If asceticism was simply a matter of self-mortification then we could claim that we have never lived in more ascetic times. We diet to shed those dozens and dozens of unsightly pounds; some voluntarily submit to a surgical ablating of the flesh for the purposes of fabricating the perfect nose; our star athletes allegedly undergo a period of sexual continence before the big game; some of you may even gallop on scorching days for distances in excess of twenty-six miles, for no better reason than to replicate the achievement of the first person to die from that feat. And in general terms the definition of the ascetic as a person who practices “rigorous self-discipline, severe abstinence, austerity”, might tempt us to smuggle the more excessive of these modern deprivations under the definitional bar. However, the OED qualifies the definition by pointing out that asceticism aims are achieved “by seclusion or by abstinence from creature comforts”. Furthermore, the term derives etymologically from the Greek asketikos, meaning monk or hermit and more generally the root term is ascesis – the practice of self discipline, or exercise. If, in the final analysis, the contemporary mortifications listed above seem to fall short of being ascetic, why might we, in contrast, regard environmentalism as fundamentally so?
To use the life of Simeon Stylites as a point of comparison with environmental thought and practice may be a challenging place to start to make a case that environmentalism is foundationally ascetic. Certainly there are more temperate ascetics, ones who like St Antony of Egypt (231-356 AD) traveled to the wilds there to meditatively dally, but after decades alone returned to society, at least in the sense of taking many disciples under his care. In other words, there are ascetics whose practice might be more appropriately compared to Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond. Perhaps one might compare tree-stylites like John Muir perched in a storm-tossed Douglas Fir or Julia Butterfly Hill residing in her California Redwood to the ascetic sadhus of India, who, practicing what is called urdhamukhi, dangle out of trees. In the case of Hill, she lasted two years; as for the Muir and the sadhus, the latter who dangle upside-down, their tree dwelling lasted a matter of hours. And so on; one might look for a milder ascetic counterpart for Robinson Jeffers dyspepsia concerning his fellows, preferring you’ll recall, to “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk”; one for Ed Abbey’s hilarious but curmudgeonly defense of inaccessibility for Arches National Monument in Desert Solitaire; one for Paul Ehrlich’s discomfort in an ancient Indian taxi (“People visiting, arguing and screaming…. defecating and urinating”) prompting his writing of The Population Bomb; counterparts even for the simple-living needed for ecological footprint reduction, for the belt-tightening required by sustainability, and for the meat-eschewing dicta of environmental vegetarianism. In all of these examples there is a whiff of asceticism but none requires the foot ulcerating commitment of standing on a pillar for decades. So why Simeon?