Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1: The Ascetic Point of View - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
1: The Ascetic Point of View - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Ascetic Point of View
Withdrawal from the world and denial of life are, even from the religious point of view, not ultimate ends, pursued for their own sakes, but means to the attainment of certain transcendental ends. But though they appear in the believer’s universe as means, they must be regarded as ultimate ends by an inquiry which cannot go beyond the limits of this life. In what follows, we shall mean by asceticism only that which is inspired by a philosophy of life or by religious motives. With these restrictions, asceticism is the subject of our study. We must not confuse it with that kind of asceticism which is only a means to certain earthly ends. If he is convinced of the poisonous effects of liquor, a man abstains from it either to protect his health generally or to steel his strength for a special effort. He is no ascetic in the sense defined above.
Nowhere has the idea of withdrawal from the world and denial of life been manifested more logically and completely than in the Indian religion of Jainism, which is able to look back on a history of 2500 years. “Homelessness,” said Max Weber, “is the fundamental idea of salvation in Jainism. It means the breaking off of all earthly relations, and therefore, above all, indifference to general impressions and avoidance of all worldly motives, the ceasing to act, to hope, to desire. A man who has only the capacity left to feel and think ’I am I’ is homeless in this sense. He wishes neither life nor death—because in either case it would mean desire, and that might wake Karma. He neither has friends nor raises objections to the actions of others towards him (for example, to the usual washing of feet which the pious person performs for the saint). He behaves according to the principle that one should not resist evil and that the individual’s state of grace during life must be tested by his capacity to bear trouble and pain.”11 Jainism prohibits most strictly any killing of living beings. Orthodox Jains burn no light during the dark months because it would burn the moths, make no fire because it would kill insects, strain the water before boiling it, wear a mouth and nose veil to prevent themselves from inhaling insects. It is the highest piety to let oneself be tortured by insects without driving them away.12
Only a section of society can realize the ideal of ascetic living, for the ascetic cannot be a worker. The body that is exhausted by penitential exercises and castigations can do nothing but lie in passive contemplation and let things come to it or consume the rest of its strength in ecstatic trances and thus hasten the end. The ascetic who embarks on work and economic activity to earn for himself only the smallest quantity of the necessities of life abandons his principles. The history of monasticism, not only of Christian monasticism, reveals this. From being abodes of asceticism the monasteries sometimes became the seat of a refined enjoyment of life.
The non-working ascetic can only exist if asceticism is not obligatory for all. Since he cannot nourish himself without the labour of others, labourers must exist on whom he may live.13 He needs tributary laymen. His sexual abstinence requires laymen who will bear successors. If this necessary complement is lacking, the race of ascetics quickly dies out. As a general rule of conduct asceticism would mean the end of the human race. The holocaust of his own life is the end towards which the individual ascetic strives, and though this principle may not include abstinence from all actions necessary to maintain life with the object of putting a premature end to it, it implies, by suppression of the sexual desire, the destruction of society. The ascetic ideal is the ideal of voluntary death. That no society can be built on the ascetic principle is too obvious to need closer explanation. For it is a destroyer of society and life.
This fact can be overlooked only because the ascetic ideal is seldom thought out, and still more seldom carried out, to its logical conclusion. The ascetic in the forest who lives like the animals on roots and herbs is the only one who lives and acts according to his principles. This strictly logical behaviour is rare; there are, after all, not many people who are prepared to renounce light-heartedly the fruits of culture, however much they may despise them in thought and abuse them in words, few who are willing to return without more ado to the way of life of the deer and the stag. St. Aegidius, one of St. Francis’s most zealous companions, found fault with the ants because they were too much preoccupied with collecting supplies; he approved only of the birds, because they do not store food in barns. For the birds in the air, the animals on earth, the fish in the sea, are satisfied when they have sufficient nourishment. He himself believed that he lived according to the same ideal when he fed himself with the labour of his hands and the collection of alms. When he went gleaning with the rest of the poor at harvest-time, and people wanted to add to his gleanings, he would refuse saying: “I have no barn for storing. I do not wish for one.” Yet this saint did derive advantages from the economic order he condemned. His life in poverty, possibly only in and by this economic order, was infinitely better off than that of the fishes and birds he believed he was imitating. He received income for his labour out of the stores of an ordered economy. If others had not gathered in barns the saint would have gone hungry. Only if everybody else had taken the fish as their example, could he have known what it was to live like a fish. Critically disposed contemporaries recognized this. The English Benedictine, Matthew Paris, reports that Pope Innocent III advised St. Francis, after listening to his rule, to go to the swine, whom he resembled more than men, to roll with them in the mud, and to teach his rule to them.14
Ascetic morals can never have universal application as binding principles of life. The ascetic who acts logically passes voluntarily out of the world. Asceticism which seeks to maintain itself on earth does not carry its principles to the logical end; it stops at a certain point. It is immaterial by what sophistry it tries to explain this; it is sufficient that it does so and must do so. Moreover, it is compelled at least to tolerate non-ascetics. By thus developing a double morality, one for saints, one for worldlings, it splits ethics in two. The only truly moral folk are the monks, or whatever else they may be called, who strive for perfection by asceticism. By splitting morality in this way asceticism renounces its claim to rule life. The only demand that it still ventures to make upon laymen is for small donations to keep the saint’s body and soul together.
As a strict ideal, asceticism knows no satisfaction of wants at all. It is therefore non-economic in the most literal sense. The watered-down ideal of asceticism, conceived by the laymen of a society that reveres the asceticism of the perfect, or by monks living in a self-sufficient community, may demand only the most primitive hand to mouth production, but it by no means opposes the extreme rationalization of economic activity. On the contrary, it demands this. For, since all preoccupation with worldly matters keeps people away from the only purely moral way of life and is to be tolerated at all only as a means to an intermediate—unfortunately unavoidable—purpose, then it is essential that this unholy activity should be as economical as possible, so as to reduce it to a minimum. Rationalization, desirable to the worldling in his efforts to reduce painful and increase pleasant sensations, is imposed upon the ascetic, to whom the painful sensations aroused by work and privation are valuable castigations, because it is his duty to devote himself to the transitory no longer than is absolutely necessary.
From the ascetic point of view too, therefore, socialistic production cannot be preferred to the capitalistic unless it is held to be more rational. Asceticism may recommend its devotees to limit the activities by which they satisfy their wants because it abhors a too comfortable existence. But within the limits which it leaves for the satisfaction of these wants, it cannot regard as right anything but what rational economy demands.
[11. ]Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Tübingen, 1920), Vol. II, p. 206.
[12. ]Ibid., p. 211.
[13. ]Weber, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 262.
[14. ]Glaser, Die franziskanische Bewegung (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1903), pp. 53 ff., 59.