Investing in the Classics

Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: On the Ascetic Ideal – Part I

Please note that for the purposes of this analysis, I use the Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen translation of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. I use the notation (X:N) to cite passages, where X refers to the essay number and N refers to the chapter. Please refer to previous analyses (First Treatise & Second Treatise) which I build upon.

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In the Third Treatise of On the Genealogy of Morality (German: Zur Genealogie der Moral) Nietzsche turns his attention toward the ultimate end of his self-ascribed polemic, that of the value of our current morality itself. Nietzsche posits that today’s morality is one of the asceticism; which can be loosely described as a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals as it is employed in the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist religions. The coda to Nietzsche’s introduction of the ascetic ideal means very little in itself other than that it is result for humanity’s need to have some other goal; hence, it is capable of facilitating either the attainment of the most sublime intellectualism, that of the philosopher, or the most despotic and nihilistic state, that of common man. In this analysis, I will focus the ascetic ideal in its relationship to that of the investor, which is analogous to the philosopher as seen by Nietzsche’s description. I argue that the ascetic ideal can lead to erudition and separates value pretenders from genuine investors.

 

Nietzsche opens the Third Treatise with an epithet to an earlier work, one of many explicit connections to his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Carefree, mocking, violent – thus wisdom wants us: she is a woman, she always loves a warrior” (III Epithet). My interpretation of this all-important apercu is that wisdom demands a certain kind of courage to desire it, boldness to seek it out, and heroic effort to attain it. Knowledge is carefree and mocking, it is indiscriminate to what old values and beliefs it destroys in the process of discovery and attainment. This aphorism works on many level; first, it can be seen as a self-reflexive acknowledgement by Nietzsche’s as he discourses on and critiques the ascetic ideal, and secondly, it applies for the philosopher who is the exception to the critique of the ascetic ideal, and thus its redeemer. In regards to this latter point, this epithet will remunerate readers as to how the philosopher is differentiated from the actor and the common man.

 

Following the epithet, Nietzsche begins with an inquiry: what is the ascetic ideal? In doing so, Nietzsche asserts that it means many things as it is used by a myriad of psyches, ergo it has a multiplicity of outcomes. As Nietzsche asks:

“What do ascetic ideals mean? – Among artists nothing or too many different things; among philosophers and scholars something like a nose and instinct for the most favorable preconditions of higher spirituality… among the psychologically failed and out of sorts (among the majority of mortals) an attempt to appear to oneself to be ‘too good’ for this world, a holy form of excess, their principal instrument in the battle with slow pain and with boredom… the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man, however, is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui: it needs a goal, – and it would rather will nothingness than not will” (III:1).

Ascetic ideals mean different things to different people, as it is more of a means to an end, to any end. Indeed, the ascetic ideal represents the something of the byproduct of humanity’s need to will for some end, for any end even if that end is a will to nothingness, a will to nihilism. For the investor, as is for the philosopher, it represents a means to attain wisdom and independence from the short-term mania of Wall Street and Mr. Market. For the value pretenders, bankers (both Wall Street and in the illustrious Federal Reserve), pundits and celebrity-activists, the latter being the highest formulation of these deceitful and pernicious actors, the ascetic ideal is something which they reject, or employ for mere appearance in order to hoax common man. The layman speculator, Nietzsche’s common man, is an individual for whom thinking is too dangerous and strenuous.

 

The layman speculator prefers the ascetic ideal for they’d rather will anything and everything, which is why the artists use the ascetic ideal from time to time as it is the most efficacious tool for herding sheep. This is also why the ascetic ideal means so little to the artists, as Nietzsche writes:

“What then do ascetic ideals mean? In the case of an artist, as we have grasped by now: absolutely nothing! … Or so many things that is as good as absolutely nothing! … Let us first of all eliminate artists: they are far from standing independently enough in the world and against the world for their valuations and the changes in these deserve interest in themselves! In all ages they have been valets of a morality or philosophy or religion; quite apart from the fact that, unfortunately, they have often enough been the all-too-pliant courtiers of their disciples and patrons, and flatters with a good nose for old or new rising powers. At the very least they always need a protective armor, a backing, a previously established authority: artists never stand by themselves, standing alone goes against their deepest instincts” (III:5).

These artists, these celebrity-activists, value pretenders, bankers and pundits, present themselves as contrarians but are not genuine. Instead, they pander to the markets and merely reflect the sentiment of the herd at the time just as Nietzsche’s artists are the valets of the predominant religion or morality. This is because these artists rely on the approval and praise of the herd in order to validate their actions, whether they be activist campaigns, TV ratings or otherwise. The activists are becoming ever more herd like as they seek to find strength and consensus in numbers among themselves, in hopes of further hoaxing the markets. Activists do not create new values or further the philosophy of investing, rather they pander to expectations and the market’s risk appetite. This becomes apparent when the herd sentiment changes quicker than these con-artists can shift their bets, and they are exposed to be swimming just as naked when low tide returns. This is one simple way of identifying the artist, in all its shapes, from the investor.

 

Nietzsche then turns to the figure of the philosopher and its relationship to the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche asserts that every animal, humans included, “instinctively strives for an optimum of favorable conditions under which it can vent its power completely and attain its maximum in the feeling of power” (III:7). Humans are ultimately guided by their will to power more so than anything else, the highest feeling of attainment. As such, “just as instinctively, and with a keenness of scent that ‘surpasses all understanding,’ every animal abhors troublemakers and obstacles of every kind that do or could lay themselves across its path to the optimum” (III:7). While the aims of each individual’s will to power is idiosyncratic to each person’s psychological composition, the drive of the will to power itself is universal according to Nietzsche. Thus it is no surprise what the ascetic ideal means for the philosopher:

“What, accordingly, does the ascetic ideal mean for a philosopher? My answer is – one will have guessed it long ago: at its sight the philosopher smiles at an optimum of the conditions for the highest and boldest spirituality – in this he does not negate ‘existence,’ rather he affirms his existence and only his existence” (III:7).

The ascetic ideal provides the optimal set of conditions under which the philosopher can flourish by removing the distractions that befit the artist, as such the philosopher gains independence from the herd. In separating himself from the herd, the investor and the philosopher are able to affirm only their ways of existence, thereby achieving an aberrant view of the world beyond the socially constructed and acceptable norm. In analyzing the relationship of the philosopher to the ascetic ideal, it becomes necessary to understand the optimum conditions that their will to power seeks. Of the philosophers, Nietzsche writes:

“They are thinking all the while of what is most indispensable precisely to them: freedom from compulsion, disturbance, noise, from business, duties, cares; clarity in the head; dance, leap, and flight of ideas; good air, clear, free, dry, as in high places is, in which all animal being becomes more spiritual and acquires wings” (III:8).

The investor and philosopher both see wisdom and independence from compulsion, short-term noise, and mania as indispensable. These are the essential conditions of their highest and boldest spirituality, the ability to think the free, deep, and clear. Hence, the genuine investor only finds good clear air away from the mania of New York, where thinking is liberated from Wall Street’s straitjacket. For the sake of intellectual honesty, it is worth noting that Nietzsche is critical of philosophers who took the asceticism to excessive levels in chastity, poverty, and humility.

 

The resounding theme of the investor, as seen by the philosopher, is to steer away from the marketplace, the place where the artists and the rabble reign. Nietzsche asserts that philosophers need to find their ‘deserts.’ Nietzsche writes:

“their dominant spirituality had to put reins on an unbridled and irritable pride or a willful sensuality or that it perhaps had a difficult time keeping up its will to the ‘desert’ against an inclination to luxury… Incidentally, the desert of which I just spoke, into which the strong, independent-natured spirits retreat and grow lonely… for in some cases they themselves are this desert, these learned ones. And it is certain that no actor of the spirit would be at all able to endure living in it” (III:8).

Investors, these learned ones, need to find their deserts; places of tranquility where they can be independent and focused, places where no value pretenders can go. Actors call these places deserts, but we investors know that these places are oases. The actors of the spirit, the value pretenders, cannot stand to be in these deserts, as they call them, because they fear independence. On these places, Nietzsche continues:

“A voluntary obscurity perhaps; a steering-clear of oneself; an aversion to noise, veneration, newspaper, influence; a modest position, a daily routine, something that conceals more so than it brings to light; an occasional association with harmless lighthearted beasts and fowl, the sight of which refreshes; a mountain rage for company, but not a dead one, rather one with eyes (that is with lakes); perhaps even a room in  a crowded run-of-the-mill inn, where one is sure of being mistaken for someone else and can speak to anyone with impunity – that is ‘desert’ here: oh it is lonely enough, believe me!” (III:8).

Just like the philosopher, the investor seeks to avoid the irrational mania of the markets and yearns for a place distant from all noise and superfluous punditry. In such fortresses, the investor is left secure with their own thoughts and this good clean air revitalizes them. Here, the investor is quells the tyranny of the emotions, permitting them to ponder and discern clearly and through mere appearance of things. Such tranquil places are only a desert to those who are unraveled by their own thoughts and are uncomfortable to be alone with themselves.

 

What Nietzsche is not saying is that philosophers ought to flee to the outskirts of civilization to wither away as a hermit as pundits would jape. To the contrary, as that is the kind of excessive asceticism that Nietzsche profoundly disgusts. Instead, Nietzsche writes:

When Heraclitus retreated into the courtyards and colonnades of the enormous temple of Artemis, this ‘desert’ was more dignified, I concede: why are we lacking such temples? … That which Heraclitus was evading, however, is still the same thing we steer clear of: the noise and the democratic chatter of the Ephesians, their politics, their news from the ‘empire’… their market stuff of ‘today’ – for we philosophers need rest from one thing before all else: from all ‘today’” (III:8).

Through the example of the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, Nietzsche illustrates that the philosopher ought to seek out those places that provide the optimal conditions for the highest spirituality and boldness. There is no reason that such places ought to be less dignified so long as they still escape the noise and the short-term fluctuations of Mr. Market. Where the rabble reign, to borrow Nietzsche’s term, only ‘today’ is emphasized; the layman speculators lose all historical perspectives on valuation and have no prudence with regard to the future. This is what the investor must avoid more than anything else. Thus, flee investor, to your oasis.

 

After establishing the philosopher’s relationship to the ascetic ideal, Nietzsche characterizes the philosopher in greater detail. “We venerate,” Nietzsche writes, “what is silent, cold, noble, distant, past, in general every kind of thing at whose sight the soul does not have to defend itself and lace itself shut – something with which one can talk without talking out loud” (III:8). The investor, like the philosopher, is bold in searching for wisdom, but humble before such knowledge; the investor does not close his mind to facts, rather formulates his opinion to the facts, not vice versa. The investor, like the philosopher, uses “great words sparingly; it is said that they even find the word ‘truth’ repellent: it sounds pompous” (III:8). The prudent investor knows nothing is certain, least of all the future; everything is in flux. Above all, the genuine investor values wisdom and the process of investing, the erudition and intellectualism. Moreover, the investor, unlike the actor, is a “spirit who is sure of itself, however, speaks softly; it seeks seclusion, it makes others wait” (III:8). The investor values his independence whereas the celebrity-activists and the pundits cannot bear to deviate from the herd. As such, Nietzsche asserts that can identify the philosopher:

“One can recognize a philosopher by the fact that he keeps clear of three bright and loud things: fame, princes, and women – which is not to say they don’t come to him. He shies away from this time and its ‘day.’ In this he is like a shadow: the more the sun sets for him the greater he becomes” (III:8).

Just as is the case for the philosopher, the genuine investor seeks to stay away from those things that the actors want most; prestige, accolades, and high-rolling lifestyle. The investor will likely achieve out-sized risk-adjusted returns as a result of his prudence, so his success will attract honors. Nonetheless, the investor does not seek them out as his end and shies away from the ‘today,’ the all-too-bright mania of the Mr. Market’s paradigm. Instead, the investor anticipates the coming night and remains prudent in his investments. When the day burns too bright and is taken over by the night, when greed turns to fear, the investor is at his finest.

It is my opinion that Nietzsche’s account of the philosopher is just as fitting to describe the anatomy of a genuine investor. Nietzsche describes:

“Just list the drives and virtues of the philosopher one after the other – his doubting drive, his negative drive, his wait-and-see (‘empathetic’) drive, his analytic drive, his exploring, searching, venturing drive, his comparing, balancing drive, his will to neutrality and objectivity, his will to every ‘since ira et studio’ [without anger and partiality]” (III:9).

The investor is one who is skeptical, his doubting drive, and prefers to seek out fact and opinion for himself. The investor is contrarian, his negative drive, as he negates excessive sentiment of greed or fear in the market. The investor is prudent, his wait-and-see drive, for he knows what he does not know and prefers to not speculate on the fundamentally unknowable. The investor is analytic as he seeks understanding of his investments, preferring facts and analysis over mere opinion and speculations. The investor is a free-spirit, his exploring, searching, and venturing drive, as he is the rare bird of the plumage; one willing to go where the market will not for he cares not what others tell him and seeks out those opportunities in the most distressed, disliked and abstruse situations to find value. The investor remains grounded, his comparing drive, not to just current comparables but to history so as to understand his place in the market cycle. The investor is neutral and objective, is not influenced by emotions or prejudice, for he seeks understanding and the truth to the utmost extent that truth is possible.

 

Most of the scholarship surrounding the Third Treatise focuses exclusively on Nietzsche’s disdain for the ascetic ideal, only a few scholars even acknowledge the positive aspect in the case of the philosopher. The ascetic ideal, if put toward sublime ends, is indispensable for the individual who seeks independence of the individual and the pursuit of wisdom. As Nietzsche concludes:

“A certain asceticism – we have seen it – a hard and lighthearted renunciation with the best of intentions, belongs to the most favorable conditions of highest spirituality, likewise also to its most natural consequences: from the outset, then, it will not astonish us if the ascetic ideal has always been treated with considerable prepossession precisely by philosophers” (III:9).

The ascetic ideal is a means by which the genuine investors differentiate themselves from the value pretenders, the pundits and the celebrity-activists, among the other forms of the artists and the actor. The genuine investor is a lover of wisdom, a free spirit, and above all, a warrior. For only the investor is “[c]arefree, mocking, violent – thus wisdom wants us: she is a woman, she always loves a warrior” (III Epithet).

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