Hi all! I am quite interested in asceticism (i.e. simplicity, altruism, rational self-denial, etc). If you think that's interesting enough, we could organize a meetup around that topic. What do you think?
Here is a write-up:
——— Examples Of Asceticism ———
Epicurus valued pleasure but not in an extreme manner. He valued pleasure in the long-term and thought that one of the most important goals in life is to achieve freedom from fear. He favored a mildly ascetic lifestyle in a communal environment. He thought that we should keep our desires in check so as to minimize pain and thus maximize pleasure. From the IEP:
> The greatest destroyer of happiness, thinks Epicurus, is anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death. If one can banish fear about the future, and face the future with confidence that one’s desires will be satisfied, then one will attain tranquility (ataraxia), the most exalted state. In fact, given Epicurus’ conception of pleasure, it might be less misleading to call him a ‘tranquillist’ instead of a ‘hedonist.’
Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes believed in action more than theory, and in verbal communication more than writing. He was weary of complex intellectual constructions and social conventions.
> Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.
He thought morality implied a return to the simplicity of nature. He is said to have lived in a barrel.
Julia Wise is part of the Effective Altruism movement. She gladly gives away a large portion of her earnings. She keeps enough to live well and support her family, but she avoids expensive restaurants or expensive shoes for instance. She doesn't have a favorite cause to donate to. Rather, she wants her donations to have the most impact and so she will give to organizations with a proven record. Deciding which organizations to donate to can be tricky, so Julia makes use of projects like GiveWell. GiveWell studies organizations and publishes its in-depth reviews. It also publishes a list of most-effective organizations readers are encouraged to donate to.
Julia can be seen as an example of asceticism: she's made a conscious decision to keep her living standards constant. Any earnings above that threshold are given away.
Here is Julia Wise's blog on philanthropy and effective altruism.
Zell Kravinsky is an American investor, known for donating large amounts of money and also for donating a kidney no strings attached. Zell describes his philosophy as common sense utilitarianism. He dislikes waste and wants to maximize the value of each dollar. He also mentions a religious influence: an emphasis on love and kindness.
He allows his behavior to be influenced by his thoughts: "The reasons for giving a little are the reasons for giving a lot, and the reasons for giving a lot are the reasons for giving more." This led him to give away millions of dollars. He mentions that he lives under[masked] dollars a year.
Here's a profile of Zell in the New Yorker.
——— Arguments For Asceticism ———
Simplification Of Life
On a personal level, asceticism removes a lot of complications from everyday choices. If you're happy with a pair of flip-flops, the choice of which pair of shoes to buy becomes easier. If you are not interested in going out to lavish restaurants, you don't have to spend time comparing all the options and booking the right one. You probably won't care about work hierarchies and impressing your boss.
Asceticism can also be a reaction to the external world. It's a way to focus on things we have control over and avoid the external world over which we have little control. Historically, it's easy to find examples of ascetics living in desperate situations—or living in times following violent conflicts.
Here's Seneca on retreating inside ourselves:
> For obstinacy, from which Fortune often extorts something, is bound to bring wretchedness and anxiety, and much more serious is the fickleness that nowhere restrains itself. Both are hostile to tranquillity, and find change impossible and endurance impossible. In any case the mind must be recalled from external objects into itself: it must trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire its own things; it must withdraw as much as possible from the affairs of others and devote its attention to itself; it must not feel losses and should take a kindly view even of misfortunes.
Consumption As A Moral Bad
Given finite resources and infinite needs, consumption has to be capped. If we posit as a good the sustainability of our ecosystem, consumption starts to look like a bad thing in and of itself.
A simple life with minimal or effective consumption is a way to avoid that moral bad.
At a social level, asceticism can be justified as an altruistic lifestyle. Ascetics can use their resources in whatever way they see fit once they've satisfied their basic needs. The idea is that their resources will go to causes that will make better use of the money.
An operation to remove cataracts and allow a person to see for the rest of their life costs about the same as an expensive night out but the operation has massive positive consequences compared to the fancy dinner.
Review Of The Arguments
We've listed a few reasons to live an ascetic lifestyle:
- it simplifies your life
- it avoids consumption as a moral bad
- it makes better use of resources
Are there any other reasons to opt for asceticism? Can some of these reasons collapse into the same category?
——— Critique Of Asceticism ———
Nietzsche's critique of asceticism attacks mostly the ascetic priest. He derides priestly asceticism as a way of life that extinguishes life. He valued intensity, not tranquility.
> Man would rather will nothingness than not will.
He thought self-denial was an inappropriate life where the will is trying to destroy itself while at the same time proving that it can survive. He advocated for the will being turned outwards to create value and actually act upon the world.
For Nietzsche, healthy human beings have no need for asceticism. Asceticism is a way to channel the resentment of the herd.
The Social Drag
Asceticism can make it harder to keep up with friends and family socially. When friends go out and spend money, it's hard for the true ascetic to keep up. As friends amass resources and buy houses or cars, it'll be harder for the friendships to endure.
Do you think this is a real problem of asceticism? Can it be alleviated?
——— Wrap-up ———
Ascetics can be found in Antiquity with Epicurius or Diogenes. But we can also find examples in contemporary times, with Julia Wise or Zell Kravinsky.
If you like the idea of asceticism, where do you think asceticism should stop? Is living on bread and water too ascetic? The examples from this write-up are arguably radical. A Diogenes in our time would come off as a lunatic. What can we learn from his life?
Are you convinced by the critiques against asceticism? Can you think of other reasons why an ascetic life would be inappropriate?
How would you experiment with asceticism? Are there ascetic experiments you could do for a month to see how things pan out? How would you know if the experiment worked?
Historically, asceticism seems to be linked to religiosity. A lot of Catholic monks would espouse an ascetic lifestyle. So would Hindus, Buddhists, or Jains. Do you agree with this historical reading? Why the correlation?
Asceticism can be a reaction against the outer world, and it can be a desire to focus on oneself. Which of these two is most appealing?