Nazis Hated Foerster and How His Writings Can Change Your Life

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.

3 Lessons on Success from a Billionaire and an Ascetic Leader

Some might think that Stephen A. Schwarzman and Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t be any further apart from one another. As different as they may seem these two extraordinary men both came from humble beginnings to become world renowned. I just started reading Stephen’s new book and Gandhi’s autobiography at the same time. Even in their early years you can see similarities in their trajectories. In Stephen you have an overly ambitious founder of one of the world’s leading asset managers, and one of the richest men in the world. In Monhandas Karamchand Gandhi, you have an ascetic seeker of truth, political and civil rights activist, and a staunch opponent of colonial rule.

Below are three main similarities that I found in common between the two.

  1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.
  2. Challenge accepted practices
  3. Seek your own truth

1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.

In Stephen’s book What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence, Stephen is undeniably a big picture thinker and yet he also delves into the details. Let me give you an incredible example. While he was a young boy working for his dad’s window drapery business in Pittsburgh he tries to convince his father to expand. He first starts off with the idea of going nationwide. His dad shoots him down but Stephen attempts again by asking what about multiple locations all over the region, or even just multiple stores? He quickly realizes that his dad has no ambitions outside of just running his store. At that young age Stephen comes to the conclusion that some are just managers and others are entrepreneurs. He was already thinking really big as a kid. In his book he explains, “it’s as hard to start and run a small business as it is to start a big one. You will suffer the same toll financially and psychologically as you bludgeon it into existence. It’s hard to raise the money and to find the right people. So if you’re going to dedicate your life to a business, which is the only way it will ever work, you should choose one with the potential to be huge.”

Gandhi in his own right was also a big thinker. You don’t free an entire colonized country like India from Imperial Britain without some outsized ideas and aspirations. That being said, even early on, before he was the great social reformer that we now know, he had big plans. He came from a working class family in India. His father died while he was young. Gandhi left his single mother, his young wife (they were married at 13), and his newborn child to go study in England in hopes of becoming a barrister. He left everything he knew at great expense to his family and started a life that was so foreign from what he knew, all because he dared to dream. He was bold and audacious even while having a shy personality. He took a large risk and it was much larger than most around him were willing to take. Both he and Steven started in small humble places, but thought about getting to bigger and better.

2. Challenge accepted practices

The best example of this is how Stephen managed to change the rules at Yale for visitations from members of the opposite sex. In his book he states, “In my final year [at Yale], I decided to take on the biggest issue of all for Yale’s men: the 268-year old parietal rules that forbade women staying overnight in a dorm room. ” Now I’m not saying he used his abilities for all the right reasons but he managed to change these rules by outsmarting the school administrators. He knew he couldn’t discuss changing the rules with them so he decided to do a survey of students, who majoritively supported abolishing the old rules. Steven then published the results in the student paper with supporting reasons. The Yale administrators folded. What most people would just accept as the way things were, Stephen sought to change. He challenged conventionally accepted practices over and over again with astonishing results.

Gandhi didn’t fully accept the traditional practices of his day despite what some may think of him. He was definitely a non-conformist and that is obvious from the beginning of his autobiography. He came from a vegetarian and deeply religious family and yet in his youth he had secretly been eating meat, smoking cigarettes, and even ended up in a brothel. Fortunately for him and future admirers of the leader, nothing happened in the brothel. To be clear he had firm values and felt much guilt because of his wayward ways, and mostly for disobeying his parents. What really shows Gandhi’s grit early in his life is a prime example of his disregard for the way things are just accepted by everyone else. In Gandhi’s quest to leave India for England he was confronted by people of his caste who forbade him to leave to England. Gandhi was reprimanded, looked down upon by others around him, and the leaders of his group. They told him that people of his caste don’t leave India to study abroad. Gandhi explains in the book how he just didn’t care what they thought. It is interesting to see how even in his youth he didn’t accept what everyone told him was the way things were done. He simply left. He didn’t care about their antiquated rules. He never looked back.

3. Seek your own truth

Stephen created his success by seeking for opportunities that were different than people around him. He took his own path which was really unique at the time. From his average high school and town he managed to get into a premier Ivy league school on his own. While a college student at Yale he found grueling work on cargo ships in the summer that traveled the world. He joined the army reserves during Vietnam and turned in leaders who were stealing food and selling it, which earned him recognition from a colonel. He went on to Harvard Business School but was so disappointed by the curriculum, the teachers, and the administration, that he complained about it to the Dean of Harvard Business School who flat out asked him, “Mr. Schwarzman, have you always been a misfit?” No matter where he went Steven was trying to get to the truth of things in his own unique way. He was forging his path of truth.

Gandhi was also seeking for his own truth. The subtitle of his book is, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi displayed an ability as mentioned previously to look outside of himself and what others thought to be the conventional way of life. His leaving his homeland, mother, wife and young child to go study was very unconventional for someone of his background. This is further evidenced by the resistance of others in his caste. He mentions though how he was interested and influenced by three “moderns” as he calls them. He was influenced by a young man named Raychandbhai who was a savant and also a wise spiritual man that he knew. The other two were “Tolstoy by his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You; and Ruskin by his Unto the Last.” For an Indian man such as Gandhi to be reading and influenced by these men says something. It shows that we was seeking for truth well beyond the world his neighbors and friends were confined to. He even later named one of his South African farms after Tolstoy. He was seeking not just in Hindu texts from his background but in the Qur’an and the Bible as well.

These two men although worlds apart had many similar characteristics that helped them in their early years in life. So we find that principles of truth and character are not limited to race, gender, nationality, geography, or wealth. They transcend space and time and are available to all. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jewish-American billionaire or an Ascetic spiritual leader, these principles can be applied by all who are willing.