This essay concludes our series, Enemies of Excellence, after which I hope to turn to a more encouraging, positive account of what excellence is and how best to pursue it. In the last two essays, we examined Christian, or really pseudo-Christian, ideas that sometimes keep people from valuing excellence or wholeheartedly cultivating it out of a misplaced sense of piety. In this essay, I will briefly examine three distinct kinds of asceticism that are frequently confused. Confusing the kinds confuses the motives, and hence confuses our understanding of what it means to be motivated by excellence. The kinds of asceticism are: (1) abstaining from something that is intrinsically evil, (2) cutting back on something that is good in itself but harmful in excess, and (3) sacrificing something that is intrinsically good for the sake of a higher good.
The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek word askesis (ἄσκησις), which primarily refers to athletic training. The Christian tradition is replete with recommended practices such as fasting or taking vows of poverty that are meant to rigorously train the soul as an athlete trains his body. Many saints are noted for their strenuous disciplines, such as St. Benedict, who would pray through the entire psalter daily, or St. Francis, who gave up his life as the son of a rich cloth merchant to go about barefoot and in rags. These saints attract the admiration of many followers, and whole religious orders are founded to preserve the strict methods of their heroic founder. Estates are sold, vows are taken, habits are donned.
The whole ethos of asceticism, however, with its valorization of difficulty, can obscure the radically different motives for which these practices might be adopted, and in the literature of these religious orders, one sometimes meets with a rhetorical excess, which, if we are not careful, threatens to undermine the philosophical foundations of our most basic thinking about goodness.
The first kind of asceticism is the easiest to see and the easiest to justify. Some behaviors, although tempting and difficult to avoid, are intrinsically evil. An everyday example is dishonesty (we must set aside, for now, the remote conundrums surrounding “murderer at the door” style scenarios). Ordinary human nature under ordinary circumstances falls into little bendings of the truth with some frequency. We exaggerate the fish story, we compliment our aunt’s new haircut, or we subtly shift the blame at work. Although such behaviors are common and difficult to curb, they are nevertheless all intrinsically evil because they fundamentally corrupt our relationship with reality and our relationships with one another. Recognizing this, one might begin an ascetical practice based on the determination to allow no dishonesty to enter one’s life. One might, for example, make tally marks on a piece of paper every time an even slightly untrue word slips through one’s teeth.
The crucial thing to recognize is that the difficulty in such a discipline is quite distinct in character from the difficulty of the next two kinds. In this type of asceticism, we are giving up something evil, and while this may be difficult, especially in the short term, our rejection of what we give up is rightly a total rejection. This rejection is difficult only because we are habituated toward something evil, not because there is anything in its objective nature that ought to draw us.
In the second kind of asceticism, we give up something that is good in itself but can become evil in excess. The most common example is fasting from food. Food is not only good but necessary for our very survival. Good food is even better. Nevertheless, it is hard for our natural, non-rational impulses toward food—God-given instincts—to figure out exactly the right amount and kind of food for us to eat. So we impose an ascetic rule. We diet. Here our higher rational and spiritual powers impose order on our lower faculties, not because those faculties are evil in themselves or directed toward something that is evil in itself, but because such order is good for the flourishing of the whole person.
Sometimes it is thought that the best way to discipline especially unruly impulses in this sphere is to cut back beyond the objectively ideal point. Such practices would be like bending a warped piece of wood beyond the point of being perfectly straight, bending it in the opposite direction to correct the warp. It is worth asking whether such a theory of soul-correction actually works in practice. Does fasting for extended periods well below the point of optimal nutrition bring the soul back from gluttony to a healthy and correct relationship with food? I have my doubts. But this would be the kind of question that needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis empirically. In any case, I often suspect that what is really going on in such practices falls into the third type of asceticism even though it is being justified and explained according to the logic of the second kind.
The third kind of asceticism is the highest but can also be the most confusing. In this kind of asceticism, something that is intrinsically good is sacrificed to a higher good. Celibacy is a prominent example. Marriage is intrinsically good, and there is no such thing as an excess of marriage (one can, of course, have too much sex or too many partners, but these are hardly the proper goodness of marriage).
A person who takes a vow of celibacy should not think of what he is doing as giving up something evil, or even as cutting back on an excess. Indeed, he is setting himself up for real spiritual trouble if he does not make his vow with a clear-sighted recognition that what he is giving up is a deep and objective good, something truly excellent and worthy of pursuit.
This is the very nature of sacrifice which is at the heart of all religion. The Jews were commanded not to sacrifice upon the altar a blemished lamb. No, the whole point of the sacrifice, whether an animal or grain or wine, was to offer up something precious. We rightly admire sacrifice, but when we are caught up in our admiration, we sometimes fall into the habit of reviling that which was sacrificed. I suppose people do this because it makes it easier to draw the knife across the lamb’s throat. But such talk threatens to collapse the whole logic of sacrifice that motivated our admiration in the first place, and more dangerously still, it threatens to collapse all our thinking about goodness and excellence. If we exalt celibacy by reviling marriage, vows of poverty by reviling wealth, or fasting by reviling the body, we end up with a horrifying, destructive, and ultimately self-contradictory conception of the Good.