‘Noble’ Ascesis Between Nietzsche and Foucault

New Nietzsche Studies 2 (3/4):65-91 (1998)
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Abstract

This paper argues that Foucault’s The History of Sexuality contains an implicit but important interpretation of Nietzsche’s critique of the ‘ascetic ideal’. It suggests that Foucault undertakes a non-reductive synthesis of seemingly conflicting aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, on the one hand, its valorisation of the ‘Dionysian’ and, on the other hand, its enthusiasm for ‘self-disciplining’. The consequences of a failure to appreciate how Nietzsche’s thought combines these two themes is illustrated through a sketch of what is termed an ‘oppositional’ interpretation of his thought. This erroneously imposes the nature/culture distinction upon Nietzsche’s thought and reads its critique of morality in terms of ‘repression’, the ‘renunciation of instinct’ etc. An alternative, ‘economic’ interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought in which his ‘affirmation of the Dionysian’ and valorisation of self-disciplining are conjoined is outlined and recommended. Foucault’s interpretation of Nietzsche is presented as an example of such an ‘economic’ reading, in that it appreciates Nietzsche’s libidinal interpretation of self-denial. This combination of Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s thought is termed ‘noble ascesis’. This is illustrated through a reading of Foucault’s account of Greco-Roman ethics. Attention is drawn to how Foucault’s implicit interpretation of Nietzsche helps to clarify Nietzsche’s conception of the possibility of a ‘healthy’ appropriation of the ‘ascetic ideal’. The paper attempts to show how the ‘non-moral’ ethical practice Foucault retrieves from the classical world, on the basis of Nietzsche’s distinction between different forms of self-denial, emphasises the affective and libidinal investments of asceticism. This, in turn, is related to Foucault’s critique of the ‘repressive hypothesis’ and overcoming of the ‘repression/transgression’ model of the nature of power. However, the paper identifies some tensions between Nietzsche’s and Foucault’s accounts of asceticism and interpretations of the ethical practice of the Greco-Roman world and closes by considering whether or not these tensions can be resolved.

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Jim Urpeth
University of Essex

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