Hazem Saghieh

The ‘Ascetic Ideal:’ Power for US, Death for You!

In the third and final essay of his small book ‘The Genealogy of Morals’ (1887), Friedrich Nietzsche deals with what he called the “ascetic ideal,” which is embodied in priests and is most perfectly manifested in saints. Indeed, priests volunteer to inflict pain on themselves through solitude, chastity, mortification of the flesh, seeking agony, and glorifying poverty... In their mind, the world should be discarded and treated as if it were a mistake and an affront, and we should be drawn to what lies beyond the world (hinterwelt) and the afterlife.

This “ascetic ideal” of the priest (which Nietzsche also sees in the philosopher and the scientist) is an extension of his famous stance on Christianity, which he voiced on more than one occasion and in several books. And if there is no escaping, in any summary of complex ideas like those of Nietzsche, a degree of simplification and abruptness, then this becomes all but inevitable in the case of the German philosopher of nihilism in whose texts analysis, meditations, poetics, direct addresses to the reader, and oxymorons are intertwined.

The fact remains, in any case, that Nietzsche saw in Christian morality the antithesis of ancient Roman morality, which was manifested in the aristocratic warrior masters whose decisions in life sprung from their strength, not their weakness. As for the Christians and Jews living under the Roman empire, crushed and powerless, they turned their weakness into a virtue after failing to materially control their world, just like the fox in the fable who claims the grapes at the top of the tree are sour after failing to reach them. Christian morality, according to Nietzsche, is the morality of slaves and herds. It is embraced by the weak, the enslaved, and those with shortcomings of all kinds. However, it was this morality that dominated Western culture for two thousand years. It presented to the West a dangerous idea - everyone is equal in the eyes of God, regardless of their abilities. And so, with the victory of “Judea over Rome,” Christianity did great harm to Western culture. And while Nietzsche wanted to put an end to this state of affairs, his alternative was a return to the morality of the Homeric hero and the belligerent values of the ancient world. Only thus could superior human beings liberate themselves from the clutches of slave morality and the constraints of any metaphysical obligation.

Indeed, Christianity, as one of the fruits of Judaism, is a religion of priests. It turned to the subjugated masses, who took their revenge on the worrier masters who had subjugated them by developing a system of values antithetical to theirs. The Romans relied on their strength and desire for control to establish their order, and they did not hesitate to inflict pain on those in whom they saw weakness. Having shunned the dichotomy of good and evil, they opted instead for the dichotomy of power and impotence, which generates the highest and most superior form of man. However, through Christianity, which told them that there is no justice on this earth and that justice can only be found in another world, the subjugated took their revenge, glorifying their weakness and calling it strength. These ideas, per Nietzsche’s interpretation, reflect nothing, in fact, but the frustration, rage, and helplessness of the slaves, who turned these qualities into a fairy-tale that allows them to take revenge on their oppressors, if not in this world, which is wretched in any case, then in the next.

This Christian interpretation belittles life and leads us to hold the geniuses, creators, achievers, and powerful people among us in contempt, thereby depriving humanity of them. It does so in favor of a culture of pity and through inventing the “good and evil” dichotomy, by which “everything that raises the individual above the herd (…) is called evil.” It also invented the concept of a “conscience”: if it is natural for human beings to seek power and want to benefit from the weakness of others, then a bad conscience is the self-inflicted pain that stems from suppressing this desire, thereby stopping us from inflicting pain on others, which leaves us redirecting it towards ourselves.

Despite his hatred of the priests for their being the mediators of this process, the author of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ does not hide his admiration of them. For Nietzche, the task the priests take on also requires “will to power,” that is, Nietzsche’s cherished notion for man overcoming the chaos of life and imposing his order on it, which he saw as the supreme manifestation of humanity.

These religious clerics merely utilize the culture of herds and slaves for the benefit of their authority, which is practiced without an ounce of asceticism. This is evident in their copious readiness to accuse others of apostasy or condemn them to death. Furthermore, they lead the masses in their glorification of pain and shunning of life, empowering them by conferring paramount importance on their weakness, reveling in their power over the masses and becoming the absolute authority behind their morals and value systems. They thereby come to control and rule the herd using various kinds of myths and rhetorical techniques that enhance nothing but their standing. If anger and rejection were the motives for slave morality, the priest took hold of these sentiments and reformulated them mythologically before using them to impose control on the herd and forcing them into a culture in which guilt for sins no one had committed reigns supreme.

In other words, the cleric grows as a result of his belittling and weakening of others.

Nietzsche’s ideas left their mark on a number of the most prominent intellectuals in Europe, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler, existential and then postmodern movements, as well as busloads of poets and romanticists. However, in this position of his, if we subtract its ubermenschness, haughtiness, sadism, and its attempt to drive us back to nature, there remain ideas that remind us of situations we have always been familiar with, people that have always been part of our lives and in our societies: those who take it upon themselves to induce a hatred of life in the population and push it to death and martyrdom. With the other hand, however, they are anything but frugal in issuing rulings about “the life of this world” that make apostates and traitors out of others, consolidating their absolute authority over their compliant flock. And these same people, when they send others to their deaths, are neither killed nor martyred.

Do they deserve Nietzschean denunciation? Yes. Do they deserve our admiration for having a “will to power” that they are building over our corpses? No.