On Asceticism

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asceticism / attunement / commerce / desire / exteriority / instinct / metaphysics / Nietzsche / noise / nothingness / spirit / strength / Thought


We know what the three great catchphrases of the ascetic idea are: poverty, humility, and chastity. If we now look closely at the lives of all great, prolific, inventive spirits we’ll always rediscover all three there to a certain degree. Not at all (this is self-evident) as if it were something to do with their “virtues”—what does this kind of man have to do with creating virtues?—but as the most appropriate and most natural conditions of their best existence, their most beautiful fecundity.

It is indeed entirely possible that their dominating spirituality at first had to set aside an unbridled pride or the reins of a wanton sensuality or that they perhaps had difficulty enough maintaining their will for the “desert” against an inclination for luxury, for something very exquisite, as well as a lavish liberality of heart and hand. But their spirituality did it, precisely because it was the dominating instinct, which achieves its own demands in relation to all the other instincts and continues to do so. If it did not, then it would no longer dominate. Hence, this has nothing to do with “virtue.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals III.8

In the third and final essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues the ascetics’ isolated withdrawal into the “desert” of chastity, poverty, and so on, has nothing to do with his, or for that matter, any “virtue” at all. What is really concealed behind the will to renunciation? Is there a terrible strength behind this veil of humility? What is gained by the voluntary withdrawal into obscurity?

Or is there rather some terror which must be escaped, some great trauma which precedes the ascetics’ flight? In fact, it is the worldly situation itself which drives the independent to withdraw. The noisy world of appearances tantalizes and terrifies the classical philosopher, the ascetic tout courte, and that which he negates through his existence. It must be degenerate, corrupted; there must be a pure world. In this maxim, he founds a unique subjectivity which is no longer solely of “this” world, but also not yet really of the “other.”

The ascetics’ strongest instinct is to affect this opening in the fabric of reality by means of a negation of the world, his desires, and his body. In this way an “attunement” to the voice of being-as-such becomes possible, even a moral obligation which we must love for its own sake. In this way ascetics’ spiritual path of renunciation is his right to exist: for a long time, the only way one could be a philosopher was to withdraw into some desert or another, some degrading form of categorical denial. Have brighter, sunnier atmospheres really prevailed in the meantime, that we have reached the day when such vengeful self-torture is no longer already spiritual greatness?

Where, indeed, are we today with regards to the value of morality? The dominant instinct among those spirits who invent ascetic values remains a (spiritual) desire to withdraw from the real world itself and from our own unconscious desires. The ascetic fits Lacan’s schema, a double-barred subject — the ascetic desires a negation of his connection to the world. The object which bars his “true” enjoyment is his own desire; his desire is therefore paradoxically the negation of his connection to his desire. This structure bears reflection; for all the resentment and negativity which the rejection of sexual desire alone implies, it is nonetheless ubiquitous in human culture. The rejection of desire produces a kind of temporary short-circuit of subjective and objective properties, allowing the material and non-material to exchange properties — not only figuratively but in terms of incorporeal transformation — a kind of opening-onto-alterity, or the principle of spiritual evolution itself. Metaphysics consists precisely in the turning away from the real world, i.e., on the premise that the “real world” is a lie.

What is the meaning of ascetic values? This “withdrawal to the desert” is not on account of some real “virtue,” but on the contrary: the ascetic is always turning to escape from the real, the excessive “noise” of the polis — just as the dominant instinct within Heraclitus’ spirit drove him to seek quiet repose, negating the “apparent world” precisely so that the true voice or void of being can be heard (change.) Thus beneath the calm respose and silent exterior of the philosopher, we find churning a half-conscious, deep-seated and profound terror — an urgent will to silence and towards nothingness, combined with a deep and creative hatred of the degeneration and corruption of the human species — our “anthropic” bias. What is it that the strong, independent spirit runs away from? The sick, the weak and the unhealthy — the degeneration of the species, the decline of the conditions for the proliferation of higher types, this is his horror; thus above all he fears whatever does not allow peace and quiet, for silence is that which independent thinking requires above all. Noise silences the voice of the spirit. Hence the spiritually independent always seek isolation, an escape from the the distracting noise of commerce and politics (the democratic chatter of the “Ephesians.”) This flight has nothing to do with “virtue” — but precisely with engendering the best conditions for the expression of a dominant instinct.

Strong natures instinctively avoid those conditions which prohibit their proliferation, and naturally seek those which support the best existence. But these spirits who renounce the world — are they simply terrified to cope with reality? Nietzsche seems to say that even though self-deception is involved here, it still takes spiritual strength to renounce the common world,” and to assert an ideal world above it — in some ways this ascetic principle is the only way spiritual evolution is possible. First we must escape the noisy multitudes; without this turning away, singular truths disappear into appearances. The noisy intercourse of human beings blocks our ability to listen to anything in particular at all; the clamor and chaos of “today” deafens us, and makes our souls mute.

Living independently means going out of your way to escape the “daily market junk,” of anything to do with “today” — and this asceticism has peace and quiet as its reward, the development of a free spirit which honours what is still, cold, noble, distant, immemorial — “in general everything at the sight of which the soul does not have to defend itself or tie itself up.” We can speak to these spirits without having to shout, but a quiet repose in the desert, an escape into silent nothingness, is required. Nietzsche writes: “Let us hear only the sound which a spirit makes when it speaks. Every spirit has its own sound and loves its own sound.” (GOM, III.8) The noise of the spirit: not, for instance, merely to hear the words a man says, but to hearken towards the underground world of desires expressed mutely in them. Or again: not simply to read the letters and words on the page, but to conduct an analysis of the soul of the writer — reading is a technique best performed slowly.

The Author

mostly noise and glare

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