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Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

Third Essay, Sections 11-14

Third Essay, Sections 1-10

Third Essay, Sections 15-22


In the ascetic priest we find the most serious representative of the ascetic ideal. He sees life as "a wrong road on which one must finally walk back to the point where it begins, or as a mistake that is put right by deeds." Life, with all its sensory pleasures and distractions, must be denied and turned against itself. The result is the ascetic life. In this light, the ascetic life is not a goal, but a path away from life toward something different and better.

Ascetic ideals spring up spontaneously everywhere on earth, in every time and culture. There must be something desirable in ascetic ideals that it should be so universal. The ascetic life seems to be a contradiction: it is the will to stop willing, life turned against itself. It is an expression of the will to power trying to master not some part of life, but trying to master life itself.

Such a contradictory will, when turned to philosophy, is likely to turn itself against the real, claiming that it is unreal. Thus, physical objects are seen as illusions, and the human subject and the ego are renounced. Reason is limited to dealing with the illusions of physical reality, and cannot penetrate the truth itself.

Rather than argue against this point of view, Nietzsche expresses some gratefulness toward it. By shifting our perspective, it allows us to see a matter from a new point of view. This point of view may not be objective--influenced as it is by ascetic ideals--but, Nietzsche suggests, there is no such thing as an "objective" point of view; at least, there is no such thing as the "pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject" that we posit as the ground for things like pure reason and absolute truth. We can only approach objectivity, Nietzsche argues, by gaining as many perspectives as we can on a matter: "There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective 'knowing'; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our 'concept' of this thing, our 'objectivity,' be." Nietzsche objects to ascetic ideals only insofar as it tries to eliminate thought altogether. This would not be a different perspective, but a demolition of all perspectives.

Nietzsche next tackles the contradiction found in saying that the ascetic ideal represents "life against life." He suggests that quite the contrary is true, that "the ascetic ideal springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life." Humans are great experimenters, constantly exploring, searching, and struggling to gain power over themselves, over nature, even over the gods. Through this entire struggle and self-torture, we have also made ourselves "sick," and it is no wonder that we find the ascetic ideal springing up everywhere. Though it may seem to deny life, the ascetic ideal is supremely life affirming, as it says "yes" to life in the face of hardship and sickness.

Nietzsche says this "sickness" arises from nausea at and a pity for humanity. This nausea inspires nihilism, the will to nothingness, which characterizes ascetic ideals. The nihilism of the weakest and the sickest is a great danger to any who are still healthy, as it parades as virtue, claiming that health, power, and happiness are evils that will be punished. The strong should not be ashamed of their strength, and they must be quarantined from the sick if they are to maintain their strength. They should not pity, or try to cure, the "sick" majority.


Nietzsche is fond of hyperbole and metaphor, and it might not be immediately apparent what he means when he accuses the majority of his contemporary Europeans of being "sick." In the last decade of his working life, when the Genealogy was written, Nietzsche himself was very sick, suffering from migraines, insomnia, and near blindness among other things. Nonetheless, he felt himself to be in a far greater state of health than most of his contemporaries who, though healthy in body, were sick in mind and spirit.

Nietzsche claims that this "sickness" arises from the constant struggles and torments that we put ourselves through. We have gained depth, morality, society, an inner life--everything that we might claim distinguishes us from animals--through self-torture and struggle. We could go so far as to say that we are the "inward-looking animal," and that this inward looking has only been generated by a constant struggle against ourselves and our own nature. The greatest triumph, for Nietzsche, is to delight in and affirm this self-torture and struggle, to see it as a willful act of creation, whereby we free ourselves of our instincts and our evolutionary past, and fully create ourselves. More often than not, however, we do not see all our torments as a triumph, but rather look upon them as sufferings to be endured. If we see life as suffering, life becomes something to be pitied, something that might arouse nausea. This pity and nausea are what Nietzsche denotes as the great "sickness" in humanity. Those who become sick of humanity are not strong enough for the struggle that is humanity. From this sickness grows ressentiment, nihilism, and everything else Nietzsche despises.

"Sickness" is an apt name because it is contagious. It generates a slave morality that persuades the strong that they are evil, and induces them to self- hatred and sickness as well. The only safety for the strong is in avoiding the sick masses and ignoring their moralizing.

The ascetic ideal among the masses is an expression of a sick will to power. The sick are suffering from life, seeing life as a misfortune, and in the ascetic ideal they find a means of asserting themselves. Any positive act of will (pursuing health, happiness, strength, etc.) is beyond their means, and so they cannot will these things. Instead, they will nothingness, the only thing they can successfully will. As Nietzsche claims at the beginning of this essay, the sick would rather will nothingness than not will.

There is no doubt that Nietzsche opposes the "sick" as a bad thing and antithetical to life. However, we should not fully associate asceticism with sickness. Nietzsche finds only one interpretation of asceticism in claiming it is the only expression of the will to power left available to the sick. Asceticism is only bad insofar as it might be indicative of sickness. However, this is not the only one way of looking at asceticism: we have already seen that Nietzsche gives it different meanings for philosophers and artists.

That being said, we should also note that Nietzsche considers the artist's asceticism to be found in the philosopher's asceticism, and the philosopher's asceticism to be related to the ascetic priest's. In that sense, they are all in some way indicative of sickness, but the matter is more complex than a simple "asceticism is bad."

Nietzsche's maxim that we should look at any issue from as many points of view as possible is called "perspectivism," and we find a particularly clear expression of it in section 12. According to Nietzsche, "absolute truth" and "objectivity" are myths that delude us into thinking that there is one and only one right way of looking at the truth. "Absolute truth" might see truth as a picture on a wall, something that we can survey easily from a fixed perspective. Nietzsche's view of truth might be more like a sculpture, where there is no one ideal point of view from which the whole sculpture can be viewed. Instead, we should walk around the sculpture, looking at it from all sides in order to appreciate it better. The more perspectives from which we observe a sculpture, the more we know about it. Similarly, Nietzsche suggests that we are best served in looking at any idea or proposition from as many different points of view as possible so that we can gain the most reasonable and multi-faceted perspective possible. Thus, Nietzsche thinks he can best understand ascetic ideals by looking at them from as many perspectives as possible: that of the artist, the philosopher, the ascetic priest, the "sick" masses, and so on.

Nietzsche's perspectivism has been enormously influential in the twentieth century, particularly upon postmodern thought. The development of modern physics has only served to reinforce and deepen Nietzsche's claim that what is true depends largely on the perspective one takes.

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