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.