Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

6. Philosophy and the ascetic ideal

According to Nietzsche, philosophy has been understood as an a priori discipline, a deliverance of pure reason. Given his empiricism, what role can he allow philosophy? In Human, All Too Human he claims to practise ‘historical philosophy’ and denies that it can be separated from natural science, suggesting that he counts empirical theories as philosophy if they illuminate topics of traditional philosophical concern. Attention to the more conceptual aspects of such theories might especially count as continuing the philosopher’s traditional role (§§8–9 of this entry provide an example).

Further, Nietzsche’s thinking on topics of traditional philosophical concern (§§4–5 of this entry) is philosophical in a more traditional sense, to the extent that it deals with conceptual as opposed to empirical matters. Such ‘pure’ philosophy is a matter of battling the images and pictures that beguile the mind and lead philosophers into thinking that there are purely philosophical questions to be answered concerning knowledge, truth and reality. Philosophy in this sense functions as therapy, and to the extent that Nietzsche practises it, he counts as a forerunner of Wittgenstein (see Wittgenstein, L. §§10–13).

Like Wittgenstein, Nietzsche gives language a major role in generating the problems and confusions of previous philosophy. He sometimes seems to criticize language itself for falsifying reality, holding the subject-predicate structure of Indo-European languages responsible for philosophers’ propensity to think that reality itself must consist of ultimate subjects that could never be part of the experienced world: God and the ego, or indivisible atoms of matter. But he would probably say of language what he ultimately says of the senses: only what we make of their testimony introduces error. Language misleads us into traditional philosophy only if we erroneously assume that linguistic structure offers us a blueprint of reality that can be used to challenge the adequacy of empirical theories. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s diagnosis that philosophical problems arise when language is taken away from the everyday tasks for which it is suited and expected to play a different game. Nietzsche’s philosopher forces language to play the ‘game’ of affording insight into a non-empirical world.

Unlike Wittgenstein, however, Nietzsche fights the confusions of traditional philosophy to free us not from the need to do philosophy, but for what he considers the true task of genuine philosophy. And this task is not a matter of offering empirical theories. In his later work, Nietzsche insists that philosophers should not be confused with scholars or scientists, that scholarship and science are only means in the hands of the philosopher. Gradually it has become clear to him, he says, that philosophers’ values are the ‘real germ’ from which their systems grow. While pretending to be concerned only to discover truth, philosophers have actually been wily advocates for prejudices (values) they call ‘truths’. They interpret the world in terms of their own values, and then claim that their interpretation, which they present as objective knowledge, gives everyone reason to accept these values - as the Stoics justified their ideal of self-governance on the grounds that nature itself obeys laws, an interpretation they arrived at by projecting their ideal of self-governance onto nature ( Beyond Good and Evil §§1–9 [ Werke VI.2: 207–16]).

Because Nietzsche believes that interpretations of the world in terms of values provide something that is as important as truth, he wants the philosophy of the future to preserve this function of traditional philosophy. He does not, however, wish to preserve two aspects of the way in which previous philosophers have gone about this task: the lack of courage evident in their failure to recognize that they were reading values into the world rather than discovering truth, and the particular values they read into the world.

These values, he claims, have been expressions of the ascetic ideal, the ideal that takes the highest human life to be one of self-denial, denial of the natural self. Behind this ideal, which he finds in most major religions, Nietzsche locates the assumption that natural or earthly existence (the only kind he thinks we have) is devoid of intrinsic value, that it has value only as a means to something else that is actually its negation (such as heaven or nirvana). He claims that this life-devaluing ideal infects all the values supported by most religions (although The Antichrist retracts this in the case of Buddhism). Having come into existence in support of some form of life, values gain the support of the ascetic priest only if they are given a life-devaluing interpretation. Acts are interpreted as wrong or ‘sinful’, for instance, on the grounds that they are selfish or animal, that they affirm natural instincts. Traditional (‘metaphysical’) philosophers are successors to the ascetic priest because they interpret what they value - truth, knowledge, philosophy, virtue - in non-natural terms. In the background of their interpretations Nietzsche spies the assumption of the ascetic ideal: that whatever is truly valuable must have a source outside the world of nature, the world accessible to empirical investigation. What ultimately explains the assumption that philosophy must be a priori, and therefore concerned with a metaphysical world, is philosophers’ assumption that nothing as valuable as philosophy or truth could be intimately connected to the senses or to the merely natural existence of human beings.

The philosophy of Nietzsche’s early and middle periods can itself be diagnosed as an expression of the ascetic ideal. We can understand his devaluation of human knowledge in ‘Truth and Lie’ (his claim that human truths are ‘illusions’) as a response to the recognition that knowledge is rooted in the world of nature and thereby lacks the ‘purity’ demanded by the ascetic ideal. And we can surmise that he considered Darwinian naturalism dangerous because he saw that it deprives human life of value - if one accepts the ascetic ideal (see Darwin, C.R.). Indeed, when he embraced the truth of naturalism in Human (to the extent of accepting philosophy itself as an empirical discipline), he drew the conclusion that follows from the combination of naturalism and the ascetic ideal: that human life is without value. From the viewpoint of Nietzsche’s later philosophy, it is hardly surprising that his early philosophy turns out to be another expression of the ascetic ideal. According to his Genealogy, the ascetic ideal is the only ideal of any widespread cultural importance human beings have had so far; it has dominated the interpretation and valuation of human life for millennia. To have escaped the ascetic ideal without having to work through its influence on him would have been impossible.

On the other hand, Nietzsche was also fighting the ascetic ideal. Naturalism works against the supernatural interpretation of human life that has been promoted by the ascetic ideal, and as modern science increasingly shows how much of the world can be understood in naturalistic terms, the influence of the ascetic ideal wanes. Or, rather, it goes underground. Nietzsche denies that science and the naturalism it promotes are themselves opposed to the ascetic ideal. The commitment to science is actually the latest and most noble form of the ascetic ideal, based as it is on the Platonic/Christian belief that God is truth, that truth is divine. This amounts to the assumption that truth is more important than anything else (for instance, life, happiness, love, power) an assumption Nietzsche traces to the ascetic ideal’s devaluation of our natural impulses. Thus the development of science and naturalism has been promoted by inculcating the discipline of the scientific spirit - the willingness to give up what one would like to believe for the sake of what there is reason to believe - as the heir to the Christian conscience cultivated through confession. This has thereby worked against the exterior of the ascetic ideal, against the satisfaction it has provided - in particular, the sense that this life, and especially its suffering, has a meaning, that it shall be redeemed by another life. But to work against such satisfaction is not to oppose the ascetic ideal; it is simply to require more self-denial.

Nietzsche believes that we need a new ideal, a real alternative to the ascetic ideal. If philosophers are to remain true to the calling of philosophy and not squander their inheritance, they must create new values and not continue merely to codify and structure the value legislations of ascetic priests. To create new values, however, it will be necessary for philosophers to overcome the ascetic faith that truth is more important than anything else, for truth is not sufficient support for any ideal. Although they must therefore overcome the ascetic ideal to create a new one, undertaking this task responsibly requires the training in truthfulness promoted by the ascetic ideal. The overcoming of the ascetic ideal that Nietzsche promotes is thus a self-overcoming.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Philosophy and the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Searches



Related Articles