The essay’s title poses the question, “What Is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?” Why have people from various cultures pursued an ascetic life of self-denial? Nietzsche suggests that asceticism enhances the feeling of power by giving a person complete control over him- or herself. In many cases, then, asceticism is ultimately life affirming rather than life denying. Ascetic ideals manifest themselves differently among different kinds of people. A sort of philosophical asceticism leads philosophers to claim that the world around them is illusory. This is one way of looking at things, and Nietzsche applauds looking at matters from as many perspectives as possible. There is no single right way to look at the truth, so it’s best to be flexible in our viewpoints.

Nietzsche sees asceticism as being born of spiritual sickness. Those that find the struggle of life too hard turn against life and find it blameworthy. Nietzsche sees the majority of humanity as sick and sees priests as doctors who are themselves sick. Religion addresses this spiritual sickness partly by extinguishing the will through meditation and work but also through “orgies of feeling,” manifest in the consciousness of sin and guilt. We condemn ourselves as sinners and masochistically punish ourselves. Science and scholarship are not alternatives to the ascetic ideals of religion. They simply replace the worship of God with the worship of truth. A healthy spirit must question the value of truth. Nietzsche concludes by observing that while ascetic ideals direct the will against life, they still constitute a powerful exercise of the will: “Man would rather will nothingness than not will.”

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