Will Asceticism Save You?

How Should We Live Life?

How should life be lived? A question which all ruminate about with eyes wide-open amid long and restless nights. We all want the good life; the life wherein all our wishes, hopes, and dreams come to fruition: a life long stupefaction which manifests from ad-infinitum fulfilment. A heaven on earth, a prayer said in the back of all our minds.

An impossibility, for the most part. There will always be something to discourage us, something to dishearten us. But that momentary discouragement need not last more than that: a moment. We can achieve some semblance of heaven on earth.

And the only means available to apprehend our desired heaven on earth be the lifestyles we adopt. The lifestyles we have all chosen, either consciously or unconsciously, at some point or another; those ways of living which we all swear are the best and most preferable ways to live.

There is a myriad of lifestyles to pick from, and so we cannot explore each. Thus, herein shall be a reflection on asceticism and how it can be of great benefit in our goal of heaven on earth. We shall use asceticism to answer the question of how life should be lived.

So lets begin to understand how asceticism can improve our lives.

What Is Asceticism?

The definition of asceticism is:

the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline the condition, practice, or mode of life of an ascetic”.

What this looks like in more detail and less abstraction is as follows: an ascetic lifestyle involves strict adherence to higher-order goals or doctrines rather than leisure or mindless entertainment.

For instance, a priest who commits himself to a spiritual doctrine does so wholeheartedly. Of the behaviours, beliefs, and routines demanded from him by the doctrine, a full and willing commitment is made. The fewer deviations from the practices which the spiritual doctrine prescribes to the priest, the more ascetic the priest can be said to be.

But asceticism of that sort is found elsewhere as well. Priests and spiritual adherents aren’t the only ascetics. People who have lofty goals and are generally considered high-achievers also tend to be more ascetic. The pursuit of immediate pleasures seldom leads to the realization of long-term goals. So, one must forgo immediate pleasure for higher pleasure. Therefore, high achievers become something like temporary ascetics.

Now we may suppose, of asceticism, that it is a lifestyle only for those who either reject or avoid, in the name of some spiritual doctrine or long-term goal, the immediate pleasures of life. But that would be wrong.

The description of asceticism we have given thus far is, beyond doubt, incomplete. We cannot mimic the behavioural patterns of a priest and then suppose ourselves to be ascetic. No, that is not asceticism.

Asceticism is an internal form of being. Though ascetics have a specific lifestyle, the ascetic lifestyle emanates from the subjective experiences of the person: an inwardly guide which shapes the extended and surrounding environment.

Put otherwise, asceticism is a qualitatively different mode of experiencing the world, not some restrictive set of external behaviours. Asceticism is, as Richard Valantasis defines it in his book, “The Making Of Self,”:

“performances within a dominant social environment intended to inaugurate a new subjectivity, different social relations, and an alternative symbolic universe”. – Richard Valantasis

Apparent in the definition of asceticism put forward by Valantasis, asceticism encourages individuality more than it encourages the deferral of immediate gratification. Though deferral of gratification is an essential component to asceticism, it is not the focus.

Because asceticism uses resistance, be it social or personal, it thusly follows that asceticism will always favour individuality. An ascetic is resistant towards group decision, because asceticism requires a willful denial by the agent; and so, ascetic doctrines have to emphasize the power of the individual rather than on the group.

But Valantasis believes asceticism encourages individuality in another way:

“Asceticism, however, always defines itself as resistant or withdrawn from a perceived or a real dominant context. My theory, then, relates to the way resistant people or groups relate to larger social, religious, and political communities. Another way of looking at this is to say that enculturation looks to erase difference, while asceticism intends to create difference” – Richard Valantasis

His conception involves a relativity of sorts; rather than placing emphasis on the individuals will, Valantasis emphasizes the categorically distinct subjectivities amongst groups. And that therefore makes his view relative.

Consider, if we had two groups inside society, one dominant and the other not, but both placed a strong emphasis on the power of the individual will; and both are aptly characterized by pursuit of higher-order and spiritual goals. Then both would be ascetic. But from Valantasis’ view, the smaller and more deviant group would be considered the ascetic one.

The reason for such an outcome is the appeal to context. If being ascetic means to be resistant or withdrawn from a dominant context, then we can never have a context with two ascetic groups wherein one group is more dominant than the other; only because resistance towards the dominant socio-political context is, definitionally so, a feature of asceticism.

So, I agree with Valantasis about asceticism involving a different mode of subjectivity, but I am in disagreement about the contextual semantics he incorporates into his definition. It seems, as demonstrated above, that the contextual aspects leave room for absurd conclusions: namely, supposing of two groups of ascetics that one is not ascetic while the other is, simply by their virtue of being non-dominant. I wholeheartedly believe asceticism, at its core, is about the will of the individual.

Asceticism And Hedonism

Types Of Hedonism

  • Psychological hedonism, also known as motivational hedonism, argues that motivation stems from pain and pleasure.
  • Ethical hedonism, also known as evaluative hedonism argues that pleasure has value while pain has disvalue.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do” – Bentham. 

Psychological Hedonism

Bentham’s view on pain and pleasure asserts: action is determined by the outcome; that is, whether the outcome is pain or pleasure. A hedonist about the determination of action believes that all actions are determined by pleasure or pain. That all actions are performed with foresight; we understand which actions will bring us pleasure and which will bring us pain, and we, as Bentham said, are determined in our actions by either.

In comparison to hedonistic determination, a similar yet less committed view exists; that is, pain and pleasure are indeed motivators of sorts, but not all hedonistically motivated actions have the end-goal of pleasure, nor do all hedonistically motivated actions bring about pleasure: psychological hedonism.

Psychological hedonists believe they understand best their desires and wants, and that all their actions, when intended to do so, can maximize their subjective sense of pleasure.

The psychological hedonist seeks to maintain an equilibrium between pleasure and pain, and so some actions are motivated by pleasure if and only if the person has fallen from equilibrium. If we were satiated, then, in accordance to the psychological hedonist, our actions will lack any sense of hedonic motivation. Hence, the allowance for actions to stem from non-pleasure based motivations.

Ethical Hedonism

Ethical hedonists are of the belief that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad; and these are so the case, regardless of the specifics about either the pain or pleasure. The means has no impact on what counts as ethical, because the ends determines what is good and what is bad.

However, there is debate about what constitutes pleasure and what constitutes displeasure. As a result of this disagreement, ethical hedonism has taken on many forms. Some argue that rational action brings about pleasure and is, therefore, good; while others believe that decisions made from reason are what bring us pleasure and is, therefore, good.

The problem with ethical hedonism is the determination of its categories: what counts as pleasure? what counts as displeasure?

Difference Between Asceticism and Hedonism

Hedonism and asceticism don’t necessarily negate one another. In order understand this, let us recount some of the core features of hedonism and asceticism.

Hedonism

  1. Pain or pleasure of outcome determines action.
  2. Pain or pleasure motivate action, depending on our equilibrium.
  3. What is pleasurable has value and what is painful lacks value.

Asceticism

  1. Emphasis on individuality.
  2. Emphasis on will.
  3. Deferral of gratification.

Superficially speaking, some of these seem to contradict one another. An ascetic individual cannot pursue pleasure while at the same time defer gratification. And an ascetic person cannot place an emphasis on will if he or she constantly engages in impulsive pleasure. So, there seems to be a difference between asceticism and hedonism which cannot be reconciled. But that would be wrong to think, I believe.

However, let us first consider opinions within the literature. Some philosophers have put forth the claim that sages live a good life; and therefore, ascetic sages are hedonistic. Their lives are pleasurable. Such, however, depends on a distinction between attitudinal pleasure and sensory pleasure.

A sensory pleasure is something like a delicious sweet or lifting weights. We derive enjoyment from some form of sensation or sensory content. In contrast to sensory pleasure, we have attitudinal pleasure. Attitudinal pleasure is about the intentional attitude we have towards something. We can have intentional states wherein which we are happy about some outcome; for instance, I can derive pleasure from recalling that I proposed to my spouse in a rather romantic fashion. Herein, no sensory content was, seemingly, responsible for the pleasure derived. The pleasure seemed to be caused by some mental attitude towards a memory that I hold (for a more thorough breakdown of attitudinal hedonism, see Feldman Ch. 5, 2004).

So, ascetic sages are argued to be hedonists because they derive attitudinal pleasure from their daily tasks, according to (Haji, 2009). Meditation, prayer, and quiet reflection seem to be things which manifest attitudinal pleasure. So, although sages, uncontroversially said, abstain from sensory pleasure, their engagement with attitudinal pleasure revokes them from their claim to asceticism.

And the same would likewise be said about someone who is ascetic: namely, ascetics are actually hedonists because they derive attitudinal pleasure from their daily routines. And so it seems asceticism is impossible.

But I disagree. Not only do I believe asceticism and hedonism to be compatible with one another, but I likewise deny the implicit assumption that attitudinal pleasure is a constant factor.

I think ascetics are mistakenly labelled as ant-hedonistic. Asceticism, as defined by both myself and Valantasis allows for hedonistic motivators or outcomes. That is because asceticism focuses on the will, or individuality, rather than the negation of pleasure. It just so happens that a resistance towards pleasure is a good way to demonstrate one’s will or individuality. But, that fails to entail the logical negation of hedonistic activities. So, asceticism and hedonism are indeed compatible.

Moreover, if we take the false assumption that ascetics are entirely anti-pleasure, then the argument from attitudinal hedonism at best states: ascetics enjoy some minimal pleasure. Attitudes are mental states which we endure for some time, and so we can say that if the ascetic has a pleasure-based attitude, then the ascetics hedonism is temporary. The reason being, because asceticism is better characterized by dull or flat mental states: no elation. And so, when they recollect some positive attitude towards something, it will be short; only because an ascetic will soon switch their mental state back to the blankness which it was once before. Thus, even if we grant the attitudinal hedonism argument, it is a weak one at best.

We can hereby say, hedonism and asceticism are compatible. Any arguments that attempt to negate asceticism by supposing asceticism to be too restrictive or against pleasure are simply mistaken. So, although asceticism and hedonism are different, both can be adhered to at the same time.

Reasons To Not Be Ascetic

Asceticism has plenty of benefits, if adhered to. But asceticism can become dysfunctional as well. Of the many dysfunctional ways in which asceticism can manifest, extreme reactions to life come most readily to mind:

Extreme Reactions 

  • Asceticism as a negation of bad habits.
  • Ascetic social withdraw.

Asceticism and Bad Habits

We all have some bad habits in life. Some of us drink too much, some of us watch too much television, and some of us spend too many hours on video games. Bad habits can be pervasive and deeply pernicious, so much so that our ability to function as humans becomes impacted. An unfortunate circumstance to find ourselves in, having bad habits.

But just as unfortunate is when we attempt to fix those bad habits with something as detrimental.

When we try to solve our dysfunctional habits by adopting an ascetic outlook on life, we begin to suppress our inclinations towards life rather than focus on our will. An asceticism adopted from a position of want, that is, a want to negate our bad habits, is a dysfunctional asceticism. Such an asceticism focuses on negation of habits and misses the point.

Ascetic Social Withdraw

Social life can be filled with challenges of all sorts. We have to be cautious about what we say, who we say it to, and when we say it; we have to understand the relationships between various social classes; and we have to be adept at reading the minds of other people. Social life can be quite difficult.

And as with any domain of skill, there are disparities in ability and hardships that come from failure. Herein asceticism can be used as a justification to withdraw from society.

On the one hand, when we have no skill in a sport, we will refuse to play it; we much prefer to participate in those things which we are skilled at. And on the other hand, when we fail miserably at doing something, we can become discouraged. These two facts can, unconsciously, push someone into a dysfunctional asceticism.

Because asceticism is often misunderstood as a renunciation of all pleasures, it follows that an ascetic will have to disengage from society and live a reserved life. They cannot attend parties, they cannot entertain romantic relationships, nor can they enjoy banter with friends. Asceticism, in this misunderstood form, can be used as a justification to mask insecurities and short-comings.

Reasons To Be Ascetic

Since unhealthy asceticism pertains to extreme reactions to overcome some short-coming or negative habit, then what is healthy asceticism? What are the reasons to be ascetic?

Self-Mastery

Healthy asceticism is about proper reason and focus. A healthy ascetic should never become ascetic for malformed reasons, such as the negation of bad habits. At best, doing so will entail nothing more than the pursuit of a goal which is devoid of pleasure rather than becoming an ascetic. Someone should become an ascetic because they have a preference for the lifestyle associated with such a philosophy.

Likewise, a healthy ascetic should have as their primary focus the bringing under control their will; to make decisions in accordance with the will of the person is to be an ascetic, and that is what ought to be the primary focus when becoming an ascetic, not the negation of bad habits or ignoring of short-comings.

Therefore, the reason one ought to become is to pursue self-mastery, to strive for complete control over our will.

A life lived in control of one’s self entails, by necessity, a good life; unless one supposes themselves to be incapable of making good decisions for one’s own life. But I am of the belief that, if I were to make all my decision from a position of will, to the extent that such is possible, I will have lived a good life.

Since asceticism pushes us to focus on manifesting a stronger will, a stronger sense of self-mastery, then we will be less susceptible to distractions; less susceptible to action done by pure whim; less susceptible to the regret one feels when they are unable to pursue their goals or dreams. Asceticism can save our lives, if only we adopt its practices.


References:

  1. Bradley, B. (January 01, 2010). Fred Feldman, Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and Plausibility of Hedonism. Utilitas, 22, 2, 232-233.
  2. Feldman, F. (2004). Pleasure and the Good Life. Oxford University Press.
  3. Framarin, C. G. (January 01, 2017). Renunciation, Pleasure, and the Good Life in the Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads. Philosophy East and West, 67, 1, 140-159.
  4. Haji, I. (2009). Freedom and value: Freedom’s influence on welfare and worldly value. Dordrecht: Springer.
  5. Sprigge, T. (1999). The Relation between Jeremy Bentham’s Psychological, and his Ethical, Hedonism. Utilitas, 11(3), 296-319. doi:10.1017/S0953820800002521
  6. Valantasis, R. (2008). A Theory of Asceticism, Revised. In The Making of the Self (pp. 101-116). Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1cgf9xc.10

IdeasInHat

I like to write and read, a lot. That's all.

Leave a Reply