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.