12 February 2009


I've been thinking lately about asceticism (versus aestheticism, which is all about beauty). Asceticism is about being austere; it's about living with minimal material comforts; it's self-denial. I don't agree with it: it's okay for hermits (I'm not quite yet qualified there), and monks.

I thought I wanted to be wealthy, but then had to define what exactly I meant. Basically, I want to be able to afford to live independently, have no debt, and have no worry about the cost of health care. I also do want to be able to afford certain luxuries: what this encompasses is probably somewhat modest. A new computer every other year; games (worthy of purchase); documentaries on DVD; the nice TV as well (no cable, though); gym membership; a drafting desk; a nice printer; a camera. That's it. My domestic imagination might not be all that vast, however. I imagine if I were to have a girlfriend, the list could easily become monstrous (but this is, fortunately, irrelevant).

Put succinctly, I desire abundance (it may be also important to note that I desire to attain this through creative industry, rather than as a matter of entitlement).

So what about the mansions, the maidservants, the cars, the driver, the gardener, the pool? This is excess. I don't believe civilization could endure further attempt to make the standard of living more grandiose – especially if other countries want in on that as well. There are not enough resources. There's not enough room. Civilizations have only ever managed to support a very few pharaohs, and they've all been remembered more for the result of their maniacal vanity than for anything else.

I don't want the culmination of my life to be a monument to my indolence. On the other hand, I don't want to be bent under the constant grind of existential want and “quiet desperation” as Thoreau said:

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things."


gustavolk-swagen said...

I couldn't disagree with agreeing with you more. That's because I'm feeling ambiguously contentious.

That being said, a one-word dangling participle is not 1% as thought provoking as your comment on asceticism. I really had no idea what that meant, aside from Hesse's Siddhartha.

I think achieving the least of one's material possessions (especially in today's American -slash- world economy) is a good thing.

I enjoyed your post.

gustavolk-swagen said...

Oops. And when I say "I really had no idea what that meant," by "that" I mean asceticism.

Peter McCombs said...

If memory serves me, the Epicureans were ascetics. They were a group of people who either disbelieved in God, or else figured that He is too distant and unconcerned with humanity to make a difference. I find their asceticism interesting, because typically I associate the traditional unbeliever with instinctual self-indulgence and excess. Asceticism seemed to be the Epicureans' way of managing expectations. They found the pains of material wealth to be too frustrating. It is harder to have and to lose than to not have. So they hadn't. The simple life, they found, reliably yielded greater pleasure than the pursuit of riches and indulgences.

Some Catholics and other religious folk of all types revere asceticism. Where the Epicureans were concerned about the frustration of wealth, the Catholics and the Amish are more concerned about the distraction of wealth. Those who discover great spiritual enlightenment can't serve both God and Mammon; so they become ascetics. They find greater pleasure in spirituality than in prosperity. It is true that material wealth is a jealous god, accepting no peers.

The path of the great intellectual or artist is often a path of asceticism. Like the religious monk, great Masters cannot be distracted with many luxuries. Thoreau certainly did not despise his time at Walden Pond. These ascetics find greater pleasure in mastery and excellence than in luxury.

The modern Luddite, perhaps, is the only person for whom asceticism is about being austere. He has no spiritual motive, no intellectual motive, and no clear vision of the joys of simple living. He is full of bitterness and sees every wrong in technology rather than what is right in simplicity.

The part of Thoreau's quote that stands out the most is that "there is no play in [the games and amusements of mankind] for this comes after work." Quiet desperation is as much about desperate abundance as it is about desperate poverty. The point Thoreau makes is that desperate men spend all their time in games and amusements, escaping from their work rather than diverting from it. Thoreau acknowledges that work is the prerequisite to play.

Men and women with meaning need not be ascetics, but those who have found their passion almost always leave material wealth behind in the pursuit of other things. They still have to work and to provide, but they understand the place of leisure and find more liberty in self-sufficiency. History provides us with no stories of men who lost their desperation in luxury.

I would call your post more of an endorsement of asceticism than a criticism of it. You decry excess and put (arguably) reasonable limits on your desire for material things. You quote Thoreau, who lived an ascetic's life, and who believed in work and in sufficiency.

Dave said...

I do not argue for ascetics: it is unbalanced. You mentioned the Epicureans. They were very reasonable, and sacrificed hope to reason. Reason became their god, who rather reasonably didn't exist or didn't care. It's a perfect example of living out of balance.

Artists and intellectuals seem to be so obsessed with one thing they leave the rest of their lives to ruin. They might be really good at one or more things, but who is to say that creative talent or sound dialectics is the pinnacle of human achievement? This is more a matter of focus than one of intent to live a certain way.

I suppose some people prefer to experience the meaning of labor and self-sufficiency, and here again, make sacrifices to that ideal. This is not the right way to live. This is not the wrong way -- it's simply a choice they've made.

Yes, there's desperation in play, but the rest of the Thoreau's sentence is, for me at least, a bit nebulous. I agree that a life without meaning is desperate no matter what you're doing -- but in particular I'm referring to the desperate chase in the rat wheel after the carrot. After I get this job. After I get a raise. After I pay off the mortgage. After I retire. The angst of mounting debt: a wager that after all this you'll be able to afford what it took to survive that long. For me, the quiet desperation is the state of mind where a salesmen can wake up, find he's transformed into a giant cockroach -- but never mind that, because he's late for work! He might get fired!

Thoreau was definitely an ascetic in writing -- but I heard he had his mom do the laundry and bring him meals.

Which brings me to my summation: asceticism is an ideal with many practical fallacies. I'm not going to condemn anyone for making it their guiding light, but I personally I'm more interested in having a drafting desk, a dentist, clothing and shelter, and never under the tyranny of corporate mantra.

Peter McCombs said...

The Thoreau quote isn't nebulous once you identify the pronouns and disambiguate the conjunction:

There is no play in them for this comes after work.

them = games and amusements of mankind

for = because

this = play

A more clear rendition becomes:

There is no play in the games and amusements of mankind because play comes after work.

Why is there no play in the games and amusements? Because mankind no longer puts his Leisure in perspective. It is a reflexive act of desperation.

In any case, Thoreau was very clear about his view of work in Higher Laws:

An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove [the classic moocher, waiting for his due but never helping], whom the sun shines on prostrate [he sleeps too much], who reposes without being fatigued [he procrastinates and leaves work to others]. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable.

This was not an endorsement of menial life or the other ills of unjust work arrangements (you mentioned one of Thoreau's detractor's arguments: Thoreau had his mom do some of his work for him. A little bit hypocritical, no? Talk about sitting by the stove! - he burdened his own mother perhaps). It is merely the rendition of what has been well understood by society since the dawn of civilization: work is better for man's character than no work - even if it's not ideal work.

What the man does in his leisure time makes all the difference. Either he succumbs to desperation - the reactionary indulgence in entertainment, or he improves himself:

Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.

Asceticism is not an end to be chosen. It the vehicle that bears honest men to the honest ends they choose for themselves.

Dave said...

I agree with you except I'd say it is *a* means that bears one in a direction they feel they should go.

Also, I think we disagree on terminology. You would probably consider the lives of Australian aborigines, Native Americans before Westerners, as ascetic where I consider it living in ideal abundance.

For me, the ascetic spurns abundance and accepts only poverty out of a sense of some strange pious shame or belief that hardship is the only path toward god. I say fine, if the hardship is such as one suffers to learn how to stop suffering, or it's what sort of existence they had chosen, but what I dislike is the pretentious suffering.

I also have to wonder about Nietzsche's "Slave and Master Morality". He has a way of getting under the skin. He would consider Christianity and utilitarianism "slave mentality" ...

Slave morality, by contrast, is pessimistic and fearful. Slaves are victims (the “abused, oppressed, suffering, unemancipated, the weary and those uncertain of themselves” (SS, 70)); but according to Nietzsche, most slaves choose to be victims. Slave morality is timid, and favors a limited existence; it “makes the best of a bad situation.” It promotes the virtues that “serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendliness are honored — for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility,”(SS, 71), i.e., a morality that values the mediocre group over the superior individual. (LaFave).

Dave said...

I think maybe I should add I don't agree with Nietzsche, or probably really understand him. This sort of mentality seems to have been a lot more common previously, especially in some of Dumas's works, i.e. the proper place of the master and the lackey and how they ought behave. I think this mentality may have been taken for granted for a long time and died with the rise of the individual.

But, when it comes to philosophy, I find Nietzsche often says what no one else seems willing to. It being philosophy, I feel it's worth honest consideration.