The human being is a body-soul unity, and there is a hierarchy to this human constitution. When the body rules over the soul, the human is in a state of disorder; when the rational soul rules over the body and its passions, the human is in a healthy state.
The Greek word ἄσκησις, meaning training or exercise, came to describe any disciplined practice, whether it be that of an athlete, warrior, or philosopher. In the religious sense it's a means of disciplining the body through deprivation and physical labors, in conjunction with prayer, to the end of spiritual purification. As St. Paul says, "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).
For many schools of ancient Greek philosophy, as well as traditional Christianity and other religions, asceticism is a necessary means, for anyone who doesn't want to be ruled by the unruly, disordered passions, to bring them into subjection.
The two traditional ascetical contexts for Christians have been marriage and monasticism. But more and more people find themselves, by circumstances of the modern world and their own sins, in various in-between zones. Divorced with kids, Christian but with no monastic tradition, unbelieving or not practicing etc. And even within the vocation of marriage (monasticism hardly even existing in the imagination of a protestant nation, much less in reality), the horizon of possibility is hemmed in by the Neoliberal order that penetrates the ether.
As the Orthodox Church approaches Great Lent, the most intensified period of asceticism on the liturgical calendar, it's worth pondering what asceticism looks like in an age of ubiquitous comforts, distractions, and social malaise.
In one sense, it looks the same as it ever has. Prayer (including the physical aspects of standing for long periods and prostrations), fasting, and almsgiving (an ascetical means of training ourselves in dispossession and charity) are still the fundamental elements of asceticism. And we should practice them according to the rubrics of the Church, handed down by our fathers in the faith.
But the whole life of a Christian ought to be ascetic. For a married Christian father, for example, large portions of his ascetical practice come in the challenges presented by day-to-day family life: dealing with his wife's shortcomings with forbearance and humbly acknowledging his own faults; being patient and forgiving but firm with his children; working diligently and in a Christian manner to provide for his family, including manfully bearing whatever specific difficulties that entails.
And it is primarily here, in this 'everyday asceticism', that the character of our ascetic effort will be affected by the surrounding society and cultural milieu. Family and work life look very different today, under the global Neoliberal order, from how they were experienced in the first-century Ancient Near East, Medieval feudal, or even early 20th century American contexts.
Whether it be a father working two jobs, two parents working outside the home, or a single mother on government assistance, these new arrangements of family and work—the fruits of late capitalism and feminism—will structure our lives. And even if we maintain healthier, more traditional forms of family, work, and social life, against the odds and with God's help, here too there will be unique challenges presented by these and related changes in society.
Where the burdens of family life in the past included greater infant mortality rates, greater vulnerability to infection, disease, and early death, greater amounts of physical toil and deprivation, in some sense these dangers have been reversed. Or rather: physical danger has been exchanged for spiritual. The long, comfortable, distracted life bequeathed to us by technological innovation and economic prosperity is a spiritually very hazardous thing. It is through struggle and difficulty that we are sanctified and become virtuous. But we pacify ourselves and sublimate struggle into virtual realms like sports fandom, political voyeurism, and mass entertainment, distracting ourselves to death.
In earlier times, asceticism was less optional as those natural trials and hardships were thrust upon you. In our own decadent, prosperous age, this is less true.
Though comfort and decadence are not a complete novelty, of course, the widespread wealth and comfort of the modern First World is unprecedented in history. Along with these unique material conditions are the cultural ones that accompany them. Universal suffrage and its consequences up through the sexual revolution, high divorce rates, falling fertility alongside frayed relations between the sexes, mainstream acceptance of degeneracy, a marked drop in religious adherence, social dissolution and stratification etc.
Later marriage and the common practice of delaying having children further removes a natural 'glue' to marriages that, sans readily available and effective birth control, came earlier and almost automatically in past ages. Not to mention the removal of stigma from sexual promiscuity and having children out of wedlock. Feminism not only puts women into the workplace, removing them from their homes and disincentivizing family life, but charges them to subvert the authority of the patriarch in his own home. Leading to predictable social disasters, as broken homes are the strongest predictor of criminality, unemployment, drug addiction, and other social ills.
Another effect of late modernity is not only the disconnect between people in the present it creates, but the severing of bonds between ancestors and descendants through time, resulting in a kind of temporal dislocation as described here by Michel Houellebecq:
Children [in past ages] existed solely to inherit a man’s trade, his moral code and his property. This was taken for granted among the aristocracy, but merchants, craftsmen and peasants also bought into the idea, so it became the norm at every level of society. That’s all gone now: I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to teach him, I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older. By the time he grows up, the rules I lived by will have no value—he will live in another universe. If a man accepts the fact that everything must change, then he accepts that life is reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience; past and future generations mean nothing to him. That’s how we live now.1
All these unique conditions of modern life represent new obstacles to sanctity. There are two new paths of life for men now: NEET and wagecuck, displacing marriage and monasticism. The NEET generally eschews asceticism altogether, embracing the squalor and isolation of pornography, video games, and anime, and so falls outside our topic.
For the wagecuck, leading his family in prayer and as a teacher will remain a chief duty, but now will also entail defensive measures against a rampant, aggressive cultural liberalism which often totters into nihilism. Where work was perhaps physically exhausting in the past, it may be spiritually exhausting now, having to deal with the tedium of the modern workplace. And where he manages to evade tedium, the pitfall to the other side is entertainment and distraction, keeping him from attending to matters of value and worth.
David Foster Wallace knew something of this dialectic between tedium and distraction. In The Pale King he somewhat cynically locates the key to success in the context of the modern workplace:
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.
But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom... If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
For the wagecuck, conquering the boredom and drudgery of the tedious bureaucratic work world (and, I'd add, without anesthetizing yourself with the weapons of mass distraction) becomes a daily ascetical task. As in the development of all the virtues, we are called to walk the Royal Path, veering to neither side.
Satan has always been fiercely fighting ascetics. That he dons the form of the global liberal order (appearing as an angel of light to many) doesn't change his fundamental nature or the nature of the ascetic's task. We are called to struggle for our salvation, in cooperation with God's grace. If the modern demons that attack us today are distraction, ennui, and alienation, let us struggle mightily against them. The oppressive systems of the world, like Neoliberalism, often seem crushing and omnipresent, impossible to escape. And the way they alter and shape the conditions of life are undeniable. "But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world" sayeth the Lord. If we can see with spiritual eyes, the behemoth of the Neoliberal order is revealed to be a paper tiger. This Lent, and beyond, let us strive to be counted worthy participants in his victory over her.
Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles. ↩