- How Does the Ascetic Ideal Function in Nietzsche’s Genealogy?
It is remarkable that four commentaries on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals will have been published within the space of one year—a testimony to how prominent the text has become in scholarship and college courses. Recently I had the great pleasure of convening with the other three authors—Dan Conway, Chris Janaway, and David Owen—to share and discuss our work. I can say with confidence that each of these authors has produced a first-rate study, and I am proud to share the stage with them.1 Moreover, there should be little concern about redundancy within this set of commentaries; each is written in a distinctive style, with distinctive interpretations, emphases, and perspectives on Nietzsche’s complicated book—yet each with careful and expert attention to the text as written. So there is plenty of room for productive disagreement and cross-fertilization among these commentaries.
In my article I will focus on Nietzsche’s discussion of the ascetic ideal in GM III.2 In the course of my analysis I will indicate how my approach differs from those of the other three works when appropriate. Each of the other writers does a remarkable job examining this crucial part of GM. The contribution of my approach, I think, involves developing elements in Nietzsche’s text that are either bypassed, underdeveloped, or developed in a manner that I would want to amend. Four topics that fit this scenario are the relationship between the ascetic ideal and nihilism, the meaning of the “metaphysical value of truth,” the meaning and importance of life affirmation in the text, and Nietzsche’s remark about art in relation to the ascetic ideal.
To get started, I believe that the fundamental question underlying GM is: Can there be meaning and value in natural life following the death of God? The eclipse of the supernatural in modern thought is a presumed turn to nature, but Nietzsche insists that this turn is in fact a looping reliance on the theological tradition and that the eclipse of God forces a more radical naturalistic challenge: If the Western tradition in one way or another is beholden to a nature-transcending or life-averse condition, then the loss of this condition’s divine warrant undermines traditional sources of meaning and value, to the point where the West faces the choice between nihilism and a new, affirmative philosophy of nature.
GM is a quasi-historical study that fills out the details of the above scenario by trying to show how and why the tradition has been life averse and cannot [End Page 106] be sustained in the wake of modern developments. The genealogical history unfolding in the book is meant to simultaneously clarify and critique the counternatural drives in European culture, no less in its supposed departures from supernatural beliefs. The third essay focuses on the ascetic ideal as the organizing term for counternatural values, and the rhetorical force of this term is meant to disturb confidence in what Nietzsche takes to be the deepest, most extensive, and most comprehensive manifestation of the ascetic ideal: the will to truth. The ultimate target is a belief in an unconditional, binary model of truth that aims for immunity from any taint of otherness, and this model, according to Nietzsche, shows itself in modern science and philosophy no less than in transcendent religious systems.
GM III lays out the multiple ways in which the ascetic ideal has shown itself: in artists, scholars, philosophers, priests, and even science. Religious practices of self-denial are surely the connotation associated with asceticism, and yet Nietzsche applies the term to many nonreligious domains. Even though science, say, seems to have little in common with religious asceticism, Nietzsche is happy to retain the rhetorical force of asceticism because it keeps alive the fundamental question at the heart of GM: the value and meaning of natural life. Religious asceticism would likely admit its opposition to natural existence as such. Subsequent cultural developments might conceive of themselves as not religious in this sense, as not conflicted with natural life. Yet Nietzsche insists that these developments continue in...