By Koby Rosen //
While asceticism lags behind hedonism in pronounceability, it makes up ground in promoting a more thoughtful, moral, and fulfilling life. Asceticism is the practice of abstaining from pleasures. Hedonism is the opposite– the practice of allowing yourself every pleasure. I should be clear that when I discuss these philosophies of living, I mean these terms in their most basic forms without any religious flavor. I believe that exercising self-restraint fosters the values I consider the pillars of a long-term good life (thoughtfulness, morality, and fulfillment) even without a divine entity guaranteeing them as rewards for self-discipline.
For the sake of the piece, let’s call something a “pleasure” if it provides momentary, but ultimately pernicious, elation. In order to embark on refraining from base pleasures, you first have to identify what objects, experiences, compulsions, etc. provide you with pleasure. While different texts, especially religious ones, provide guidance on what ought to be considered a pleasure, it’s up to individuals to contemplate their particular vices. Some examples might include: junk food, pornography, gossip, opioids, and schadenfreude YouTube rabbit holes (1). Through just this first step of considering what is a personal indulgence, you become more conscientious, more thoughtful.
With this new understanding of your personal vices, you now have the capacity to decide not to pursue those destructive pleasures. Clearly, even before brainstorming personal vices, you had at least some agency because you, the formerly non-ascetic person, decided to become an ascetic. But, by now avoiding your pleasures, your mind should become even more clarified, freer, as you rid yourself of poisonous indulgences. Ideally, this should start a positive feedback loop whereby avoiding pleasures enables you to free your mind which will then continue to persuade you to consciously decide to avoid pleasures.
Through engaging with the decisions that will promote your personal long-term wellbeing, you will have a better appreciation for considering long-term good outside the self. Though Asceticism doesn’t intrinsically demand helping others and acting ethically, asceticism induces moral behavior. Ideally, once you start avoiding pleasures, you will see what other lasting good can be done with the money and time you would have spent pursuing those pleasures. For instance, a GCT4Lusso Ferrari can cost $260,000 (2). With that money, you could pay for 520,000 pill treatments for destitute children with worms (3). Avoiding pleasures enables you to have the clarity of mind, the thoughtfulness, to make the moral decision to prioritize the children over the car.
Even without such grandiose gestures of good, asceticism promotes a more general moral demeanor. While asceticism at first requires a sharp focus on the self, over time, as avoiding pleasures requires less effort, you become more available to take into account others’ needs. An ascetic would have no problem giving up their seat on a subway car for a nonagenarian with a walker whereas a hedonist would have no guilt remaining seated. Unlike hedonists, ascetics practice acts of even basic kindness, effortlessly; ascetics are just better people.
With heightened thoughtfulness and a stronger moral compass, there comes a realization that practicing asceticism while promoting others’ welfare gives you purpose, fulfillment. Ascetics should never be struggling to seek an existential purpose; there are nearly infinite ways to help the unfortunate and there’s always more work to be done. If you’re bored of volunteering at a soup kitchen, then switch to an animal shelter, or tutor, or whatever you want! Hedonistic pleasures, not even in excess, cause harm in the world and to the self, but wholesome, compassionate deeds, as encouraged by asceticism, benefit the self and the world.
While asceticism inspires thoughtfulness, morality, and fulfillment, hedonism shackles people to an auto-pilot life of pursuing pleasures without thoughtfulness, without morality, and without fulfillment. Caring about solely your interests, your preferences can be socially injurious (no one likes selfish people) and physically injurious (pleasures tend to be bodily unhealthy). Hedonism sacrifices the long-term for the momentary which inevitably engenders self-destruction.
Above all, asceticism is not a self-denial of experience but instead a self-allowing to pursue a thoughtful, moral and fulfilled life.
- Junk food is a pleasure because it’s momentarily delicious but ultimately unhealthy. Similar logic can be applied to the rest of the list.