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.
The first obvious question for those not familiar with the word is what is meant by "ascetic"? Nietzsche captures the concept quite nicely in section 8 with the slogans "poverty, humility, chastity." Essentially, asceticism is the renunciation of earthly pleasures in favor of a simple, abstinent life. Monks and hermits are often associated with asceticism.
The opening of the essay deals largely with Wagner and Schopenhauer, two figures that were prominent in Nietzsche's day (and still today to a large extent), and who exercised a great deal of influence on Nietzsche's growth and development.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a great German composer who strove to reinvent and reinvigorate opera by developing new ways of bringing music and drama together. In his youth, Nietzsche was a great admirer of Wagner's, and made friends with Wagner and his wife, Cosima. Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), contained a long eulogy to Wagner that Nietzsche later regretted. Until the mid- 1870's, Nietzsche considered Wagner an artist of genius not bogged down by the morality of his day, but rising above it to create something new and life-affirming. By the mid-70's, their relationship had cooled, partly owing to Nietzsche's dislike for Wagner's anti-Semitism, nationalism, and growing egomania, and partly owing to Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, which, to Nietzsche, expressed a contemptible expression of traditional Christian morality. One of Nietzsche's last books, The Case of Wagner (1888), explains his break with the German composer.
In this essay, Nietzsche uses Wagner as an example of an artist who turned to ascetic ideals late in his life: he embraced chastity and vegetarianism, and in Parsifal he further expressed this asceticism. Nietzsche blames this in part on Wagner's desire to become the kind of hero he had hitherto written about. He concludes that, where artists are concerned, ascetic ideals amount to nothing.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a German philosopher profoundly influenced by Kant and by Indian philosophy, whose great work was The World as Will and as Idea (1819). Schopenhauer followed Kant in suggesting that the world we perceive consists merely of appearances, and that we cannot sense the "thing-in- itself." Only in ourselves can we sense the will that underlies and drives all things. We see the influence of Indian philosophy in Schopenhauer's assertion that true peace can only be found in an extinction of the will. In art, he argues, we find a temporary calming of the passions, while an ascetic might be able to extinguish the ego entirely.
Schopenhauer's discussion of the will profoundly influenced Nietzsche's philosophy. Nietzsche differs from Schopenhauer largely on the question of the extinction of the will. Nietzsche sees this as dangerous nihilistic pessimism, arguing that we should instead seek to affirm and strengthen the will. However, he also sees philosophical asceticism as an aid to philosophical contemplation in its clearing away of distractions. Thus, Schopenhauer's asceticism is superior to Wagner's.
In the second essay, Nietzsche argues that to say a thing has a meaning simply means that a will is being exercised on it, and that one thing can be given countless different meanings depending on who is interpreting it and what they value. In the second essay, he gives us the example of "punishment," which has received countless different interpretations. In this essay, when he opens by asking, "what is the meaning of ascetic ideals?" we can expect that there will be different meanings for different people.
For philosophers, ascetic ideals maximize their feeling of power. Asceticism aids them in their quest for knowledge, and the increase in knowledge increases their feeling of power. Because asceticism is so interpreted by philosophers, they see it as a good thing. However, with the example of Wagner, Nietzsche argues that ascetic ideals have no such value for artists, and that they can in fact impede the production of great art. Artists, unlike philosophers, cannot isolate themselves from the world of people and sensuality and still produce worthwhile work.
Nietzsche's claim in the first section of the essay, that we would "rather will nothingness than not will," is crucial to his understanding of ascetic ideals. This claim is also found in the last sentence of the book, and we will return to it in more detail in later commentary. Briefly, though, the suggestion is that to will ascetic ideals is to "will nothingness." Schopenhauerian asceticism "wills nothingness" since it tries to extinguish the will altogether. This, Nietzsche suggests, is still willing, and such willing is better than not willing at all. According to Nietzsche, our fundamental drive is the will to power; the desire to exercise our will at all times. The mystery of asceticism, then, is to explain how people could maximize their feeling of power by willing nothingness.