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Should we live an ascetic life?

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

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

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

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.

Effective Altruism

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 ———

Valuing Intensity

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?

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  • FrancesQa P.

    I will be a bit late, I should be there around 7,30

    September 18, 2014

  • Ulrika

    Unfortunately, I won't be able to leave the office before 7'30 pm, I would be a the event only around 8'15, so I prefer to cancel for this time. I hope to be able to philosophy with you another time.

    September 18, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Can please someone fix a location for the event? The event is in two days, and we're not still sure where it will take place. That frightens me ;)

    1 · September 16, 2014

    • Matthieu T.

      I lied. It'll be at Vins Fins (also in Grund).

      September 18, 2014

    • Crista

      Sorry guys, something came up at work :) I am really really sorry - as I minimalist I was really interested in the topic :(

      September 18, 2014

  • FrancesQa P.

    Hey guys, where is it in the end? Too bad it was not today with such a good weather ;)

    2 · September 17, 2014

    • Matthieu T.

      It'll be at Vins Fins in Grund!

      September 18, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Ok people, this is the last time I can check the site and as it is not clear where I should go, I have to cancel my attendance. Wish you lots of fun and good moments. I hope to see you in a next meeting.

    September 18, 2014

    • Matthieu T.

      Hi Chista. Just updated the meeting place to Vins Fins in Grund. Hope you can come by!

      September 18, 2014

  • Csilla

    Is somebody booking a table? Where? Oscar's is also an option.

    September 16, 2014

    • Csilla

      or if the weather stays like this, maybe the youth hostel? its terrace tends to be much quieter than the others.

      1 · September 16, 2014

    • Matthieu T.

      I'll book a table! The youth hostel is a good idea but maybe I'll stick with Grund for this time to prevent confusion.

      September 16, 2014

  • Mara

    What an interesting topic. I immediately associated asceticism with living alone, which made me question the possibility of it in Luxembourg. Joking aside but still thinking of Luxi (and many other places like it) cost of living comes to mind. In many cities the cost of living has increased exponentially over the past decade or two. Just to live an ascetic life is a very expensive endeavor and many people may just live that type of life because they have to, not because they choose to. Also, many companies will compensate their employees based on the cost of living in a certain geograph area - which leaves many people unable to either: rise up the socio-economic ladder bc the companies set the wages, or give away a significant amount of money because they are not earning it anyway.

    September 13, 2014

    • Mara

      So my question becomes "What does it mean to live an ascetic life in our day?" bc unfortunately, many "necessities" today are very expensive, and the only people living in a barrel are unfortunately mentally unbalanced

      1 · September 13, 2014

    • Csilla

      it is a bizarre phenomenon of modern life that basic necessities like a place to live, clean air and a bit of green become a luxury in big cities, partly because of the market forces, partly because of states favouring big real estate developers and selling off land at the expense of the public good...

      1 · September 16, 2014

  • FrancesQa P.

    That's a very interesting topic and very appropriate at the moment for me also. I'd love to join the discussion. Great intro!

    September 13, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Yes Math for this intro into the Subject! And as each time, with the diversity of elements arround and interpretations of the subject, I'm looking forward to a very dynamic discussion! As an intro on my position: I will invite Nietzsche :)

    1 · September 13, 2014

  • Julia M.

    What a pity, I won't be able to make it on Thursday.

    September 12, 2014

  • Matthieu T.

    I just added a tentative date to this meetup. Hopefully we can get most people to come in at that time!

    September 12, 2014

  • Csilla

    Great topic, great intro, looking forward to the discussion :)

    September 7, 2014

  • Alan Von S.

    Hi Mat and guys, thks for this interesting presentation:) I may add another reason why ascetic life could be compatible with our modern life:1/ I was surprised to learn in few science news that since a couple of days: Human being started to live "on credit" as we destroy resources more than the Earth can (re)generat.
    2/Re Social drag: The dalai lama, like Budha initial story may live "partly" on ascetic live: however this doesn t prevent him having friends and influence over some rich stars and powefull persons :) cheers

    2 · August 23, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      okidoki for after 17th

      August 28, 2014

    • Csilla

      after 17th Sept would be great for me too, I am back to Lux next Sunday only

      September 7, 2014

  • Jean-Marie N.

    this topic helps me to reflect how to make my choices and find a balance between action & reflection

    1 · September 7, 2014

  • Sean

    sounds awesome, i will be there, but i don't return from holiday until september 26th, so feel free to begin without me.

    i will also suggest another topic following your meeting Matt, and will post it up as a suggestion, probably for early/mid October.

    September 7, 2014

  • Julia M.

    An interesting topic! I am looking forward to discussing it.

    August 27, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    I'm in Mat. You can count on me as the advocate of the devil ;)

    August 11, 2014

    • Matthieu T.

      Yes! We'll need one... otherwise I'm going to get excited and advocate for too much asceticism.

      1 · August 23, 2014

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