Philosophical biographies of Nietzsche: good. Philosophical biographies of Nietzsche that contain brief examinations of his similarities to Epicurus? Why, it’s like when some genius thought to mix peanut butter and chocolate.

Through all phases of his career, Nietzsche speaks repeatedly of one’s Aufgabe, one’s ‘task’ or ‘mission’… Part of what is involved here is the so-called ‘paradox of happiness’: just as playing the piano or typing goes better if one avoids thinking about where the fingers are going, so happiness is best achieved, not by aiming directly at it, but rather by absorbing oneself in commitment to some task other than the achievement of one’s own happiness… This is a fundamental theme in all of Nietzsche’s writing: to cultivate oneself fully, as an integrated person, one needs a life-unifying task that gives unity and coherence to all one’s lesser projects… Nietzsche holds, I think, that genuine happiness is a matter of having an other-directed, life-defining task and feeling you are making a good job of it; making, as we say, ‘a contribution’.

…Then again, in contrast to the frenetic pace of modernity and to its obsession with activity and production, the new culture will place a high value on ‘idleness’, will make a great deal of space for the ‘vita contemplativa‘. Active men are ‘generic creatures’, herd types: since they act rather than think, they have no chance of thinking, in particular, that there might be something wrong with the culture which they inhabit and which shapes their actions. Only thinkers have a chance of challenging the status quo, of becoming unique individuals.

…Nietzsche would not, of course, be Nietzsche if his philosophy were an exact repetition of Epicurus. The crucial respect in which he departs from the Epicurean injunction to ‘live modestly’ is his ongoing concern for the regeneration of culture, his mission to build—not by direct political action but by the quiet exercise of small-scale ‘spiritual leadership’—a new society. Possessing a life-unifying ‘task’, a life-defining meaning, is, as we know, an essential ingredient of happiness as Nietzsche conceives it, and cultural regeneration—through the writing of his books— is his own life-task. This grandeur of ambition that is, in a broad sense, political seems to me something like the opposite of Epicurean inconspicuousness, of Epicurus’s recommended ‘inner emigration’ from politics… Happiness has to be more than Epicurean ataraxia; it demands a life-defining task. Indeed, there cannot be ataraxia in the absence of a life-defining task.

Of course, striving for inconspicuous serenity in Epicurus’s day was a bit of a neverending struggle itself, as Nietzsche himself recognized:

The Greeks, in a way of life in which great perils and upheavals were always present, sought in knowledge and reflection a kind of security and ultimate refuge. We, in an incomparably more secure condition, have transferred this perilousness into knowledge and reflection, and calm ourselves down with our way of life.

Nonetheless, I agree that happiness is a byproduct of fulfilling effort, not a goal itself, even if I suspect that Nietzsche’s modest choice of cultural regeneration as his task reflects his ingrained Prussian/Protestant work ethic and high-strung temperament. It’s enough for me to spend my days writing things that I’ll never be quite satisfied with and recording songs that will never seem quite finished.