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Genealogy Of Morals Third Essay Analysis Advertisements


Nietzsche introduces this essay by asking, "what is the meaning of ascetic ideals?" He answers that it has meant many different things to many different people, suggesting that we would "rather will nothingness than not will."

Nietzsche seizes upon the example of Richard Wagner, asking why Wagner embraced chastity in his old age, and why he wrote Parsifal. After a brief discussion of Wagner, Nietzsche concludes that we can learn little about the meaning of ascetic ideals from artists, because they always lean on the authority of some prior philosophy, morality, or religion. Wagner's asceticism, Nietzsche suggests, would not have been possible without Schopenhauer's philosophy. Wagner may have been attracted to Schopenhauer because of the prominence Schopenhauer gave to music in his philosophy: while all other art forms are merely representative of phenomena, Schopenhauer suggested that music speaks the language of the will itself.

Schopenhauer followed Kant in suggesting that the beautiful is what gives us pleasure without interest. Schopenhauer adapted this definition to his own philosophy, seeing the beautiful as having a calming effect on the will, freeing the will from the urgency of its constant volition. Nietzsche first remarks that Kant's definition of beauty comes from the standpoint of the spectator, not the artist. Next he contrasts this definition with that of an artist--Stendhal--who defined beauty as a "promise of happiness." This definition is quite the contrary of Kant's and Schopenhauer's, as it arouses both the will and interestedness. Finally, Nietzsche suggests that Schopenhauer's position was a personal one and by no means disinterested. Here we get a preliminary insight into a philosopher who honors an ascetic ideal: he does so to gain release from the constant torture and torment of his will.

Everything strives to secure for itself those conditions under which it maximizes its feeling of power. Philosophers thus abhor marriage (Nietzsche observes that Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Schopenhauer never married) and all other distractions from their philosophical pursuits. In this, Nietzsche finds the meaning of ascetic ideals among philosophers: it is a means to maximize the feeling of power. Ascetic ideals are not a denial of existence, but rather an affirmation of existence, wherein the philosopher affirms his and only his existence. Thus, Nietzsche concludes, philosophers do not write about asceticism from a disinterested standpoint. They think of its value to themselves, and how they can benefit from it. Philosophers are at their best when they isolate themselves from the bustle and chatter of the world about them.

Having identified the value of ascetic ideals among philosophers, Nietzsche goes on to argue that philosophy was born of and depends on ascetic ideals. All major changes in our world have been achieved through violence and have been mistrusted. The contemplative, skeptical mood of philosophy ran counter to ancient morality, and must have been mistrusted. The best way to dispel this mistrust was to arouse fear, and Nietzsche sees the ancient Brahmins as paramount in this respect. Through self-torture and asceticism, they made not only others fear and reverence them, but they came also to fear and reverence themselves.

Essentially, Nietzsche suggests, philosophers could not parade as philosophers, and so chose a different mask to present themselves. With the Brahmins, and with most philosophers since, this mask has been that of the ascetic priest. Nietzsche suggests that this is still the case: there is not yet enough freedom of will on this earth for the philosopher to drop the pretence of the ascetic priest.

Science with its will to truth is not the antithesis to the ascetic ideal. Rather, Nietzsche suggests, the opposing force is found in the self-overcoming of the ascetic ideal, when the meaning of the will to truth is called into question.

Nietzsche concludes with the observation that our problem is not that we suffer but that we need to give meaning to our suffering. We cling to the ascetic ideal because it explains life to us; it explains why we must suffer. Granted, ascetic ideals direct the will against pleasure, beauty, even life itself, but it is still a will. And, Nietzsche says, returning to the point with which he opened the third essay, "man would rather will nothingness than not will."


We will recall Nietzsche's remark in section 12 of the second essay that all meaning, all interpretation, all "utility" is just a sign that a will to power is acting on a thing. Interpretation is not a neutral act. It is a matter of seeing a certain thing in a certain way or from a certain perspective. The perspective from which the thing is seen gives it a particular meaning or interpretation, and if a particular meaning or interpretation seems inseparably linked to the thing, that only means that a particular perspective has become overwhelmingly compelling.

It takes a will to interpret. In the case of a particular perspective being overwhelmingly compelling, there must be an overwhelmingly powerful will that is willing that interpretation. Nietzsche sees the ascetic ideal as an immensely powerful will that commands a particular interpretation of all life, all existence, and all history. It demands that we see ourselves as sinners and see life as suffering. It proclaims the strong to be evil and the meek to be good. It prescribes an ascetic lifestyle and an abstinence from earthly pleasures. Because this will has been so powerful and so dominant, it asserts itself as the only true will, the only true interpretation, and parades itself as absolute truth.

Nietzsche argues that there is a will driving everything and that science is no exception. Science is not self-sustaining because it does not contain its own will to power. In recording only facts, science shuns interpretation. Essentially, it is refusing to assert a will upon the objects of its study, to see them in a particular way. This does not mean that there is no will driving science, and it certainly does not mean that science is the antithesis of the ascetic ideal. Rather it means that science is not independent, that there must be some other will hidden behind it, driving it and motivating it.

Nietzsche identifies this will as the will to truth. Science denies all interpretations and questions all beliefs for the sake of the truth. However, Nietzsche notes that science never questions or doubts the value of truth itself. This unbending faith in absolute truth is only a disguised version of the ascetic priest's unbending faith in an absolute God.

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