Asceticism is a maligned concept, but it’s cross culturally universal. At its essence, asceticism is exercising to optimize your life for some goal. Everybody is, in this sense, an ascetic practitioner. The problem is that we may not have chosen the goal toward which we are heading or we may be doing exercises improper to the goal.
For instance, in Fight Club men are being shaped into consumerist nobodies whose souls were as empty as their closets and refrigerators were full, but they keep buying things and accepting advice from unfulfilled individuals (advertisers or women who hate men) for designing their lives. They seek meaning, but use the tools of nihilism to achieve it.
In this sense, many people engage in quite severe exercises toward goals they’ve never chosen! People will work at jobs they hate, miss out on their children’s lives, eat food that hurts them over and over to save time, all the while wishing desperately to not make those choices. But the more ancient sense of asceticism is choosing certain severe practices to escape such deadening life paths to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty.
Margaret Miles observed that if we find ourselves attracted to any of the goals of historic asceticism (virtue, happiness, personal power, spiritual growth, a persistent sense of meaning, etc), then we should “take seriously the claim of the historical authors that ascetic practices are the best means toward them.”
What were the goals of ancient asceticism?
- The acquisition of happiness and virtue.
- Control over one’s desires.
- Control over one’s thoughts.
- Control over one’s body.
- A clear vision of God and a deep compassion for the downtrodden.
- Partial escape from the symbolic world provided to us by others.
There were others, but these are the ones that are most appealing to me.
A modern asceticism would have to include:
- Physical exercise
- Strict attention to money and how it is used
- Escape to nature in some form
- Various forms of meditation (on Scripture, introspection, mindfulness to learn to control your thoughts/moods, etc)
 Margaret R Miles, Fullness of Life: Historical Foundations for a New Asceticism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981).
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