What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?

In this essay, the meaning of ascetic ideals becomes far clearer through the use of Nietzsche’s account on the subject in his third essay in On The Genealogy of Morals, this is not surprising due to Nietzsche being influenced by Schopenhauer before moving on to develop his own views. A similar thing happened with Socrates who Nietzsche was very critical of and, after attacking his ideas fiercely moved on in much the same fashion as he did with Schopenhauer to formulate his own. I will, however, not neglect Schopenhauer and Socrates in this essay, I will look at them in more detail in the later stages as I will Kierkegaard and Weil, though not in quite so much detail.

Nietzsche spoke of asceticism in On The Genealogy of Morals as being a part of the same ease into nothingness that is responsible for creating the ‘anti-life’ occurrence of guilt and bad conscience. Life has been devoid of meaning apart from the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche argues that philosophers and the rest of humanity expose themselves to an ascetic life. It is this asceticism that is at the same time arrogant pride in its purest form and godlessness. Under the ascetic ideal, the intuitively entrenched will to power tries for ownership and authority over life itself, not over hurdles to life. The ascetic disposition is no less self-defeating in the search for knowledge. The ascetic ideal has contaminated every area, and has created the sickest of animals. The sick present the biggest threat to the healthy, they are weak failures that erode life, yet they supposed to dominate virtue, enlisting many calculating methods in order to tyrannise the healthy. The sick are the unfortunate men of ressentiment, who are physically and mentally defective and seek revenge against the fortunate, strong and healthy. For Nietzsche, they have poisoned the consciences of the fortunate with their own misery and want them to be ashamed of their good fortune and to believe that it is disgraceful to be fortunate in the face of so much misery.

Nietzsche identifies six types of ascetic, but On The Genealogy of Morals’ Third Essay considers three: artists, philosophers/scholars and priests. The asceticism of the artist, for Nietzsche, can mean either nothing or too many things. For the philosopher, asceticism is a form of self-gratification instead of being one of self-denial — for the larger part of human history, according to Nietzsche, philosophy has been viewed as being immoral, this means philosophers must conceal themselves as ascetic priests in order to gain the protection of the gods they were taken to serve or represent, but in order to be able to do this they had to believe in the ideal to be able to exhibit it. This leads us to the third kind of ascetic covered in Nietzsche’s Third Essay, the priest, who embraces the ascetic ideal instead of accepting it for the sake of something else, this ideal is not just his faith but is also his will, power and interest, the way the priest values his asceticism is reactive and imperialistic, because of it being reactive, the priest condemns all sensualism.

Nietzsche discusses how this ascetic ideal may be severed through ‘their slave rebellion in morality’ (A.White, P54–55) and goes on to consider the possibility of a counter ideal, rejecting science as the candidate due to it being the latest and noblest form of the ascetic ideal. Another candidate to oppose the ascetic ideal that Nietzsche identifies are “free spirits”, the philosophers and scholars who oppose the ascetic ideal, but this is rejected by Nietzsche because such counter idealism is in itself a form of idealism, a means of looking away from the real leading to a denial of life. The solution to this problem for Nietzsche is that of affirming diversity, an example of this would be that one important way of learning is seeing other ways it may be seen. For that, other ‘seers’ are useful, if not essential, “perspectival objectivity” is a feature of Nietzsche’s counter ideal. In other words, Nietzsche is concluding that if one wants to learn the meaning of ascetic ideals one should avoid artists and go straight to the core of these moralities, philosophies and religions from which they derive their support (Kemal et al., P129).

Nietzsche’s work aims a radical criticism at previous philosophy, the conditions of which appear to be fairly close to that of Kierkegaard, who urged the necessity of a philosophy that emphasised the personal importance of concrete choices (for example, whether or not one should get married) and personal responsibility instead of overall rationality. Unlike Kierkegaard, whose own chosen way of life was Christianity, Nietzsche tried to reveal religion as residing within the same perspective as previous philosophy. In doing this, he does not reject the project of philosophical reflection, but claims rather that, at its extreme development, such reflection undermines itself, opening up the possibility of a form of life beyond reason and truth. A Kierkegaardian perspective on Nietzsche might then possibly understand him as explaining a form of contemplative aestheticism where the appeal to pleasure is rejected as a feature of the unreflective life, leaving the will ‘to have my own way’ revealed in its bareness. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard could say, places ‘having my own way’ as the general character of all views of life, so that the essential distinction lies in whether they try to avoid this recognition by an appeal to ‘truth’ and so have the nature of illusion or clear-sightedly accept it. Nietzsche’s characterisation of religious understanding is a product of the fundamental structure of his thought, which Kierkegaard would object to.

For Nietzsche, Socrates represents the overcoming of suffering in this world, man saving himself, the teaching that man’s salvation is himself. It was not lost on Nietzsche that Socrates had the most control within Plato’s symposium, but at the same time he was not an ascetic (Chessick, 1983, P32). Nietzsche’s views on Socrates changed fairly frequently, at one stage he was unhappy with Socrates as a “wet blanket” rationalist, another stage was when he broke with Socrates and presented his own ideas. It could be said, from reading Nietzsche that, like the ascetic ideal generally, Socratism makes no sense on its own terms because it is weakened, at least in those conditions, through not opposing itself to anything. There is only one kind of thing that taking responsibility for what one says can be, and that is, obedience to the common circumstances of fathomable talk. And there is, of course, no one thing that can constitute obedience of this nature. What signifies obligation to meaning varies from context to context, just as it can be shunned in many different ways. But there is no value in the uttering of a bottom level of intelligibility from which Nietzsche believes it is not possible for us to deviate from. For Simone Weil, the Nietzschean view does not conceive that: ‘The true road exists. But it is open only to those who, recognizing themselves to be incapable of finding it, give up looking for it, and yet do not cease to desire it to the exclusion of everything else’ (As cited in M.Weston, 1994 — See Bibliography). Even if the individual affirms their own life, and even if this involves one of affirming all of life, this still leaves the question as to the value of such an affirmation. The religious view is the result of life’s reflection on itself, it cannot give value to itself, so, it is not, an ‘evaluation’ which would presuppose access to a source of value as access could only result in an immanent determination (Weston, P86).

Schopenhauer considers life as being intolerably evil and full of suffering which means a concern with the spiritual must follow. For Schopenhauer the spiritual represented what he called will, a metaphysical concept. Schopenhauer delivers the barest case of the ascetic ideal which Nietzsche sees as fundamental to so much of western culture. According to Schopenhauer, the ascetic can be described as follows: “His body, healthy and strong, expresses the sexual impulse through the genitals, but he denies the will, and gives the lie to the body” (W1, 380; as cited in C.Janaway, P94). Schopenhauer makes the argument that it is possible to learn about the world as will through two non cognitive channels, ascetic (and moral) suffering and, aesthetic contemplation, to suffer is to experience non-representational reality as closely as possible, and this suffering shows that reality is a force at odds with itself, in essential self-conflict. The best way through suffering to an understanding of the world as will for Schopenhauer is particularly the suffering that is caused through calculated exertions at suppressing the will — this involves the disciplined self-denial of asceticism, if desire intrudes the spell is broken and individual will is not successfully suppressed, which means the ascetic’s non-representational access to the world as will is halted. Nietzsche is concerned with the loss of value, he agrees with Schopenhauer that existence must contain suffering, and is without a point. But he rebels against the idea of surrendering and asceticism as a way to deliverance.

It is fair to say that for Nietzsche, Schopenhauer’s idea is a necessary one, but there must be an alternative to the ‘life-denying’ sentiment of searching for a break from the will and abhorring the ‘individual material being that one is’ (C.Janaway, P103). Nietzsche’s solution to this would be as touched on previously in this essay, of an inventive self-affirmation that accepts the individuals pain and cruelty as true aspects of their nature. Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power is based on Schopenhauer’s ‘will to life’[1] and makes an attempt to describe the essential move that orders human behaviour and to a certain extent, the entire world. Will to power is an endeavour to find an clarification of human behaviour, cognition, and cultural beliefs by making the assumption of the existence of an basic predisposition towards advancement and power, over the world and over oneself. Though Nietzsche denies Schopenhauer’s metaphysical teaching of the thing in itself, and tries to refute philosophical metaphysics completely, his view of the will to power clearly corresponds to Schopenhauer’s concept of the will, especially the idea that will to power can both be conscious, unconscious, has an natural foundation in the individual and that it is universal, making it befitting to call it a successor to Schopenhauer’s teaching.

Nietzsche’s basic philosophy comes from or rests on Schopenhauer but, by the time he wrote Ecce Homo in 1888, he said Schopenhauer has: “the peculiar bitter odor of corpses about him” (As cited in: Chessick, 1983, P36), which is quite a way from his previous idealisation of Schopenhauer as ‘educator’. Nietzsche did not believe there is some transcendental reality that holds the world together. He also objected to Schopenhauer’s proposed solution to withdraw from life, listen to music, and become an ascetic. Schopenhauer himself never followed this, living the other way and failing Nietzsche’s true test of any philosophy.

To conclude, ascetic ideals are a means to an end, any ideal is a means in which to exercise power — the ascetic ideal belongs to the triad of the most widespread destroyers of health, the other two being “alcohol poisoning” and “syphilis”. The ascetic ideal is at the heart of ressentiment which has an actual physiological origin. Ascetic ideals are cruel, nihilistic and are likened to a desert by Nietzsche, yet philosophers believe them to serve as a higher form of power. The three great vows of the ascetic ideal are poverty, humility, and chastity (On The Genealogy Of Morals, III, 8). So, for Nietzsche the reason why the ascetic ideal survived for so long was because of it having no other rival, until Zarathustra.


R.D.Chessick, A Brief Introduction to the Genius of Nietzsche, University Press of America, New York, 1983.

Randall Havas, Nietzsche’s Genealogy — Nihilism and the Will to Knowledge, Cornell University Press, London, 1995.

[Ed] Dale Jacquette, Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Christopher Janaway, Schopenhauer (Past Masters), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994.

[Ed] S.Kemal, I.Gaskell & D.W.Conway, Nietzsche, Philosophy and the Arts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

[Ed] B.Magnus and K.M.Higgins, The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.

Philip Novak, The Vision of Nietzsche [The Spirit of Philosophy Series], ELEMENT Books Ltd., Dorset, 1996.

R.Schacht, Making Sense of Nietzsche — Reflections Timely and Untimely, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1995.

Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism — Nietzsche without Masks, The University of Chicago Press, London, 1984.

Georg Simmel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1986.

R.C.Solomon, Continental Philosophy Since 1750, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.

Alan White, Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth, Routledge, London, 1990.

Peter Winch, Simone Weil — “The Just Balance”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.

Irving M.Zeitlin, Nietzsche — A Re-examination, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994.

[1] 1 For Schopenhauer, Will objectifies itself most clearly as individual suffering, because it is in these experiences that willing meets the severity of an unmanageable personally unaccommodating reality (Jacquette, P7).

Leave a Reply