On Asceticism

Posted on February 16, 2014


While working on a little book on work and wealth in the Bible, or what Scripture has to say about those two, I kept running into “asceticism.”

I thought I knew what it meant, but I looked it up nonetheless, and, as usual, was glad I did. What I knew was a but a speck of the synonyms and descriptions in “The Free Dictionary” online, some of which are self-denial, austerity, rigor, celibacy, abstinence, self-discipline, harshness, puritanism, frugality, plainness, self-abnegation, abstemiousness, self-mortification, mortification of the flesh, rigorousness, a life of uncompromising asceticism and absolute poverty.

I loved the last one: absolute poverty. How does this resonate in modern American culture, given to just about everything opposite of asceticism, such as self-gratification, instant satisfaction, material happiness, personal fulfilment, and you can add dozens of your own choosing.

Now, before we go any further, I am not embracing asceticism and leaving for the monastery, throwing all my worldly possessions on the curb for the trash collectors, donning my hair shirt, and riding off in my bicycle (I’ll really hate to get rid of the motorcycle, sigh) to devote myself to whatever hermits do both as profession and in their spare time, which probably all run together anyhow.

I saw asceticism in a book I was studying, Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism. The book is about how the “Protestant ethic,” largely devoted to work, paved the way for capitalism which emphasized the accumulation of wealth and its consequent uses. Asceticism kept cropping up, and I finally realized that Weber, in his own convoluted, academic style, was ascribing asceticism to the early capitalists. It was a frame of mind, a way of life, mostly with the intention of pleasing God through work, not “good works,” a different animal altogether in Scriptural argot meaning doing good things for the poor, the widows, the strangers, the street people of the world if you will.

The question Weber was trying to answer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when he lived and wrote was “why capitalism?” Equally important, he wanted to counter the theories of Karl Marx, a fellow German and deep thinker of the nineteenth century, who gave us Marxism, in case you ever wondered, and you probably should since Marxism-communism-socialism stands in direct challenge to the way our country is basically organized around capitalism, with some important amendments. Next time you sling “socialist,” “capitalist,” “communist” or “Marxist” around, you should probably know a bit about what they truly mean in an historical context. Try Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, for each of the above. We certainly don’t have space in this column.

Marx predicated his theories on the concept that man was essentially an economic being, and everything flowed from that principle. Your wallet is the bottom line, if I may simplify such a profound thinker.

Weber, on the other hand, said, “no, no, Karl,” you missed it. At the core of humankind is man’s spiritual being, his relationship to God, and in Christianity at least, especially the Protestant kind that arose in the sixteenth century, the emphasis was on salvation, and how to get there, or, in the language of today, and of periods yesteryear as well, how to “be saved.”

Without losing ourselves in the quagmire of theology, Weber’s thesis drew upon the supposition that God blessed those who prospered. So it was in the interest of Puritans to work hard and prosper, and so be recognized by God, and so saved by the prima facie evidence of having prospered and accumulated wealth. Presto, we have the “Protestant work ethic” which underscores capitalism, not Marx’s godless subscription to economic forces having little or nothing to do with religion.

My fellow academics will no doubt cringe at such a simple rendering of Weber, known as the father of modern sociology, and Marx, the obvious progenitor of Marxism. Both the theories of Marx and Weber have been the subject of scrutiny, debate, denial, and affirmation over time. They still are, for they were trying to explain the long train of historical forces which determine our lives. Hard work, not for the timid or foolish.

Returning full circle to “asceticism.” Why, I thought, was it so important? Largely, I began to see–but I must admit through a glass darkly because I don’t pretend to understand Weber or Marx fully—that asceticism and work were closely linked in Weber’s theories. To work was not just the joyful expression of God-given talents and desires (another whole subject entirely) so clearly explained in Scripture, but a mandate from God, a serious mandate from God to reach or achieve salvation. So Puritans worked hard, did not indulge in excesses, sacrificed their time to God’s work, and were often the epitome of some of those synonyms for asceticism we quoted in the first paragraph to this column above.

But, as H. L. Mencken, a twentieth century humorist, noted in his dictionary definition of Puritanism, it had another face—“the haunting fear that someone, somewhere,may be happy.”

The dour, humorless Puritans are of course a stereotype, and humorists like to simplify and skewer stereotypes. They also drank wine, they courted, they married, they celebrated, but they were no moderns for sure. Yet they laid the basis, in theory and practice (see Weber) for modern capitalism, and asceticism was one of the foundation stones, perhaps the very cornerstone, of this phenomenon—capitalism—that created so much wealth, for good and bad, in the world today.

Posted in: History