The Asceticism of the Ancient Greeks: The Path to Happiness
A strange paradox, it is, the Paradox of Choice that Barry Schwartz discusses in his TED talk and book appropriately titled The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. We live in a culture and world full of stuff, full of choices, and these choices cause us a great deal of uncertainty, confusion, and pain.
Did I buy the right phone? Did I pick the right health insurance plan? Why are none of these things making me happy?
Questions like these are raised and I highly recommend both the book and the TED talk, but I’d like to offer some solutions to the problems that Schwartz discusses, such as why all of this stuff doesn’t make us happy — the fact is, it’s not meant to be fulfilling.
I believe that there are actually “cardinal virtues” so to speak, of being happy with little, behaviors, practices, traits, and ways of life that we can embrace which will help us to be happy with little. The fact is, minimalists, don’t have these problems as much as others.
What Makes a Minimalist?
Of the things that could be said to make a minimalist is a commitment to ascetic principles and practices. In my life, I’ve strived often to minimize my needs and the means required to obtain them — I’ve tried to keep the threshold of things that I think are prerequisites of happiness, to an absolute minimum.
Asceticism is the practice of depriving one’s self of pleasures both ordinary and great in an attempt to find peace of mind with little. “Askesis,” the Greek word from which our modern English word “asceticism” derives actually means “exercise” or “training.” Ascetic life is training one’s self to just be happy.
Some asceticism takes the form of moderate curbings of one’s natural appetites toward the pleasures of life, not just so we can be miserable, but so we can gain a mastery over them, things like cutting calories, not eating sweet foods, abstaining from drugs, alcohol, sex, or other pleasures, pornography, the list goes on. Christianity is heavily influenced by the core concepts of asceticism, with the stringent Jewish laws of the Old Testament, and the selfless love that’s found in the new.
Some have taken asceticism to the extreme at times, with self-flagellation, self-mutilation, and actually inflicting pain rather than abstaining from pleasure, like those who marched through the streets of Europe during the height of the Black Death, the plague, whipping themselves, cutting themselves, and starving themselves believing that God was punishing them by levying a plague against them for their overindulgence in earthly pleasures.
While these measures are inarguably extreme, they underline a very important notion in the concept of happiness: the idea that happiness must be independent of pleasure.
Is happiness really fleeting? If you require something besides the basics of survival, can you actually be said to be happy? Or will the hammer of disillusionment inevitably fall, leaving you exposed to the harsh world of want and lack again?
Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher among the others heavyweights, who held his own not only in thought and wit but in action and style. This classic philosopher was as bizarre as one could get for the ancient Greek world, and while it’s uncertain when exactly Diogenes was born, we know that he died around 320 BCE, in the classical period of ancient Greece. The so-called Classical Period of Athens actually came to a close in approximately 323 BCE, around the presumed death of Diogenes by many sources, making him one of the last members of the Classic Period of Ancient Greece.
The facts about Diogenes’ life have been written about extensively on Medium and can be found here, but for now, I’ll just say that Diogenes had very little in the way of earthly possessions — he lived in a bathtub or a hollowed out barrel which had been disposed of, in the streets of Athens, homelessly pursuing happiness in its purest form. He lived with little, and though he was very extreme in some of his practices of asceticism, his lessons are ones we can all learn from in today’s high-paced world of consumerist consumption and chasing the next, big materialist high — whatever that may look like.
He can be quoted as saying:
“It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike [humans] to want little.”
Asceticism is not so much about having little, but rather desiring little. Even the ancient Greek hedonistic philosopher Epicurus advocated a modest life.
What would it mean to you to be free from want?
“Look at me, I have no house or city, property or slave: I sleep on the ground, I have no wife or children, no miserable palace, but only earth and sky and one poor cloak. Yet what do I lack? Am I not quit of pain and fear, am I not free? When has any of you ever seen me failing to get what I will to get, or falling into what I will avoid?”
So says Diogenes from over 2,000 years ago, a message that resonates today as much as ever.
Can Happiness Be Learned?
I believe the answer to this question is an emphatic, “Yes.” In fact, that’s what the Greek “training” of asceticism was all about, exercising a radical acceptance of life as it is, the beauty of the sunshine, the enjoyment of a cool breeze, and the poetic adoration of the present moment. All of these things can be learned, and more than just learned, they have some seriously proven health benefits — just living in the present moment and daydreaming is extremely good for your health.
What is addiction? Addiction is a disease characterized by poor impulse control in the face of triggers — if there’s one thing about addiction that can be said to be true, it’s a sense of need of the substance or activities of choice which causes us harm; in short, addiction is what happens when we lack the ability to control our desires.
Summed up, asceticism in practice is impulse control and emotional maturity at work — it is when we say no to pleasure for pleasure’s sake, and begin to act on principle instead of gluttony, wrath, lust, greed, and the other Cardinal Sins of Christianity and resistance to temptation can definitely be learned.
Asceticism is about learning how to desire on our terms, by rejecting the cycle of need and satiation, the binge-and-purge of want; it’s a process, like all principles, whereby we become the master of our emotional worlds, rather than slaves to them.
Let us be the masters of ourselves and not the slaves.