Sic et Non

Uncertainty, perplexity, ambivalence. I'm pretty sure this is where it's at.

Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; pessimism and the ascetic ideal.

May we not inquire whether a pessimist who denies God and the world, but stops short at the problem of morality, says Yes to morality, to a laede-neminem morality and plays the flute: well then? is this person really—a pessimist? (Beyond Good and Evil, 186)

Was Schopenhauer a pessimist?
No, says Nietzsche. He wanted to be one, but he wasn’t.

Schopenhauer, of course, has at the centre of his philosophy the denial of the meaning of life. But Nietzsche views this metaphysical position (metaphysical, precisely because it denies the meaningful nature of existence) as a variation of the “ascetic ideal” (the ideal historically expressed par excellence in religion, notably in Christianity), which denies, defies, antagonizes earthly, “natural life”.

For Nietzsche, the only real pessimist, the only one who can really claim to have denied life and its meaning, is the man who commits suicide. Anything else, even the metaphysical denial of life and its meaning, is but another manifestation of the “will to power”, a militant attitude towards antagonistic forces, an affirmation of one’s existence. “Schopenhauer … needed enemies … his enemies seduced him back to existence again and again”, says Nietzsche. His enemies were “Hegel, woman, sensuousness, and the whole will for existence, for continuing on”.

Metaphysical nihilism and the ascetic ideal are but stratagems of the “will to power” aiming precisely at the preservation of life! They give meaning to suffering (for the problem, Nietzsche says, is not suffering in itself – it is man’s inability to find some meaning in it). So, the ascetic ideal makes suffering meaningful (mainly through guilt). By denying the meaning of life (but affirming the meaning of its suffering) the ascetic ideal makes the life of guilt-ridden man meaningful – he is tormented in order to pay for his sins – it binds him to life, giving him something he can believe in: the absence of meaning (because, as far as the instinct of life is concerned, the will to nothingness is better than the nothingness of will – “man will sooner will nothingness than not will”). And this is how the denial of life is transformed into a positive value that generates will to life (and this is how Schopenhauer managed to actually live for many-many years − playing the flute, “every day, after dinner” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil) − serving the will to power of the ascetic ideal and the denial of life!)

Nietzsche, of course, dislikes the New Testament (“you will already have guessed as much”). His scathing, scorchingly ironical critique is worth quoting, as it exemplifies his view of Christianity as a force that antagonizes what he deems the real values of natural life (plus, it’s a delicious example of his masterful polemics): “Here, it seems, there’s a lack of all good upbringing. How can people make such a fuss about their small vices, the way these devout little men do? … They even want to possess ‘the crown of eternal life’, all these small people from the provinces. But what for? What for? It is impossible to push presumption any further. An ‘immortal’ Peter: who could endure him? They have an ambition that makes one laugh … And the most appalling taste of this constant familiarity with God! … There are small despised ‘pagan people’ in east Asia from whom these first Christians could have learned something important, some tact in their reverence”

But Nietzsche sees even the “free spirits” of the modern world, science and even atheism as manifestations of the ascetic ideal: they share with religion the “belief in the truth” – truth as “a metaphysical value,a value of truth in itself” (and even the agnostics “worship the question mark itself as their God”).

* All quotes, except otherwise indicated, from The Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay: What do Ascetic Ideals Mean?


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2 thoughts on “Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; pessimism and the ascetic ideal.

  1. First reaction: Wow!

    Second reaction: A swirling confusion of half-thoughts, such as: It is a sad state of affairs if all we have are enemies; Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as torn halves (one finding meaning in the renunciation of the will, the other insisting that there is meaning only in an ever-greater affirmation of the will ) i.e. as aspects of life currently torn assunder, but that belong together; two blind men – both seeing the world as the product of a constitutive willing, failing to see that there might be something in the world that could call that hubristic project of empowerment into question; we need to hold onto a notion of truth as something that can break through the sphere of prejudice and habit and the scientific reduction of the world to number – a truth that we can experience; both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche assume that the individual is to save himself – insofar as he can be saved – overlooking the relationship between the individual and the social whole (the most difficult form of universality) – and perhaps here is a problem with Nietzsche’s reliance on physiology as the key – perhaps ultimately the problem of meaning has to do with a reconciliation between the individual and the social whole, but the problem cannot appear in that way withing S and N’s frameworks of reference; we live now within a global manifestation of the will to power that has passed the test of the eternal return – affirming an infinitely repeating cycle of creation and destruction, boom and bust, with a refusal of the validity of anything that might raise a claim against it – and it does not feel like the great health that Nietzsche envisaged.

    Great post.

    • Thank you for your very interesting and insightful “half-thoughts”.

      Nietzsche, actually, seems to me to come close to a conception of the truth that might be congruent to what you call for, when he says that “there is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’. And… the more eyes, different eyes we are able to use for [the] same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity'”. (Genealogy, Second Essay, 12). And although the relationship between the individual and the social whole is not perhaps his main concern, he does point out, in Human, All Too Human, that by “ceasing to treat oneself as a single rigid and unchanging individuum one takes an intelligent interest in the life and being of many others”. In short, I find his perspectivism and his affirmation of the whole of natural life as a point of departure for rethinking the individual-social nexus, because, after all, the will to power presupposes the affirmation of the Other, and a perspectival conception of truth can be incorporated into a narrative of an open society, able to withstand dissent.

      Material here for several posts! Thanks, again.

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