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PART IV SOCIALISM AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE
1 The Ascetic Point of View
Socialism as an Emanation of Asceticism
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." 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
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. 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.
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.
2 Asceticism and Socialism
Socialist thought at first cold-shouldered all principles of asceticism. It harshly
rejected any consoling promise of a life after death and aimed at an earthly paradise
for everybody. Neither the world to come nor any other religious inducements have
any interest for it. Socialism's one aim was to guarantee that everyone should reach
the highest standard of well-being attainable. Not self-denial, but enjoyment was
its criterion. Socialist leaders have always definitely opposed all those who show
themselves indifferent to the increase in productivity. They have pointed out that,
to lessen the hardships of labour and increase the pleasures of enjoyment, the productivity
of human labour must be multiplied. The grandiose gestures of degenerate scions
of wealthy families in praise of the charms of poverty and the simple life made
no appeal to them.
But on looking into this more closely, we may detect a gradual change in their attitude.
In proportion as the uneconomic nature of socialistic production becomes apparent,
socialists are beginning to transform their views on the desirability of a more
abundant satisfaction of human wants. Many of them are even beginning to show some
sympathy with writers who praise the Middle Ages and look with contempt on the riches
which Capitalism adds to the means of existence.
The assertion that we could be happy, or even happier, with fewer goods can no more
be refuted than it can itself be proved. Of course, most people imagine that they
have not enough material goods; and, because they value the increase of well-being
that greater exertions on their part can bring more than they value the leisure
which they would gain by renouncing it, they exhaust themselves by laborious work.
But even if we admit the assertions of those semi-ascetics whose outlook we have
been discussing, this by no means commits us to giving the socialist method of production
precedence over the capitalist. For supposing too many goods are produced under
Capitalism, the matter could be remedied quite simply by reducing the quantity of
work to be done. The demand that we should reduce the productivity of labour by
adopting a less fruitful way of production cannot be justified by such arguments.
Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur
Religionssoziologie (Tübingen, 1920), Vol. II, p. 206.
Ibid., p. 211.
Weber, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 262.
Glaser, Die franziskanische Bewegung
(Stuttgart and Berlin, 1903), pp. 53 ff., 59.
Heichen, "Sozialismus und Ethik" in Die Neue Zeit,
Vol. 38, Vol. l, pp. 312 ff. Specially remarkable in this context are also the remarks of
Charles Gide, "Le Matérialisme et l' Economie Politique" in
Le Matérialisme actuel (Paris, 1924).
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