Not atheism this time. A bigger and more practical way that people differ in their interpretation of ethical practice is this: is your way of life an ascetic practice?
Depending on who you ask, Stoicism is either the most chill and normal thing in the world, or it’s an austere moral discipline worthy of St. Ignatius himself. Stoicism Today has published a round of debate on the issue, there are unconfirmed rumors that the word “monastery” originated in late Roman Stoic practices, Anna of A Stoic Remedy points out that Musonius Rufus has been called the world’s first ascetic theorist, and the ongoing arguments we contemporaries have about what the label “Stoic” really means for practice often implicitly require interlocutors to stake out a position for themselves somewhere on a continuum between “ascetic” and “enlightened hedonist” (though the latter is usually just a polite way of accusing someone of Epicureanism—the horror!).
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, because—unlike many of the theoretical issues that every tradition is constantly tempted to debate—the idea of “ascetic” or “not” has big implications for how I actually put Stoic teachings into practice in my life.
I will explore Stoic asceticism in three parts over the next week or so:
- Alarm Bells
- The Moderate Stoic
- The Stoic Ascetic
For this first post, I just want to focus on the reasons we have for being worried about the damage that asceticism (and Stoic teachings that look like asceticism) can do if used improperly! I believe laying out these concerns ahead of time gives us important context for the conversation ahead.
The Alarm Bells
If you’re like me, the word “ascetic” immediately triggers an array of instinctive defenses.
I get images of otherworldliness, withdrawal from society (even responsibility), and an unhealthy sense of guilt or worthlessness. Our culture is largely defined by a number of abusive behaviors that we are especially concerned about: dogmatism, racism, classism, misogyny—asceticism. We know the damage that narrow-minded religious moralizing has done to so many people. At best, the ascetic is a hermit who wanders off into the desert, where he can oppress no one but himself. At worst, he teaches a new generation of monks and church-goers to view themselves as the moral equivalent of worms, worthy of nothing but self-hate and punishment—just because they are endowed with a natural array of human fears and proclivities.
- There are all kinds of ways that eliminating desire for desire’s sake can go wrong.
That is the kind of alarm bell that asceticism sets off in our minds—and legitimately so! Self-abnegation can indeed be unnatural and unhealthy.
Now, whether or not you think that Stoicism teaches a kind of asceticism, it’s worth nothing that Stoicism is also notorious for setting off alarm bells when people first encounter it:
- There are all kinds of ways that suppressing emotions can go wrong.
We respond: well, yes, but that is why we distinguish between impulses, healthy passions, and unhealthy passions.
A Stoic prokopton does not suppress her emotions, she accepts what she feels, and then reasons through it in the best way she knows. “Our wise person conquers all adversities,” says Seneca, “but still feels them” (Letters to Lucilius, 9.3).
It’s not all feelings that we are concerned about—we only work with the cognitive part of emotions. Specifically, we try and remind ourselves that our moral choices are ultimately the only thing that matters to have a good life. “You should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one,” adds Marcus, “but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad” (Meditations, 5.26). Virtue is the only good—we need not be disturbed by external outcomes.
But there, continues our critic: I understand that you think putting “virtue” and “reason” above all else is very laudable and therapeutic—but outcomes do matter, they matter a great deal! When you tell people that pleasure and pain are worthless, that we needn’t fear death, and that we should accept our fate no matter what—aren’t you teaching something that is extremely unnatural? Otherworldly? Negligent? Indifferent to suffering and injustice?
- There are all kinds of ways that saying externals are indifferent to Happiness can go wrong.
We respond: well, yes, it would indeed be unnatural and harmful if that were what we teach! But your concern is exactly what motivates two important doctrines of ours:
- “Life is indifferent, but the use that one makes of it is not.” (Discourses, 2.6.1)
A good person has to make every effort to benefit humanity and to do an excellent job in his or her social roles! So outcomes matter—if only as a means to an end. This is the basis of the Stoic Discipline of Action.
- The Stoic concept of preferred and dispreferred indifferents allows that pleasure, wealth, a good home, security, etc do have a kind of natural value—so it’s perfectly okay to pursue and enjoy them!
The important thing to remember is the virtue always comes first: being a good person is what really matters to your flourishing as a human!
In summary, Stoicism does not teach us to suppress our natural emotions, it strongly encourages to work hard to bring about beneficial outcomes in the world, and it allows us to enjoy the goods and pleasures life has to offer (as long as we are disciplined enough to put virtue first).
So why on earth are we talking about asceticism?
To be continued…