On ascetic practices in Stoicism

“Lo, God has sent you one who shall show indeed that it is possible. ‘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 to avoid? When did I blame God or man, when did I accuse any? Has any of you seen me with a gloomy face? How do I meet those of whom you stand in fear and awe? Do I not meet them as slaves? Who that sees me but thinks that he sees his king and master?’ There you have the true Cynic’s words…”
— Epictetus, Discourses III.22

The Stoics are descended from the Cynics, through Zeno of Citium who studied under Crates.  Indeed, Epictetus mentions in his Discourses Diogenes of Sinope more often than he does Zeno, the very founder of the Stoic School.  Both the Stoics and the Cynics hold that virtue is the only good, and the only thing necessary for eudaimonia.  On this, they agree.  On the matter of things indifferent (Gr: ἀδιάφορα), they differ heartily.

Desmond, in his book “Cynics, notes that Epictetus is one of the more Cynical of the Hellenic Stoics.  While this is true if you are comparing them to the Roman Stoics as a standard, it’s not true if you consider that we should be doing that comparison the other way ’round.  The Roman Stoics should be measured against their earlier Greek forebears.  The Romans, especially Seneca, Cato, and Marcus, had a level of material wealth and social role obligations that their Hellenic cousins simply never did.

The Romans took the tripartite study of philosophy, and discarded much of the things which did not mesh with their cultural norms.  The Cynic’s parrhesia (Gr: παρρησία), or freedom of speech, and their flouting of social norms were entirely contrary to the Roman values of decorum and social compliance.  From Cicero on, we have a trend of Romanizing the rough edges, the Cynic edges, off of Stoicism.  However, to ignore this lineage, and the Cynic-like tendencies of the early Stoa is a mistake.

So, the Cynic lives with his wallet or sack, worn-out cloak, and staff.  This is his uniform, and the extent of his worldly possessions.  The Cynics were practicing a voluntary austerity and asceticism which set them apart from the wider Hellenic culture.  They made plain their distaste for the material preoccupations of their day, and history is replete with annotations, aphorisms, and quotes holding up their mirror of non-conformity to the wider culture.

So, what sorts of ascetic practices, looking to our Cynic forebears for inspirations, might the aspiring Stoic adopt today?

  • Simple food:  The Cynics extolled the virtues of the lupin bean, and simple lentil soup, and crusty bread.  Lupins are expensive and hard to come by where I live, but lentils are cheap and readily available.  Zenonian Lentil soup might be a good start.
  • Simple drinks:  The Cynics praised the drinking of water over other choices, although Diogenes did say his favorite wine was “someone else’s.”  Note:  “The Water-Drinking Cynic” (Hydrokyon).
  • Simple clothes:  The Cynics had a uniform, and indeed many Stoics did, too.  The tribōn or philosopher’s cloak, minimalist protection from the environment.  The modern might reduce the wardrobe to a few identical pieces.  Jeans, a solid color t-shirt, and a light jacket, maybe?
  • Simple, natural grooming:  A simple, utilitarian hair cut, not for style but to remove what’s useless or in the way, and for men an uncut beard.
  • Simple shoes:  Barefoot if possible, for most of us it may not be, sandals might be a reasonable substitute.
  • Rough sleeping:  Avoid the soft beds, sleeping instead on the ground or a rough pallet, with naught but a simple blanket or cloak.
  • Walking:  Which errands could we rather walk for, instead of taking our vehicles or public transportation?

Ascetic training was a core part of ancient Stoic practice, and it has been sadly divorced in the modern times.  At minimum, if we will not practice these labors daily, once a month we should expose ourselves to some hardship so we might inure ourselves from the fickleness of Fate.

Is asceticism a part of your Stoic practice?  Why or why not?  Would you consider adding it to your practice?

3 thoughts on “On ascetic practices in Stoicism

  1. I try to do a number of these on a regular basis. For me, the easiest ones are to drink water and to sleep on the floor. The last couple of nights that I slept on the floor, when I decided to indulge myself by sleeping on the couch, my first thought was “Goodness, the couch feels really comfortable.” (mission accomplished!) Sometimes if I’m fussing over my outfit/appearance too much, I might threaten myself, “Come on Kirsten, do you need to start wearing a potato sack to remember your priorities?” So far the threat has been sufficient. Ha!

    I also do a “fiscal fast” several times a year, where I don’t spend any money for a week and I try to cut down costs. If gas is running low, I walk to do errands. I use up food that’s been sitting in the cupboards for a while. I try not to turn on A/C or heat unless it’s beyond bearable, and I really try not to use much electricity, cutting out things such as dishwashers and instead washing dishes by hand. It’s actually really effective not only to curb my spending habits but to leave me feeling very content—all I really need in life is food, water, shelter, and books. 🙂

  2. My ascetic practices:
    vegan diet
    no alcohol
    no coffee
    don’t shave
    sleep on floor
    only intimate with partner
    barefoot whenever possible
    no TV, newspapers
    only use internet for essential information
    socialize and talk as little as possible
    never kill anything, including insects

  3. I like the idea of simply misdressing for the weather and driving in a car that’s not climate controlled at all — barring the too-low-for-survival days of winter. This practice doesn’t interfere with one’s work life, say, if a uniform is required.

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