Nazis during World War II burned his books. They viewed the man and his ideas as a threat to their ideology. They revoked his German citizenship. He was one of them by blood, but he was a subversive because he felt differently in his heart and mind. He was among them, saw their bigoted and nationalistic politics. He vocally opposed them, and was persecuted by them. Friedrich Wilhem Foerster forewarned of the German’s increasing militarism well before others realized what was happening. He was a pacifist before it was trendy. He was a man firm and brave in his principles. He left us some of the greatest writing for self improvement that still apply today.
It’s not very often we are impressed. We have humanity’s collective knowledge at our fingertips, and can order anything we want to our doorsteps like an Emperor of old. It’s hard for us to be impressed anymore.
Then I read the writings of a man whose words resonate just as powerfully today as when he wrote them over 100 years ago. I’m genuinely impressed by the truths he speaks and I’m also impressed at his open defiance in his own life to a regime which was unforgiving to infidels.
In his book Marriage and The Sex Problem he has a whole chapter devoted to asceticism. In this chapter he discusses the benefits of asceticism, and why the world needs men of spiritual example to guide us forward. I agree that we want men, and women, of sound moral principles, and self-discipline as our leaders. We want them to lead families, communities, and our governments.
The Indispensability of the Ascetic Ideal
“The ascetic principle, in particular, is to-day in danger of being undervalued. Asceticism should be regarded, not as a negation of nature nor as an attempt to extirpate natural forces, but as practice in the art of self-discipline.”Marriage & The Sex Problem, Dr. F.W. Foerster, pg 61.
Asceticism is not simply about negating or removing, as much as it is about doing with greater purpose and intention. It is about getting to the meat of things with no attention at all for trivial appetizers. Sort of like today’s movement towards minimalism. It’s not just the art of getting rid of but really asking do I really need this? Does it serve a purpose? Question everything.
Asceticism in our day is definitely undervalued. People want lives of excess. We show in our stuff-filled homes and our consumerism that we want lives that are more complicated and piled high with more materialism. We want nicer cars. We want larger homes. We want fancier vacations, and to let people know where we’ve been and how great we are. Before you think I’m a monk in cave. I need to give my disclaimer, that I love all of the above, maybe more than most. I recognize that all of the things I mentioned above have not brought me happiness, and actually sometimes add to my misery.
Over 20 years ago as a nineteen year old kid, I was really rough around the edges. What am I talking about? I still am. I can still see myself in my mind’s eye, sitting on a sand covered mattress (actually like a thin piece of foam), in a third world country in Africa. I was in a place with very little clean water, extreme poverty, and much need all around me. I was a missionary, and I had taken a vow of complete commitment to my God and Savior, to teach their message. Now, if you had seen me in the midst of those conditions you would have thought, that poor soul, what a difficult task. Yet, I remember vividly, in that time period having many miraculous and truly joy-filled moments that words can’t describe and explanations will never do justice. Yet that was a time in my life when I had the least material possessions. I had to live out of a suitcase for two years. There was no dating, and definitely no sex. I was not consuming any media. No television, no newspapers, no internet. No communication with anyone from home other than in handwritten letters, and occasional emails that were printed and given to me. I didn’t even have a cell phone. Yet, I was the happiest I had ever been up to that point.
In that experience, I really understood that the key to happiness is not found in more, more, more (how quickly I forgot). It’s found in service to God and his children. The Ascetic life is really undervalued but it is the key to our happiness.
“Its object should be to show humanity what the human will is capable of performing, to serve as an encouraging example of the conquest of the spirit over the animal self. The contempt which has been poured upon the idea of asceticism in recent times has contributed more than anything else towards effeminacy. Nothing could be more effective in bringing humanity back to the best traditions of manhood than a respect for the spiritual strength and conquest which is symbolised in ascetic lives.”Marriage & The Sex Problem, Dr. F.W. Foerster, pg 61.
As technology advances and makes our lives better in some senses, and degenerative in others, we can see that mastering our will is more important than ever. Let me give you a personal example.
I am a highly distracted individual, probably more than most. I think it’s tied to my anxious disposition. Yesterday I logged into my computer to do work, and also to finish a list of about 5 tasks that I had created. I sat at my white desk, staring at my handwritten tasklist in my leather planner. Nothing complicated. I had a few simple tasks, .e.g., I had to contact a few people by phone, write some emails, and study a couple of topics related to problems I was trying to solve for a client. As I logged into my computer to work, I was distracted by my non-important emails, notification alerts, several unwanted phone calls, and internet surfing distractions, to the point that I didn’t finish even the simplest task on my list.
It’s easy to see in my example that technology, although a blessing, in many ways can also be a curse to our sense of discipline and productivity. Self-discipline, or discipline over the body, mind and spirit is what Foerster refers to. He wrote this over 100 years ago and so there is a little bit of the stereotypical gender vocabulary of his time, but the message applies to both men and women. A real man, or a real woman is one who can exert and display self discipline in life.
Asceticism is not to be confused with some type of extremism or self torture for the sake of torture. It is about controlling our bodies, appetites, and selfish desires for the betterment of our own lives and the lives of those around us. Think of practitioners of asceticism as Olympic athletes who train and prepare years for an event which might only last a few seconds or minutes in the future. They practice self-discipline in mind and body with the end result of showing us what humans are capable of doing through hard work and self-control. They give us a model, something to aspire to, but also subconsciously something new to believe in.
In that same sense, Foerester is helping us to understand we need to be Olympic models of virtuous principles to inspire ourselves and others around us. We tend to model others behaviors, primarily those around us, but how admirable is the man or woman who despite being in the world can model the behavior of virtue they want to emulate.
“Neither should the occasional excesses of individuals, or even the degenerate condition of whole epochs, prevent us from appreciating the educational value of the ascetic principle and the inspiration and encouragement which come from contemplating the lives of the great saints.”Marriage & The Sex Problem, Dr. F.W. Foerster, pg 61.
I’m an optimist through and through. I think as a whole, civilization is getting better all the time. This is by far the best time to be alive in humanity’s history. Let me explain. There are more opportunities for upward mobility than ever before. You don’t have to be someones peasant in a feudal society. You can get an education and improve your skills. You also have more free time than ever before due to technological innovation. You are not spending all of your day tilling land by hand or washing clothes with your bare knuckles (although I acknowledge that both still happen). You have more leisure time than ever before to use as you please. We can indulge in every show and form of entertainment we want. In the past the best shows and theater were enjoyed only by the wealthy. Today anyone can watch anything in Bollywood, Hollywood, and in between. You can stream shows, movies, documentaries, and amateur videos from anywhere in the world. There is more entertainment at your fingertips than you can possibly watch in two lifetimes!
Now with all of the excess of time and ease of life come the excesses of immorality. It is better in some ways than the past, but worst in other ways. You are less likely to be raped today than say a thousand years ago, but there is a proliferation of pornography. You are less likely to be killed in a murderous act, but there is an increase in hateful speech because everyone has a loudspeaker on social media. You are less likely to die than ever before from polio, smallpox, measles, or malaria. Granted we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but that being said it is still better to be alive now than one hundred or one thousand years ago. We have modern medicines, painkillers, and communication technology to find vaccines, ease your suffering, and let you know of updates and how and where coronavirus is spreading. Could you imagine this same pandemic a few hundred years ago? The devastation would have been much worse.
Despite all of the negativities of previous periods and our current,the principles of asceticism can help improve our lives. They are timeless and never go out of fashion. Eternal truths have no style. Man might bring them in and out of vogue, but they are in reality eternal. No beginning and no end. The truth is the same today, as it was yesterday, and as it will be until the end of time.
In the last few centuries mankind has increasingly occupied itself with the question of external freedom, and the personalities of the saints have largely passed into oblivion; but they will again come into the forefront of our consciousness when the most important of all the problems of freedom has again become a central question: “How shall I become free from myself?” This question may from time to time be drowned through the clash of outward interests, but just as the great pyramid of Cheops always majestically reappears, even if it be temporarily veiled by the sandstorms of the desert, so, too, this great question of inner freedom will ever again raise its head above the dust and storm of daily existence, leading man back from all external things to the great problems of his own nature.Marriage & The Sex Problem, Dr. F.W. Foerster, pg 64.
I am constantly in a battle with myself. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t care so much about how I am perceived by others, but I care about how I perceive myself. Most days I get along fine with myself. But there are also days where I can’t live another minute with the man in the mirror. I’m disappointed by my weaknesses. Did I really need to eat that pizza? Why didn’t I go for a run first thing in the morning like I planned? Why can’t I do the things I need to get done in the time frame I plan on getting them done? My battles are probably similar to yours. We battle with our own lack of self discipline, our own lack of personal integrity, and accountability more than anything else. The answer doesn’t lie outwardly. It’s not going to be solved by new running shoes, or an app to help you meditate. It all begins internally.
This reminds me of a beautiful quote from Ezra Taft Benson.
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums.
The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”
Asceticism is a focus on improving the internal by ridding ourselves of the external distraction. It is a way to get rid of the superficial and shiny objects in our lives that deviate us from our true course. I’ve noticed in the last few years a greater societal interest in self-awareness, mindfulness, and leading an intentional, or purposeful life. They are all good things, but there is usually an external solution sought after even in these. For example, pay for my retreat and we will “solve” your (insert problem). Buy our app and we will help you meditate, sleep, and be more productive. The answer already lies within you. The solution is not in purchasing anything or having an external tool. We must learn to discipline or minds and bodies not through externals but though internal self control.
In the midst of our apparently healthy and productive development of economical and technical energy who cannot perceive on every hand the symptoms of hidden disease? Consider, for example, the increasing brutality with which we pursue an aimless and meaningless struggle for life, the disintegration of will-power through the ever-increasing multiplication of the demands upon it, the disturbance of nervous equilibrium as a result of the creation of artificial needs, and the stimulus of more and more urgent claims, the deadening of spiritual power caused by the breathless pace of our machine-like system of life, in which all the inner needs of man are reckoned as no more than sand in the bearings! One day we shall come to ourselves and ask: What is the object of all this perpetual strain, all this restless activity; what is the ultimate aim of this soul-destroying haste and competition? Is it so important that men should travel more and more rapidly from St. Petersburg to Paris, or that one nation should outdo another in the manufacture of the best motor-cars? All deeper life, all sacred peace and solemnity, all humanity’s higher goods, all quiet love, are sacrificed to the insatiable demands of our ever-increasing material needs. Every section of society is compelled to join in this acceleration of life and this restless multiplication of needs. Is it absolutely indispensable that the cultivation of the earth and the technical mastery of nature should be accompanied by this destruction of the deeper life of humanity?Marriage & The Sex Problem, Dr. F.W. Foerster, pg 74.
This last quote gets to the point. What is the benefit of all of the technological advancements, and the ability to live longer and get from point A to point B faster, if it we are more miserable and destroying our souls?
This reminds me of Jesus Christ’s words in Mark chapter 8, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
We are running around in circles. There are days where I fly through a 12 hour work day, then to my kids sports in the evening, then sometimes to night time meetings, only to be back at my desk the next morning. Everything in my life becomes a blur. I hardly see my wife and kids and then ask myself what I am doing all of this for? Are all of the advancements worth the expense of sacrificing a simple and meaningful life?
The reality is that the more I do this, the less happy I am, and the more distant I am from my family, neighbors, and God. Only when I pray, read from spiritual texts in seeking truth, serve others, and practice stillness, do I find peace.
Jesus served multitudes during his ministry. He also would have periods of isolation where he would go off to the mountains to pray. He was always seeking guidance through prayer and fasting in order to commune with his father. It would’ve been easier for lesser men to get caught up in the fame from the multitudes, do tours, and get busier and busier. Jesus shunned the fame and found pleasure in a life of simplicity and modesty. He wasn’t a ruler of men, or owner of properties. He was a lowly carpenter who through sacrificing his life for others showed us what real asceticism looks like. It is not a scarcity mentality it is a mentality of great abundance, love and focusing on what is most important.
May we all learn from the words of Friedrich Wilhem Foerster written for us over 100 years ago. They are words of profound wisdom and timelessness. They are from a man who could identify trouble brewing in his nation’s morality long before most. He knew what was important in life and could see past the smoke and mirrors. A life of simplicity, practicing virtues and principles that are true and eternal, and that will stand the test of time. He believed in asceticism and practiced it himself, leaving us an example and legacy of a veritable ascetic to follow.