Stoicism vs Asceticism

Stoicism is often misinterpreted for the lifestyle of asceticism. In this article, we will pay close attention to the differences between Stoicism and asceticism to disprove this comparison.

The relationship between Stoicism and asceticism is problematic. First of all, Stoicism is a philosophy and asceticism is a form of (mostly) religious practice. We will look further into the problematic nature of this comparison, but first we must understand what exactly asceticism is and how it differs from Stoicism. 

The word asceticism follows from the Greek word áskesis, meaning “exercise” or “training”. While Stoicism is a philosophy in the full meaning of that word, asceticism is more of a lifestyle that is influenced by a certain (mostly religious) worldview. Of course, Stoic philosophy can also provide foundations for a lifestyle, but it is more than that.

Asceticism is a practice that includes abstinence or avoidance of sensual material, i.e. worldly pleasures. The typical ascetic would look down at the body and its needs, while his attention focuses on the purification and perfection of the soul. It is an ascetic opinion that worldly pleasures and needs must be avoided if one wants to remain pure in the eyes of God and consequently reach higher goals, such as transcendence of the soul to the spiritual realm. 

There are many other reasons why would one embrace an ascetic lifestyle in the framework of religious practice. Some believe that the soul can redeem itself when meeting God only if it is pure; others think that sensual material is “evil” by nature, so they refuse to participate in it. Others believe the body is a prison and that we should focus only on the divine part within ourselves.

The Ascetic Lifestyle

With that in mind, we will talk about asceticism in relation to Stoicism. It is important to note that asceticism was practiced by some philosophers; however, this is not enough to say that Stoic philosophy, for example, is ascetic. In other words, asceticism was not a practical principle in Stoic philosophy, nor its guide.  

That being said, there were those among the Stoics who preferred a more rigid lifestyle. The Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (successor to Zeno of Citium) preferred an ascetic lifestyle. However, he was considerably more radical than other Stoics, as he claimed that enjoyment isn’t in accordance with nature (reason) and it should be avoided. In Cleanthes’ opinion, pleasures can lead the mind astray, distancing it from its purpose and leading to further suffering. 

Emotions and Indifference

It is worth noting that Stoics were mostly indifferent, meaning they didn’t embrace negative or positive attitudes towards emotions themselves. Our enjoyment should be the consequence of the activity (for example, feeling content after working out), but it can never be the purpose of our actions (e.g. working out to satisfy our vanity).  

I would like to emphasize that there is a difference between affects and emotions on this matter. Stoics disapproved of affects, which are sudden and turbulent emotions, such as fear, grief, lust, etc. Affects cloud our judgement and mind, and they should be suppressed with training because they are unnatural (not reasonable) and harmful. 

On the other hand, emotions such as cosmopolitan love, love towards life, excitement to be alive, innocent joy, etc. are not disapproved of. For example, we can look at what Marcus Aurelius had to say about life and positive emotions:

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

Marcus Aurelius

As we can see, Marcus Aurelius didn’t neglect his life; he was grateful for it (despite being the most pessimistic Stoic philosopher). Pleasures are neither good nor bad, and the same goes for matter and the body. It is the mind that decides, and a well-trained mind would not bother running away from the reality of life. 

To conclude, Stoics love this life we have now, as they regularly emphasize the value of the present moment. They didn’t forsake their current life in order to “deserve” a second one, as ascetics did. Stoics wanted to use this life to the fullest, but in accordance with human nature and reason. If we forsake reason while chasing after pleasures or, coincidentally, by actively avoiding pleasures, then suffering inevitably emerges, and all Stoics wanted is a life free from sorrow and suffering. From this Stoic reasoning on life and our sensual experience of it, it is clear why Stoicism and asceticism are vastly different practices.