The Monk represents a distinct lifestyle, characterized by rigorous self-discipline and stringent restrictions. Their vegetarian meals show respect for all life, while a steadfast avoidance of intoxicants underscores their discipline. The days are marked by prolonged periods of silent meditation, a practice aimed at achieving enlightenment.
Such abstinence1 is upheld by certain fundamental truths. An acknowledgment of the truth and a combination of asceticism? The only path to Enlightenment.
1. Foundations of Asceticism
Asceticism can be broadly divided into two categories: True World Asceticism, exemplified by Christianity, and Nihilistic Asceticism, represented by Buddhism.
Christianity, along with many religions, is based on the concept of True Worlds2. This theory distinguishes between our existing reality, the Other World, and an ideal, actual reality, the True World. In religious context, the True World is often depicted as Heaven. Therefore, human existence is seen as a journey from the inferior earthly world to the superior Heaven.
In this context, asceticism serves as a tool to help individuals reach their heavenly destination. Thus, the imposed rules either deter sin or encourage virtue.
Conversely, Buddhism is built on the Four Noble Truths:
- The Truth of Suffering: Life involves suffering
- The Cause of Suffering: Desires lead to suffering
- The End of Suffering: Cessation of desires can end suffering
- The Path to End Suffering: The Noble Eight-Fold Path3
Unlike Christianity, which justifies suffering as a path to the promised never-land, Buddhism acknowledges suffering and aims to eliminate it. This goal is somewhat similar to Hedonism, though the methods are starkly different. Asceticism seems to stem from a place of avoidance or fear, steering clear of all indulgences to prevent the potential for suffering.
2. Nietzsche as the Monk
Picture a physically fragile person, wandering in a sparse dining room of a budget hotel in Sils Maria. This individual mostly eats fruits, abstaining from intoxicants like alcohol, coffee, and even milk. The days consist of intense writing or lengthy walks, a self-described meditation in thought. Physical ailments sometimes confine them to bed, enduring vomiting and cramps to the point of unconsciousness. Excruciating headaches threaten blindness. Yet, the commitment to solitude remains unbroken. There’s no friend for support during the years of nomadic life, no woman to comfort during nights marked by illness4.
Across the acts of this tragedy, which crash down and surge on like an avalanche, the isolated combatant stands alone beneath the stormy sky of his own destiny; nobody is alongside him, nobody is opposing him and no woman is there to momentarily relax the overstrung atmosphere with her presence. Every movement issues from him alone and he is its sole witness: the few figures who at the outset linger in his shadow can only accompany his heroic enterprise with gestures of dumb astonishment and alarm and little by little distance themselves from him as if from some danger. Not a single being dare properly enter the inner sanctum of that destiny; always Nietzsche speaks, struggles, suffers for himself alone. He addresses no one and no one responds. Worst of all: no one is even listening.Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig
This person seems much like a monk, but in reality, they are far from it, especially in terms of the conventional definition of a monk. Nietzsche often criticized asceticism in his work. Yet, in true Nietzschean style, his critique isn’t of the act itself but rather its origins.
3. The Linear Cycle of Asceticism
Let’s begin with Christianity. Here, the self-imposed rules and restrictions are all in anticipation of a non-existent world. It’s a futile goal to start with, and what’s worse, it strips the ascetic of all nobility.
Next, we move to Buddhism. It acknowledges suffering and shatters the illusions of Heaven. But what’s the solution? A relentless attempt to eliminate suffering, to effectively erase it from existence. Another veiled form of Nihilism.
Finally, the ideal state emerges. The Active Monk, Nietzsche in our case, practices asceticism from a place of abundance. It serves to assert one’s identity, to act on virtues that define oneself, thereby affirming life itself. This is an act of overcoming Nihilism, the Überwindung.
- severe self-discipline and avoiding all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.
- The Theory of True Worlds. Niranjan Krishna. (n.d.). https://niranjankrishna.in/2022/11/29/the-theory-of-true-worlds/
- Noble Eightfold Path. Wikipedia. (n.d.-a). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path
- Inspired heavily by Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig