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Nietzsche Essay - Genealogy of Morals Book 3 and Ascetic Advocacy

The Genealogy of Morals

The essay that follows is a brief look at the three approaches to asceticism Nietzsche defined in book three of The Genealogy of Morals. This is obviously just one academic interpretation of the work.

Nietzsche says that there are three kinds of ascetics (people who renounce worldy experiences).

  • Artists
  • Philosophers
  • Priests

But Nietzsche rarely wanted his reader to take everything he said literally as is evidenced by the fact that he would regularly weave intricate and coy contradictions throughout the same work. He was a rascal and he knew that significant answers couldn't always be summarized in bullet point lists.

So he defines these three types of ascetics and I try to determine what he really means about the natuer of aceticism by looking at those definitions very carefully and picking out the similarities and differences between his stated three types.

Essay on the Genealogy of Morals Book 3

In the third book of Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche's assertions concerning the harmful nature of an ascetic pursuit of truth and his accompanying criticism of the typical ascetic counteridealist suggest that he advocates a pursuit of value other than truth. To him, the proposed counteridealist who places his faith in truth is as bound up by faith as the ascetic who places his faith in God. While Nietzsche sometimes seems to suggest an advocacy of single-mindedness such as the philosopher's pursuit of knowledge or the human will to power, the third book stresses that there are many ways to pursue values, some of which seem very close to asceticism. Nietzsche establishes three distinct types of asceticism in order to denote the difference between a pursuit of value that rejects all other notions both material and ideal (often including the self) and a pursuit of value that acknowledges and affirms all notions both material and ideal. The priestly ascetic denies reality while Nietzsche suggests affirmation or even a simple indifference would suffice.

Nietzsche titles the third book in Genealogy of Morals as "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?" after section twelve of the second book redefines meaning as a notion derived by how a thing is put to use. In other words, there is no single true value for the term asceticism or anything else. Before lambasting ascetics, Nietzsche has to deal with this possibility for alternate meanings of asceticism, and he uses this to suggest a personal advocacy. This prompts his discussion on the three different followers of the ascetic ideal: the artist, the philosopher and the priest. It is important to understand that Nietzsche is not making some literal statement about how all artists follow the ascetic ideals in a specific way. Instead, he is saying there are many ways to approach the views commonly contained by asceticism, and one such way is reminiscent of how an artist might come to it.

The first kind of asceticism Nietzsche describes is the artist's whose approach is incomplete. The artistic approach to asceticism keeps the practitioner connected to the outside world. This ascetic fails to cut all bonds and refuses to completely deny the material world. Nietzsche insists that artists are men who tout the philosophies of others and he goes into some detail concerning how Wagner's eventual life choices prove that even artists who seem greatly engrossed in their work are ultimately dependent on the outside world for their inspiration. Nietzsche explains that artists purvey a truth that is not theirs and, to some extent, are possessed by passion and their work. In brief, the artistic approach to asceticism is a shallow one which claims ascetic ideals but fails to actually partake in the doctrine in any way. Despite Nietzsche's distaste for the ascetic ideal, it seems clear that he is not advocating the artistic approach which ignores many of the harmful notions contained in asceticism.

The priestly approach to asceticism clearly earns Nietzsche's contempt, and is vilified for a large portion of the third book. Nietzsche sees the priest as the individual who fully pursues a denial of the will to power. He goes into great detail about exactly how priestly asceticism has affected the world, but another hint about his true advocacy appears in his conclusion. He eventually declares that asceticism appeared only because it seemed like the best way to preserve the will and human meaning. Given no obvious alternatives, people began to engage in a will to nothingness just so they would be willing anything at all. This will to nothingness creates an advocacy in the ascetic individual, though it may seem slightly paradoxical, and such a will gives meaning to human existence.

The discussion of the second form reads as a rather tongue-in-cheek autobiography in which Nietzsche's name has been replaced with the common noun, philosopher. The philosopher's approach to asceticism is interestingly utilitarian in that it uses the parts of the doctrine that seem useful to the individual with a philosophical constitution. Nietzsche explains that some men have a drive toward ideas and philosophy in the way that most animals seek progeny or comfort. He shows the philosophical ascetic as the man who seeks to isolate himself from the monotony of the quotidian in order to foster a natural "maternal instinct" to new ideas and thoughts. It seems like Nietzsche is supporting this form of asceticism in some ways, but one must be careful of taking anything he says as true on face.

Again, these are not necessarily distinct types of ascetics so much as they are manners of approaching asceticism which can be combined in different ways. While Nietzsche suggests that there are positive aspects of asceticism in his description of the philosopher, he also suggests there are negative aspects. His advocacy insofar as following part of the doctrine of asceticism is probably somewhere in between the lines of this text. This notion is confirmed by a close analysis of the three types and how the divisions between them are rather indistinct.

Artistic asceticism that appears so wishy-washy and noncommittal in its approach to asceticism is surprisingly close to the other two forms in significant ways. On the one hand, we see that artists and philosophers are each only partially dedicated to asceticism. It is difficult to see a brightline between the behavior of the artist who remains connected to the material world in order to pursue truth and the philosopher who does not seek out the material world but allows it to occur. These types of asceticism are similar in that neither is as stringent as the priestly kind. The one stated difference is that the philosopher has original ideas whereas the artist must expound on the ideas of others, but this does not relate directly to how the individuals experience the world.

On the other hand, there is a hint of the priest's attempted loss of individuality in the artist's approach. Whereas priestly ascetics strive toward a negation of the individual will to approach the divine, artists are described as relinquishing part of their individuality and becoming subservient to their work. This is a notion hinted at in his other work where he suggests that artists must disindividuate to some extent to create true beauty. In some ways, the artist's ability to relinquish himself in the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, as described in The Rebirth of Tragedy, is more potent than the priest's ability to negate himself in order to find the divine. Only in a fit of passion can a priestly ascetic truly find deliverance from the burden of individual will. This comparison is even more acceptable once Nietzsche brings up the similarity between atheistic and priestly ascetics. He says that the proposed counteridealists to asceticism are those who are bound to the truth in the way that ascetics are bound to the divine. Both put complete faith into the idea that one notion (be it truth or the divine) has a higher value than all other notions. In his outright pursuit for truth, the atheist is showing just as much naïve faith in a higher good as the priest is. At this point, it is easy to see that the priestly ascetic is an individual that puts any one concept above all others, like the artist who values beauty or the philosopher that seeks truth.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Nietzsche's philosophical approach to asceticism is very similar to the priestly approach. Throughout Nietzsche's works, he describes a sort of notion that is beyond good and evil or any other simple dichotomy which is typically used to create moral schemas. Nietzsche is always very careful to avoid outright judgment of values or pronouncing one thing as an ultimate good that is more valuable and virtuous than any other thing. He does not want to fall into the trap of becoming like the atheistic ascetic who puts blind faith in some other concept in order to temporarily replace the divine and maintain the same will-denying moral structure which is progressing toward its natural end in the nineteenth century Germany where Nietzsche was writing. In a way, the philosopher can be seen as one who seeks what is beyond good and evil by experiencing and acknowledging every possible action on the range of values between good and evil. If there was an axis of morality with good on one side and evil on the other, Nietzsche could envision a separate axis springing out of this axis of morality at a perpendicular angle. Suddenly, there is some new value which is entirely beyond the range of individual human experiences and encompasses more than the philosopher previously imagined. In some ways, the priest is similar because he seeks to exceed the full range of worldly experiences in order to find some value which is entirely perpendicular to that axis, the divine.

Nietzsche's true view on asceticism

Given these similarities, it might be easier to see the few remaining differences. Why, when these concepts are so similar, does the ascetic priest get blamed for so much while the artist and philosopher escape judgment. It seems that all three forms have a similar intent. Each of these approaches to asceticism strives toward some principle: the artist toward aesthetic beauty, the philosopher toward fostering a pursuit of ideas, and the priest toward the divine. The differences must lie in the means. The artist fails to relinquish the material realm enough to be a true ascetic. In fact, the artist depends on aesthetic beauty which is a worldly trait in order to release individual will and find beauty. The priest actively wills nothingness and attempts to negate individual will entirely in order to find a truth that lies beyond in the realm of the divine. The philosopher attempts to further a natural inclination toward learning. Given these three means, it might seem like the philosopher's asceticism is clearly favorable over the priest's asceticism, but it would be shallow to think that Nietzsche outright rejects any range of values.

The priest has its shortcomings, but Nietzsche points out an interesting strength in the priestly approach to asceticism. It is impossible to negate the will permanently, once the will has manifested itself in an adult human. The priest cannot simply choose not to choose. Once an advocacy has been established, the priest will now be advocating a lack of advocacy, and in this paradox, the priest preserves the will. Given that Nietzsche values observing and experiencing the full range of human behavior, it should be noted that he would appreciate the importance of experiencing a will to nothingness. If a person is unable to will nothingness, then they are not experiencing the full range of human advocacy. They are as limited as a person who can only experience a will to nothingness. One way to illustrate this point is to imagine a brilliant thinker who cannot control or restrain his thoughts. If an equally brilliant thinker emerged who could restrain his thoughts, this latter would clearly be a superior being in this respect. Thus, the will to nothingness is just another value on the range of human experiences and it should be explored as much as any other point on that axis. Even the philosopher's ascetic ideal seems to fall short of this criterion. By failing to actively pursue a will to nothingness, the philosopher only experiences the range of values included in the will to somethingness.

Even Nietzsche's claims concerning truth lead to the conclusion that all values should be sought out. After all, a lengthy portion of the third book criticizes the faithful importance of truth advocated by the atheist counteridealist. Nietzsche asks "Why truth or any other single value?", and a reader may similarly respond "Why not truth or any other single value?" We see that there may be some problems in the development of a rigorous standard for objectivity in Nietzsche's work. Instead, Nietzsche advocates an implicit sort of relativism that simply observes the full range of human experience without passing judgment. This sort of overarching will to experience without condescending or denigrating creates the notion of affirmation that is reached in other works by Nietzsche (Clark 23). Nietzsche does not ask that we have an objective knowledge of the world, removed from individual experience. He instead encourages us to leap into it and fully experience it, with our will pointing us in whatever direction we are facing. We are not to exist as objective eyes with no direction for this is not something achievable within the human experience. We must exert ourselves onto the world and acknowledge our relative framework in order to truly affirm it.

This notion is further validated by Nietzsche's contempt for the self-negating tendencies within asceticism as a product of slave morality. He clearly believes that the worldly materials rejected by the ascetics like fame, riches and sex are all things which they really want. If the ascetics did not desire these things in part, there would be no contempt toward the master morality or master class. Nor would there be any hatred out of which to build the values of asceticism. Thus the ascetic statement of denying these things which the ascetic wants constitutes a direct denial of self. However, once again, Nietzsche is not advocating the antiquated master morality simply because he is negating the slave morality. Instead, Nietzsche offers, between the three types of asceticism, a way to appreciate life and not necessarily deny naturally occurring desires.

Nietzsche's hidden advocacy in the third book may exist between all three types. One must incorporate the precision and dedication of the priest in the pursuit of a will to nothingness, of the artist in the pursuit of a will to somethingness, and of the philosopher in a detached pursuit of learning. The artist and priest respectively embody the will to something and nothing and the philosopher offers a means by which to escape judging any single value above all others and falling into the trap of the atheist. We must engage in the dedicated pursuit of the full range of human experience, never stopping to make some sort of incorrect faith-based value judgment about one point on the axis being more important than the others if we are to continue striving for something beyond traditional dichotomies like good and evil. It is only by experiencing as much as possible and by affirming all of these experiences that we can surpass the will to no things and the will to some things and achieve a successful will to everything.

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Nice 'stache. Apparently, this isn't Nietzsche. Commonly misused photo. Whoops.

Nice 'stache. Apparently, this isn't Nietzsche. Commonly misused photo. Whoops.

Work Cited

Clark, Maudmarie. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Human, All Too Human (BBC Documentary)


Ryan OConnell (author) from California on May 18, 2020:

That's amazing.

saket71 from Delhi, India on November 17, 2010:

Thanks, mroconoll, for a thorough write up on one of the greatest minds in the recent times. If one has time and inclination, Nietzsche carries message for all times of life, and if one could bear Nietzsche and survive his writings, one does comes out as a better human being.

blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on June 17, 2010:

Do you know that this beautiful portrait photo is not of Nietzsche?

Nietzsche did not have a moustache when he was young. I also had this photo on a blog of mine, but unfortunately it turned out to be King Umberto I of Savoy who was assassinated in 1899.

I was told there was a good photo of the young Nietzsche at

But that other photo (of Umberto) is so nice! Looks so Nietzschean! So I left it in my blog and added in small print that it was not Nietzsche, but Umberto.

Nickny79 from New York, New York on January 13, 2009:

Very stimulating discussion. You do well to point out ot your readers that one should be wary of taking Nietzsche at face value.

Ryan OConnell (author) from California on March 31, 2008:

Cool link. I made a hub about it:

cgull8m from North Carolina on March 31, 2008:

I still have not read it yet, though it is in top of my list, I think I will go get this book this year. I love reading Epictetus, he also has great philosophy. It is available free here in

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