated to it like a toad. There will always be filth somewhere. You do not have to live in its immediacy. Instead, pass by.