Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Asceticism and askesis

Same root, similar meanings, but very different.

This is Keith Ansell-Pearson on Nietzsche's understanding of suffering:

It is the meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, which accounts for the ‘curse’ which has lain over mankind and its history. Christianity placed suffering under the perspective of guilt and, in this way, served to deepen it by making it ‘more inward, more poisonous, more life-destructive.’ The will that is concealed in the ascetic ideal hides a hatred of the senses, of happiness, of beauty; it is a ‘longing to get away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wishing, from longing itself’.

I find this interesting because I'm increasingly drawn to the idea of askesis, which Foucault developed in a series of lectures late in his life. The central idea of askesis, of course - the search for self-formation, a way of becoming who one is, was developed by Foucault from a reading of Nietzsche.

In the passage I quote above, Nietzsche is identifying that Christian guilt which serves to deepen suffering - not only do we suffer, but we are made to feel that this suffering is in some way our fault and that it is the fair result of man's fall. In this way, Nietzsche argues, our suffering is internalised and turned on ourselves, thus magnifying it. The Christian asceticism, then, is a destructive force.

And yet the idea of philosophical askesis which, too, focuses the individual's attention on his inner self, is a force for positive good. It allows the individual to understand better who he is and how he may interact with humanity. Two closely related activities, each doing the same thing, turning one's attention inward, and yet one is a force of nihilism and the other a force of progress. It's an interesting paradox.

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