Acts of asceticism are quite largely acts originating in residues related to living in society that continue functioning when they have ceased to have any utility and acquire an intensity which carries them beyond the point where they might be useful. The residue of asceticism must, in other words, be classified with residues of sociality, and frequently represents a hypertrophy of sentiments of sociality….
All [the] varieties of asceticism, when exacerbated by their [derivations], and when efforts are made to enforce them upon others, are the source of huge amounts of suffering that have afflicted, and continue to afflict, the human race. The fact that people tolerate such suffering, and sometimes even accept them voluntarily instead of rejecting them and stamping on those who promote them as on poisonous snakes, shows conclusively how powerful the sentiments corresponding to them are. Really they are perversions of the instinct of sociality, and without that instinct human society could not exist.
Now while an Objectivist can at least agree with Pareto’s negative assessment of these sentiments of asceticism, Pareto’s attitude toward their existence is very different from that of Rand and the partisans of her philosophy. Pareto sees these sentiments as part of a certain type of human nature. Most people have sentiments of sociality. Such sentiments are necessary to the social order. But unfortunately, in some people, these sentiments are perverted. Even worse, in many other individuals, there exists a kind of sympathy for such sentiments, so that instead of rigorously opposing the baneful practices that arise as a consequence of this asceticism, people tolerate them, sometimes even praise them. Since all of this is rooted in sentiment, rather than in theory, it cannot be eradicated by arguing with it. Indeed, like stupidity and mendacity, asceticism, along with sympathy for ascetic practices, has existed throughout human history and probably will always exist. It’s simply part of the human condition; and while sensible people will fight it the best they can, it would be foolish to believe that much progress can ever be made against this congenital disease of human psycho-pathology.
Now there may be some congenital optimists out there who are under the illusion that, because the ascetic practices of the pre-modern times have long ago disappeared in the West, that there actually has been progress against this sentiment. This is, however, a very superficial way of regarding the issue. The old practices of asceticism, it is true, have, thankfully, disappeared. But they have given way to new practices which, although not nearly as intense, are in some respects worse. The Christian ascetics were primarily inner-directed. They voluntarily chose to whip themselves or reside for years on the summits of pillars or engage in other equally senseless practices. Modern ascetics tend to be far more outer-directed. They wish to inflict their urge for self-sacrifice on others. This we see quite clearly, for example, in the countless follies of radical environmentalism, particularly in relation to the global warming hysteria, which is being used by our modern ascetics as a pretext for forcing pointless sacrifices on the leading nations of the West. One can hardly imagine a more silly, stupid, and senseless piece of legislation than Obama’s cap and trade plan. It would be much better for society if, instead of trying to pass such legislation, our modern ascetics, like the ascetics of old, preferred self-flagellation and years on top of columns.
Rand would have us believe that she provided the solution to this problem of asceticism and “self-sacrifice” in her arguments for egoism and against altruism. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although Rand’s strictures against altruism, when they include the baneful types of asceticism and humanitarianism noted by Pareto, are largely justified, Rand is not content with confining her denunciations solely to the most palpable abuses. By polarizing the entire issue as a conflict between egoism on the one side and the most extreme and horrid form of altruism on the other, she denies (at least by implication) the more reasonable positions that flourish between these two extremes. Since most human beings are not capable of the sort of “rational” or “enlightened” selfishness advocated by Rand, the advocacy of egoism, to the extent that it has any influence at all, will likely cause more harm than good. A society that was either destitute or weak in such sentiments of sociality as charity and concern for the feelings of others would not be a pleasant place in which to live. Concern for others, desire for the approbation of others, admiration for charitable acts all serve as useful counterweights to the more selfish passions of mankind. Belittling or making light of these sentiments of sociality hardly helps advance the cause against the abuses of asceticism and “self-sacrifice.”