I don’t need to tell anyone reading this how technology, ease of movement, and relative wealth have opened up myriad ways for us to spend or waste our time; or how readily we can feel ourselves adrift in oceanic abundance, buffeted by the possibilities swelling about us while goaded by commercial entities to indulge our every desire and whim. Less noticed, however, is the fact that, in the face of hyper-abundance, many of us are adopting programs of self-discipline that have evolved along with new conceptions of fitness and wellness.
Consider L., the founder and CEO of a successful start-up. With long work days and stacked responsibilities, she has nevertheless ordered her life around a set of strictures meant to boost her physical performance and overall well-being. She manages to work out six days a week, sometimes twice a day, which means that L. has given up the hours often reserved for carousing or binge-watching television. Beyond this, she also restricts the foods she allows herself to eat, so as to maximize her energy levels and recovery, both of which are also boosted by her precise sleep schedule. L. has even set aside specific days to rest physically and mentally–a self-imposed secular Sabbath, if you will. Although L. is at the avant-garde of today’s austerity practices, her example suggests the dizzying variety of types of self-denial that people get up to. Some leave off tracking their Instagram or Facebook feed while tanning at the park in favor of working through yoga postures, which has in turn driven them to abstain from processed foods and added sugars. Others carve away their morning television in order to meditate, and maybe in addition to that practice they’ve given up meat for vegetarianism. Some might be training for an obstacle race at the same hour that they used to devote to post-work drinks, and they too sleep and eat in a manner that is calibrated for athletic performance. There is a growing movement of people who regularly fast, for other than religious reasons.
These are not the sackcloth-wearing, world-renouncing hermits we tend to associate with asceticism; they are people we know and live among. It seems to me they are fulfilling a wish, voiced over a century ago by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he wrote that he wanted to make asceticism “natural again.” Nietzsche believed religious—more specifically, Christian—asceticism, the mortification of the flesh with whips and gruel, is unnatural because it aims at abnegation of the self and, ultimately, the world. He looked instead to an older, Classical and pre-Christian, model.
The word ascetic derives from the ancient Greek askesis, which means exercise or training. For the Greeks, the foundational model of askesis was inculcated in the gymnasion (from which we derive the word gymnasium), such as Plato’s Academy, where the training was athletic, intellectual, and ethical. Throughout the Classical era, a number of forms of ascetic training developed. Perhaps the best-known of these technologies of the self, to borrow Michel Foucault’s term, is Stoic philosophy, which has enjoyed a not-so-quiet revival in recent years. (Articles on those adopting it have appeared in numerous outlets, from Forbes to The New York Times.) Classical askesis was oriented toward self-mastery, the better to live in the world. At the end of the Classical era, the first Christian monks took this notion of askesis—alluding to the centrality of physical exercises by calling themselves “athletes for Christ”—and morphed it into an asceticism that sought to free the soul from the body. Self-mastery gave way to self-abnegation, physical training to a denigration of the physical, worldliness to otherworldliness. This is the form of asceticism that we in the West have been familiar with for nearly two millennia. (Eastern forms differ by not separating mind and body, but not so much that they don’t still seek spiritual purity through self-abnegation and disciplining the mind-body.)
To make asceticism natural again means embracing the world and the body; it means renouncing certain luxuries and indulgences in an affirmative mode—not because particular foods or ways of spending time are inherently evil but because we prefer, on ethical grounds, other foods and activities. “I abhor all those moralities which say: ‘Do not do this! Renounce!…’ writes Nietzsche. “But I am well disposed toward those moralities which goad me to do something and do it again, from morning till evening, and then to dream of it at night… When one lives like that, one thing after another that simply does not belong to such a life drops off… What we do should determine what we forego; by doing we forego.” When, at a restaurant, my sister teasingly accuses me of having orthorexia for waving away the bread basket, she is not identifying in me some moral denunciation of wheat; she’s inadvertently registering my joyful anticipation of waking up the next morning feeling energized, my body recovered from the previous day’s exertions. Eschewing bread is a happy choice: if I want to load up on—relatively—empty carbs, I’ll eat a pint of ice cream.
However, embracing the world and its sweets also entails an implicit rejection of the old, Western division of mind and body. When we practice such disciplines as yoga and meditation in their contemporary forms, we are, like Walt Whitman, asking: “if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
But if the point is no longer spiritual purification, what is the appeal of such regimes? The Stoics, I think, gave the answer most pertinent to our lives today. “We ought not to make our exercises consist in means contrary to nature,” says Epictetus. Rather the goal of our self-mastering exercises is: “Neither to be disappointed in that which you desire, nor to fall into anything which you would avoid.” If ascetics today subject their minds and bodies to rigorous discipline, it is because these exercises provide both the means and the model for training our faculty of choice—for helping us to know ourselves well enough to know what to desire and, most critically, how to spend our ever shrinking time. Having a set of practices that aid us in filtering out the noise of marketing, in navigating the maze of goods placed before us, and in saying yes or no to various leisure activities is like having a sharp knife that we can use to whittle our lives into an artfully deliberate shape.