Ascetism

 

Puritanism – the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

~Henry Mencken

W
hat about the idea that the gateway to spiritual enlightenment lies in denying yourself worldly pleasures?

The idea is clearly bogus.

Yes it’s true that material pleasures (which are external) do not grant you happiness (which is internal). But denying yourself material pleasures does not grant you happiness either. So, depriving yourself the sweet pleasures of this life is folly.

Some pleasures are harmful in the long run and it’s prudent to pass on them, but it isn’t rational to conclude that because some pleasures are bad we must abstain from all of them.

Ascetism is an extreme response, and the best codes of behavior rarely favor extremes. Aristotle advanced the golden mean between extremes. Buddhism was founded as the Middle Way, the alternative to the extremes of self-indulgence and self-affliction. The Confucian Doctrine of the Mean is also related. The Greek philosopher Epicurus realized that there are different kinds of pleasures. Some are good and some are bad. His philosophy was quite simply to enjoy the good and avoid the bad.

Not only is ascetism an extreme response, but in certain cases a dangerous one. Bertrand Russell made the point that bodily pleasures are not the only ones that matter, and in fact, ”in so far as the division of the mind and body can be accepted, the worst pleasures, as well as the best, are mental.”[1] It is a mistake to assume that “the man who does not seek the pleasures of the sense must be eschewing pleasure altogether, and living virtuously.” Those who deprive themselves of bodily pleasures, having attained a sense of moral superiority, might be more prone to worse sins, such as the love of power.

There are prevailing winds in the human psyche that, if we learn to capture them in our sails, will propel us in right directions. We are not masters over these winds, but we can learn to harness them, and in this art we may gain a level of mastery. If, however, we choose to oppose these winds, we shall meet “the heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded,”[2] a wave that will topple us, blast us into splinters, and blow our ruins into the maelstrom. This is the central concern with ascetism, and in particular sexual repression. If sex drive cannot be expressed healthily, then it shall find another way – an unhealthy, Freudian sort of way – to manifest itself. Ascetism is the path of neurosis, hypocrisy, self-deception, secrecy, and shame.


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  1. [1] The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, p135.
  2. [2] From The Sea and the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. See http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_hills.htm
 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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