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.