"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

1 Nov 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping — Asceticism

‘IT is a gentle art; know how to tramp and you know how to live. ... Tramping brings one to reality. [...] It is a mistake to take to the wilderness clad in new plus fours, sports jacket, West-End tie, jewelled tie pin, or in gaiters, or carrying a silver-topped cane. One should not carry visiting cards, but try and forget the three-storied house, remembering Diogenes and his tub.’
Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping

Some of the questions that still elude me about tramping are: when did the tramp first emerge in history? what prompted one to become a tramp? and, if tramps always existed, how has their vocation and relationship to the rest of society changed over time? I intend in this essay to review some of my earlier writings on the origins of asceticism in Western culture—and the Cynic project in particular. I need to better understand, what it is that provokes certain individuals to disassociate themselves from the rest of society's pursuit of money and possessions, as the means to secure success and happiness. The questions that I will address at the end of this post are: 1/ why did Cynicism fail and Christianity succeed? And, 2/ what might have been the legacy for we moderns, of dumping a philosophy of naturalism in favour of a belief in the supernatural? I do not apologise for returning again to the ancient Cynics; it is the raison d'être of this blog to rescue this ancient philosophy from obscurity and misrepresentation. But important to setting out the foundations of a philosophy of tramping, is the need to explore the thesis that, the denigration of cynicism in our post-Christian world may have provided the moral vacuum that today's tramp inhabits—a search for the real in a stressful world of exasperating illusions.

However much we moderns appreciate the convenience of owning a car, a washing machine or a computer, to some degree we are also aware of the potential of such possessions to enslave us. When considering the cost of their purchase, maintenance, insurance (to relieve the anxiety against them getting lost, damaged or stolen), constant upgrading and replacement, and the additional stress of remembering ever more complex passwords to make things work at all, or, accessing unhelpful helplines 'manned' by robots; the burden of owning stuff—apart from those wealthy enough to employ servants to do the worrying for them—increases exponentially in proportion to the paraphernalia and services we employ to manage our lives. Who has not at some point envied the freedom of the tramp and contemplated how their lives might be happier, or at least less stressful, if they just walked away from their job, home, possessions and responsibilities—only to panic at the thought of what they might be giving up, or overwhelmed with guilt at the very thought of such an irresponsible act of selfishness.

And yet, for at least 2,500 years, there have been those who perfectly well understood the folly of seeking to achieve happiness through accumulating money and possessions. One of the principal tenets of Buddhism: if one desires nothing, one lacks nothing, was absorbed into Western thinking by the ancient Greek Cynics only 100 or so years after Buddhism took root in the East. Trade links certainly existed between the Mediterranean and India during the hundred or so years before Cynicism formally emerged. And according to Indian records, the Buddha died in 483 B.C., only 79 years before Diogenes the Cynic was reportedly born in 404 B.C. Further exchanges must have taken place between Greek and Indian sages during the campaigns of Alexander. The Cynics in turn influenced the asceticism of the early Jesus movements (before, that is, the beliefs of Jesus became corrupted by Paul's version of Christianity). The principals of these ancient sects are continued today by those with the courage and independence of spirit to turn their backs on the consumer world that the rest of us find ourselves addicted to—paradoxically, consumerism is now fully embraced and promoted as a virtue by many modern Christians.

Yet, as discussed in the Introduction, unlike the more accepting ancient Mediterranean cultures, the choice to tramp since Christian times (unless in a monastic role) came at the cost of being outcast and outlawed by the rest of society. The reasoning behind any philosophy of tramping must, therefore, consider the history of asceticism as one of its fundamental determinants. This post will now look more closely at the reasoning underlying ancient Greek and Christian asceticism to provide a context for the work that is to follow.

Ancient Greek Asceticism

Most of the Hellenistic philosophies acknowledged, to some degree, the limitations of indulging our desirers as a path to happiness. Even the Hedonist Aristippus, founder of the Cyreniac school, had to acknowledge that extreme self-indulgence could only be acquired at the cost of pain. He recommended that in order to minimise the pain that may accompany pleasure, we should also work at mastering our desires. One of Hedonism’s later followers, Hegesias, became so sceptical of attaining contentment through positive enjoyment that he adopted a philosophy of pessimism, declaring happiness to be unattainable. The Epicureans held that sensual impulses and a rich enjoyment of life was permitted so long as one avoided a dependence on such things. The goal of happiness was to be achieved by balancing the most pleasure with the least pain. This did not necessarily equate to self-indulgence, as pleasure could be achieved as much by altruistic actions as it could by selfish ones—in fact more so. It was the degree to which pain (physical pain and mental anguish) could be removed that was the Epicurean’s main criterion of happiness. Furthermore, happiness itself could not be increased exponentially. A lavish banquet, for instance, would not provide a greater degree of pleasure than a crust of bread and a drink of water, if the measure of happiness is the degree to which thirst or hunger is vanquished. The Stoics took from Cynicism their belief that external things should be eliminated from human life, but, as with Pauline Christianity, this included human passion. In marked contrast to the Cynics, Hedonists and Epicureans, the Stoics claimed that the elimination of passion promised a new basis for political virtue, supporting an ideal which would lead to a just and humane society.

According to the first century Latin writer and Epicurean, Lucretius, the road to happiness is often an elusive one. In seeking fame and fortune—a need which, he tells us, is impelled by a desire for security and contentment in life—the opposite fate is in fact often achieved. The resulting, and more lasting pain (including the pain of guilt, envy, regret, etc.) nullify and circumvent any happiness which may have been achieved. The Cynics were one step ahead of this Epicurean logic, for in attempting to avoid pain and disillusionment, they spent their life training for and subjecting themselves to the worst kind of pain and hardship as an insurance against being cast down. An example of Cynic training (askesis) can be found in reports of Diogenes begging alms of a statue in order to get practice at being refused, and Peregrinus practising Cynic indifference by appearing in public with half his head shaved, his face covered in mud, and an erect penis. A more practical outcome of the Cynic art, is illustrated by Diogenes smashing a cup he carried for water after witnessing a youth drinking from his cupped hands. Living an ascetic life style then, removed the possibility of destitution because the Cynics had already cast themselves down out of a positive choice of lifestyle.

In marked contrast to Stoics and Christians, Cynics did not abstain from sexual pleasure; which was entirely consistent with their belief in modelling the behaviour of lower animals as the most natural way to live. It is reported that Diogenes' lifestyle was inspired by watching a mouse running about: not looking for a place to lie down in, not afraid of the dark, not seeking any of the things which we consider to be dainties. As a further example of learning from animals, Diogenes’ choice of a large earthenware wine vat as a mobile home is said to have been inspired by his observation of a snail. It was this simple lifestyle, deliberately adopted to contrast with civic society’s obsession with luxury and complexity, that distinguished the Cynics and brought them into ridicule. The Cynic regarded all human appetites as equal in nature. To explain his habit of masturbating in public, Diogenes is reported to have said, “I only wish I could be rid of hunger by rubbing my belly.” What emerges as a result of examining these (albeit anecdotal) references, is a clear link between even the basest of a Cynics’ public behaviour and their philosophical and ethical convictions.
Like early Christianity, Cynicism offered freedom from unhealthy preoccupations with the material world, but unlike Christianity, it offered immediate peace on earth for the individual rather than the deferred gratification of a reward in heaven. The Cynics did not believe in gods or the notion of an afterlife; an important consideration when it comes to addressing the two questions I posed at the beginning of this post. In the aphoristic style of the chreia (a Cynic invention adopted later by pre-Pauline Christians), when asked if he believed in the gods, Diogenes replied, “How can I help believing in them, when I see a god-forsaken wretch like you?” It was a Cynic slogan that one could lose material possessions, yet wisdom and knowledge could never be taken away. But it would be a mistake to view the Cynics’ life as an easy option. Far from wishing to avoid work and responsibility, most Cynics fully embraced their responsibilities. Many in fact gave away considerable fortunes in order to pursue asceticism as a positive lifestyle. Furthermore, by disseminating their philosophy free to all comers, they arguably contributed far more to society than those who simply chose to sell their wisdom within the exclusivity of schools of learning.

Cynic Influences on Christianity

At the time that Christianity was emerging during the first century A.D., ascetic Jewish and early Christian sects would have had every opportunity to be influenced by Cynics. The main trade route between the Mediterranean coastal town of Ptolemais and Gadara (birthplace of Cynics Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus) near the south-eastern end of the Sea of Galilee, passed just 8 miles north of Nazareth. The earliest comparison between Christians and Cynics comes from the second century anti-Christian writer Celsus, who made disparaging comments about Christians’ Cynic-like behaviour of preaching to the rabble in the market place rather than engaging in what he considered intelligent debate. This view was challenged by Origen some 60 years later when he commended the practice of bringing philosophy to the mass of uneducated people, and Christian and Cynic street preachers may well have shared the same audiences. Cynicism has been described as the philosophy of the proletariat and also a philosophy of the individual; important when considering it's relevance to tramping. Both sects also shared literary and dialogic genres, such as the chreia mentioned earlier, the diatribe (credited as a prototype of the Christian sermon) and the symposium (or banquet dialogue, as exampled by the Last Supper).

But to return to asceticism, for both the Cynics and the early Christians, the lifestyle of the ascetic was central to their practical philosophy, in which personal hardship and suffering provided the key to the elimination of physical and mental discomfort. The early Christian ascetic culture of poverty provided instructions not to worry about what one eats, to discard home and family ties, to eschew normal standards of cleanliness, and to treasure ourselves rather than our possessions. ‘Go sell all your possessions and give them to the poor,’ it says in Mark (10.21). And also from Mark (10:25), ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ Compare also, the truism in 1 Timothy (6.10) that, ‘the love of money is the root of all evils’, with that attributed to Diogenes the Cynic in the writings of his namesake, Diogenes Laertius (6:50), ‘the love of money is the mother-city of all evils.’ How then does one reconcile the image of fat bishops in their cathedral palaces clad in purple robes and gold chains, with Jesus the ascetic sage entreating his followers to abandon money, possessions and a roof over their head for a life of hardship and prayer.

If suffering is an inevitable part of life, by embracing a culture of poverty in the manner in which they lived, both Cynics and early Christians sought to cheat suffering by making a virtue of it. Their asceticism was the key to a practical philosophy, in which personal hardship and suffering provided the key to happiness. The early Christians trained to endure the harshest circumstances including pain, hunger and the insults of others; and the degree of asceticism described in the parallel references in Matthew, Mark and Luke appears even more severe than that of the Cynics. In addition to only wearing a single tunic and taking no gold, silver or copper in their wallets, the disciples are instructed to wear no sandals and carry no staff. By the time the Desert Fathers made their appearance, four centuries later, we get into Christian asceticism of an entirely different order, such as the holy man who is reported to have lived for thirty years on bread and muddy water, and another who survived in an old well on five dried figs a day. But, as will be discussed later, such practices were based on the fear of hell and damnation, not the Cynic goal of celebrating life, here on earth, with the least pain.

Christian Asceticism and the Demonisation of Woman

Any similarity then between Cynics and Christians, ended when Paul hijacked the early Christian movement and turned Jesus—ascetic sage and one of many Jewish rebels of the time—into a prophet, thundering apocalyptic warnings of doom and destruction. The preposterous narrative tale of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a supernatural being, a God himself, was first recorded for others to add to and embellish over the succeeding decades and centuries. No one has better captured Paul's corruption of Jesus' original philosophy, than the modern cynic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his penultimate work, The Anti-Christ. Although covered in more detail in an earlier post, 'Nietzsche: Anti-Christ, not anti Jesus', it is worth noting here, just in what way Nietzsche considered that Pauline Christianity had blighted the world for the last 2,000 years—and his surprise also, that in all that time we had not bothered to invent for ourselves a single new god! The paradox is, that if Jesus were to show up in one of our city centre streets today, the perversion that is the modern Christian state would simply regard him as any other down-and-out, an object of fear and suspicion, and either jail him for vagrancy or have him committed for a psychiatric assessment.

Nietzsche understood that the real tragedy of Christianity, was not its corruption by Saint Paul, but that the rise of Christianity itself heralded a long dark period in the history of Western civilisation, one that laid waste to the richness and diversity that was the classical culture of Greek and Roman civilisation. ‘One has but to read Lucretius to know what Epicurus made war upon’. And what Epicurus made war upon, was ‘the corruption of souls by means of the concepts of guilt, punishment and immortality’. For Nietzsche, before Paul appeared, Epicurus had triumphed. Every respectable intellect in Rome was Epicurean. The Hellenistic philosophies promised not eternal life, as did Christianity, but the eternal recurrence of life, a future that was promised and made sacred in the past. True life was collective survival through reproduction and the mysteries of sexuality. The authentic, deep meaning in all ancient piety for the Greeks was the ultimate revered symbol of sexuality. Everything associated with pregnancy, birth, and the act of reproduction, awoke the highest and most festive feelings. ‘It was Christianity, on the basis of its ressentiment against life, that first made something unclean out of sexuality: it threw filth on the beginning, on the prerequisite of our life.’ And it is Saint Paul again who must take the credit for originating the notion of fornication as unclean in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, the earliest of the New Testament texts:  

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness.’

To return to Christian asceticism in it's most extreme and unhealthy form, it is necessary to contrast Paul's brand of asceticism with that of the Cynics in order to address some of the questions I posed earlier. One legacy of Pauline Christianity was the strict celibacy and mistrust of women (or rather mistrust of men's own desires for women) carried forward into the monastic life of the Middle Ages. Unlike the Cynics, these devout holy men felt that they could no longer practice in cities, seeking out instead the solitude of remote places. The Desert Fathers were the first hermit monks from whom collectives of monks, or monasteries, would start developing across Europe. The third century A.D. found many of these holy men (and some celibate holy women) living in remote parts of the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. A fuller description of the lives and practices of the Desert Fathers can be found on my post, 'Christian Asceticism and the Demonisation of Woman', from which the following first hand description by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 325-373, is taken as an example. He tells how Anthony, credited as the 'father' of dessert monasticism, was daily set on by the demons to dissuade him from his holy mission. The devil himself warns the monk, “how difficult it is to attain the goal of virtue and the very hard work involved in achieving it”. In Anthony’s case, the devil would nightly appear to him in his small cell in the form of a beautiful woman, ‘omitting no detail that might provoke lascivious thoughts, but Anthony called to the mind the fiery punishment of hell and the torment inflicted by worms: in this way he resisted the onslaught of lust.’

That goddess worship in Ancient Greece and Rome, and the celebration of everything connected with fertility and the mysteries of reproduction, would be replaced in a couple of centuries by fear and loathing of women on such a scale, was an unparalleled triumph of marketing by Paul, that continues to the present day. And to illustrate just how determined and savage were Paul's successors in their mission of demonising women, I provide two further examples. The first of these comes from the early Christian writer Tertullian (circa 160 – 225 A.D.):

‘Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child's play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die.’   

Poor Adam! Of course, he had no chance against such devilish cunning. The lust and desire of man is born out of the womb, contaminated by the evil that is woman. ‘Woman is the cause of the Fall, the wicked temptress, the accomplice of Satan, and destroyer of mankind.’ For the sins of Eve, woman is condemned to the pangs of childbirth and the curse of menstruation. And yet, in case man still finds himself too weak to to resist her charms, Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople from 347–407 A.D., provides some additional words of deterrent:

‘The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less that the phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food . . . If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulchre.’

Saint Augustine (354–430 A.D.) completed the causal chain between the sinfulness of sex, the virgin birth, and the good of virginity. The final irony of Christianity’s demonisation of women, was to create a female icon to which no ‘real’ woman could aspire. By means of the immaculate conception, Mary was able to give birth to the infant Christ, free from the contamination of sexual desire, and thus, break the chain of ‘original sin’ which the temptress Eve had effected in the Garden of Eden. The rest of woman kind were left to languish in the shadow of her glory. This hatred of women reached its grizzly climax in the witch hunts that started in 1454 (before the start of the Reformation) and ended in 1782 when the last witch was ‘officially’ executed in Poland. No other culture or civilisation in history had ever set out to systematically torture and murder (in the millions by some accounts) its own women in such a way. 

The virtue of the Desert Fathers was not the virtue sought either by Jesus or the Cynics, whose asceticism was aimed at living a simple life free from unnatural, not natural, desires. In the case of Jesus, there is no evidence that unnatural desires included fornication. If Diogenes preferred masturbation as a way to relieve his sexual appetites, it was because he was in control of when and where to attend to his needs, other Cynics, such as Crates, appear to have had a very active sex life indeed. Not so with these holy men, whose asceticism seems to have been dominated by the need to resist carnal temptations at all costs and avoid eternal damnation. Only one real opportunity has presented itself in the last 2,000 years for a rejection of Christianity and return to glories of the ancient world, but the Renaissance collapsed because alongside the reawakening of the love of life, developed a hedonistic excess of life. Neither did the Enlightenment and the advance of scientific discovery deliver on promises for a better world; quite the contrary. Science has been responsible for as many catastrophes as it has successes, whether military, medical or ecological. 


And so, in answer to one of the questions I posed earlier, it would seem that human beings themselves are the problem. The majority of us would seem to prefer chasing illusions than dealing with the reality of the natural world around us: continually staring skyward for meaning, as did Icarus, rather than at what exists right under our noses. A possible reason that Cynicism did not flourish may be that in addition to it's harsh lifestyle, it reinforced our human limitations, flaws and failures. Essentially, we are an arrogant animal, who rather needs to believe in our virtues, omnipotence and indestructibility, whether the Christian promise of a reward in heaven, or scientists' obsession with understanding, categorising and controlling the natural world. All the while, we humans—through our misguided belief that the world can be shaped to our will—continue to create the very chaos and disorder that we seek to control. That the two candidates for the impending US presidential election in 2012, facing some of the biggest challenges in the world today, both refer to their belief in God as one of their primary credentials for election, should be proof enough that modern politics in the US is bankrupt. 

That over 50% of Americans—the most powerful and fanatically Christian society in the West—oppose universal healthcare in their country because they object to contributing towards a more equal and caring society, is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the capitalist project—and it would seem, the basest example of the perversion of Christianity. The arrogance and, at the same time, vulnerability of this nation—decaying as it is from the inside out—is it's child-like belief that it represents a model of democracy and assumes a self-appointed role as guardian of the planet. The tragedy is, that what could have been a paragon of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in the modern world, a virtual Noah's Ark of the strongest and most resourceful representatives of humans from across the globe, degenerated into Christian mediocrity and a nation divided by greed and selfishness. The tramp scares of the depression eras in America, in which thousands of disenfranchised citizens rejected main stream society and took to tramping as an alternative life style, may yet return to haunt America in an entirely unpredictable form, and on an even more unprecedented scale.

What will it take to convince humankind, that religion, science and capitalism have all failed to deliver on promises of a better world, while the rich and powerful—depending as they do on the existence of an underclass to maintain their advantage—cling desperately to their privileged life styles? The answer is, of course, that human nature is human nature, and has not changed for millennia. We do not carry forward wisdom from one generation to the next, because wisdom dies with each passing generation. The most abused of all adages, that we learn from our mistakes, is the greatest myth of all. For all the posturing and handwringing, greed will always prevail, and the best of belief-systems will always be corrupted to serve selfish and powerful interests. As for the silent majority, they will continue to believe the illusions that priests and politicians peddle—because not to, is an altogether depressing alternative. Cynicism failed for precisely this reason. And Christianity continues to flourish because it offers 'hope'—even if, as Nietzsche observed, it delivers nothing.

But Cynicism cannot, and does not, claim to provide and alternative 'system'. All it can do is hold up a mirror to human arrogance and pretension, inviting us to see the naked truth behind grand deceptions—a truth that most of us would prefer to remain blind and deaf to. Neither is asceticism, of itself, the answer. That we should all live an aesthetic, tramping lifestyle, or go off and live in a barrel like Diogenes, is not an option. That some of us though, cannot, or refuse to, any longer tolerate the stress and disenchantment of mainstream society, and choose instead an ascetic lifestyle, is perfectly understandable. It is certainly preferable to allowing the stress of modern life to pathologise us, leaving us at the mercy of psychiatrists and therapists; those guardians of normal human behaviour. 

In understanding the need to tramp, a reevaluation of the philosophy of Cynicism, and the Cynics brand of asceticism, is a useful starting place—to reconnect with the natural rather than the supernatural world. If nothing else, Cynicism represents a personal strategy for surviving in a hostile world. That is, those periods in history, like our current crisis, when society becomes morally bankrupt, and social and political vacuums leave ordinary people feeling alienated and abandoned. Although I intend to explore many other reasons why people may resort to tramping in future posts, this response to a feeling of abandonment; provoking a search for a simpler more meaningful life, must be at the core of the tramp's determination; and behind whose ragged appearance may well lurk a superior intellect.

I gave the first words, and I leave the last words, to tramp essayist and novelist Stephen Graham, this time from A Tramps Sketches. As though to illustrate just how little we progress civilisation, Graham's comments on 'commercialism', published exactly 100 years ago, could easily have been written yesterday:

‘The question remains, "Who is the tramp?" ... He is necessarily a masked figure; he wears the disguise of one who has escaped, and also of one who is a conspirator. ... He is the walking hermit, the world-forsaker, but he is above all things a rebel and a prophet, and he stands in very distinct relation to the life of his time.
     The great fact of the human world to-day is the tremendous commercial machine which is grinding out at a marvellous acceleration the smaller and meaner sort of man, the middle class, the average man, "the damned, compact, liberal majority," to use the words of Ibsen ... But over and against the commercial machine stand the rebels, the defiers of it, those who wish to limit its power, to redeem some of the slaves ... Commercialism is at present the great enemy of the individual man.’

1 comment:

  1. Incredibly thought provoking piece. Love the site/blog, btw.