Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Affirmative Naturalism: Deleuze and Epicureanism

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Affirmative Naturalism: Deleuze and Epicureanism

Article excerpt

A naturalistic conception of things is a great work of imagination --greater, I think, than any dramatic or moral mythology: it is a conception fit to inspire great poetry, and in the end, perhaps, it will prove the only conception able to inspire it. (Santayana)

In his lifetime Deleuze described himself as many things: an empiricist, a pluralist, a pure metaphysician, and, the one that especially interests me, a naturalist. We shall soon see what this commitment to naturalism entails. As a naturalist Deleuze marries the philosophical endeavour to a novel re-working of ethics centred on the tasks of the art of life. I say novel but Deleuze's naturalistic-informed ethics has its anchor in the likes of great naturalists such as the Epicurean Lucretius and Spinoza. His naturalism fuses together the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of life where, he tells us, 'life' is not simply an idea or a matter of theory but concerns a way of being, a style of life, and a manner of living. For Deleuze, if philosophy has a use it is to be found in the doctrine of the Epicureans, as well as in later thinkers such as Spinoza and Nietzsche, namely, the creation of the free human being and an empirical education in the art of living well. The object of naturalism--centred on both speculative and practical aspects--is to distinguish in the case of human beings what belongs to nature and what belongs to myth. This is why for Deleuze the first philosopher is a naturalist, simply because he speaks of nature rather than the gods. This is what we might call an Epicurean first principle.

Philosophy for Deleuze, then, is first and foremost practical philosophy and it exists in its naturalist form or rendition to defeat sadness: it is an affirmative naturalism. We shall see just what this entails and what it amounts to shortly. First, let me provide a brief introduction to Lucretius and his remarkable poem De Rerum Natura.

I.

Let me begin with citing some lines from the work itself. I cite from the opening of book two:

   What joy it is, when out at sea the stormwinds are lashing the
   waters, to gaze from the shore at the heavy stress some other man
   is enduring! Not that anyone's afflictions are in themselves a
   source of delight; but to realize from what troubles you yourselves
   are free is joy indeed. What joy, again, to watch opposing hosts
   marshalled on the field of battle when you yourself have no part in
   their peril! But this is the greatest joy of all: to possess a
   quiet sanctuary, stoutly fortified in the teaching of the wise, and
   to gaze down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in
   search of a way of life, pitting their wits one against another,
   disputing for precedence, struggling night and day with unstinted
   effort to scale the pinnacles of wealth and power. O joyless hearts
   of men! O minds without vision! How dark and dangerous the life in
   which this tiny span is lived away! Do you not see that nature is
   barking for two things only, a body free from pain, a mind released
   from worry and fear for the enjoyment of pleasurable sensations?
   (II: 1-19).

In these lines Lucretius is being faithful to the core tenets of Epicurean teaching. Philosophy for Lucretius is about attaining an elevated perspective on existence and providing human beings with a special kind of joy. The immediate object is pleasurable sensations of a stable and modest kind and the ultimate object is ataraxia or tranquillity and imperturbability. Later in the book Lucretius will define philosophy as a 'rule of life' (V: 10), the aim of which is to rescue life from existence lived in 'a stormy sea', 'so black a night', and hence to learn how to live well (ibid.). Lucretius makes it clear that the superior mode of existence attained is a modest existence, one enjoyed with a tranquil mind (V: 1119). This is not an aspect of the teaching explicitly brought out by Deleuze in his reading of Lucretius, but it is nonetheless presupposed by it. …

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