Archive for February, 2014

True Asceticism

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

You’ve come to realize, you say, that the choice we’re seemingly given between a life of pleasure, ease, and sin, on the one hand, and a life of constant weariness and ascetic hardship, on the other, is actually a “false dichotomy”. Renouncing self and world needn’t mean never enjoying the good things of life, nor should we forget that the hardship of self-denial leads ultimately to far greater “pleasures”: namely, a peace and happiness worldly things of themselves can never bring.

This is indeed a false dichotomy—for the two reasons you give, but also a third. What I have in mind is the immediate (not ultimate) deepening or enriching of the pleasure which the true ascetic finds, precisely, in “the good things of life”. I emphasize “immediate” to underscore the fact that it’s not simply a question of self-restraint today in order that we might merit some sort of pleasure tomorrow—whether of this or some other world; and I emphasize “true ascetic” in order to distinguish a form of renunciation that is, or should be, intrinsically desirable.

True asceticism, and by this I mean an asceticism rooted in gnosis and not merely in conventional piety or sentimentality, realizes full well that the giving up of some X is not something negative, not the regretful neglect of a source of pleasure, but rather something quite positive, a means of piercing directly to the very center of X so as to extract its most succulent center while avoiding its less tasty shell or rind. Might one not risk turning Augustine’s line on its head? “Love God,” he said, “and do as you please.” To which the gnostic responds, “Do what truly pleases you, and you will in fact be loving God.”