“Forsake all and thou shalt find all.” – Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.
In the last two posts we looked at the arguments for and against asceticism; now we need to extract the most valid benefits while filtering out the objectionable elements to articulate a practical and philosophically sound synthesis. This means the final version should not be contingent on uncertain dualism – the presumption of a higher spiritual facet of man distinct from his lesser material body. It must be logically consistent, that is, its self-imposed suffering must be ethically universalizable, compatible with continued existence of its practitioner, and in balance physically and mentally salutary rather than harmful. It must, in net, be ethically defensible with respect to duty to family, friends, and society, and it must allow a meaningful role in the world. Last it should encourage humility instead of pride, and it must not be used as a justification of one’s failure of purpose or happiness.
A philosophically sound version of asceticism must not only survive these filters, it must be justified offering the greatest benefit with the least amount of suffering. Using these criteria, the following net benefits appear to be plausible by means of self-denial:
1) Individual health – such as optimal weight and aversion of addiction and substance abuse.
2) Atonement – for relief of the primary suffering of guilt.
3) Contribution to contentment and happiness – the achievement of ataraxia without the negatives of hedonism. Life in harmony with nature – allowing concurrent environmental benefit and thriving of other species.
4) Self-discipline – mastery of the self and character development with the added benefits of reduced harm to others, greater self-sufficiency (a social duty), potential for meaningful work (purpose), and true freedom.
Limited asceticism for salvation by those of certain faiths and the temporary deployment of strict asceticism in the search for mystical union may also be rational, but must be analyzed on a case by case basis. These alternatives should be entered into thoughtfully and are perhaps safer with the guidance of experienced practitioners. In addition the choice of ascetic exercises such as those described in Pantajali’s Yoga Sutra must be carefully undertaken. Finally the austere choice to follow the path of the hero and the saint with their ultimate charity and sacrifice requires the greatest calculus of all.
From this analysis, we conclude that for most of us philosophically sound asceticism boils down to the classic positions of moderation propounded by the ancient Greeks, Buddha’s Middle Way, and/or John Calvin’s inner-worldly asceticism. The subtlety here revolves around the elusive faculties of temperance and prudence. Nonetheless such self-discipline offers significant advantages to living an ethical, purposeful, and contented life and therefore justify our utmost effort.
Next time we will pull together the various facets of human suffering into a final whole. Please join me then.