Philosophy, Literature & Life
11 May 2015
Friedrich Nietzsche on Asceticism
Due to empirical reality being merely an illusion, Nietzsche adopted the theory of perspectivism, which claims that objectivity and absolute truth cannot be determined since everyone perceives the world differently. This notion can explain why Nietzsche both values and condemns asceticism depending on whether viewed from the standpoint of a philosopher or an artist. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche stresses the importance of artists possessing the Dionysiac drive that prioritizes complete self-indulgence in pleasure. In this work, he also criticizes Christianity for encouraging the rejection of bodily desires and a repressive lifestyle. However, despite asserting that asceticism is harmful in these cases, in an essay in On The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that this self-restraint can prove to be healthy by increasing one’s feelings of power and control over oneself and nature. By comparing and contrasting these two texts, I will examine the circumstances under which Nietzsche found it beneficial or detrimental to embrace asceticism.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche emphasizes the importance of self-indulgence for an artist through his discussion of the Dionysian drive. In this text, he explores the history of Greek tragedy and assumes the role of the cultural physician to determine the factors leading to the decadence of Athens. Nietzsche admires Athenian tragedians due to their ability to openly embrace the meaningless and chaotic reality of existence through the creation of art that possessed a balance between the dichotomous drives of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The natural Apollonian drive places a veil of illusion over the world, rendering it merely a semblance of reality and supressing the Will. On the other hand, the Dionysian drive permits one to transcend this transfigured empirical reality and destroy the misconception that barriers of individuation separate everyone. “Whenever this breakdown of the principum individuationis occurs, we catch a glimpse of the essence of the Dionysiac, which is best conveyed by the analogy of intoxication…causing subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting” (Nietzsche 17). We can attain this realization that we are not in fact individuated beings by entering a state of intoxication through revelry. Nietzsche suggests we can discover these Dionysian truths of existence through the self-abandonment experienced while listening to the music of the chorus in Greek tragedy or through the frenzies of the Dionysian festivals. “Singing and dancing, man expresses his sense of belonging to a higher community… he himself now moves in such ecstasy and sublimity as once he saw the gods move in his dreams. Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art himself” (Nietzsche 18). These orgiastic celebrations can be considered as the epitome of the submission to bodily desires, which Nietzsche believes is extremely healthy for artists and provides them with creative inspiration.
Furthermore, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche condemns Judeo-Christian religions for promoting an ascetic lifestyle. He stresses that Christianity strongly opposes the Dionysian drive by encouraging nihilistic outlooks and overemphasizing reason. He felt the fixation on a superior after-life instilled Christians with a life-denying mentality, since the only way to deserve acceptance into this better world was through self-discipline and asceticism in this one. They must abide must the many guidelines of the biblical scriptures in order to be rewarded with this eternal pleasure. Nietzsche displays his contempt for Christianity when describing it as “the feeling of disgust and weariness which life felt for life” and stating that it supports the notion that “life must eventually be crushed by the weight of contempt and the eternal No!’ be felt to be inherently unworthy, undeserving of our desire” (Nietzsche 9). He also intimates that these religions impede the ability of their followers to appreciate great art. The strict structure of organized religion would confine artists to a severely systematic thought process, leaving no room for impulsiveness and creativity. Art requires the acceptance of error, uncertainty and chaos: concepts that are not embraced in Judeo-Christian religion with its one-dimensional understanding of the world. Nietzsche also defines Christianity as, “a curse on the passions, fear of beauty and sensuality, a Beyond, invented in order better to defame the Here-and-Now, fundamentally a desire for nothingness” (Nietzsche 9). This passage may confuse a reader of Nietzsche’s works since Nietzsche makes a contradicting assertion in an essay in On the Genealogy of Morals, “the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui, it needs a goal-and it will rather will nothingness than not will” (Nietzsche 97).
Although this statement claims that it is better to will nothing than not will at all, Nietzsche is still suggesting that the suppressing of desires is acceptable under certain circumstances. In the essay in On the Genealogy of Morals, titled “What Is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”, Nietzsche brings up German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer’s views regarding asceticism and aestheticism. Schopenhauer suggests that beautiful art is used as a means of temporarily silencing the constant demands of The Will. As written in Schopenhauer’s World As Will and Representation, “for a moment we are delivered from the vile urgency of the will; we celebrate the Sabbath of the penal servitude of volition; the wheel of Ixion stands still!” (Schopenhauer 231). However, Schopenhauer describes music as the language of The Will, intimating that although the enjoyment of great art calms The Will, the creation of great art requires The Will.
Nietzsche also agrees that at times, asceticism can be beneficial for philosophers, but not artists. He argues that asceticism can maximize one’s feelings of power over oneself and the world by removing any dependence on external pleasures. The strength derived from this isolation can improve their contemplation and comprehension of their surroundings. Asceticism confirms one’s existence as a stable being who can resist incessant internal urges. Nietzsche declares that:
“the philosopher sees in [asceticism] an optimum condition for the highest and boldest spirituality and smiles – he does not deny ‘existence’, he rather affirms his existence and only his existence, and this perhaps to the point at which he is not far from harbouring the impious wish: Let the world perish, but let there be philosophy, the philosopher, me!” (Nietzsche 108).
On another note, Nietzsche discusses how philosophy was founded on ascetic ideals since philosophers needed to disguise themselves as ascetic priests in order to gain societal acceptance. Others were sceptical of the constant questioning of philosophers, since they threatened their existing foundations of truth and morality, which they believed to have been stable. In order to extinguish this anxiety and mistrust, philosophers masked themselves as ascetic priests so others would fear and respect them. Therefore, they embraced poverty, humility and chastity. Nietzsche explains that: “The peculiar, withdrawn attitude of the philosopher, world-denying, hostile to life, suspicious of the senses, freed from sensuality, which has been maintained down to the most modern times – it is above all a result of the emergency conditions under which philosophy arose and survived at all” (Nietzsche 116). Furthermore, Nietzsche defends asceticism against the claim that it represents “life against life”, but rather, it “springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life” (Nietzsche 120). According to Nietzsche, humans are insatiable creatures who are always fighting against animals, nature and gods for power. These constant struggles send them into a state of sickness and disgust with life, yet in spite of this torture, they continue to say yes to life. However, this frustration still causes them to adopt a nihilistic view of the world and encourages them to will nothingness. The infected possess a feeling of ressentiment toward the healthy and happy. Therefore, the two groups must remain isolated from each other in order to prevent the spreading of this disease. For this reason, philosophers cloaked themselves as ascetic priests in order to guide the masses suffering from this illness. The ascetic priests prevented the sick from projecting their anguish on the healthy and redirected their anger towards themselves to avoid placing blame on a scapegoat. The philosophers preached the acceptance of asceticism and religion to ease the displeasure of the sick. If the will and sensation of the sick were numbed, the pains of the world would become more bearable. They congregated the sick into a community and disillusioned them into thinking that they were indulging in acts of will.
In Phaedo, Plato provides Socrates’ perspective on how asceticism can prove to be beneficial for the philosopher. While the sentenced death of Socrates approaches, in prison, he converses with Simmias and explains to him that philosophy is essentially the practice for dying and death. Socrates claims that the body merely distracts the soul from achieving its main objective of searching for knowledge and discovering universal truth. And since he defines death as the final separation of the soul from the body, the philosopher should openly welcome death instead of fearing it. The philosopher yearns to separate the body from the soul because the body is constantly pestering him or her with demands to be satiated. He uses the example that the human desire for power and wealth often leads to war and causes men to stray from the practice of philosophy. Socrates explains that humans are prisoners to the body’s will when saying, “The body keeps us busy in a thousand ways because of its need for nurture. Moreover, if certain diseases befall it, they impede our search for the truth. It fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions” (Plato 65c). As well, Socrates suggests that everything humans perceive should be cast into doubt because what they believe to be the truths of reality are tainted by their deceptive senses. This resembles Nietzsche’s concept that empirical reality is an illusory world that masks truths. It also relates to Plato’s theory that Forms, abstract ideas, possess the highest truth, while the material world and its particular objects that humans experience through sensation do not. Socrates elucidates this concept:
“Then he will do this most perfectly who approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning, but who, using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes and ears, and in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it associates with it” (Plato 65d).
Although the existence of an immortal soul is an unsubstantiated supposition, Socrates’ notion, that the philosopher should not primarily be concerned with fulfilling the desires of the body but rather with the quest of gaining wisdom and disclosing the world’s truths, is still valid.
To conclude, Nietzsche acknowledges that the complexity of the human condition makes it challenging to prescribe one single way of life to all individuals. Although he ultimately believes that the Will should not be suppressed and that bodily desires should not be rejected, he determines certain instances in which it can be considered acceptable to embrace asceticism. Personally, I agree that we mustn’t always give in to internal temptations, since focusing too strongly on ourselves can hinder the process of observing and questioning our surroundings in search for truth. We should be able to exist freely and stably without being constantly dependent on external pleasures. However, I do believe it is extremely important to be in tune with our inner selves and suppressing our urges to indulge in sensuality and curiosity would render life dull. Great art often stems from the conflict between man and human nature, so resisting the desires of the true self can be detrimental to the creative process.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1999. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books,
Plato. Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1977. Print.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World As Will and Representation. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.