John T Wilcox. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 35, Issue 4. October 1997.
As everyone knows, the dominant opinion is not always correct. Current scholarship, in all likelihood, makes assumptions which have not yet been questioned; and probably some of them will be seen to be false, once they have been examined. I will argue here that there is a dominant but erroneous assumption concerning the Third Essay in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. It will be obvious that correcting this error has some serious implications for almost all current interpretations of the essay.
After acknowledging, at the end of his Preface to the Genealogy, that some might find his new book “incomprehensible,” Nietzsche warns that “the fault … is not necessarily mine.” He assumes, he says, that readers have already worked hard at his earlier writings, themselves “not easy to penetrate,” and have been “wounded” and “delighted” by his Zarathustra. Then he begins one of several passages we must examine carefully:
In other cases, people have difficulty with the aphoristic form: this arises from the fact that today this form is not taken seriously enough. An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been “deciphered” when it has simply been read; rather, one has then to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis. I have offered in the third essay of the present book an example of what I regard as “exegesis” in such a case—an aphorism is prefixed to this essay, the essay itself is a commentary on it. (GM P 8)
The apparently simple question the present study asks is this: What aphorism is prefixed to the Third Essay? Or: What is the Third Essay an exegesis of, or a commentary on? It is remarkable that Nietzsche claims to devote a third of the Genealogy to an aphorism and its exegesis. And given the current concerns with style, including aphoristic style, and with reading, and with Nietzsche on style and reading, this claim alone about Essay III should make it of great contemporary interest-even if the title question of the essay, “What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?” were not also of great interest. But of course to profit from, or to appraise, Nietzsche’s lesson in exegesis, we must identify the aphorism he explicates. The thesis of the present paper is that, while some contemporary scholarship is noncommittal (perhaps out of honest uncertainty and scholarly scruple), the identification assumed by those who address the issue is clearly mistaken, if we interpret what Nietzsche writes in the most plausible way. An implication, not developed here but fairly clear, is that almost all current, substantial interpretations of Essay III need to be reconsidered. Those that misidentify the aphorism need revision, of course. Those that are noncommittal are at best incomplete (on the very point Nietzsche stresses in the Preface). But both the mistakes and the incompleteness have consequences, some of which will be implicit in what follows. I’ll mention one: it turns out that the identification of the aphorism reveals the structure of the essay, as Nietzsche understood it; and I think it highly unlikely that one could uncover that structure without seeing what aphorism is explicated (and reporting what one had seen). But the development of this and other implications must be left for other studies.
I will not summarize here all of the literature on Essay III, though I have read much of it, and edited some of it. As a shortcut, which I hope will be provisionally satisfactory, I’ll explore the selections in the 1994 anthology, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality, edited by Richard Schacht. The essays deal with genealogy, morality, and the Genealogy of Morals, all central topics in current Nietzsche scholarship. In defense of my selection of this book, let me note that it appeared recently; that Genealogy III is crucial to it; and that Professor Schacht, probably familiar to this journal’s readers, is a distinguished Nietzsche scholar and for many years now the Executive Director of the North American Nietzsche Society (NANS). His editorship of the volume guarantees that it is reputable. As we might expect, his contributors are almost all very well known scholars, known for their work on Nietzsche and for other scholarship; and the few younger, less well known contributors show their mettle. If the assumption I question here is prominent and unchallenged in Schacht’s volume, then we have good provisional evidence that it is prominent and unchallenged in most contemporary scholarship.
In fact, we do find the assumption in five of Schacht’s authors-and only one of them comes close to seeing that there could be an issue here. Apparently all five think it’s easy to identify the aphorism which Essay III explicates, for they all, without argument, say or imply that it is the epigraph of the essay—and this epigraph is the second passage we must examine carefully:
Unconcerned, mocking, violent-thus wisdom wants us: she is a woman and always loves only a warrior.
In Essay III, this passage appears in the usual place for a motto or epigraph, immediately after the title; and Nietzsche identifies it as extracted from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The five authors who think this is what the essay explicates are Arthur C. Danto, Claus-Artur Scheier, and Bernd Magnus, Jean-Pierre Mileur, and Stanley Stewart (the last three writing jointly)—all well-established Nietzsche scholars. Professor Magnus was the first executive officer of NANS, before Schacht succeeded him; and Professor Danto has been a Division president of the American Philosophical Association. All five have published widely and have published books on Nietzsche. So we have very prominent scholars making the assumption under scrutiny here. And no contributor to Schacht’s book challenges this assumption.
Professors Magnus, Mileur, and Stewart imply (403-404) and twice assert (378, 404) that the quotation from Zarathustra is what Essay III explicates. Danto expresses this opinion in his very first sentence (35), develops his ideas about that quotation for some eight pages (35-42), and finally returns to the quotation on the last page of his essay (48). And Professor Scheier discusses the quotation, and the relation of Essay III to it, three times (451, 454, 455), never showing any doubt that Nietzsche presents Essay III as an interpretation of that passage—even though, unlike the others, he admits that this assumption faces an enormous content problem (which I’ll develop later).
I will be arguing that their assumption is false. I’ll argue that the aphorism Nietzsche prefixed to Essay III, and which that essay presents a sample exegesis of, is instead most of Section I of the essay, beginning right after the epigraph. This is the third of the passages we must examine carefully. Here it is—and I have introduced into it capital letters to mark its parts, so that later we can see how carefully Essay III is structured, as an exegesis of precisely this passage; each letter identifies what I’ll call an “element” of the passage:
(A) What do ascetic ideals mean?; (B) In the case of artists they mean nothing or too many things; (C) in the case of philosophers and scholars something like a sense and instinct for the most favorable preconditions of higher spirituality; (D) in the case of women at best one more seductive charm, a touch of morbidezza in fair flesh, the angelic look of a plump pretty animal; (E) in the case of the physiologically deformed and deranged (the majority of mortals) an attempt to see themselves as “too good” for this world, a saintly form of debauch, their chief weapon in the struggle against slow pain and boredom; (F) in the case of priests the distinctive priestly faith, their best instrument of power, also the “supreme” license for power; (G) in the case of saints, finally, a pretext for hibernation, their novissima gloriae cupido, their repose in nothingness (“God”), their form of madness; (H) That the ascetic ideal has meant so many things to man, however, is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui: it needs a goal—and it will rather will nothingness than not will.
I argue that this is the prefixed aphorism which Genealogy III explicates. Almost all scholars today are silent on the issue or else show they assume that Genealogy III explicates its epigraph. Why do I think the dominant assumption is mistaken? Two factors might be mentioned immediately but only briefly, as telling in favor of neither alternative.
(1) When Nietzsche promises to explicate an aphorism in Essay III, he does not say that it is one he had composed; but since he has just noted that his readers have trouble with his aphorisms, we might expect him to prefix and explicate one he had written, not one by someone else. But this expectation will not help us decide the issue here, for both passages, the one I nominate as well as the one Schacht’s scholars assume, are written by Nietzsche.
(2) We should expect the aphorism in question to be located in some forward position, so that it would make sense for Nietzsche to say that it was “prefixed” to the essay—vorangestellt, placed before or at the front. Now certainly an epigraph, or for that matter a title, could be said to be placed at the front of an essay; each is far forward. Indeed, though Schacht’s scholars never give a reason for their assumption—because they never give a reason—I strongly suspect that it is because the epigraph comes so early, and because it is typographically isolated—as an epigraph normally is—that they have fallen into their assumption, apparently without realizing they have assumed anything. I think the location and typography of that epigraph have entrapped our scholars and “held them captive.” Assuming that the title was not part of the essay proper, they have leapt to the conclusion—the unexamined conclusion-that whatever came most immediately afterward must be the “prefixed” material. And since the epigraph is set off from what precedes and what follows it—and thus stands out, visually—it has seized and held their attention.
However, when we think about the underlying assumption, that the title is not part of the essay, we may go on to disturbing thoughts. For if the title is not part of the essay, then maybe its epigraph is not part of it, either. In that case, one could sensibly say that the essay proper begins immediately after, not with, its epigraph; that it begins with the opening of Section 1. But in that case, Section 1, or the first part of it, or something else beginning with the first sentence in Section 1—like the passage I claim is the prefixed aphorism—could be said to be placed at the front of the essay, vorangestellt. If we insist on the translation “prefixed,” then let’s remember that the prefix of a word is part of the word-the part placed at the front; so, by analogy, something prefixed to an essay could be the first part of that essay, the first few sentences; it would not have to precede them. So the question of location does not really decide the issue, any more than the question of authorship does; what I think Essay III explicates is also vorangestellt, prefixed, in as clear and natural a sense as is the essay’s epigraph—though apparently this possibility has not been considered, even, by most scholars.
Now for considerations which begin to tell, though not yet decisively, against the dominant view and in favor of my proposal.
(3) As I admit above, my candidate is not set off, typographically, so vividly as the epigraph is. My candidate is set off: it is the beginning of its section; and it is set off at the end by a dash; but I concede that these two distinctions do not make it so visually arresting as the epigraph, with its enviable position of isolation on the page. And I suspect the visual isolation of the epigraph has determined our scholars’ assumption. But Nietzsche never says he set off the aphorism typographically or visually; and as we begin our reading of the essay itself, we see that Nietzsche uses his text to set off what I claim is the aphorism, and to set it off far more decisively than mere typography could. For consider: immediately after he gives the aphorism-what I claim is the aphorism—he asks,
Am I understood? … Have I been understood?
And this is exactly the question he should ask about the aphorism he will explicate, since he said that he wants to help readers understand his aphorisms. And then he immediately imagines a reader answering,
… “Not at all, my dear sir!”
And this is exactly what the imagined reader should say, if the opening of Section I is the aphorism in question, because Nietzsche told us in the Preface that readers had trouble understanding his aphorisms. Then he responds to that imagined reader,
… “Then let us start again, from the beginning.” (GM III 1)
This again is pretty much what we should expect, if the opening of Section i is the aphorism, as I claim; because Nietzsche told us in the Preface that he would give an exegesis of his prefixed aphorism. Typically an exegesis does “start again,” and often “from the beginning,” and then it explicates elaborately some text already presented. If we are impressed with the way the epigraph is set off visually, here we have the opening set off textually, in terms of this imagined conversation about it. At least, this conversation certainly seems to be about the opening; it would be very odd for it to be about the epigraph, when it is located right after the opening. Of course, we need to read the rest of the essay, to see that Nietzsche does start over from the beginning, immediately after saying here that he will, and to see that what he then gives is an exegesis of the opening of Section 1, rather than an exegesis of the epigraph. Later I will show carefully that all this is true.
(4) But first we need to ask which passage is an aphorism; after all, in the Preface Nietzsche stresses the difficulty of “the aphoristic form,” says it’s the “aphorism” which needs “an art of exegesis,” and so promises to prefix “an aphorism” to the Third Essay. Is the epigraph of the essay really an aphorism? Or is the opening of Section 1 an aphorism? I do not think we can settle this point decisively, because I know of no scholarship which settles decisively what Nietzsche meant when he called something an aphorism. (Obviously writers use that term in somewhat different ways; the question is how Nietzsche used it.) But the evidence I will present opens up the possibility, at the very least, that Schacht’s authors are wrong; and it offers difficulties for their view which none of them have confronted.
In the Genealogy Preface itself, that Preface which sets up this whole enquiry, Nietzsche speaks of Human, All-Too-Human as an Aphorismen-Sammlung, a “collection of aphorisms” (GM P 2). So we definitely know something of what he was calling aphorisms when he wrote that crucial Preface. And the opening of Section 1 really does look like many of the highly compressed sections of those works of Nietzsche’s middle period, from Human, All-Too-Human through The Gay Science, which most Nietzsche scholars call aphoristic. And since the opening is so compressed, and hence hard to understand, we can see why it would require exegesis, why an art of exegesis, why “rumination,” would be required, as he says at the end of the Preface (GM P 8). (Later, when we see what he actually does with the passage, these claims will become even more clearly correct.)
On the other hand, it’s not so clear that the epigraph is an aphorism. The mere fact that Nietzsche wrote it does not make it one, despite some talk which suggests otherwise; he had a great many styles, not just an aphoristic style. Nietzsche said of himself, “I have many stylistic possibilities—the most multifarious art of style that has ever been at the disposal of one man” (EH III 4). Now he may have exaggerated there, as he often did; but certainly he wrote things that were not aphorisms. (What I’ve quoted above from the Genealogy’s Preface is not an aphorism; neither is the passage I’m about to quote.) Nor does the fact that the epigraph is from Zarathustra make it an aphorism; indeed, it inclines one, at least gently, to the opposite conclusion. Though Nietzsche praises himself extravagantly for the art of Zarathustra, he never, to my knowledge, says that the art there is an aphoristic art. In Ecce Homo, he stresses the dithyrambic nature of Zarathustra, not its aphoristic character (if in fact it has such a character). Zarathustra, Nietzsche said, rightly, is very different from all the rest of his works-including the one work he called aphoristic in the Genealogy Preface: “Suppose I had published my Zarathustra under another name … the acuteness of two thousand years would not have been sufficient for anyone to guess that the author of Human, All-Too-Human is the visionary of Zarathustra” (EH II 4). And I think it is very significant that in the Genealogy Preface, in the very paragraph where he promises to prefix an aphorism, speaking of the difficulties readers have had with his earlier works, he seems to make a distinction between Zarathustra and his aphoristic works: “Regarding my Zarathustra, for example, I do not allow that anyone knows that book [unless certain requirements are met]. In other cases, people find difficulty with the aphoristic form …” (GM P 8).
“In other cases”: though we can imagine another reading of this phrase, surely the most natural reading is that Nietzsche’s readers have two kinds of difficulties, one kind with Zarathustra, and a different kind with his aphoristic writings. That tells strongly against the epigraph’s being the prefixed aphorism, because it derives from Zarathustra. At the very least, it would be very odd, after such a paragraph, for Nietzsche to produce as an example of the “other cases” something extracted from Zarathustra.
Moreover, we have to face the fact that the epigraph does not appear in Zarathustra by itself but is a sentence drawn from one of Zarathustra’s speeches. We normally think of Nietzsche’s aphorisms, or anyone else’s, as relatively self-contained little art works with internal integrity. (Which is not to claim that Nietzsche’s aphorisms can be very well understood without studying the rest of his writings!) Could we, then, extract a line—one sentence—from one of Zarathustra’s speeches, and expect to get an aphorism, or what Nietzsche would call an aphorism? I doubt it; the primary unit in Zarathustra seems to be the speech, not the line within a speech.
Further light is thrown on the issue, I think, by asking how the scholars I’m criticizing talk about this epigraph. Given what they assume—since they think Essay III explicates the epigraph—and given Nietzsche’s stress on aphorisms as needing explication, one would expect these scholars to use the term “aphorism” in their accounts of the epigraph. Yet four of the five avoid the term—one quite emphatically—seeming to show in their language that they have doubts about what they assume.
Scheier refers three times to the extract from Zarathustra as a “verse” (454, 455), which is quite odd, since the speech is not a poem, with verses (nor is it scripture, with chapters and verses); once he speaks of the extract simply as “lines” (454); but he never calls it unambiguously an aphorism, as he should if he had no doubts. Even more telling: the closest he comes to that is in his first statement (451) of the assumption, and in what I think is his last (455); in both of those places he calls the epigraph an “aphorism”—but in quotation marks, as if granting the oddity of calling it that. And, while he avoids applying the term to the epigraph, he calls separate sections of Essay III aphorisms (449); since what I claim is the aphorism is most of Section 1, this means that Scheier virtually agrees with me about my candidate, as well as about his own.
Magnus and his collaborators, also, fail to call the epigraph an aphorism; they first refer to it simply as “a few lines from Zarathustra” (378); then they call it a “passage” (404). They never refer to it by the term which is crucial here. Danto alone shows no unconscious doubts on this score; he twice calls the quotation an aphorism (35, 48)—but Danto, we know from his other writings on Nietzsche, has always been prone to find “aphorisms” almost everywhere (and to find the arrangements of those “aphorisms” relatively arbitrary). So Danto’s testimony has less weight than that of the others; and all four of the others distance themselves from the crucial term. It might not mean much if I failed to call the epigraph an aphorism; I might be biased. But Schacht’s scholars should have a bias in the opposite direction; and when four of the five avoid the term, with one of them clearly rejecting it, we have more evidence that the epigraph is not well characterized as an aphorism. And now we can bring an extremely powerful consideration into play.
(5) Nietzsche says that an aphorism needs “exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis,” and that Essay III is “an example of what I regard as ‘exegesis’ in such a case … the essay itself is a commentary. .” (GM P 8). Notice the word he uses three times here, and italicizes once. Now: Is it plausible to call Essay III an exegesis of (or a commentary on) its epigraph? Or could one, on the other hand, plausibly call Essay III an exegesis of, or a commentary on, what I have quoted from the beginning of Section 1? Let’s approach this issue in stages, beginning with a clarification of the terms involved.
(A) The translation here is Walter Kaufmann’s. The term Nietzsche uses three times is Auslegung. Kaufmann translates it as “exegesis,” which seems satisfactory; Scheier says “interpretation,” which might also seem sensible. In this essay I sometimes say “explication,” which is somewhat similar to “exegesis,” but provides a verb form, “explicate.” Nietzsche’s term Commentar is translated noncontroversially as “commentary.” Nietzsche seems not to distinguish here, as Germans would in.some contexts, between Auslegung and Commentar; this is one reason I slightly prefer Kaufmann’s language over Scheier’s—“exegesis” and “commentary” seem related in the right way. On the other hand, there is a reason to prefer Scheier’s—word: for Auslegung is a central term in Nietzsche, so scholars need to track its use carefully, and in many passages (not this one) “interpretation” is clearly the better translation. Indeed, when Auslegung finally appears in the Genealogy proper, in Essay III, “interpretation” seems required. But there are two crucial differences between the Preface passage and those passages in Essay III.
In the Preface, Nietzsche wants-thinks his readers need-an Auslegung, and an art of Auslegung, so that his aphorisms can be read well, understood, comprehended. Notice that writings-literally writings-are in question; writings “not easy to penetrate”; writings where the “form” (aphoristic) causes “difficulty.” And the Auslegung, achieved only with effort, learning, and time, is meant to have cognitive force, to be intellectually helpful, necessary even, in “penetrating” or “deciphering” those writings. But in Essay III proper, in the places where the word Auslegung appears, Nietzsche is never referring to writings; and the Auslegungen there are the opposite of helpful-in every single passage, they are what Nietzsche is trying to transcend. So there are virtues to Kaufmann’s strategy: translate Auslegung in the late sections as “interpretation,” but differently in the Preface—as “exegesis,” which fits the focus on writings and also the connection with Commentar. My term “explication” has similar merits.
However we translate the word, Nietzsche’s stress on the need for Auslegung in order that his aphorisms be understood counts against any loose connection, like that between a slogan, “To thine own self be true,” and the many biographies which might be said to illustrate that slogan, or even to “interpret” it in some thin sense, just by being about people who have been true to themselves. We could well understand the slogan without any of those biographies. It also means that Nietzsche is not distancing himself from the crucial terms here, using them ironically, or anything of the sort. It is true that the third or last time Auslegung appears in the Preface, he places it within quotation marks; but I do not think the context allows us to see that as distancing. Nietzsche seems merely to be moving into what Carnap called the formal mode: “Ich habe in der dritten Abhandlung dieses Buchs ein Muster von dem dargeboten, was ich in einem solchen Falle ‘Auslegung’ nenne”: “I have offered in the third essay of the present book an example of what I call ‘exegesis’ in such a case.” I see no suggestion here that Nietzsche calls “Auslegung” what other people would call something very different. Even when all are speaking of explications of texts, different writers might not call exactly the same sort of explication an “Auslegung.” So it makes sense for Nietzsche to recognize that fact, in saying that his essay is an example of what he calls “Auslegung.” But it does not follow that he uses the term in any strange, idiosyncratic, or novel sense. Given the context, we have every reason to expect his Auslegung to be of a familiar kind.
An exegesis, normally and in this case, aims to clarify a text, to aid a reader’s understanding. Where the text is hi highly compressed, as an aphorism is, an exegesis may well be a good deal longer than the text it explicates. Nietzsche stressed, often, the compression of his own writing. In the very speech which provides the epigraph here, his Zarathustra says: “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks-and those who are addressed, tall and lofty.” But Nietzsche implies in the Genealogy Preface, and elsewhere, that most readers do not have long legs. So we can guess that his exegesis of an aphorism would aid those who must take more but shorter steps, not requiring them to make the peak-to-peak strides that a good aphorism requires of its best readers. This implies that his exegesis will be longer than what it explicates. And consider the following: “My writings are difficult; I hope this is not considered an objection? To understand the most abbreviated language ever spoken by a philosopher … I have to be diluted, liquefied, mixed with water, else one upsets one’s digestion … I am brief; my readers themselves must become long and comprehensive.” We find here the same defensiveness and defiance about being hard to understand that we found in the Genealogy Preface. And the talk here about his work being abbreviated, and needing to be expanded, “diluted,” echoes Zarathustra’s talk about mountain peaks and long legs—only the metaphors are different. So, absent any evidence to the contrary, we would expect Nietzsche himself, when he gives an exegesis of one of his aphorisms, to expand it, dilute it, make it long and comprehensive. What I will show is that he does nothing of the kind with the epigraph of Essay III, but exactly that with the first part of Section 1, and that he signals repeatedly and clearly in the essay itself that this is precisely what he is doing. Whatever may be the case with respect to the issues discussed above, nothing could be clearer than that Essay III gives an exegesis of the first part of Section 1 and no exegesis of the epigraph. These facts by themselves ought to be virtually decisive.
(B) Though the scholars we are examining think the essay explicates its epigraph, we find there nothing at all that could be called an exegesis or commentary of the epigraph, in any normal sense, or in the sense we can expect, given the considerations above. The essay never mentions the epigraph and never gives a discussion of its key words or phrases, or any explanation of its meaning, or any elaboration or “dilution” of it. One might hold that this is not surprising, since the epigraph is fairly clear as it stands, without an exegesis; but its clarity is a further embarrassment for the standard view. For if it needs no explication, how can it be an example of what in Nietzsche is hard to understand? Why should he give an exegesis of such a passage? And indeed he does not.
But if one wished to argue the other side, and say that there are some aspects of the epigraph which could be clearer, or could be illuminated by exegesis, I would not disagree. For example, we might wonder who “us” refers to, when Zarathustra says that wisdom wants “us” to be “[u]nconcerned, mocking, violent.” Or why Nietzsche italicizes “us” in the epigraph, especially since he had not done so earlier, in Zarathustra. Or whether Zarathustra means this “violence,” being a “warrior,” etc., in some gentle-Nietzschean way, referring to spiritual or intellectual warfare, or whether he means that wisdom loves only a “warrior” of the Wehrmacht type. Moreover: the extract comes from a speech in Zarathustra called “On Reading and Writing”; we might wonder what light that context throws on its meaning-and an exegesis would surely bring that context to bear on the gentle/Wehrmacht issue, at least. Or we might ask why wisdom is personified as female, and what this says about Nietzsche’s famous “misogyny.” And so on. There are a lot of sensible questions which a good exegesis of the epigraph would answer—and I refer my readers to the many interesting books on Zarathustra for attempts to answer such questions; and a lot of scholarly works on Nietzsche, even if they do not focus on Zarathustra, mention this line and say something by way of exegesis of it; the questions I’ve given here are staples of Nietzsche scholarship. But there is absolutely nothing in Essay III which answers any of these questions, or which even raises them. And my point is not merely that I do not find any passage in Essay III which addresses such questions; the scholars I am criticizing fail to offer a single passage which they think addresses such questions. The conclusion is inescapable: Essay III is not an exegesis of its epigraph—not if “exegesis” means anything like what it normally means. And we have every reason to think it does, where Nietzsche uses it in the Preface, explaining what he will do in Genealogy III.
I’d like to add this point: that an essay provides no exegesis of its epigraph should not surprise us, unless we have some special reason to expect one. The present essay gives no exegesis of its epigraph; I hope none is needed. Authors use epigraphs for many different purposes, which do not always, or even usually, require exegeses. (Later I will sketch the purposes of Nietzsche’s epigraph.)
(C) On the other hand, nothing could be clearer than that Essay III does give an elaborate, element-by-element exegesis of the opening of its Section 1, in the sense of “exegesis” which we have every reason to expect. We have already seen the dialogue with an imagined reader, in which Nietzsche offers to “start again, from the beginning,” because the reader did not understand the opening material. Now when we read Essay III looking for its structure, we find that the structure mirrors almost perfectly the structure of that opening, from its beginning to its end. We find Nietzsche quoting and paraphrasing key words, phrases, and whole clauses from Section 1, at the main transitions in the essay. The opening aphorism moves from peak to peak; Essay III “dilutes” it, makes it more digestible, provides for readers with short legs. It is exactly what a Nietzschean exegesis of a Nietzschean aphorism should be. What follows is an outline of that exegesis. I use here the letters introduced above for the elements of the aphorism.
As Section 2 opens, Nietzsche repeats the question I marked as A, the first element: “What do ascetic ideals mean?” He repeats this verbatim, without the slightest modification, even following it with the same punctuation (a dash). This is certainly an appropriate way to begin an exegesis, especially if we are to “start again, from the beginning.” Then he moves immediately to “an individual case that I have often been asked about,” the case of “an artist like Richard Wagner”; this lets a reader know Nietzsche is about to give an exegesis of element B, which referred to ascetic ideals in “the case of artists.” Through Sections 2, 3, 4, and part of 5, he develops some of his ideas about Wagner’s puzzling relations to ascetic ideals, with some comparisons to other artists, and some generalizations on the issues involved. Then at the beginning of Section 5, he repeats, almost verbatim, the question in element A, and the partial answer given in element B, changing B only to read, “In the case of an artist, as we see, [ascetic ideals mean] nothing whatever! … Or so many things it amounts to nothing whatever.” What he has said so far clearly explains, clearly is an exegesis of, clause B of the aphorism, and his language appropriately echoes the language of what he explicates.
Then, as we might expect from element C of the aphorism, he moves to the case of philosophers; and Section 5 explains at least two connections between artists and philosophers, making the transition from B to C plausible. He deals with philosophers, focusing on Schopenhauer, in Sections 5 through 10. This topic is just what the prefixed aphorism presaged; the only mild departure here is that element C of the aphorism spoke of “philosophers and scholars,” while the related part of the exegesis focuses on philosophers, leaving out a separate discussion of scholars. But an exegesis does not have to cover everything; and much of what he says here, especially in Section 9, clearly applies to all modern scientists, scholars, and “technicians and engineers” (GM III 9), not just to philosophers. At the end of Section 7, Nietzsche repeats element C, not verbatim this time, but in a paraphrase easily recognized as such: “the philosopher sees in [the ascetic ideal] an optimum condition for the highest and boldest spirituality and [he] smiles…”
Section 10 ends with a reference to the future of philosophy, which is appropriate, if Nietzsche is concluding his discussion of philosophers, since Section 5 through most of Section lo dealt with philosophers of the past. The end of Section 10 also contains a suggestion about how “the ascetic priest” has been related to the philosopher; this suggestion is important for our present study, because it provides the motive for another modest departure from what we might have expected in the structure of his exegesis. It gives a motive for his moving from element C to element F.
It’s because of the philosopher-priest relationship that Nietzsche skips temporarily over the topics of elements D (women) and E (the majority) and moves in Section 11 to element F, the case of (ascetic) priests. After this section devoted to them, he asks in Section 12 what philosophy (element C) would look like under the spell of the priestly spirit (F)—developing a different relationship between priests and philosophers—and then in Section 13 he says, “But let us return to our problem,” and moves to a deeper level of analysis, beginning to blend his treatment of elements F and E, priests and the majority, with a focus now on the majority; this continues in Sections 14 through 22, with a bit of attention to women (element D) and some return to philosophy (element C); by the time he reaches Section 23, the issue in element H appears, and element C receives an important new development, continued in Sections 24 through 28; along the way we find more references to elements B and E; and the final section focuses on the final element (H) of the aphorism, concluding with a virtual quotation, repeating as its final clause almost verbatim the aphorism’s final clause: “And, to repeat in conclusion what I said at the beginning: man would rather will nothingness [i.e., be ascetic] than not will.”
Clearly, Essay III is an exegesis of the first part of its Section 1. Nietzsche comments on, interprets, explicates every element of that material except element G, with its reference to saints. And when he discusses element C, he discusses philosophers much more than scholars. Aside from these two anomalies, he provides a very full exegesis of his opening aphorism—if the opening aphorism is what I say it is. And an exegesis does not have to discuss, or discuss in equal depth, every single element in the text it explicates, so the two anomalies are minor and constitute no objection to my thesis. But one will find in Essay III no exegesis at all of what Schacht’s scholars say is explicated there. That is an insuperable objection to their view, the orthodox view.
(6) How do Schacht’s authors cope with the manifest absence of an exegesis of the epigraph? Except perhaps for Scheier, as we will see below, they do not openly acknowledge the embarrassing fact; I regard this as highly significant. Either they have not noticed the absence, or they have noticed and chosen not to confront the problem; either way there is a failure of scholarship. But two features of what they do discuss are relevant.
(7) I have remarked above how, except for Danto, they avoid Nietzsche’s crucial term, “aphorism,” when speaking of the epigraph. In a similar manner, only this time including Danto, they avoid Nietzsche’s other crucial terms, “exegesis” and “commentary.”
Magnus and his colleagues never use the term “exegesis.” And what they do with Nietzsche’s word “commentary” is instructive. They mention the opening of the Preface to the Genealogy—“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge”—and they compare Nietzsche’s men of knowledge to “critics intent on literature” (rather than on criticism, I think they mean); then they say that this comparison of theirs is “particularly appropriate for a book culminating in a chapter that presents itself as a ‘commentary’ [sic] on a few lines from Zarathustra” (378). So while defending their comparison, with the use of the assumption I’m attacking here—that Essay III explicates its epigraph they feel it necessary to use quotation marks when stating their assumption they write “commentary” within scare quotes. I think this shows some awareness that the assumption is not literally true, as I hope I have shown it is not.
(And why say the chapter “presents itself” as a “commentary”? Why not say it is a commentary on the epigraph? That is what would be true, if their assumption were correct.)
And Danto, instead of saying, as Nietzsche does, that Essay III is an exegesis of something, or a commentary, asserts that Nietzsche says it’s a “gloss” on the prefixed aphorism (35). So Danto, too, slides away from the language that Nietzsche actually uses. A gloss is not, normally, an exegesis or a commentary, and I would think Danto knew that. Perhaps, like the others, Danto had doubts about his own assumption, and was at least vaguely aware of those doubts. Why else alter Nietzsche’s language?
Of all of Schacht’s authors, however, Scheier is eventually the most open and explicit-by far-in his rejection of Nietzsche’s actual language. He first says Nietzsche gives a “hint” in the Preface that in Essay III he will provide an interpretation of a prefixed aphorism; we know, of course, that Nietzsche asserts he will do that, he does not just hint that he will. This softening of Nietzsche’s assertion into a mere “hint” is on a level with the other scholars’ softening of a commentary into a “commentary” and an exegesis into a gloss. Such language helps them hide, perhaps even from themselves, the looseness of their reading of the Genealogy.
And Scheier, like the others, assumes without argument that the prefixed “aphorism” (his quotes) is the epigraph, the extract from Zarathustra. But then, unlike the other four, he confesses outright that what he assumes Nietzsche to mean is “perplexing”: He says that Nietzsche’s “hint” “may strike a reader … as rather perplexing” (451). It seems not to occur to Scheier that what is perplexing is what he assumes, not what Nietzsche says; still he deserves credit for seeing clearly and saying candidly that what he thinks Nietzsche means is rather perplexing. It is; for, as we saw above, I find, and Schacht’s scholars report, absolutely nothing in Essay III that is an exegesis of, or a commentary on, its epigraph, in any sense of those terms which one might expect here.
Scheier’s claim then, after he sees the perplexing nature of what he thinks Nietzsche means, is that although Nietzsche did not really interpret the epigraph in Essay III, he “could pretend to have interpreted” it there (454). In consequence, Scheier speaks of Nietzsche’s “purposefully leading the reader astray,” and of “the calculated ‘rationalization’ [sic] of the intense relation between the verse [sic] … and the third part of the Genealogy as the ingenuous interpretation of an ‘aphorism’ [sic].” (455) However contorted this prose, however imprecise its language, and however much it mistakes Scheier’s—unexamined assumption for what Nietzsche actually says, its implication is devastating for the view I am criticizing: for Scheier admits here that Essay III is an interpretation of its epigraph (if it is one at all) only in some strange, attenuated sense. Scheier openly concedes this central point, just as the others, by their lapses from Nietzsche’s actual language, implicitly concede it: Essay III is not—not in any ordinary sense, at least—an exegesis of its epigraph. And no one of Schacht’s five authors has brought himself to say flatly that it is, though what they assume commits them to this untruth.
(8) But of course there is some relationship between the epigraph and the essay, unless Nietzsche is a very poor writer, which he is not. And all of Schacht’s authors discuss that relationship, some at very great length. Space limitations will not allow me to explore in detail what they say. Some of it is sensible; but a careful reading will reveal more of the scholarly imprecision that I have noted above; and nothing they say, even when sound, makes the essay an exegesis of its epigraph.
Consider: one truth some of them recognize is that Essay III is a “violent” writing. (I would say that all of the Genealogy is “violent,” and that’s why Nietzsche calls it, at least four times, “a polemic.”) It is warlike. So Essay III (like the rest of the Genealogy) fits this extract from Zarathustra, which praises warriors, violence, etc. (where they are found in writing, that is; remember the title of the speech: “On Reading and Writing”). Moreover, if we make the assumption, plausible in a Nietzschean context, that violence etc. express deep aspects of our nature; and if we interpret asceticism very broadly, as probably Nietzsche does; then asceticism includes a rejection of violence etc., and not just of the usual sensual pleasures, indolence, and so on. In that case, the epigraph and Essay III attack the same target-asceticism. But none of this makes the essay an exegesis of anything, much less of its epigraph. All that follows is that the epigraph is an appropriate motto for the project—which is to explicate the violent opening section, and thereby to answer the title question: “What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?”
It is of course ironic, and amusing, that Nietzsche’s lesson in reading has itself been so badly misread. But there have been many misreadings for the old yes-sayer’s ghost to laugh about in its first century.