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  • Writer's pictureJude

Existentialism: What is an ascetic ideal?

There are a few key concepts within Nietzsche’s book Genealogy of Morals. Throughout the book the idea of weakness tells a tale of Humanity, stemming from his understanding of prehistoric life. He also understands the endeavour against weakness as the will to power, including ressentiment as a factor in play with most. In his first essay Nietzsche entertained the idea of Good and Evil, relating it to Slave Master Morality. He claims there has been a shift of power from the strong and dominant to the priestly and weak – who dictate the ideas of good and bad by claiming nobility through their incapability in a life usually dominated by the strong. Contrasting how they behave with the oppressive, who are ultimately displaced by this logic, they become the face of the good outweighing the bad who are not favoured by the herd. In his second essay Nietzsche covers Guilt and Bad Conscience, linking it with religious ideals and a subjugation of what he considers our true Human nature, which relates to the unexplainable occurrences within our World – the everlasting question against suffering and the meaninglessness behind it. At the beginning of his third essay Nietzsche questions the meaning of ascetic ideals, stating its definition varies between types of people – and yet ultimately that Human will would “rather will to nothingness than not will”. In this presentation I shall look at the third essay in order to gain an understanding of ascetic ideals. I shall also explain the key concepts that Nietzsche uses.

The first question I shall entertain is what is asceticism? Asceticism is the denial of pleasures and impulses, reasoning there is greater value in abstinence as it adheres to spirituality or higher meaning. Ascetic ideals are common within religions and other practices which aim to alleviate whoever chooses to undertake them from the less pleasurable and less meaningful actions we are used to indulging in. In brief, Nietzsche describes asceticism as poverty, humility and chastity. Considering the meaning of ascetic ideals Nietzsche endeavours to understand the concept by looking at the propagators, and how they influence life in whole. He begins by claiming the Artist sees ascetic ideals as nothing or many things, using the example of Wagner – a Musician who he states may have not produced such work if he indulged in the World of those who enjoyed it.  Nietzsche highlights the fact Wagner was influenced by Schopenhauer’s aesthetic ideas on the Arts, in particular his views on music – which he described as superior to other art forms and stated it is the language of the will itself.  He also identifies Kant, who claimed music as beautiful and ingenious when combined with ideas. Hence for Nietzsche value given to Art through Philosophy and other supposedly meaningful fields like that of religious and moral ideas give leeway for the Artists to implement these thoughts into their work. Hence they do not contribute to the endeavour of what they mean. He moves on to understand ascetic ideals through Philosophers, who evidently throughout time are infamous for their detachment from Society.

This notorious propensity many Philosophers tend to have against a usual life is a point Nietzsche uses to claim they appreciate ascetic ideals to an extent. He states Schopenhauer like many other Philosophers, such as Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes and Kant follow a trend common amongst them, that being showing no interest in sensuality. Philosophers, endangered by their own thinking or rather their ability to will, see asceticism as a guide to self-mastery of their own ideas. He describes Philosophers as motherly to their own ideas, loving and concentrated to what is growing within them. Ideally they subscribe to chastity to work on these ideas, abstaining from the World and its alienating ways. Evidently it is not true for all Philosophers and Nietzsche uses the example of Socrates. He claims Socrates as the type who experienced such, like marriage, in order to use it to further his own ideals and use it as a proposition. Having read the Socratic dialogue Crito, a debate in the book shows Socrates refusing the chance to escape from execution without considering the wellbeing of his family. His excuse was his seriousness at not fearing death, and thinking thoughtless men value money, reputation and providing for their children. This backwardness most of these thinkers have of attempting to understanding the World without necessarily subscribing to it is what Nietzsche highlights.

These points lead Nietzsche to state that Philosophers are born from ascetic ideals. Their withdrawal from normality and attempt at self-indulgence through ascetic ideals usually welcomes distrust from others. However, for Nietzsche, the setup of morality in ancient times was also not trusted by the masses. This is evident throughout history, the ruling powers tended to be unjust. Arguably they still are today, but the periods of time Nietzsche is describing denotes the herd, the weak who could not exercise their will to power. Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power serves as the basis of the Human animal, insofar as he believes there is a drive to reach an optimum – the highest and most favourable point in life through their current means. This also ties in with the concept of ressentiment; there is an unfulfilled passion against what a person identifies as the root cause of their suffering – hence in turn they utilise any means to justify that suffering, reasoning against actions and supplying meanings for its occurrence. Nietzsche feels the path to ressentiment is that of the weak, as they have the capacity to contemplate the things against them – whilst the strong and habitual lack the intelligence or need to fill the void. So one utilises ressentiment to will to power. He states contemplation first appeared disguising an evil heart and anxious head.

Nietzsche then moves on to the inspiration of the Philosopher, likewise with the Artist he sees their understanding of the ascetic ideals stemming from other established ideas. He claims the ascetic Priest is the most serious representative of asceticism, insofar as the practices they undertake solely base their lifestyles around ascetic ideals. These ascetic Priests will to power through asceticism is their ressentiment against the strong and pleasure indulged. Nietzsche states that they managed to convince themselves of the idea of this World being a bridge to the next – and the ascetic ideals they undertake allow them to experience the pleasures of this other higher World and or they are rewarded in the next with more fulfilling pleasures opposed to the mediocre painted Worldly ones. The ideals serve as a path to better means. As Priests do they intend to convince others of their methods – advocating ascetic ideals and a life of endeavouring against these deemed unnecessary pleasures, reasoning suffering will be credited in the next life. This will to power utilises the weakness, reversing it to serve as strength in order to achieve mastery over life itself. Hence Nietzsche describes this as life against life, denying the actuality we have and seeking a contradictory life against it in order to maximise one’s own will to power.

The ascetic ideal in this scenario for Nietzsche springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life. If life is not rewarding in the current climate, it makes sense to alter the perception of life until it does. Nietzsche claims the ascetic ideal arises everywhere, in various cultures around the World starting from someone against life – someone he describes as being sick. This sickness allows such people to accept hardship and sickness, glorifying it through spiritual means.  The sickness arises from the pity of the state of Humanity, damning the strong who thrive through the hardship and claiming they are evil by what they represent. The idea of sickness is well worked as it links to the first essay, the slave master morality sets up the strong as wrong and the weak as good and pious. Evidently it is also contagious, as propagated by the ascetic Priest to the herd it will only spread. Nietzsche moves on to highlight the relationship between the ascetic Priest and the sick masses. The ressentiment of the herd blames the values of the strong for their suffering, and ideally the ascetic Priest forefronts their ressentiment by advocating a formation of religion. It redirects this ressentiment whilst helping the herd maximise their will to power, despite succumbing to the deafening of their own will to will for this nothingness. Nietzsche describes this as an orgy of feeling, a compilation of guilt, bad conscience, slave morality and denial of the will – in order to elude oneself to feel the will to power. Nevertheless he claims the sick become even sicker through such methods.

Toward the end of his essay Nietzsche finally entertains what ascetic ideals mean. Having derived it stems and is propagated by ascetic Priests, who pride themselves on higher meaning, he attempts to understand Science as an opposing will against their will to nothingness. Science does not rely on God, an afterlife, higher meaning or asceticism in order to seek or rather reason the truths it claims. However Nietzsche points out that the endeavour of Scientific inquiry lacks the positive will that ascetic ideals have. He links Science to ascetic ideals insofar as the faith the field subscribes to is truth. Those involved with Science pride themselves on facts which do not suffer from interpretation, likewise the objectivity of ascetic ideals shows both hold some abstinence from outside considerations. Nietzsche describes this as a will to truth, and likewise with the ascetic Priest holding immovable faith by God those involved with Science have an inclination for nothing but the truth. Both will not question the value of what they believe in.

In conclusion I cannot help but feel Nietzsche does not take a stance in his Philosophy, instead he provides his contemplations on a concept and expects whoever is digesting it to piece his thoughts together – whilst leaving it open for interpretations and not demanding readers follow an objective thought of his. Nevertheless in this essay, and entire book, Nietzsche commends the variety of perspective the ascetic ideal can inspire – only showing his annoyance when it becomes objective. He often states that there is no absolute truth or correct perspective in which we can view a situation, the various interpretations can serve the will in appropriating the best result for the person – these views influenced a lot of postmodern thinkers. I feel that this shows occurrences today. In the periods that Nietzsche was noting, and maybe up until this century, Humanity seemingly only entertained many main ideas. Now we utilise the abundance of perspectives in order to maximise ourselves, enjoying a multicultural Society and even World considering the perspectives we can reach. As Nietzsche would say, our will to power in modern day would not be directed by ressentiment in the same way. Maybe through ideas like envy do we spark some ressentiment, but in a Society shifting to secularism and adopting ascetic practices and detaching them from their Priestly worth – I believe we are healthily and more competitively maximising our power and ability to will.

Lastly I want to use a couple of modern points, which may relate to the ascetic ideals of Artists and Philosophers Nietzsche explained. The website called Genius takes literature works, music, speeches etc. and thoroughly explains them in order to ascribe more of a meaning to it. Usually a Scholar of some sort would break down literature works and even speeches, and an Art critic would decipher lyrics – yet here we have an example of higher meaning being sought by people we would not give such titles. There is also the idea of detoxing, abstaining from the unhealthy, usual pleasures, mundane everyday life which has summoned some nausea of some sort in the state of the self – or a willingness to change to shape oneself to be better for themselves. This for me is no different to asceticism, and yet it doesn’t include any highly religious practices or propagate itself. Although this sickness does catch on it only shows the trivialising of that which came before us, a will to nothingness simply for us.

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