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Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

Third Essay, Sections 23-28

Third Essay, Sections 15-22

Study Questions

Summary

Having accused the ascetic ideal of ruining both taste and health, Nietzsche shifts his focus to the main topic of the essay: what the ascetic ideal means. The ascetic ideal is so powerful, Nietzsche suggests, because it interprets all human history and human experience in terms of its one goal. It interprets everything, and denies the validity of any alternative interpretaton. Nietzsche asks whether there is any other will that might oppose the monstrous power of the will expressed by the ascetic ideal.

Nietzsche first considers the suggestion that science is such an opposing will. Science has been able to stand on the strength of its own interpretations without calling on the existence of God, an afterlife, or asceticism. Nietzsche opposes this suggestion, claiming that science lacks the positive will that characterizes ascetic ideals, and where it does arouse passion, it manifests itself only as the latest incarnation of the ascetic ideal itself.

Scholars may appear to have independent wills because they renounce faith of all kinds. They demand proof and rigorous reasoning, and will not base their claims on faith in God or religious doctrines. However, Nietzsche suggests, they renounce these faiths only in favor of a different faith: a faith in truth. As long as they have faith in truth, they cannot speak as truly free spirits: "nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Science's obsession with truth leads it to value facts and facts alone. Interpretation relies on a distortion of the truth, a particular way of looking at the truth, and so a faith in absolute truth calls for pure, uninterpreted facts. This abstinence from interpretation is as much an expression of the ascetic ideal as the chastity of a priest. Science's faith in the absolute and metaphysical value of truth is essentially a faith in the ascetic ideal. Science, like everything else, requires a will, a "faith" that will motivate it and direct it. That scholars deny that they allow themselves to be driven by any will is only a manifestation of their ascetic ideals.

Not even truth should be believed in blindly. We have a tendency to see truth as a justification in itself, just as the religious see the word of God as a justification in itself. Nietzsche asserts: "The will to truth requires a critique ... the value of truth must for once be experimentally called into question." Even our faith in truth needs to be justified.

Science, says Nietzsche, does not create values: it always exists in the service of some other values. Thus, it cannot be the force that opposes the ascetic ideal. Rather, it and the ascetic ideal are together in their valuing of truth as being beyond criticism. Science may seem opposed to religion, but it has merely replaced God with truth as an absolute, transcendent ground that justifies and explains existence.

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."

Commentary

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.

Nietzsche attacks science on the very grounds that many atheistic scholars would attack religion: it relies too heavily on faith in unjustified fundamental beliefs. While the religious never question their faith in God, scholars never question their faith in truth. For Nietzsche, the sign of a strong intellectual conscience is that one is not afraid to doubt everything, that one never falls back on faith. A sufficiently strong intellectual conscience will not even have faith in truth, but will demand that the scholarly pursuit of truth be called into question and justified.

Nietzsche's perspectivism effectively does precisely this. Nietzsche does not demand that we see a matter in one particular way, as would the ascetic priest, and he does not claim that he sees a matter in completely objective and neutral terms, as would the scholar. Instead, he urges both himself and us to look at any matter from as many different perspectives as possible. In that way, we get the roundest picture of the truth, one not dominated by any one particular interpretation. Nietzsche's perspectivism doggedly attacks the idea that there is any such thing as an absolute truth or a "correct" perspective from which to view a matter. Absolute truth, to Nietzsche, means only that a certain interpretation has become suspiciously compelling.

This perspectivism, as was mentioned earlier, has been profoundly influential on postmodern thought. Derrida has criticized the entire Western intellectual tradition, claiming that it is based on a "metaphysics of presence." That is, our intellectual tradition is steeped in claims that assert an absolute authority by appeal to some absolute ground, be it God, truth, certainty, or whatever else. We are so obsessed with the notions of certainty and absoluteness that we fail to question the value of these absolutes. Clearly, Derrida and his contemporaries owe a great debt to Nietzsche.

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