The New Asceticism


IN Lecky’s History of European Morals there is a painful chapter describing the rise of monasticism in the Egyptian desert during the second and third centuries of our era. Lecky is a renowned writer of historical fiction, and very readable fiction it is too, but in this instance his statements are all documented and may be verified in the sources.

So Saint Jerome tells us of one monk who lived half a lifetime on a small daily portion of barley bread washed down by water from a mud hole, and of another monk who wore his tunic until it rotted off him, exposing a starved body with skin like pumice stone. For six months Saint Macarius slept naked in a marsh to court the stings of poisonous insects. His disciple Saint Eusebius lodged at the bottom of a dry well, and whenever he went abroad carried on his back a hundred and fifty pounds of iron. Saint Simeon Stylites had knotted his girdle so tight around his middle that it was embedded in putrefying flesh. Meanwhile he passed his life on the top of his pillar bowing rapidly in prayer. One day an interested bystander tried to keep track of these pious calisthenics; but he gave up in sheer boredom at the 1244th genuflection. An anchorite in the desert thought that he had seen the Devil, as he caught sight of a naked figure, its body black with filth and its wild white hair streaming in the wind, but it was only Saint Mary of Egypt, a once beautiful woman of Alexandria.

Lecky brings the roster to a close with this critical comment: ‘There is no phase of the moral history of mankind of deeper and more painful interest than this. . . . A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac; without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero, and the lives of Socrates and Cato.’ He might have added, also, that this maniac claimed to be the true and only heir of the religion of Jesus.

This primitive asceticism was a complex fact. Many motives prompted it, some of them very obscure; but at least three are patent.

The word itself was used in religion as a metaphor taken over from the playing fields of Greece. Asceticism was the voluntary training into which the athlete went, to fit himself for his contests. Paul makes constant use of this figure to describe the Christian attitude toward the body, and speaks of himself variously as a runner, a boxer, a wrestler. He kept the body under to give the soul its chance. But in Pauline religion, as in pagan athletics, the body is not deprecated; it is trained to be the useful servant of a higher principle, and as such is declared good.

Christianity, however, had been early and markedly influenced by Gnosticism, a religion which came neither from Palestine nor from Greece, but from the darker East. This religion was candidly dualistic, and taught the excellence of spiritual things as a foil to its initial dogma of the inherent evil of all matter. The body, being man’s most intimate and constant experience of matter, is to be visited with gratuitous cruelties, simply to show the contempt which it merits. In the long history of religion, dualism is never scotched and tends to become an antinomian short cut to licentiousness. But in the Egyptian desert we find it in its early form of sincere self-discipline, wanting the final paradox of subtle selfindulgence. The asceticism which proceeds from this dualistic premise holds that the body is bad and can serve no good purpose; the more cruelly the saint treats it, the sooner he will be quit of it.

And finally that strange outbreak plainly shows the familiar signs of mental perversion. We can discern there a pathological variant of the normal human desire to escape pain, manifesting itself as the desire to inflict pain upon one’s self and others. In this voluntary getting and giving of pain the abnormal mind finds a morbid pleasure. We now have our technical terms for these perversions and are agreed that they fall outside the boundaries of sanity and virtue.

So we reread this ancient story with a detached and curious interest. Its items have to do with a remote conception of the religious life, which has few parallels or none in our own time. The practices which the Church Fathers approved and which Lecky has recounted would be an anachronism were they to be revived to-day. William James, it is true, tries to persuade us that Carlyle did Tyndall a good moral turn by getting him into a cold bath every morning of a freezing Berlin winter, but the best medical and ethical opinion of the day sanctions the mitigation to be had from the hot tap.

The truth is that Francis Thompson has come very near to saying the last word on asceticism. There may have been in the heroic past, he writes, robust and truculent natures whose hot blood demanded these austerities, ‘ but to our generation uncompromising fasts and severities of conduct are found to be piteously alien; not because, as rash censors say, we are too luxurious, but because we are too nervous, intricate, devitalized. We find our austerities ready made. The east wind has replaced discipline, dyspepsia the hair shirt. . . . The pride of life is no more; to live is itself an ascetic exercise. . . . Man is his own mortification. Merely to front existence is a surrender of self, a choice of ineludibly rigorous abnegation.’ So we close our Lecky and open our Thompson, grateful that this old unhappy far-off chapter of man’s moral trial and error is ended.


I had taken all this for granted, too, until a friend of mine made the other day a very provocative remark. He said, ‘I think that we are living in one of the most ascetic periods of the world’s history. But there is this important difference between the asceticism of the past and that of the present: in the old days, in the name of religion and morality, men were hard on their bodies; to-day, in the same name, they are relatively easy on their bodies but are hard on their minds. We belong to a generation which goes out of its way to make mental trouble for itself just in those areas where peace of mind is most essential, and this new intellectual asceticism is raising all over again the initial problem of the nature of ascetic practices and the validity of the ascetic ideal.’

Now this is precisely the sort of critical insight into a human situation which carries its own credentials with it. We instantly pay it the full tribute of wondering why we never thought of it ourselves. For plainly, while the lines have fallen to Brother Ass the Body in pleasant places, — and he has never had so many concessions and cosmetics, — we do not let our minds off half so easily. Modern thought has a strange masochistic twist which is by no means uniformly required by the facts.

Thus, in the most characteristic service of our religion, we are, at one point, invited to hear what comfortable words our Saviour says. The modern man no sooner receives this gracious invitation than his mind leaps instantly on guard. The history of religion, as he reads it, is largely the record of those who said, ‘Peace, peace; when there is no peace.’ Ecclesiastics, to his way of thinking, have already built far too many basilicas by peddling cheap and spurious indulgences to the crowd. The man of to-day is carrying the task of the Reformation to its logical conclusion by trying to rid religion of its stubborn traffic in intellectual self-indulgence. The newer knowledge of the devious ways of the human mind tells him that he must suspect his own wishful thinking as being an escape from reality rather than the gateway to reality.

The truth is that most of us moderns are comfortable only when listening to religion’s uncomfortable words. The very fact that the natural man in us inclines to clutch at the promises is enough to persuade our higher man that these promises are probably illusory. In our troubled moments we share Angel Clare’s hunger to rest upon the words of the Nazarene, ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’ But in our more resolute moods we suspect that Hardy was right in not giving his hero this assurance, at least too easily. Tell us that life is brief, bitter, and meaningless; that there is little good and much evil in the world; that the spoils of virtue are ephemeral; that we must prepare our souls for corrosive doubts which will cost us the dearest articles of our hereditary faith — tell us these and other things to the same intent and our minds are quite at home. We come to mental attention and muster our portion of the racial reserves of Stoicism, prepared to deal manfully with the stern actualities of a brief life in an unideal world. The utmost which many intelligent and upright persons hope for themselves, religiously and morally, is that they may lay down their lives, like Captain Scott on the Antarctic Ice Barrier, fighting it out to the end and dying like gentlemen. ‘Optimism is cowardice,’ says Spengler in his latest jeremiad. ‘Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.’

Something of this sort is the new asceticism of the mind, plainly operative and vastly perplexing. Now what is the meaning of this asceticism? The student of human affairs usually approaches his examination of a baffling contemporary fact by way of a dispassionate examination of some parallel fact in the past. True, history never repeats itself, and every human situation, like every human life, is an individual event never anticipated and never to occur again. Yet types of character and situation tend to recur, and, though they may vary in their particular permutations and combinations, the generic elements are fairly constant. So, in the present instance, we find clues as to the nature and validity of this new asceticism by comparing it with the old asceticism.

We discover at once that this new intellectual asceticism of our time, like the prior ascetic discipline of the body, is a complex rather than a simple fact. We find further the same three strains bred into it: a healthy athleticism, a candid dualism, and morbid perversion. Of these three types of asceticism we continue to approve the first and to challenge the rest.


All that is valid in the new asceticism we owe to the scientific mind. Wherever you open the autobiographies of the natural scientists of the nineteenth century you come upon the common confession that their first task was that of a rigorous intellectual self-discipline. They had to rid their minds of stubborn presuppositions and hereditary inaccuracies of observation, many of them centuries old, before they could see what was actually there. To this end they trained themselves to begin their inquiry by doubting their first impressions and inferences. They held that the Prince of Error manifested himself most insidiously to them in their unexamined axioms and in their too hasty hypotheses, and that these therefore must be criticized most mercilessly. Only by such hardness on their own minds could they come at truth. ‘The world little knows,’ says Faraday,

‘ how many of the thoughts and theories that have passed through the mind of the scientific investigator have been crushed in silence by his own severe and adverse examination.’

But this asceticism of the natural sciences rests upon the conviction that the mind is sound and can know the truth. Darwin’s attitude toward his mind was substantially that of Paul toward his body. He kept his mind in subjection precisely because it was a good mind. There is among the natural scientists of the first rank no basic skepticism as to the mind’s innate dignity and ultimate excellence. There is here a healthy respect for hard thinking, and a deep joy in it. Hence your pure scientist, dealing with the order of objective nature, is habitually a man of ‘cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows.’ No one can live in any contemporary academic society without being struck by the mental serenity, as well as the mental austerity, of the men who are working in the natural sciences. They are hard on their own minds and on the minds of others, but they are neither cynics nor pessimistic philosophers. Within the limits of their restricted inquiry they seem to find the world reliable and reassuring; hence they incline to glorify and to enjoy the universe.

In so far as our morals and religion are destined to become scientific, or at least subject to the scrutiny of the sciences, this intellectual asceticism must have in these spiritual realms a permanent validity. The day has gone when the supposed revelations of religion can be put out of bounds for scientific study. Indeed it is in these very areas that the innate human tendency to ascetic practices seems to be finding its full and final occasion. We now have at hand an apparatus which, though not yet able to discover reality, is fully competent to identify and to eliminate the disproportionate mass of error which has found lodgment in our creeds and codes. The factual untruth and the fallacious inference are being steadily eliminated from the hereditary body of religious faith and moral practice. This negative service of science to religion is very great. If it does not build us the City of God out of hand, it is clearing away much rubbish from the cities of destruction.

Therefore we gladly buffet our too credulous minds as Paul buffeted his too carnal body. We will cleanse them of their immature love of myths and legends and we will require them in the name of religion and morality to make their devout submission to what is so. We will bow to Huxley’s hard common sense: ‘I observe that the truth is not much affected by our likes and dislikes.’ Furthermore we will not tamper with the integrity of our own mental processes, even for the sake of spiritual comfort. ‘Above all,’ says the old monk in the Brothers Karamazov, ‘ this above all, don’t lie to yourself.’ Since all deception, according to the mediæval mystic, begins in self-deception, we will not, even for religion’s sake, lie to ourselves. As a hard bed is healthier than a soft one, the human mind seems to be so constituted that it rests more securely upon the stern actualities of things than upon the soft illusions of romanticism. This much, at least, the scientific spirit has done for religion; it has taught us to make our submission to fact, and, even though our faith must still go beyond fact, it shall never again do violence to fact. When Professor Lowes says that the truths of poetry cannot be falsehoods for science, he is stating a religious as well as an æsthetic axiom. In the preliminary intellectual self-discipline required for this submission, the ascetic impulse seems at last to have found its range and so to have found itself. With this newer asceticism, derived mainly from the natural sciences, we have no quarrel, and to it we owe whatever vital mysticism there is in modern life.


But the moment we pass from the natural sciences to the less exact sciences, and from the less exact sciences to the humanities, the new asceticism becomes problematical. The border-line sciences which have to do with human nature, character, and institutions can never be as dispassionate as those dealing with the natural order, since the observer unconsciously imputes his own uncriticized individuality to the fact he investigates. And when we come to the arts we are confronted with thinking which is frankly selective rather than candid and dispassionate. The artist does not attempt to be fairminded; he deliberately sets out to tell one truth from among many, and for the moment subordinates all other truths in the galaxy to that.

Modern realism in the arts presupposes the artist’s right to choose his own material, in this instance material which, were we to consult our own native inclination, we should prefer not to employ. The world of romantic and wishful thinking died with Victor Hugo. With Zola the world of art began to smell strongly of cheese, and cheese that was high. Since that time, because we pride ourselves on our scientific thinking, we have supinely accepted every unpleasantness which realistic art has forced upon us simply on the ground that it can be shown to have a warrant in fact. We have felt it our moral duty to concede up to the hilt the pain, sorrow, sordidness, and nastiness of things.

So much has this become, in the holy name of science, our mental habit that we have forgotten what we should always remember, that realism of this genre is a selective art and not a dispassionate science. As long ago as the fifth century, Saint Augustine asked in his Confessions why we like to see on the stage tragedies which we should not wish to suffer ourselves. There is, it is true, the old dramatic dogma about the vicarious purging of the emotions. But that is no longer relevant. In so far as we know our present mind, we endure these slings and arrows of outrageous realism, not for its emotionally cathartic value, but solely because we must admit its factual truth.

Hence the modern realist has made capital of the stubborn and almost ineradicable tendency of the human creature to inflict pain upon himself, in this instance mental pain. And he has justified his wares by getting for them scientific certification. But he has never betrayed his professional secret — that he is always a selective artist and never a dispassionate scientist. There was, for example, a very great but relatively obscure novelist named Mark Rutherford, writing in England just at the time when nineteenth-century realism was gathering momentum. His chief characteristic is a certain cool candor. ‘No theory of the world is possible. The storm, the rain slowly rotting the harvest, the children sickening in cellars are obvious; but equally obvious are an evening in June, the delight of men and women in one another, in music and in the exercise of thought.’ This was heresy in an age when realism had become the whole gospel, and Mark Rutherford was condemned to obscurity and neglect. For realism could not afford to concede the evening in June and joy in music and in thought. As for the delight of men and women in one another, the perfect work of realism is never done until that delight has been turned into disillusionment and mutual disgust.

Many of us owe much, very much, to Thomas Hardy, yet we are never quite able to down the disloyal suspicion that his President of the Immortals, who sets the stage and plans the action for his puppets, operates upon a too uniformly cruel principle. The agony is patently manufactured rather than observed and transcribed. And this heretical conviction of ours is grounded, not upon any residual sentimentality, but merely upon fair-mindedness. In the Wessex novels the ascetic impulse has become too highly selective to carry the whole consent of candor, however it may stir the emotion of pity. I have never forgotten meeting an undergraduate roaming around Harvard Yard in patent distress, and asking him what the matter was. He said he had just read that chapter in Jude the Obscure in which the two children are found hanged on the door. ‘It is n’t fair!’ he cried with bitter protest. ‘It is n’t fair of Hardy to do that to me!’ He was right; for all his power, Hardy is n’t fair, with the fairness of science.

So when this ascetic realism puts on the purple of philosophy, it still remains a selective art, not a dispassionate science. The orthodox and classical statement of such asceticism is the familiar passage from Bertrand Russell’s Free Man’s Worship: ‘That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundations of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.’

Now it goes without saying that this is highly sophisticated thinking. The natural man, however badly he may think of life, does not think as badly as that. Only a long process of mental self-discipline, raised to the point of pain voluntarily self-inflicted on the mind, could arrive at such conclusions. And all the affinities of this type of pessimistic philosophy are with the arts rather than with the sciences, since it chooses its own themes.

One becomes accustomed, after a while, to suspect the infallibility of the printed page and to read it as a clue to the mind to which it is addressed rather than as a transcript of reality. The Fourth Gospel tells us even more about the Ephesian Church than about Christ. So Mr. Bertrand Russell’s grim account of things tells us more about our own minds than about any final things-in-themselves. The public presupposed by that now well-known and popular essay has a mind which is habitually hard on itself, and is comfortable only when on the rack of doubt and disillusionment. When Matthew Arnold spoke of a ‘wounded human spirit turning here on its bed of pain ’ he was prophesying the kind of mind upon which realism was to trade.

This pain, accepted at first because scientific candor required it, has now become so much a matter of mental habit that it yields to many minds a morbid pleasure. The realism of the last decade has not hesitated to exploit our liability to perversion. It is not for us to indict the artists themselves, but if they have not unconsciously drifted into mental abnormality, they have been consciously serving a public in which intellectual perverts are numerous enough to meet the demands of the box office. And the pity of it is that what was at first an athletic desire to discipline the mind becomes a doubt as to its worth and a strange pleasure at its proved worthlessness. The logic, whether of the body or the mind, whether on the Nile or on Broadway, whether in the third century or the twentieth, is the same. And it is hard to see why a method for life, which by common consent is declared folly when addressed to Brother Ass the Body, should become wisdom when applied to Sister Ass the Mind. Saint Mary of Egypt was a pitiable sight with her wild white hair streaming in the wind and her naked body black with filth. There was no call for her to forfeit her native beauty. But the minds of many modern artists are equally pathetic. Their bias toward realism has ceased to be a recognition of neglected half truths and has become a dogma and an obsession. The pain which the modern mind has accepted in the name of scientific candor is one thing, but that which it has voluntarily selected in the name of art is another and a far more dubious thing.


This modern cult of mental pain, like the ancient cult of bodily pain, is now reaching the point of satiety and selfdefeat. It should be noted that voluntary ascetics are usually recruited from the ranks of the comfortable and wellto-do, since asceticism is always the habit of the world-weary. It was, at the first and in its excesses, an importation into Christianity from decadent civilizations sated with bread and the games; not the daily moral necessity of the Galilean carpenter shop or the tentmaker’s booth in Tarsus. Modern realism had much the same origin. While it is true that many of its first spokesmen worked in garrets and died in cellars, the public which has given them their vogue has been recruited from the over-comfortable. Modern realism was the product of the fat years from the mid-nineteenth century up to the war. In these leaner times this realism is a cultural hang-over, a moral superfluity. It is to-day merely an insult gratuitously added to the injury of the last two decades. In short, intellectual asceticism is fast becoming an anachronism.

Not that romanticism or comfortable and complacent religion will return in its old glory — not that. Rather that Mr. Lippmann has prophesied the nature of the high religion and high morality of the future — they will be ways of thinking and acting inspired by a genuine dispassionateness. Where dispassionateness prevails, there selfinflicted pain, whether addressed to the body or to the mind, falls out of bounds. For a catholic candor forbids selective art from trading in the name of truth upon man’s curious tendency to hurt himself. The hurt which life and the world do him is part of the given fact; the hurt which he voluntarily inflicts upon himself is no part of the data; and only as he learns to distinguish between the necessary suffering given in the order of nature and the unnecessary suffering invited by the arts can he escape from this newest form of the old ascetic delusion. We look to the candor of science rather than the comforts of religion to dispel the intellectual asceticism of our time; but why quarrel about terms? Is not the candor of science part of the ultimate comfort of religion? As the Wise Man of Ancient Israel said, ‘Afflict not thyself in thine own counsel.’