Foundations of Ethics, Vol. III:

Nietzsche’s Challenge to the Idea of Moral Good

Daniel J. Castellano



Full Table of Contents
18. Against Moral Idealism
19. Utility and Happiness
20. Asceticism
   20.1 Flight from Life
   20.2 Sublimation of Desire
   20.3 Ascetic Ideals in Art
   20.4 Ascetic Aesthetics in Philosophy
   20.5 Iconoclastic Origin of Ascetic Philsophy
   20.6 The Function of Asceticism as Will to Power
   20.7 The Ascetic Solution: Nihilism
   20.8 Guilt as Instrument of Ascetic Medicine
   20.9 Asceticism as Giver of Meaning

18. Against Moral Idealism

The Superman, with full self-awareness, constructs and confers values on the world by sheer imposition of his will, esteeming that which enhances his power and disdaining that which weakens. This approach to valuation entails a repudiation of all previous systems of moralizing in philosophy, and indeed, the very notion that moral values can be discovered or constructed systematically. All that philosophers have hitherto esteemed as virtue is conformity to some ideal, which has nothing to do with the greatness of a man. “What? A great man? I always see merely the play-actor of his own ideal.” [BGE, 97] What makes a man great is individual, personal will to power, something that cannot be reduced to an ideal template. Each great man is sui generis, imposing his own perspective on the world, rather than measuring himself by some extrinsic standard.

The faults that Nietzsche finds with moral idealism are manifold, but in general it enfeebles rather than strengthens man. “He who cannot find the way to HIS ideal, lives more frivolously and shamelessly than the man without an ideal.” [BGE, 133] Since men, like all living creatures, are in constant flux, they cannot consistently conform to any ideal pattern of behavior. Those who realize that it is impossible to keep to any ideal must fritter their life away in some sense, either by despairing of ever attaining virtue, or by accepting that all their sins will be forgiven. Either way, we have a sort of nihilism, as nothing a man does for himself is of any consequence.

If we dispense with ideals and instead face reality in all its contingency and subjectivity, there is no longer anything scandalous in our supposed inconstancy. “Objection, evasion, joyous distrust, and love of irony are signs of health; everything absolute belongs to pathology.” [BGE, 154] It is a psychological illness to make ourselves the slaves of some fixed idea. Instead of becoming slaves of thought, we may use thought in ways that liberate us, challenging every shackle that others would try to impose on us in order to tame us.

Philosophical systems of ethics may be viewed as attempts by a philosopher to impose a preferred discipline on himself or others.

Apart from the value of such assertions as “there is a categorical imperative in us,” one can always ask: What does such an assertion indicate about him who makes it? There are systems of morals which are meant to justify their author in the eyes of other people; other systems of morals are meant to tranquilize him, and make him self-satisfied; with other systems he wants to crucify and humble himself, with others he wishes to take revenge, with others to conceal himself, with others to glorify himself and have superiority and distinction,—this system of morals helps its author to forget, that system makes him, or something of him, forgotten, many a moralist would like to exercise power and creative arbitrariness over mankind, many another, perhaps, Kant especially, gives us to understand by his morals that “what is estimable in me, is that I know how to obey—and with you it SHALL not be otherwise than with me!” In short, systems of morals are only a SIGN-LANGUAGE OF THE EMOTIONS. [BGE, 187]

By means of an ethical system, a philosopher imposes his sensibility upon others. Insofar as a system is idealistic, it esteems the ability to conform to rules.

Plato is generally considered the founder of idealism in Western philosophy, yet Nietzsche adopted a contrarian interpretation. Finding Plato too aristocratic to really believe in the Idea of the Good, Nietzsche thought this was merely an exoteric teaching for popular consumption, while Plato’s genuine teaching was shared only in private. The idealism in Plato’s writings is a fictional device to project his personal aristocratic sensibility into Socrates’ popular morality. [Catherine Zuckert, “Nietzsche’s Rereading of Plato.” Political Theory (1985), 13(2), 213-238.]

There is something in the morality of Plato which does not really belong to Plato, but which only appears in his philosophy, one might say, in spite of him: namely, Socratism, for which he himself was too noble. “No one desires to injure himself, hence all evil is done unwittingly. The evil man inflicts injury on himself; he would not do so, however, if he knew that evil is evil. The evil man, therefore, is only evil through error; if one free him from error one will necessarily make him—good.”—This mode of reasoning savours of the POPULACE, who perceive only the unpleasant consequences of evil-doing, and practically judge that “it is STUPID to do wrong;” while they accept “good” as identical with “useful and pleasant,” without further thought. As regards every system of utilitarianism, one may at once assume that it has the same origin, and follow the scent: one will seldom err.—Plato did all he could to interpret something refined and noble into the tenets of his teacher, and above all to interpret himself into them—he, the most daring of all interpreters, who lifted the entire Socrates out of the street, as a popular theme and song, to exhibit him in endless and impossible modifications—namely, in all his own disguises and multiplicities. In jest, and in Homeric language as well, what is the Platonic Socrates, if not prosthe Platon opithen te Platon messe te chimaira? (Plato in front, Plato behind, in the middle the chimera) [BGE, 190]

Socrates’ ethics, in this view, was just popular utilitarianism, but Plato ennobled it by constructing a mythos of Ideas around the unachievable Socratic chimera. Earlier, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche found that Socrates had created the illusion of knowledge that could correct human behavior. [Zuckert, op. cit., p. 214.] In the same work, he thought Plato followed Socrates in this error of believing that there exists some moral order independent of man. Later, however, he modified his view, recognizing on one hand that some pre-Socratics, especially the Eleatics, already had rationalistic ideas about Being, and on the other that Plato freely admitted to using deceptions for the sake of public morality (esp. in Book V of the Republic).

The earliest Greek philosophers sought to understand the world as it really is, shorn of poetic meaning or moral utility. Nonetheless, in their choice of inquiry, they made implicit valuations about what is worthy of knowing, and in their generalizations, they were actually imposing their own creative imagination or intuition. They mistook their particular perspective for universal truth. [Zuckert, op. cit., p. 218.]

This criticism of idealism is grounded in an epistemology where a person’s perception of the world necessarily distorts it, so the resultant thought is something particular, not universal. Our thoughts are just parts of our bodily self; i.e., instincts or intuitions. Nietzsche does not disparage intuitive knowledge, but regards it as a personal valuation that is incommunicable to others.

In reality, Nietzsche claims, a philosopher who teaches is imposing his own rule, order or arche, i.e., his will to power, not discovering an order that is inherent in the universe. No philosophical system has endured, since the philosophers have not discovered eternal truths, but only advanced their own personal moral structures. [Ibid., p. 222.]

The use of reason to impose order is an important advance in power, enabling man to master his sensitive appetites. The overtly moral objective of philosophy espoused by Socrates and Plato leads Nietzsche to believe that one or both of them understood that their philosophical activity was creative. Further, as critics of received customs, they were necessarily unmoral. Plato disguised the subversive aspect of philosophy under his myths of Ideas and the immortal soul, and even admitted that it was a necessary lie for people to believe that their role in society was ordained by nature. Whether or not this revisionist account of Plato himself is correct, it is certain that his successors believed his Ideas to be real, and that even philosophers of different schools thought they were discovering universal truth. Plato’s deception makes him fall short of the Superman, who unabashedly bestows his own personalized values on the world, without masking them under an idealism.

All idealist moralities, insofar as they make universal prescriptions for the pursuit of happiness, project someone’s personal approach to mastering his passions and senses.

All the systems of morals which address themselves with a view to their “happiness,” as it is called—what else are they but suggestions for behaviour adapted to the degree of DANGER from themselves in which the individuals live; recipes for their passions, their good and bad propensities, insofar as such have the Will to Power and would like to play the master; small and great expediencies and elaborations, permeated with the musty odour of old family medicines and old-wife wisdom; all of them grotesque and absurd in their form—because they address themselves to “all,” because they generalize where generalization is not authorized; all of them speaking unconditionally, and taking themselves unconditionally; all of them flavoured not merely with one grain of salt, but rather endurable only, and sometimes even seductive, when they are over-spiced and begin to smell dangerously, especially of “the other world.” That is all of little value when estimated intellectually, and is far from being “science,” much less “wisdom;” but, repeated once more, and three times repeated, it is expediency, expediency, expediency, mixed with stupidity, stupidity, stupidity—whether it be the indifference and statuesque coldness towards the heated folly of the emotions, which the Stoics advised and fostered; or the no-more-laughing and no-more-weeping of Spinoza, the destruction of the emotions by their analysis and vivisection, which he recommended so naively; or the lowering of the emotions to an innocent mean at which they may be satisfied, the Aristotelianism of morals; or even morality as the enjoyment of the emotions in a voluntary attenuation and spiritualization by the symbolism of art, perhaps as music, or as love of God, and of mankind for God’s sake—for in religion the passions are once more enfranchised, provided that…; or, finally, even the complaisant and wanton surrender to the emotions, as has been taught by Hafis and Goethe, the bold letting-go of the reins, the spiritual and corporeal licentia morum in the exceptional cases of wise old codgers and drunkards, with whom it “no longer has much danger.” [BGE, 198]

Folk medicine uses remedies that appeared to work in at least one case, and unscientifically applies them to all patients with a variety of ailments. Moralities are likewise unscientifically universalized, applied in contexts far removed from those in which they originated. The sheer variety of prescriptions offered by philosophers only shows that these are questions of personal sensibility. Nietzsche does not take exception to this or that particular method of dealing with the passions, but only the folly of using someone else’s method as though it were an objective rule. The moralization of behavior is a poor substitute for bravely mastering one’s passions on one’s own terms.


19. Utility and Happiness

Utilitarians may pretend to have found a scientific basis for ethics, shunning idealism, yet they repeat the mistake of constructing a universal out of something intrinsically personal and subjective, i.e., happiness. It is senseless to speak of maximizing happiness for the greatest number if my happiness is incommensurate with anyone else’s standard of happiness. The definition of happiness varies by person, again reflecting particular sensibilities. Utilitarian philosophers, like other ethicists, implicitly abstract thoughts from the body. Each person defines what is good or expedient or useful for himself according to his sensibility. “One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired.” [BGE, 175]

The utilitarians, then, commit the same error as the idealists in mistaking their bodily desires or preferences for the discovery of truth. “Ye Utilitarians—ye, too, love the UTILE only as a VEHICLE for your inclinations,—ye, too, really find the noise of its wheels insupportable!” [BGE, 174] Speaking of the useful or the expedient as though it were a goal or object ignores the fact that the notion of utility refers to an inclination or desire. Since desire is intrinsically subjective, it is senseless to pretend to construct an objective ethics from considerations of utility.

The English utilitarians, thinking their ethics to be scientific, tediously catalogued various calculations of social utility, without ever challenging the received notion of social good they took for granted. In this tendency they followed the general practice of Victorian English scholars, multiplying pseudo-inductive proofs, taking pride in dry empiricism over imaginative hypothesizing. Nietzsche mockingly remarks that it is useful that all moralists are tedious:

It is desirable that as few people as possible should reflect upon morals, and consequently it is very desirable that morals should not some day become interesting…

I see no one in Europe who has (or DISCLOSES) an idea of the fact that philosophizing concerning morals might be conducted in a dangerous, captious, and ensnaring manner—that CALAMITY might be involved therein. [BGE, 228]

For all their supposed daring against traditional morality, the English utilitarians play it safe, unimaginatively borrowing from Helvetius, and offering “[n]o new thought, nothing of the nature of a finer turning or better expression of an old thought, not even a proper history of what has been previously thought on the subject…” [Loc. cit.] Their pretense at scientific objectivity excuses them from the need to make a comparative historical study of morals, which would expose the naivety of their assumptions.

[M]oreover, there is not absent from them a secret struggle with the pangs of conscience, from which a race of former Puritans must naturally suffer, in all their scientific tinkering with morals. (Is not a moralist the opposite of a Puritan? That is to say, as a thinker who regards morality as questionable, as worthy of interrogation, in short, as a problem? Is moralizing not—immoral?) [BGE, 228]

Artificial rational analysis of ethics contradicts the notion of morality as custom. To challenge custom is to make oneself the arbiter, indeed the creator, of values. Ethicists fail to recognize this, and pretend that their creations are discoveries.

Ultimately, all utilitarianism does is sanctify existing liberal English sensibility with the dubious stamp of scientific truth.

In the end, they all want English morality to be recognized as authoritative, inasmuch as mankind, or the “general utility,” or “the happiness of the greatest number,”—no! the happiness of ENGLAND, will be best served thereby. They would like, by all means, to convince themselves that the striving after English happiness, I mean after COMFORT and FASHION (and in the highest instance, a seat in Parliament), is at the same time the true path of virtue; in fact, that in so far as there has been virtue in the world hitherto, it has just consisted in such striving. Not one of those ponderous, conscience-stricken herding-animals (who undertake to advocate the cause of egoism as conducive to the general welfare) wants to have any knowledge or inkling of the facts that the “general welfare” is no ideal, no goal, no notion that can be at all grasped, but is only a nostrum,—that what is fair to one MAY NOT at all be fair to another, that the requirement of one morality for all is really a detriment to higher men, in short, that there is a DISTINCTION OF RANK between man and man, and consequently between morality and morality. They are an unassuming and fundamentally mediocre species of men, these utilitarian Englishmen… [BGE, 228]

The universalized notion of general welfare is intelligible only on the questionable assumption that there is a common definition of good for all, which in turn is based on uncritical egalitarianism. One must assume herd values (egalitarianism) in order to conclude that one ought to do what is best for the herd.

On the contrary, Nietzsche holds, utility is not a goal or abstract ideal, but a subjective inclination that varies with each ego. As utility is intrinsically egoist, it is senseless to generalize it into a universal. Any attempts to do so are really promoting the egoism of a particular society or nation, following some good defined by its cultural norms. Over a century later, we find that utilitarian ethicists almost invariably do nothing but confirm whatever brand of liberal ethics prevails in their time and place. This supposedly scientific ethics does nothing but canonize custom.


20. Asceticism

Nietzsche’s attitude to asceticism is complex. Although he was no sensual libertine, and greatly esteemed the harsh discipline of mastering the senses and passions, he did not regard the renunciation of sensuality as a worthy end in itself, or an expression of virtue. On the contrary, his exaltation of the body as the entirety of human nature, denying any spiritual soul apart from it, entailed an embrace of carnal desires insofar as they enhanced personal power. Passions are to be suppressed when they would make us weak or lead us to ruin, and senses are to be distrusted when they contradict the findings of reason, as Copernicanism refuted the testimony of the senses.

Nietzsche saves some of his severest criticism for the ascetics, for they have made idealism do violence to their own bodies, i.e., their selves, and in their condemnation of carnal life, they condemn life itself and practice a sort of nihilism. The Cynics, Stoics, Buddhists and Christians, much like Schopenhauer, have a negative view of carnal life, leading them to glorify death, which they clothe in the pseudo-virtue of self-renunciation.


20.1 Flight from Life

The sickliness of ascetics is described by Zarathustra in “Preachers of Death.” They are less than men, since they renounce this life for the sake of life eternal.

They meet an invalid, or an old man, or a corpse—and immediately they say: “Life is refuted!”
But they only are refuted, and their eye, which seeth only one aspect of existence. [TSZ, IX]

It is common for Christian ascetics to point to decay and death as proof of the folly of placing hope in this life. Yet mortality does not abolish the positive value of life, for there is much more to life than its finiteness.

“Life is only suffering:” so say others, and lie not. Then see to it that YE cease! See to it that the life ceaseth which is only suffering!
And let this be the teaching of your virtue: “Thou shalt slay thyself! Thou shalt steal away from thyself!”—
“Lust is sin,”—so say some who preach death—“let us go apart and beget no children!”
“Giving birth is troublesome,”—say others—“why still give birth? One beareth only the unfortunate!” And they also are preachers of death.
“Pity is necessary,”—so saith a third party. “Take what I have! Take what I am! So much less doth life bind me!” [TSZ, IX]

Life really is nothing but suffering—for an ascetic. It is only when we demand that life be something alien to itself, i.e., eternal, unchanging, that we can do nothing but despair of it. By renouncing all carnality, we renounce ourselves in pursuit of some Platonic ideal. Various Christian ascetics condemned even the natural desire for procreation. Nietzsche, himself no libertine, nonetheless sees it fitting that the desire to create new life was most harshly condemned by the deniers of life. Their classic arguments often invoked the difficulties of family life and the futility and sinfulness of the life that is created. Procreation was justified only by the possibility of raising up children for the afterlife. The Buddhists even more perfectly renounced desires, so that they could not be bound by them. They really sought freedom from life and its troubles.

All of these reasons for asceticism are a cowardly repudiation of life, fleeing bodily desires in order to avoid the suffering they might cause. The ascetic gives up before a struggle only because a bad outcome is possible. The strength he uses to punish his body might instead be used to face life’s challenges and defeats. Instead of growing weary of rough labor, Zarathustra says, we should embrace it.

If ye believed more in life, then would ye devote yourselves less to the momentary [Augenblicke]. But for waiting, ye have not enough of capacity [Inhalt] in you—nor even for idling! [Faulheit: idleness or rotting] [TSZ, IX]

The will to live is so weak in the ascetic that he cannot even wait for things to improve, much less struggle to improve them. He sees everything as fleeting, so he can take no interest in how things turn out. He is not even capable of idling like the hedonist, who at least consumes his life in dissolution. The ascetic takes no delight in life; he is a corpse that cannot even rot.


20.2 Sublimation of Desire

When limited, some ascetic disciplines can serve a useful function, as they stoke the desires they temporarily hold in check.

Industrious races find it a great hardship to be idle: it was a master stroke of ENGLISH instinct to hallow and begloom Sunday to such an extent that the Englishman unconsciously hankers for his week—and work-day again:—as a kind of cleverly devised, cleverly intercalated FAST, such as is also frequently found in the ancient world (although, as is appropriate in southern nations, not precisely with respect to work). Many kinds of fasts are necessary; and wherever powerful influences and habits prevail, legislators have to see that intercalary days are appointed, on which such impulses are fettered, and learn to hunger anew. Viewed from a higher standpoint, whole generations and epochs, when they show themselves infected with any moral fanaticism, seem like those intercalated periods of restraint and fasting, during which an impulse learns to humble and submit itself—at the same time also to PURIFY and SHARPEN itself; certain philosophical sects likewise admit of a similar interpretation (for instance, the Stoa, in the midst of Hellenic culture, with the atmosphere rank and overcharged with Aphrodisiacal odours).—Here also is a hint for the explanation of the paradox, why it was precisely in the most Christian period of European history, and in general only under the pressure of Christian sentiments, that the sexual impulse sublimated into love (amour-passion). [BGE, 189]

Entire historical movements of asceticism can be viewed as such fasts, sharpening the appetites. Thus it is no longer paradoxical that capitalist ambition emerged in Christian Europe, nor that Romanticism was produced precisely in the baroque culture that created the most elaborate system of restraining and regulating lust. This idea that repressed desires are sublimated into new creative tendencies would later be expounded into a full psychology by Freud. Like Nietzsche, Freud did not view repression negatively, but recognized its necessary constructive role.

Today we take for granted that sexuality is an expression of romantic love, but this is an historically recent development. The Christian regimen of sexual restraint was imposed over the notion of sexuality as purely bestial lust, redeemed only by its procreative function. This discipline developed a contrast between vicious lust and companionate love. Ironically, this sublimation of eroticism made possible a transvaluation of marriage and sexuality, where these are valued not so much for simple carnal gratification or procreation, but for their companionate aspect. This transvaluation enables people to approach sexuality more innocently, not as something that corrupts or degrades, but that which ennobles through love.

Would that ye were perfect—at least as animals! But to animals belongeth innocence.
Do I counsel you to slay your instincts? I counsel you to innocence in your instincts.
Do I counsel you to chastity? Chastity is a virtue with some, but with many almost a vice.
These are continent, to be sure: but doggish lust looketh enviously out of all that they do.
Even into the heights of their virtue and into their cold spirit doth this creature follow them, with its discord.
And how nicely can doggish lust beg for a piece of spirit, when a piece of flesh is denied it! [TSZ, XIII]

At a bare minimum, we might return to the innocence of animals. Though they have no notion of romantic love, at least they are not burdened with the idea that sexuality is degrading, that their own nature is beneath them. Some people are genuinely capable of chastity, since they can find satisfaction in life without recourse to sexuality. For many, however, such discipline is of little avail, for the natural instincts remain, and serve only to plague the mind as so many demons. In them, continence has the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of purifying, it makes sexuality dirty, for every urge or impulse is something unallowable, a betrayal of principle. Sexuality is experienced as something vicious, and this is no illusion, but a reality that is the product of asceticism.

Nonetheless, Zarathustra recognizes genuine chastity, an innocence of the sexual instinct, as something loftier than mere sensual hedonism. It is attainable only to a few. “To whom chastity is difficult, it is to be dissuaded: lest it become the road to hell—to filth and lust of soul.” [Loc. cit.] This counsel has echoes of Christian teaching, e.g., Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Cor. 7:7. By the baroque period, however, an almost monastic discipline of sexuality had been adopted by most Christians, earnestly trying to emulate the ascetic ideal as best they could.

Zarathustra’s chaste ones do not pretend that chastity is a moral imperative, nor do they regard it with the seriousness that marks a moralist. Rather, they accept their natural chastity just as they would have accepted any other natural desire or inclination.

Verily, there are chaste ones from their very nature; they are gentler of heart, and laugh better and oftener than you.
They laugh also at chastity, and ask: “What is chastity? Is chastity not folly? But the folly came unto us, and not we unto it.
We offered that guest harbour and heart: now it dwelleth with us—let it stay as long as it will!” [TSZ, XIII]

If there are no fixed, eternal moral principles, the chaste are not obligated to remain that way. They stay as they are only as long as they are granted that nature, for nature itself is in flux.


20.3 Ascetic Ideals in Art

Consistent with his treatment of punishment, Nietzsche finds in the Genealogy of Morals that ascetic ideals can have various functions or meanings depending on social context. For most people, the physiological failures and whiners, ascetic ideals are an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a weapon against lingering pain and ennui. In the saints, they are a pretext for hibernation, finding peace in nothingness, i.e., God, who is the negation of every quality of the observable world. In scholars, they are an instinct for conditions favorable to intellectualism. Beneath this diversity of meanings “lies expressed the fundamental feature of man’s will, his horror vacui: he needs a goal—and he will sooner will nothingness than not will at all.” [GM, 3rd, 1]

In artists, the paradox is especially pronounced, for to them ascetic ideals can only mean nothing. After all, the function of art is to celebrate and glorify life, so art with an ascetic ideal would be self-negating. The incompatibility of asceticism and art was felt not only by iconoclasts, but even by the practitioners of religious art. Anything too beautiful seemed to commit the sin of glorifying this world, directing attention away from God. Religious art and music faced the paradox of trying not to be too sensual, too worldly, when its very mode of expression is by appeal to the senses and representation of this world.

Given the antithesis between art and asceticism, Nietzsche found it perplexing that Richard Wagner adopted ascetic ideals in his old age, paying homage to chastity. He struggled to explain this, starting from the high point of Wagner’s life, when occupied with the idea of “Luther’s Wedding.” This theme would have dealt with the praise of chastity, but also the praise of sensuality. “For there is no necessary antithesis between chastity and sensuality: every good marriage, every authentic heart-felt love transcends this antithesis.” [GM, 3rd, 2] This is duly recognized by modern Christian thinkers, but this was not so for Christians in Nietzsche’s time. Even in cases where there is an antithesis between chastity and sensuality, this antithesis need not be tragic. Goethe, for example, saw this balance between “animal” and “angel” as a further charm of life. “Such ‘conflicts’ actually allure one to life.” [Loc. cit..] However, when “ruined swine are reduced to worshipping chastity… they only see and worship in it the antithesis to the themselves… ruined swine.” [Loc. cit.] Those who are ruined by sensuality, such as the young St. Augustine, tend to end up worshiping its opposite. We see this frequently today with reformed alcoholics. Such as these “worship that painful and superfluous contrast, which Richard Wagner in his latter days undoubtedly wished to set to music…” Yet why, Nietzsche asks, should Wagner be concerned with the swine? [Loc. cit.]

Unable to fathom that the composer of Tristan und Isolde should later collapse into the idealism and religiosity of Parsifal, Nietzsche conjectures that the latter must have been a great practical joke. He cannot believe Wagner seriously intended this curse on flesh and spirit, a reversion to Christian and obscurantist ideals, “a self-negation and self-elimination on the part of an artist, who till then had devoted all the strength of his will to the contrary, namely, the highest artistic expression of soul and body.” [GM, 3rd, 3] In the 1830s-40s, Wagner had followed Feuerbach’s motto of “healthy sensuality.” He repudiated this in Parsifal, returning to medieval asceticism, holding that “All is vanity,” even invoking the “blood of the Redeemer.” [Loc. cit.] Wagner apparently despaired of this life, and placed his hope in the other world.

To salvage Wagner, Nietzsche separates the artist from his work. We may still enjoy the latter, though its creator may not exemplify it in his own person. After all, the artist is necessarily distinct from what he represents or imagines. Homer could not have created an Achilles if he had been an Achilles. A perfect artist is separated from the “real” or actual. Sometimes he despairs of the “unreality” in his innermost being, and attempts to have real existence, but his wish is not strong enough for action. This happened to Wagner in his old age, so it ended on a Schopenhauerian, nihilistic note. [GM, 3rd, 4] In this view, Wagner attempted to emulate the strength of the figures represented in his art, but fell short.

This generous assessment can hardly conceal Nietzsche’s hurt at Wagner’s perceived betrayal. He proceeds to declare that ascetic ideals mean “nothing at all” to artists because they have no use for ideals. Artists do not take an independent attitude in the world or against it, but are always the valet of some morality, philosophy or religion, or the courtier of some patron or the toady of some political power. [GM, 3rd, 5] He would dismiss Wagner by belittling artists in general, as though they were mere technicians. All that matters is their work, not their opinions. Nietzsche did not anticipate the modernist movement in art, which genuinely does take independent positions on the world, without reference to some established ideology.

Wagner would not have had the courage for an ascetic ideal, Nietzsche claims, except for the support of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which was popular in the 1870s. We cannot look to the artist, then, to explain how ascetic ideals originate and act on society. Instead, we should turn to the philosopher.

Despite this vindictive disparagement of artists as intellectuals, Nietzsche retains a high esteem for the role of art in philosophy and life more generally. Thus he conceives the idealist philosophers as borrowing from existing aesthetic standards. Were he not so disillusioned by Wagner, he might openly admit that the philosopher needs the artist.


20.4 Ascetic Aesthetics in Philosophy

Pushing the responsibility for ascetic ideals from artists to philosophers only heightens the paradox. What is to be made of a real philosopher such as Schopenhauer, a man of independence and courage, paying homage to ascetic ideal? Wagner had originally considered music a means, a “woman,” that needs an end, a “man,” i.e., the drama, to give it meaning and intellectual depth. Then he adopted Schopenhauer’s view of the sovereignty of music, abstracted from and opposed to all other arts. Unlike the other arts, music is not a mere reflection of the phenomenal world, but the language of Will itself. This rise in the esteem of music raised the esteem of the musician, as an oracle or mouthpiece of the “intrinsic essence of things.” No wonder Wagner, as a “ventriloquist of God,” should someday speak ascetic ideals. [GM, 3rd, 5]

While it is easy to see how Schopenhauer’s account of music might lead Wagner to asceticism, it is less obvious why Schopenhauer himself might adopt such an ideal. Nietzsche refers us to Kant, who had thought he honored art by emphasizing the impersonality and universality of beauty, for he considered those attributes to be the honor of knowledge. Kant was regarding art from the standpoint of the spectator rather than the artist, and imperceptibly imported the spectator into the idea of the beautiful. Yet there is no sign of any authentic experience of art, Nietzsche finds, in Kant’s definition: “That is beautiful, which pleases without interest.” A real spectator of art could not make such a statement, as seen with Stendhal, who called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur, which is hardly disinterested. [GM, 3rd, 6]

Kant misunderstands beauty because he tries to reduce its attributes to those of knowledge, which pleases us even if we do not consider it an object of gain. Those who defend Kant’s disinterested notion of aesthetics might say that men look at naked female statues “without interest.” Nietzsche remarks that this is notoriously untrue of artists themselves. [Loc. cit.] Again, beauty is defined by the spectator, who supposedly gathers some dry metaphysical knowledge from the work, as opposed to the artist, who takes sensual delight in the act of creation.

Schopenhauer took up Kant’s view, but interpreted “without interest” based on his personal experience that aesthetic contemplation counteracts sexual interest. He found this escape from “life-will” to be the great advantage of the aesthetic state. Note that its utility is not of gain, but of escape. Nietzsche wonders if Schopenhauer’s notion that one can be free from the “will” by means of “idea” also originated from generalization of his sexual experience, recalling that he formulated his philosophy at age twenty-six. “This is the painless state which Epicurus praised as the highest good and as the state of the gods; we are during that moment freed from the vile pressure of the will…” [Schopenhauer, World as Will and Idea, i., 231]

The calming of the will praised by Schopenhauer is only one effect of beauty. He ignores the effect mentioned by Stendhal, i.e., it promises happiness, so the excitement of the will, “interest,” is essential to beauty. Nonetheless, Nietzsche finds that Schopenhauer is not truly Kantian, because he understands beauty in terms of an interest, that of being freed from torture. So the first hint of the meaning of the ascetic ideal for a real philosopher is a wish to escape from torture. Escape disguised as triumph is common even to non-philosophical ascetics: “He who exults at the stake, does not triumph over pain, but because of the fact that he does not feel pain where he expected it.” [BGE, 124]

The self-abnegating aspect of asceticism is only superficial in a real philosopher. In reality, asceticism is a means of realizing Will to Power. Schopenhauer was not really a pessimist, though he strove to be. In fact, Nietzsche claims, he needed enemies such as sensuality to stimulate him toward existence. His wrath, like that of the Cynics, was a balm against disgust; it was his happiness. [GM, 3rd, 7]

All philosophers have shown “irritation and rancor” toward sensuality, and a bias toward the ascetic ideal. Both these feelings define a type, so the one who lacks both is considered a pseudo-philosopher. Nietzsche gives a biological interpretation of this type: “Every animal, including la bête philosophe, strives instinctively after an optimum of favorable conditions, under which he can let his whole strength have play…” [Loc. cit.] The philosopher shudders at marriage, since it is a hindrance to the optimum exertion of his philosophical ability. Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Schopenhauer were not married, nor can one imagine them as such. “A married philosopher belongs to comedy, that is my rule; as for that exception of a Socrates—the malicious Socrates married himself, it seems, ironice, just to prove this very rule.” [Loc. cit.] The ascetic ideal is valued by philosophers as a bridge to independence. In this vein, Buddha taught that freedom is found in leaving the house. Accordingly, the philosophers praised the resolute ones who said no to all servitude and went into the desert; “even granting that they were only strong asses, and the absolute opposite of strong minds.” [Loc. cit.]

In short, the philosopher sees in the ascetic ideal the optimum of conditions “of the highest and boldest intellectuality.” He does not thereby deny existence, but affirms “his existence and only his existence.” This is not far off from blasphemous wish: let the world perish; let there be philosophy; let there be the philosopher; let there be me! [Loc. cit.] Asceticism manifests Will to Power in real philosophers; it is not slavery in them.

Since ascetic philosophers are more concerned with their intellectual independence than with any rustic notion of sanctity, they are not unbiased judges of the value of the ascetic ideal. They value it only because it offers freedom from compulsion, disturbance, noise, business, duties, cares; a clear head; clear air, as on the heights; all hounds chained; quiet and submissive internal organs; “to summarise, they mean by the ascetic ideal the joyous asceticism of a deified and newly fledged animal, sweeping over life rather than resting.” [GM, 3rd, 8]

Nietzsche regards this use of asceticism positively, without accepting the ascetic definition of the good. All “great fruitful inventive spirits” exhibit poverty, humility, and chastity to a certain extent. These attributes are not to be considered virtues—“what has this type of man to do with virtues—but as the most essential and natural conditions of their best existence, their finest fruitfulness.” [Loc. cit.] Notably, Nietzsche regards philosophers as fruitful, though they do nothing but think, read, write and speak.

Offering an evolutionary account of the development of this type, Nietzsche conjectures that perhaps at some point their intellectualism had to curb pride or an insolent sensualism, or an inclination to luxury and dilettantism, or extravagant liberality of heart and hand. Their intellect was able to effect this, because it was the dominant instinct. “But there is not one iota of ‘virtue’ in all this.” [Loc. cit.]

The “desert” into which the strong, independent solitary types retreat is different from that of the “cultured classes,” who seek something romantic with camels and sand. The desert today is a deliberate obscurity; fear of noise, admiration, papers, influence, a daily task, associating with harmless beasts, a mountain with lakes for company, a room in a crowded hotel where one won’t be recognized, so one can talk with impunity to anyone. [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche is clearly drawing on his own experience, while contrasting it with monastic eremiticism. Solitude for the real philosopher is not a pretended virtue of self-abnegation, but a practical need for isolation in order to be fruitful.

Philosophers need a rest from things of “today”—democratic babble, politics, news of the empire, market trade, etc. They honor the silent, cold, noble, distant, the past, everything which the soul does not have to brace itself against in self-defense; “something with which one can speak without speaking aloud.” [Loc. cit.] Discussing the “issues of the day” is hostile to the philosophical life, forcing a superficial understanding in the terms and concepts of the common culture. “[H]e who thinks in words, thinks as a speaker and not as a thinker,” i.e., he thinks of himself and his audience and not of the objects.

In a letter to Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche explained that solitude is essential for him to explore the depths: “without this underground work, I think no more of life.” His creativity requires isolation:

I am too mild, too considerate, towards people, so that wherever I have lived people at once make claims upon me and I no longer know how to defend myself against them.… Nothing agitates people so much than to have noticed one is being treated with a severity, which they themselves do not feel is deserved.… I think you would simply consider me mad if I could announce what I think myself to be. It is part of my “humanity” to let the general ambiguity about me remain: I would embitter my most respectable friends against me and so do no one good. [Letter of April 14, 1887. Translated from German text at The Nietzsche Channel]

This need to accommodate others is incompatible with exploring the shocking things to be found in the depths. Accordingly, Nietzsche tells us that a spirit sure of himself speaks softly, seeks secrecy, and lets himself be awaited. A philosopher shuns three brilliant and noisy things: fame, princes, and women. “He who possesses is possessed.” [GM, 3rd, 8] This is not because moderation and simplicity are virtuous, but because the philosopher’s mode of life requires them as a practical necessity.

This rationalization of Nietzsche’s reclusiveness highlights a paradox. For all his emphasis on striving and action, he would have the philosopher shun public affairs and social intercourse. He does not subject his discoveries to debates with others, but works alone. Nietzsche justifies this not because he fears his ideas cannot withstand criticism, but because he considers philosophy to be the prerogative of superior natures. He hints at this in an earlier letter to Overbeck: “Our time is in all else limitlessly superficial, and I am ashamed often enough to have said so much publicly, which at no time, even in much worthier and much deeper ages, belongs in the ‘publicum.’” [Letter of July 2, 1885. Translated from German text at The Nietzsche Channel] It would be far more paradoxical to attempt to bring the philosophy of the Superman to the masses. The entire thrust of this philosophy supposes that the masses, including the vast majority of academics, are far too human in their sensibility to be capable of comprehending it. For Nietzsche, philosophy is not a set of ideas or theses, but a way of living with which modern public life is fundamentally incompatible.

The shunning of women reflects his own disillusionment with Lou Salomé, whom he discovered to be an immoralist not in his own sense of being ultra-moral, i.e., beyond morality, having a moral “stricter than any man,” but as someone “without goals, without duties, without shame,” who frivolously disregarded mores to indulge her whimsical pleasures, while sacrificing nothing of herself. She was beneath morality, not beyond it. He shunned her not out of some ascetic belief that sexual gratification is evil, but because she could not help him in his philosophy, being “a creature who wants to amuse herself and is shameless enough to believe that the highest minds of the earth are just good enough for this.” [Draft of letter to Paul Rée, late Dec. 1882. Translated from German text at The Nietzsche Channel.][1]

The philosopher is not to be disturbed by enmity or friendship. He forgets or despises easily. [GM, 3rd, 8] This is consistent with the attitude expressed in The Gay Science: “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation.” [GS, 276] Nietzsche shuns the ugliness of modern culture because it would make him a nay-sayer. Instead, he turns his attention to what is beautiful. This is not to play the martyr, or “suffer for truth.” Real philosophers have something to do for the truth. They make sparing use of big words; they even shun the word “truth” as too pretentious. [GM, 3rd, 8]

Philosophers are chaste because they have a fruitfulness other than children: “perchance in some other sphere, they have the survival of their name, their little immortality…” As the Indian philosophers say, “Of what use is posterity to him whose soul is the world?” [Loc. cit.] This appeal to one’s reputation as a kind of posterity is in tension with Nietzsche’s claim to be independent of the opinions of others. Miguel de Unamuno, in his Diario íntimo, points out the ridiculousness of preferring immortality of one’s name over one’s own soul, as if we should love our name more than our real selves. This is to become a slave of what others think of us.

Another rationale is that philosophers are chaste for the same reason an athlete abstains from women. It is the will of their dominant instinct. “Every artist knows the harm done by sexual intercourse on occasions of great mental strain and preparation…” The greater power (dominant instinct) absorbs the lesser, much like Freudian sublimation.

In the case of Schopenhauer, the sight of beauty acted as an irritant to his chief power (contemplation and intense penetration), so his strength exploded and mastered his consciousness. This did not exclude the sweetness of the aesthetic state that arises from the ingredient of sensuality, akin to the romantic “idealism” peculiar to girls at puberty. It may be that “sensuality is not removed by the approach of the aesthetic state… but merely becomes transfigured, and ceases to enter the consciousness as sexual excitement.” [Loc. cit.] Again, Nietzsche anticipates the Freudian idea that aesthetic idealism is sublimated eroticism.


20.5 Iconoclastic Origin of Ascetic Philosophy

The ascetic ideal was instrumental in getting philosophers to take their first steps away from popular morality. Though they had not yet the courage to be open self-valuators, they looked for something beyond custom to serve as a standard of value. The philosophic practices of doubting, analyzing, attempting to be objective and neutral were all oriented toward the discovery of some new standard. At the same time, “these tendencies went counter to the first claims of morality and conscience,” [GM, 3rd, 9] which demand obedience and assent to received values. Unbeknownst to themselves, they were actually constructing values using their own rational activity. While they construed this activity as discovery of some objective reality, in fact reason can be used to justify whatever one prefers, as Luther recognized when he referred to Reason as Frau Kluglin (Mistress Sly), the sly whore. [Loc. cit.]

Much of what is considered good to modern men, Nietzsche remarks, would be hubris or godlessness to the ancient Greeks. Hubris is our whole attitude to nature, and we think it a measure of progress the more we violate nature with machinery, scientists and engineers. Hubris is also the modern attitude to God, construed as “some alleged teleological and ethical spider behind the meshes of the great trap of the causal web.” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche astutely realizes that God may be inferred from the principle of causality, so he rejects the latter. Here he focuses not on efficient causality, but final causality. As teleology and purposive ethics are banished from the modern study of nature, scientific philosophy becomes an exercise in hubris, an extension of the anti-moral activity of early philosophy.

Hubris is also our attitude to ourselves, for we experiment with ourselves, and “with pleasure and curiosity open our soul in our living body.” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche has carried this demystifying self-analysis to new extremes. He finds that being ill is instructive, more so than being well: “we do violence to ourselves nowadays, we crackers of the soul’s kernel…” [Loc. cit.] Freud would later develop this belief that the sick can give insights into the workings of the psyche.

In sum, “All good things were once bad things; from every original sin has grown an original virtue.” [Loc. cit.] Marriage was at first a sin against the rights of community, so a man formerly paid a fine for claiming one woman to himself. The jus primae noctis, Nietzsche conjectures, comes from this phase, while today in Cambodia priests have that privilege. This example is problematic, since the jus primae noctis, as commonly conceived, is a nineteenth-century myth about the Middle Ages, popularized by The Marriage of Figaro. The custom does exist in some Asian cultures, but only at an advanced stage, and is not found among any primitive peoples. There is no evidence that wives were originally held in common. The ancient Greeks allowed dispensation from monogamy only in dire circumstances.

Still, it is hardly doubtable that many of today’s virtues were formerly vices. Our “soft, benevolent, yielding, sympathetic feelings” were formerly despised. Gentleness or softness was an object of shame to the ancients just as hardness is now to modern liberals. Another supposed virtue, “submission to law,” was once considered dishonorable and servile. The noble races long resisted giving up their right of vendetta. The law was a blasphemy, an innovation, to which men submitted only with shame. [Loc. cit.]

All of our progress was made by forcing people to renounce former virtues and adopt what they considered shameful and servile. “Every tiny step forward in the world was formerly made at the cost of mental and physical torture.” [Loc. cit.] Our latest gain, that of rationalistic freedom, makes us incapable of appreciating all the customary moralities that preceded.

Nothing is purchased more dearly than the modicum of human reason and freedom which is now our pride. But this makes it impossible for us to sympathize with periods of ‘morality of custom,’ though those periods have fixed the character of humanity, when suffering passed for virtue, cruelty for virtue, deceit for virtue, revenge for virtue, repudiation of the reason for virtue; and when conversely, well-being passed current for danger, the desire for knowledge for danger, pity for danger, peace for danger, being pitied for shame, work for shame, madness for divinity, and change for immorality and incarnate corruption! [Dawn of Day, Aph. 18]

We may think we have transcended the supposed cruelties of the past, but those earlier stages have fixed our character even now. Ancient characteristics are manifested through ascetic ideals, by which we impose violence and deceit against ourselves.

Nietzsche holds that this self-cruelty was at first a necessary means for contemplative men to hold an exalted status in society. Since ancient people valued the active, warlike man, the contemplatives, lacking such prowess, had to make themselves feared by other means. They did this by self-mortification, inspiring awe at their capacity to endure tortures and deprivations. As they became admired, they started to believe in their own revolution, and that they could create a “new heaven” by first entering this new hell. [GM, 3rd, 10]

The ascetic ideal served as a superficial form, so the philosopher could exist under the guise of priest, wizard, soothsayer, or monk. “To be able to be a philosopher he had to exemplify the ideal; to exemplify it, he was bound to believe in it.” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche is not saying that the philosophers were ascetics out of cynical pragmatism. They were sincere in their asceticism. He is giving a Darwinian natural selection argument, without recourse to conscious intentionality. Only those philosophers who were feared could survive. Only those who practiced asceticism aroused fear and reverence. Only those who truly believed in asceticism could exemplify it. Thus only those philosophers who truly believed in asceticism could survive as philosophers.

The widely accepted ideal philosophic attitude, with its negation of the world, enmity to life, and disbelief in the senses, is an artifact of those enforced conditions under which philosophy came into existence. [Loc. cit.] Recall that a type becomes fixed only because of some danger or threat. The implication is that we no longer have need of this attitude, as we now have freedom to be real philosophers without being threatened with extinction—or do we? “Can we today point to enough courage… enough self-confidence… enough freedom of the will, to enable the philosopher to be now in the world really—possible?” [Loc. cit.]


20.6 The Function of Asceticism as Will to Power

This evolutionary account of the ascetic ideal shows it to be an expression of Will to Power. By means of this ideal, the ascetic priest or monk fights for his right to exist against those who oppose it. Since he believes in his heaven-building myth, he is incapable of giving the strongest arguments for his ideal. Once people no longer believe in the other world, his arguments fail. Nietzsche offers the priest better arguments than he could supply in defense of the ascetic ideal, by explicitly appealing to its function as Will to Power sustaining us.

Nietzsche recognizes that there must be something life-affirming in the ascetic ideal if it keeps appearing throughout human history, even though its chaste priests rarely propagate. On its face, the ideal appears to be hostile to life and physical existence. The natural world, which consists of becoming and passing away, is placed in opposition to another kind of existence, without change. So many humans have been discontented with the transience and corruptibility of life, that their only pleasure has been to hurt themselves, in order to deny the physical world. “Life itself must certainly have an interest in the continuance of such a type of self-contradiction.” [GM, 3rd, 11]

The ascetic ideal is a will to power directed against life itself and its deepest, innermost conditions; it is “an attempt to utilize power to dam the sources of power.” Paradoxically, it is more triumphant as physiological vitality, its presupposition, decreases. [Loc. cit.]

If such a will for contradiction and unnaturalness is induced to philosophize, it will vent its caprice on that which is most certainly true, or real: “it will look for error in those very places where the life instinct fixes truth with the greatest positiveness.” [GM, 3rd, 12] For Nietzsche, truth is simply physical reality, whence comes his amor fati, embracing whatever really is, instead of longing for what “ought to be.” He finds that Vedic philosophy reduces matter to an illusion; similarly, pain, multiplicity, and the contrast of subject and object are all errors. The ascetics renounce belief in an ego as a distinct reality. Although Nietzsche here claims that the ascetics are denying realities as illusions, we have found elsewhere that he too doubts the distinctions between subject and object, cause and effect, in his account of force.

Kant is another example of the ascetic propensity for turning force against itself. Kant famously turned reason against reason. While speaking of things having an “intelligible character,” he found that in this character the intellect comprehends just enough to know that things are unintelligible. [Loc. cit.] Kant’s pure reason is unknowing, for it disavows any knowledge of the only reality that is. Nietzsche urges us to guard ourselves from contradictory ideas of “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” or “knowledge-in-itself,” which profess knowledge of non-things and deny knowledge of real physical things. How, he asks, can an eye which has no direction see? [Loc. cit.] In other words, how can there be thought without a thought-object? Rather, how can there be intellect without will to direct it to an object?

“There is only seeing from a perspective, only a ‘knowing’ from a perspective… the more emotions we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of a thing, our ‘objectivity.’” Switching off the will, emotions, and senses, would be intellectual castration. [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche embraces the limitations of our perspective that the idealist would condemn as incompatible with knowledge. On the contrary, it is only through our definite perspective that we can know anything, and there does not exist any ideal or thing-in-itself, save the object that we construct from a variety of perspective experiences. Our affects and senses are the means by which the intellect engages reality. Disparagement of them dooms the intellect to total ignorance.

The ascetic ideal does serve a function, namely the self-preservation of a decadent life. [GM, 3rd, 13] The man who is disgusted or exhausted with life still has some life-preserving instincts, which express themselves in the ascetic ideal. This ideal is a man’s wish for another life, “but it is the very power of this wish which is the fetter that binds him here,” i.e., it impels him to create more favorable conditions for earthly existence. With this power he keeps the whole herd of failures and sufferers from themselves held fast to existence. [Loc. cit.] Love of the ideal is what makes them able to endure life on earth, so the priest, “this apparent enemy of life, this denier—he actually belongs to the really great conservative and affirmative forces of life…” [Loc. cit.]

Despair and exhaustion with life is practically a characteristic of man, who may be defined as “the diseased animal,” the one who is dissatisfied being what he is. Yet by virtue of this same dissatisfaction, “he has also dared, innovated, braved more, challenged fate more than all other animals put together.” He is the bravest precisely because he is the most sick; his sickness goads him: “this very nausea, this tiredness, this disgust with himself, all this is discharged from him with such force that it is immediately made into a new fetter.” His nay brings forth many yeas “even when he wounds himself… it is subsequently the wound itself that forces him to live.” [Loc. cit.]

This remark contextualizes Nietzsche’s apparent criticisms or condemnations of religion, democracy, etc. Even the sickness of asceticism, for Nietzsche, has a positive life-giving contribution. He is not like other atheists, who try to dismiss religion as a stupid delusion with no positive aspect. Nietzsche is astute enough to recognize that, if religious asceticism keeps arising, it must serve a serious life-giving purpose. He does not resort to ordinary hereditary selection, since most ascetics do not have children. Still, the constant reappearance of the ascetic ideal proves it must have life-affirming value. The solution: the very power of the ascetic ideal impels the ascetic to act energetically in this life. The sickness or wound forces him to live more vigorously. That which does not kill makes stronger; this applies even to the “sicknesses” of Christianity and liberalism. Nietzsche is much more broadminded than most atheists, who tend to have an almost sectarian narrowness, failing to see positive value in ideas that are ostensibly false. Recall that Nietzsche repeatedly challenges the idea that truth is always desirable. Although he is often a truth-seeker himself, he recognizes that even falsehoods may serve the purposes of affirming life, enhancing its power, and elevating it to a higher form.

Another benefit of this sickliness is that it yields exceptionally powerful individuals capable of transcending it. “The more normal is this sickliness in man… the higher honor should be paid to rare cases of psychical and physical powerfulness, the windfalls of humanity…” [GM, 3rd, 14] These individuals should be guarded from the air of the sick-room. “The sick are the greatest danger for the healthy…” The fear of men is not dangerous, for that forces one to be strong, preserving the healthy type of man. What is dangerous is the “great nausea with man” and the “great pity for man.” These two combined would be “the ‘last will’ of man, his will for nothingness, Nihilism.”

The “sick” include those “cultured areas of mankind,” every kind of “Europe” in the world, which instill “venom and skepticism into our trust in life, in man, in ourselves.” This anti-egoism conceals a desire to escape oneself, a sickness of oneself. In this soil of self-contempt breeds revenge and vindictiveness, yielding a “conspiracy of sufferers against the sound and the victorious.” [Loc. cit.] They hate the victors, but lie to hide this hate, with pretense of virtue. They want to “represent righteousness, love, wisdom, superiority,” these supposed lowly ones. “We alone are the good, the righteous,” they say, and act as if health, strength, pride and sensation of power were vicious things in themselves. “Oh, how they themselves are ready in their hearts to exact penance, how they thirst after being hangmen!” [Loc. cit.]

We see this vindictiveness in the denunciations of autocrats, aristocrats, and the wealthy, indeed, of anyone who delights in his own power and makes his own rules. When journalists and academics make such denunciations, they can scarcely disguise their hatred, though they will find some contradictory justification, claiming they only hate those who are hateful. By their negative evaluation, which they expect to be adopted by all, they express their desire to take revenge against the strong, all while disguising themselves as dispassionate judges.

By this means, the sick man takes a crooked path to assert some form of superiority. He will not nakedly attack someone with force, but instead constructs an ideal with which to fetter the strong. Whether acting as a mob or through an organized state, the sick intend to impose through their ideals a tyranny over the healthy; they express a will to power of the weakest. [Loc. cit.]

It would be contradictory for Nietzsche to give a moral condemnation of this activity by sick men. Instead, he points out their hypocrisy in order to show that they too are ultimately motivated by the Will to Power that they denounce in the strong. By no means does he begrudge them this Will to Power. Yet the strong, recognizing this, must not be seduced to pity.

Women are especially good at tyrannizing through pity, dredging up old grievances in order to use guilt to get what they want. Intellectuals are motivated by a similar ressentiment. They will triumph when they push their own misery into the consciousness of the happy, so the latter are ashamed of their happiness. “It is a shame to be happy; there is too much misery!” [Loc. cit.]

The fit, strong in body and soul, have no reason to doubt their right to happiness.

Away with this ‘perverse world’! Away with this shameful soddenness of sentiment! Preventing the sick making the healthy sick… this ought to be our supreme object in the world—but for this it is above all essential that the healthy should remain separated from the sick… [Loc. cit.]

Again, Nietzsche is not saying the sick ought not to exist or exert their will. Rather, he is making recommendations for the strong. They should not allow themselves to be made sick by the sick. On the contrary, the sick can be occasions for the strong to be strong, if separation is maintained.

It is not the mission of the strong to be nurses or doctors for the sick. If they spent their time ministering to the sick, they would not be doing the things that they alone can do. [Loc. cit.] People of great talent will far better help humanity by exercising their special talents than by trying to attend to the sick directly. A great scientist would be wasted as a schoolteacher. He should interact only with other great minds, instead of trying to lift up the lowly.

If the strong are not to be nurses or doctors, then these must come from among the sick. The ascetic priest understands his flock because he shares their sickness, i.e., exhaustion with this life. Still, he must have the strength of self-mastery, to inspire awe and trust. He must protect the herd not only against the healthy, but also against “envy towards the healthy.” This is accomplished by scorning violent predatory health and power. “The priest is the first form of the more delicate animal that scorns more easily than it hates.” [Loc. cit.] As the herd learns to scorn health, they no longer envy the healthy.

The art of the ascetic priest, according to Nietzsche, removes the volatile explosive of ressentiment without blowing up the herd and herdsman. He wages a war of guile (“spirit”) against the beasts of prey, though he himself is a new kind of predator, resembling the fox and the crouching panther. He inflicts a wound (i.e., guilt) and then soothes it. He thereby protects the herd against wickedness, knavery and anarchy amongst themselves. [GM, 3rd, 15]

The priest is a “diverter of the course of ressentiment.” [Loc. cit.] This is a type of sublimation, where resentment toward the strong is redirected toward one’s own ego. In Nietzsche’s account, the notion of a sentient, responsible doer serves as a scapegoat for suffering, upon which one may vent his emotions, as a narcotic against pain. [Loc. cit.] This is akin to Aristotelian catharsis. Again, we see an apparent tension between the Nietzsche’s exaltation of the will and his denial of free will as a myth. We must recall that Nietzsche sees Will to Power as something physical, so that all our bodily urges manifest it, while denying that there is some disembodied free will that acts upon the body.

Consistent with this bodily account of Will to Power, Nietzsche identifies a physical cause of ressentiment and vengefulness: “a demand for the deadening of pain through emotion.” This is not a mere defensive reflex against hurt or danger. The object is not to prevent further hurt, but to deaden a racking pain by a more violent emotion of any kind. [Loc. cit.] In other words, it distracts attention from the original pain.

Sufferers enjoy brooding over injuries, looking for someone to blame, especially if they are ignorant of the physiological cause. The ascetic says: You are right, someone is to blame for your suffering, and it is yourself. Although this a bold falsehood, the course of ressentiment is successfully diverted. [Loc. cit.]

In summary, the weak are exhausted with life and resentful of the strong. Their resentment is a physical impulse designed to distract attention from their despair over life, yet they think someone must be to blame for this suffering. The ascetic priest redirects this blame from the strong to themselves, identifying a free-willed ego that is guilty of some corruption that causes suffering. Although Nietzsche purports to give an account of asceticism in general, the notions of guilt and corruption to which he refers are really applicable primarily in Christianity, particularly the Protestant traditions that emphasize the depravity of man due to original sin.

In Europe, at any rate, the ideas of guilt, sin, corruption and damnation have made the sick relatively harmless. Those with incurable ressentiment self-destruct, accepting that they deserve punishment, while milder cases direct their resentment upon themselves instead of the strong. Bad instincts are directed toward self-discipline or self-mastery, yet there is no healing of the real physiological condition, which is depression. [GM, 3rd, 16] Recall that Nietzsche considers all sickness of the soul to be physiological. Christian asceticism does not even attempt to heal. Instead, it organizes the sick into a “Church,” and safeguards the comparatively healthy (i.e., clergy and religious), keeping them apart from the sick. This dual accomplishment, though seemingly small, “was much! it was very much!” [Loc. cit.] Again, asceticism, being itself a manifestation of Will to Power, serves a constructive role in enabling people to overcome ressentiment, and creating conditions in which the strong may be protected from the bad influence of the weak.

Nietzsche thinks it obvious that the “sinfulness” of man is not a fact, but an interpretation of physiological discomfort. Just because someone feels guilty or sinful does not prove he really is so, just like feeling healthy is no proof of health. [Loc. cit.] This claim is at odds with Nietzsche’s description of a master who feels his own happiness as proof of his goodness. Only some men have reliable instincts; those of the sick cannot be trusted. “Pain in soul” is really caused by the stomach or some other bodily organ. It occurs when we cannot “digest” our experiences, so to speak. Nietzsche nonetheless insists that this theory is consistent with being “the strongest opponent of all materialism.” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche is anti-materialist in that he does not have an ontology based on corporeal substance or extension. Instead, force or will is the primary reality, not a mere accident of substance. When he gives physiological explanations of the soul, it is always by invoking desires, not substances. The body is never disinterested, but is constituted of a turbulence of interests pulling in different directions.

Asceticism only combats suffering, not its cause. The priest is a consoler, relieving depression, fatigue and melancholy. The real cause is “physiological depression.” Misguided attempts to identify the cause as something spiritual and “cure” it through moral psychology is the general formula of a “religion.” [GM, 3rd, 17] This psychotherapeutic aspect (in the literal sense of “cure of souls”) is found in other religions besides Christianity, especially Buddhism, and even the idealist philosophies of antiquity and modernity. Nietzsche’s “religion” so described need not have any deity; it needs only the invocation of a non-physiological psyche that is to be healed by some moral discipline.

If the ascetics are wrong to think that man’s sickness is of the spirit, Nietzsche must offer some physiological explanation of why depression and melancholy keep arising among the masses. He suggests as possible causes the intermingling of races, attributing nineteenth-century pessimism to class mixture, or migrating to a climate for which a race is ill-suited, as India is to the Aryans, or old age and fatigue, which would explain Parisian pessimism from 1850 onwards. Other possible causes include a wrong diet, such as medieval alcoholism and “the nonsense of vegetarianism,” or blood-deterioration, malaria, syphilis, etc., which would explain German depression after the Thirty Years War, as diseases paved way for “German servility… pusillanimity.” [Loc. cit.] These explanations are all conjectural, not probative, but they follow the style of argument used by Epicurus, who wanted only to show that physical explanations were possible, without committing to any particular explanation, so that we need not appeal to any mystical cause.


20.7 The Ascetic Solution: Nihilism

The ascetics offer a solution to physiological depression that is far more effective than that of the philosophers. The latter suppose that by proving pain to be a cognitive mistake, it should vanish when the error is recognized, “but behold! it does anything but vanish.” [GM, 3rd, 17] The Stoics and Epicureans both made this kind of argument, following Socrates. This is to mistake a physiological problem for a conceptual one.

Although the ascetics likewise mistakenly believe that the problem is spiritual, they have enough good sense to promote physiologically effective solutions. Their primary method is to reduce consciousness of life to the lowest degree, so there are no more wishes, no more wants. They shun anything that produces emotion or blood, hence the abstinences from meat or salt. They allow themselves neither love nor hate, and avoid the stimulations of avarice, industry, and women. Ethically or psychologically, this is called self-annihilation, but in physiological language, it is hypnotism, the human equivalent of hibernation, going to a minimum metabolism to sustain life without consciousness. [Loc. cit.]

The saints have really succeeded through hypnotism at escaping physiological depression. “[T]heir method is consequently counted among the most universal ethnological facts.” [Loc. cit.] Similar ascetic practices are found not only among Buddhists, Hindus, and Greek Orthodox, but throughout the world. This is not by imitation, but by parallel discovery of similar solutions to a universal problem.

It is a mistake to consider this plan to starve physical desires as a symptom of insanity, as some beefeating “freethinkers” seem to do. [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche distinguishes himself from other anti-religious thinkers, recognizing the real accomplishments of asceticism, instead of thoughtlessly dismissing it. He would build on these accomplishments rather than ignore them.

The ascetic solution brings its own perils, however, creating new mental disturbances, such as the “inner lights” of the Hesychasts, auditory and visual hallucinations, ecstasies and effervescences of sensualism. Nietzsche rejects the explanation given by those who have these experiences (i.e., that they are from God or Heaven), yet such an explanation itself shows that the experience is one for which the ascetic is grateful. [Loc. cit.]

“The supreme state, salvation itself, that final goal of universal hypnosis and peace, is always regarded by them as the mystery of mysteries, which even the most supreme symbols are inadequate to express…” [Loc. cit.] We see this not only in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but also in the apophatic theology of Eastern Christianity.

The supreme state of perfect knowledge or being involves an escape from every desire, which is to say from all purposiveness, “something even beyond Good and Evil.” In support of this he quotes the Buddhists: “Good and Evil both are fetters. The perfect man is master of them both.” Also the Vedanta: “The done and undone, do him no hurt; the good and the evil he shakes off from him, sage that he is; his kingdom suffers no more from any act; good and evil, he goes beyond them both.” [Loc. cit.]

Neither in Indian (Brahmanist or Buddhist) nor Christian conceptions is redemption attainable by virtue and moral improvement, though virtue has a hypnotic efficiency. [Loc. cit.] Christianity’s blessed state is “beyond good and evil” in that salvation has nothing to do with whether we are virtuous or vicious, since our sins are forgiven and our virtues belong to God. Practicing virtue is only a means for achieving the contemplative state.

“The fact that they remained true on this point is perhaps to be regarded as the best specimen of realism in the three great religions, absolutely soaked as they are with morality, with this one exception.” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche admires Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity for their insistence on a goal beyond good and evil, notwithstanding their otherwise shameful wallowing in morality. There is scant evidence that he has greater admiration for Buddhism than for Christianity. He charges both religions with nihilism and moralist fiction, and credits both for transcending good and evil on this one point. Modern atheists are generally less cognizant of this, being too blinded by their ressentiment toward Christians to make such a dispassionate assessment.

Quoting his friend the orientalist Paul Deussen, redemption in Brahmanism consists not in acquiring virtues or giving up faults, but becoming one with Brahma. Nietzsche honors the idea of “redemption” in the three great religions, but this is offset by the “deep sleep” espoused by “these exhausted pessimists who are too tired even to dream,” and instead posit a fusing into Brahma or a unio mystica with God. [Loc. cit.] He rejects the “empty your mind” type of mysticism where one is absorbed into some unspeakable, inconceivable entity, effectively a Nothing. This is why he finds it to be nihilism, a sleep without so much as a dream or imagining. This is more obvious in the case of Indian religion, but for Nietzsche even the apophatic God of Christianity is likewise a nothing, known only as a series of negations.

Brahmanism is “the deepest of the three great religions,” in Nietzsche’s view, for it most clearly expresses the insight of asceticism in its scripture:

In deep sleep… the soul rises out of the body, enters into the supreme light, and thus steps forth into its real form: there it is the supreme spirit itself that walks about, joking and playing and amusing itself, whether with women or with carriages or with friends; there it thinks no more of this appendage of body to which the prana (breath of life) is harnessed like a beast to the cart. [GM, 3rd, 17, trans. Kaufmann]

Ignorant of what is within and what is without, the somnolent mind seeks a complete nihilistic freedom. The Hindus see more clearly than the Christians that asceticism points beyond morality. This is a more extravagant expression, Nietzsche says, of the same criticism of life made by the cold yet suffering Epicurus.

The hypnotic sensation of nothingness, the peace of deepest sleep, anaesthesia in short—this is what passes with the sufferers and the absolutely depressed for, forsooth, their supreme good, their value of values; that is what must be treasured by them as something positive, be felt by them as the essence of the Positive (according to the same logic of the feelings, nothingness is in all pessimistic religions called God). [GM, 3rd, 17]

Nietzsche’s fundamental criticism is not of theism, but of the pessimism that rejects life and desires nothingness. He disdains religion because he sees it as a form of nihilism. Its falsity is less objectionable, since Nietzsche allows that falsehood is sometimes desirable. A pessimist will be so perverse as to make nothingness, or rather a being that lacks the attributes of every existent of which we are aware, into something supremely positive.

Only a few are capable of this “hypnotic deadening of sensibility and susceptibility to pain,” which “presupposes rare powers, especially courage, contempt of opinion, intellectual stoicism.” [GM, 3rd, 18] Ironically, they devote what strength and courage they have to avoiding pain, much like Epicurus.

For the weaker masses, another type of training is available against depression: mechanical activity. The so-called “blessing of work” diverts the attention of the sufferer from suffering. “Mechanical activity and its corollaries, such as absolute regularity, punctilious unreasoning obedience, the chronic routine of life, the complete occupation of time, a certain liberty to be impersonal… self-forgetfulness…” [Loc. cit.] Though many moderns still enamor themselves of industry as a surrogate for religion, Nietzsche finds that this too can be a repudiation of self.

The priest, dealing with the lower classes, i.e., slaves or prisoners (or women, who have been both), tries to make them see a benefit or comparative happiness in their work. He may ordain a “little joy, which is easily accessible and can be made into a rule.” The most frequent form prescribed is “the joy in producing joy” (i.e., the joy of doing good to others), together with “loving your neighbor.” He is stimulating the Will to Power in cautious doses, that “smallest superiority” that one feels when being a benefactor to others (“benefiting, helping, extolling”). [Loc. cit.]

Nietzsche contends that early Roman Christianity, with its cooperative unions for poverty, sickness and burial, sought to create such little joys in mutual benefits. [Loc. cit.] Apparently, he thinks that Christian communalism was created for the express purpose of alleviating one’s own suffering, distracting man by giving him a sense of superiority for being helpful or useful. Yet there is no reason why it could not be that their prime motive was love of neighbor, and this “little joy” is but a pleasant little side effect. There are far easier ways to obtain minor pleasures if that is your chief concern.

Conjuring up will for family organization and communal life brought Will for Power to a new and much fuller manifestation. Strangely, Nietzsche follows this by saying, “The herd organization is a genuine advance and triumph in the fight with depression.” [Loc. cit.] Why is this an advance? Is not the herd the most primitive form of society?

With the growth of community, he says, individuals develop new interests, taking them away from self-hatred. [Loc. cit.] Now the claim is that focus on community distracts from the self-hating aspects of slave morality. We seem to be all over the place.

Lastly, Nietzsche claims that all sick people seek a herd organization, to shake off a sense of discomfort and weakness. [Loc. cit.] This “safety in numbers” rationale gets back to the primitive biological notion of herd. The communal organizations described above are much more advanced states of civilization, though they are herd-like insofar as they have a similar reason for being and comparably egalitarian structure. While slave or herd morality is driven by ressentiment, depression may be banished as society is organized for works of mutual benefit. Still, it would seem that self-hatred must persist as long as the instruments of guilt and sin are employed.

The strong strive for isolation rather than union. When they do form unions, it is only against their consciences, for the practical necessity of aggressive joint action and satisfaction of Will to Power. The weak, on the other hand, delight in forming unions. [Loc. cit.]

The aforementioned methods of fighting depression (herd organization, neighbor-love, communal consciousness of power, stifling vitality, mechanical tasks, little joy) are all relatively “innocent.” By contrast, there are more “guilty” methods, which “produce emotional excess” as an anaesthetic, by what is politely called “enthusiasm.” [GM, 3rd, 19] Of course, Nietzsche does not really impute moral guilt to anything, but uses the term to signify a lack of naivety, or a cynicism. The ascetics who use these methods on the masses know quite well what dangerous forces they may unleash.

The method of the ascetic priest, in reality, “unswitches” the soul, plunging it into terror or rapture, to free it as from a lightning shock, from all petty miseries. All great emotions have this power, if given a sudden outlet: “rage, fear, lust, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty.” The priest has no scruples in making use of these raging hounds to chase away melancholy or misery, under a religious interpretation. “This emotional excess has subsequently to be paid for, this is self-evident—it makes the ill more ill—and therefore this kind of remedy for pain is according to modern standards a ‘guilty’ kind.” [GM, 3rd, 17] Secular liberals already were averse to this kind of asceticism. Nietzsche does not agree with their moralistic imputation of guilt onto such priestcraft. On the contrary, he finds the priestly remedy is applied with good conscience, the priest sincerely believing that it will help, and taking no delight in the pain he creates. [Loc. cit.]

…the violent physiological revenges of such excesses, even perhaps the mental disturbances, are not absolutely inconsistent with the general tenor of this kind of remedy; this remedy, which, as we have shown previously, is not for the purpose of healing diseases, but of fighting the unhappiness of that depression… [Loc. cit.]

The remedy succeeds in its object of deadening depression, even though one must pay the penalty of “physiological revenges” for such emotions. One cannot help but wonder if Nietzsche is alluding to his own physiological sensitivity to mental states. He may have paid a steep price himself for past guilt or asceticism, which now seems to him to be a cruel remedy.


20.8 Guilt as Instrument of Ascetic Medicine

The keynote by which the priest is able to play “every kind of agonising and ecstatic music” is exploiting the feeling of “guilt” (schuld). [GM, 3rd, 20] It is only by guilt that we can be impelled to feel sorrow for our sins, rage at evil, ecstasy at redemption, etc.

The feeling called “guilt,” as previously discussed, originated as a crude piece of animal psychology. Now the priest works it into a new shape. “Sin” is the new priestly version of animal “bad conscience” (inverted cruelty): “the most perilous and fatal masterpiece of religious interpretation.” [Loc. cit.]

We start with man suffering from himself physiologically (animal bad conscience), yet not knowing the why of his suffering. His wizard, the ascetic priest, hints at the cause of his trouble: to be sought “in himself, in his guiltiness, in a piece of the past, he must understand his very suffering as a state of punishment.” [Loc. cit.] We may wonder, once again, if this is really applicable to asceticism in general, or only to Christianity. When Nietzsche says the sick man is turned into a sinner, gazing “in the direction of guilt, the only cause of suffering,” he seems to draw upon Christian, especially Protestant, theology.

Among a people where ascetic medicine prevails, there is constant rumination and regret over past actions: “everywhere the will to misunderstand suffering made the content of life, the reinterpretation of suffering as feelings of guilt, fear and punishment… the sinner breaking himself on the cruel wheel of a restless, morbidly lascivious conscience… the cry for ‘redemption.’” [GM, 3rd, 20, Kaufmann trans.] The real cause of suffering misunderstood as guilt and punishment is physiological: inward directed cruelty in order to vent a frustrated Will to Power. It would seem to go too far, however, to claim that all feelings of guilt are the result of this physiological mechanism. After all, we may feel guilty for harming someone because we consider it to have been a rash error, or because of our pity over the suffering inflicted, without necessarily being self-cruel over our frustrated Will to Power. Still, the constant self-accusing guilt of asceticism does indeed bear the mark of self-cruelty.

This medicine, though misunderstanding the cause of the disease, does in fact treat depression, since it makes life interesting again, sharpening consciousness. It was so successful in this world that men no longer grumbled at pain, but panted for more: “the mystery of torture-chambers, the ingenuity of hell itself—all this was now discovered, divined, exploited…” [GM, 3rd, 20]

Once one has learned to use guilt to excite emotions of self-torment, to the point that the penitent even desires such torment, the tortures of hell no longer seem excessive. Rather, they are necessary. Medieval people did not think the Church monstrous for teaching about hell, for as penitent Christians they desired to think of themselves as deserving suffering. The greater the suffering they deserved, the greater ecstasy they felt from redemption. Modern man does not appreciate the doctrine of ell because he is averse to the “guilty” remedies of religion. He does not want to subject himself to the psychological torment of feeling guilt for his sins.

Although it relieves depression, the “guilty” remedy of exciting self-torment is of no use to the sick man on the deeper level of having a frustrated Will to Power. It treats the symptom but not the physical illness. It does not make him well, but only more sick. It has “reformed” man, in the senses of “tamed,” “weakened,” “discouraged,” “refined,” “daintified,” “emasculated.” Nietzsche does not see this remedy as improving, but rather injuring man physiologically, as can be seen with the penitence torture and ecstasies of madmen. [Loc. cit.]

This ascetic medicine sickens the nervous system not only of individuals, but also of the body politic. Examples include: epileptic epidemics such as the St. Vitus and St. John dances in Middle Ages; later frightful mutilations and depressions (in Calvinist Geneva); and the witch hysteria (1564-1605). [GM, 3rd, 21] We may see this sickness also in guilt-ridden liberal societies, who fear to assert their national superiority.

Evidence of these neurological effects can be seen in swift variations in emotion, sudden rage. “[R]eligious neurosis appears as a manifestation of the devil, there is no doubt of it.” [Loc. cit.] Demoniac behavior is actually caused by the ascetic ideal, which facilitates dramatic mood swings and violent outbursts. This may account for why it is common in especially religious households.

Nietzsche considers the ascetic malady to be the most destructive to the health and “race efficiency” of Europeans. Second worst is the alcohol poisoning of Europe by the Germans and third is syphilis. These all induce neurological disease, impairing the will to power of individuals and races.


20.9 Asceticism as Giver of Meaning

The supremacy of asceticism and its remedies has been sustained by its imposition of its values on society, so “that all the other interests of human life, should, measured by its standard, appear petty and narrow;” all epochs, nations, men are explained in terms of this one end. Any other interpretation or end is forbidden. [GM, 3rd, 23] Once it is established that a thing has value only to the extent that it conforms to the ascetic ideal, it is extremely difficult to extricate oneself from this system of interpretation.

Thus we find that even after the revolutions, when men do not fear to blaspheme against God and king, they still unconsciously define good according to the ascetic ideal. Socialists esteem altruism, i.e., sacrifice of the individual for the good of the herd. Liberals delight in philanthropy, feeling empowered by the little pleasures it gives, the sensation of their own righteousness. All feel guilty for being too rich, too privileged, too strong, and are steeped in pity for the weak. If they could, they would level all the inequalities of nature and create an egalitarian herd with no distinctions in status. What was once called the kingdom of God remains their ideal. They have nothing but hatred for the Napoleons, the Caesars, indeed anyone who would unashamedly raise himself above others. They even feel pangs of remorse for the past conquests by their own nations, though this made possible the modern comforts that help distract them from depression. All the new philosophies, no matter how atheistic, have done little but put forward new rationalizations of the ascetic ideal.

Up until now, Nietzsche says, man has not found any meaning outside the ascetic ideal. This means no meaning has been found for man the animal or purpose for existence on earth. [GM, 3rd, 28] Even the atheists who reject all traditional moralities and pretend to follow only science do not really draw meaning out of the scientific account of man. On the contrary, they proclaim that there is no meaning to man as animal or to life on earth. All is happenstance and dissolution. Thus they, no less than the idealists, have failed to find a real alternative to the ascetic ideal as giver of meaning. There is only heaven or the hedonistic acceptance of meaninglessness. Nietzsche is looking for something different from the dissolute atheism so common today. He wants something ultra-moral, beyond morality, an extremely harsh discipline directed not toward an ideal, but to the body and the earth.

The ascetic ideal basically means there is always something missing. Behind every human destiny is an even greater “in vain!” [Loc. cit.] If we make our ideal, for example, the perpetuation of the human race, physics will teach us that this is in vain. There are always earthly limits that prevent us from reaching any ideal, be it eternity, equality, or the Good, so all idealism ultimately causes us to see earthly life as in vain. We blame the failures of these projects on our corrupt nature. This is no idiosyncrasy of the Christians. After all, think how often leftists have complained that socialism failed in this or that historical circumstance only because the government was mismanaged or corrupt, or people were too selfish. The fault is never with the ideal, but always with the world that is, and man as he is.

As Nietzsche puts it, a huge hole surrounded man, who suffered the problem of his meaning as he did not know how to justify himself to himself. This suffering itself was not a problem, but his lack of knowing “Why this suffering?” In fact, he is brave enough to desire suffering, provided someone shows him a meaning or purpose in it. The ascetic ideal offered him a meaning, the only meaning offered up to now. For men, any meaning is considered better than no meaning at all. Asceticism shut the door “against all suicidal nihilism,” though it brought new suffering, life-gnawing guilt. [Loc. cit.]

But nevertheless—with it man was saved. He had a meaning; from that point on he was no longer like a leaf in the wind, a toy ball of nonsense, of “without sense”; he could now will something—at first it didn’t matter where, why, or how he willed: the will itself was saved. [GM, 3rd, 29]

Nietzsche acknowledges that the ascetic ideal really did “save” man, not in the sense of making him well, but in preserving his will from “suicidal nihilism.” This was only achieved, however, by embracing the pursuit of the ‘nothing’—the transcendental—but at least the will is doing something, wanting to survive. This is different from those nihilists who strive for nothing but collapse in inert complacency or despair. The ascetic, though striving for an ethereal world, is stimulated to strenuous action in this life, even willing to kill and die for his ideal. The modern nihilist, by contrast, finds it repulsive that anyone should kill for any reason, or that anyone should try to lord over others, or impose his values above other values.

Asceticism subordinates Will to Power to an ideal that is alien to the observable world and natural desires of man:

…this hate against what is human, even more against animality, even more against material things—this abhorrence of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing for the beyond away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, desire, even longing itself—all this means, let’s have the courage to understand this, a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a revolt against the most fundamental preconditions of life—but it is and remains a will! … And to finish up by repeating what I said at the beginning: man will sooner will nothingness than not will… [Loc. cit.]

Even the dark, nihilistic side of the ascetic ideal, the will to nothingness, is still a will. It sustains man in the habit of willing, so that some day he might use it to will something other than nothingness. The fact that man sustains a will even in the midst of nihilism, where it might seem not to belong, supports Nietzsche’s thesis that willing is the most fundamental impetus in man. He would rather will nothingness than not will at all.


Continue to Part IX


[1] Arguably Nietzsche himself still retained something of ascetic sensibility against lasciviousness, as in the same draft he says that his soul was “martyred by an abundance of disgusting memories” of his experiences with her, that lowered his esteem of her, and that “my name, my reputation is stained.”

In Part VIII, some excerpts from the Third Essay of the Genealogy of Morals are taken, when indicated, from Kaufmann’s translation, for better accuracy: Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1969). All other excerpts are taken from the public domain translation made by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

© 2016, 2017 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.