Nietzsche’s Nervous Ascetics: The Physiological Roots of the Ascetic Ideal

Journal of Nietzsche Studies 53 (2):163-180 (2022)
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Abstract

In this article, I explore Nietzsche’s account of the origins of the ascetic ideal in his Genealogy of Morality. I offer a reading of his claim that this ideal springs from an instinctive response to the sicknesses he describes as “physiological inhibition and exhaustion”, arguing that these sicknesses are primarily nervous conditions found among the priestly class who come up with the ascetic ideal, and periodically among “large masses of people”. The historical frequency of the latter outbreaks accounts for the popularity of the ideal. But the origin story is very much about the ascetic priest, and it is a story Nietzsche tells in bits and pieces over the course of the Genealogy. This article integrates these bits and pieces into one cohesive account. Finally, I consider how the priest’s more innocent ascetic lifestyle suggestions respond to the twin conditions of inhibition and exhaustion.

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