Erling Skorpen: "The Philosophy of Renunciation East and West" in Philosophy East and West, vol. 21, no.3, 1971, p. 283-302.

Renunciation is an integral part of eremitism, delineating the borders of the individual's relations with mind, body, culture, and the world. The late professor of ethics Erling Skorpen here succinctly examines the nature of a philosophy of renunciation from a deep historical perspective that goes to the core of intellectual and cultural thinking.

Skorpen begins with the Kantian definition of ethics as based on actions that can be universalized, extending Hegelian cultural idealism. The issue for individual behavior becomes a question of whether an action can be done by everyone. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard presents renunciation as one of these ethical actions, but pushed to the limits. The biblical (or rather idealized) Abraham is going to slay his only son Isaac at God's command. Can such an act be universalized? Can anyone suspend ethics (taboo against murder) to follow a perceived higher law that abrogates ethics?

And so by speculating whether Abraham can suspend the ethical for some weightier purpose, Kierkegaard is asking whether it is ever justifiable for someone to abandon the form and substance of the moral point of view -- personal self-fulfillment, especially as might be found in a one-to-one relationship with the Supreme Bring.

The question is relevant in considering how hermits East and West have historically renounced the presumed duties enjoined by society to procreate, produce, and defend society as a moral necessity versus pursuit of a personal (subjective, perhaps egotistic) calling. Since most Western renouncers have been religious, the image presented by Kierkegaard is appropriate.

Writing in 1971, however, author Skorpen sees the relevance of renunciation as a contemporary issue: the number of people renouncing the value of consumption, technology, and social conformity to "drop out" or go back to the land. Thus there are modern secular parallels to religious renunciation.

Religious Renunciation

The first argument favoring renunciation is the Platonic idea that different individuals "achieve self-realization in different ways depending upon their various natures." St. John of the Cross has been described  by one biographer as  a "born" mystic, as having a natural disposition to spirituality. Many authors have defended monasticism as historically creative and economically productive in its time -- thus justifying monks' existence socially and culturally. Corporate renunciation, however, is an irony of withdrawal from society followed by return to and engagement with society. The issue is not so much a matter of renunciation as self-fulfillment. Kant himself says (in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals) that "As a rational being, a person necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve and have been given for all sorts of purposes."

Skorpen calls the argument for religious renunciation based on the pursuit of self-fulfillment "Kantian Argument One." Here self-fulfillment includes the cultivation and achievement of God-consciousness. Western renunciation is therein compatible with Hindu and Buddhists notions of renunciation as well. But the driving force behind this argument is stronger than self-fulfillment. Renunciation to pursue God historically becomes a profession of withdrawal from the world, marriage, children, business, politics -- the gamut of civil duties and expectations, not merely the self-fulfillment characteristic of artists, poets, and recluses. The argument must be rephrased as to

whether everyone for the sake of the highest possible human development can and should reject the world's secular claims.

A second argument would account for the evolution of self-consciousness in history. In the Western Greco-Roman and medieval worlds, a distinction of self from nature did not extend to a distinction between self from corporate identity. Such a distinction begins in the Renaissance and distinguishes self from social definition or role. With the Enlightenment, distinctions of self from other selves follows, culminating in the modern distinction of the individual's inner and outer self.

Skorpen notes that in this sense monastic renunciation in the West is based on Greco-Roman and medieval notions of self -- self-fulfillment within prescribed "patterns of worldly renunciation consistent with social respectability and cohesion." Here the ultimate justification fits a divine (or natural, in the case of the Greeks) teleology. Such a self remains exteriorized. (This theme will be revisited in looking at ancient India).

But through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, the self comes to be interiorized. Moderns are acutely conscious of the borders of their autonomy, and now conceive of ethics in terms of the "Kantian kingdom of ends-in-themselves." All conflicts of duty must be resolved from this point of view. Except that "when this Kingdom's requirements clash with those other of petty egotism or narrow social custom, the former takes priority."

The "invisible" kingdom of ends-in-themselves is therefore the autonomous individual's self projected in his behavior toward others. Its requirements are weightier than those of the earlier precept of "my station and my duties" when these clash. And to the Kantian man of the Enlightenment it is as true that no weightier demands than those of the moral point of view can be envisaged, for he sees his hard-won individuality and that of others fully protected by steady allegiance to this point of view.

Thus the stage is set for bringing a complex of moral sensibilities to the question of renunciation, a complex that the biblical Abraham could not have had, of course. Indeed, ancient and medieval renunciation did not contradict society or the social ethos of "my station and its duties." Skorpen notes that while the pre-Enlightenment individual had no moral qualms about renunciation because society recognized a higher end in God, the post-Enlightenment person

has now been liberated from such unself-conscious identification and now finds himself an independent, self-legislating moral agent. Since Kant he moreover finds that the source of his autonomy is in his transcendental ego and not his socially-conditioned self.

What the modern -- like Kierkegaard's version of Abraham -- must ask is whether the transcendental ego, which cannot depend upon the argument from nature or propensity, can still justify something other than social ethos. How to be convinced of the "rightness of renunciation" in light of Kantian sensibilities? How to renounce not just the role in propagating the species but to ask if it "is morally permissible and prescriptive for him or anyone else to opt for those ["inexpressible"] riches at the expense of his worldly obligations"? That is how the potential renouncer is in the same situation as Kierkegaard's Abraham.

Skorpen's point here is not the highly abstract notion that renunciation universalized will end the human race. Rather, the point is the issue of the moral justification for renouncing the world not in order to follow God (Kantian Argument One) but to pursue self-realization, to drop out for what one perceives to be a goal higher than any social ethic. This skirts dangerously close to egotism, of course. Skorpen cites Erasmus arguing that self-realization (Erasmus called it "interior piety") could be pursued just as easily in the world and without renunciation. If the renunciate, like Abraham, cannot hold fast to Argument One, he is, as Kierkegaard puts it, "lost."

Does the renunciate's argument have to be the non-moral religious argument of Abraham, an ideal superior to any moral ideal? The renunciate "cannot present a retreat to some ancient mythic ethos" because the person's is not thinking "of regressing to an inferior morality but of progressing beyond the Kantian moral point of view with its vision of the kingdom of ends-in-themselves." The dilemma is an existential one, a Kierkegaardian "either/or," with the further realization that renunciation has no acceptable place in society. Pushing the philosophy of renunciation to its existential limits places under scrutiny the very premise of Western society that there are no limits to self-transformation.

Eventually the would-be secular renunciate realizes that there is no sanctioned renunciation. "The real alternative to such secular ambitions [as plying a trade, career, or profession] is to renounce them in principle." For every trade or profession is "representative of world acceptance and constitutive of opposition to the ideal of world disavowal." It is an either/or not of contraries (this trade or that one) but of contradictories.

So from either perspective, strict Kantian or compatible life-ideals, the result is the same. What the modern candidate for religious renunciation in the West is considering is, in fact, a "teleological suspension of the ethical," and that is something that ex hypothei he will not and cannot do lightly, and he may well experience fear and trembling if he does.

Hindu renunciation

But in Hinduism, both ethical obligations to society and to an ideal self-realization can be satisfied within the asrama system (although the author does not mention the word asrama). In the classical system, the individual can progress from student to householder to retirement to final liberation from the world. Today, retirement may not literally consist of being a forest hermit, nor liberation (moksha, also not mentioned by Skorpen) be expressed in the life of the wandering mendicant, though the latter institution seems to thrive, nevertheless. But the ashrama system shows how society can reconcile moral and social obligations or expectations with the pursuit of renunciation. Furthermore, notes Skorpen:

The Hindu theory of life's stages bears comparison to psychological and existential theories of human growth in the West. Among other things such theories [suggest] ... that existential maturity in the form of experimenting with different life styles is impossible without first gaining a psychological maturity. The principle of stages along life's way in such theories raises a kind of question concerning the feasibility of Western renunciative practice that is different from the moral question. Unless the Western renunciate achieves psychological and existential maturity by normal progression through worldly involvements, how can he, for example, resist neurotic dependency on others in his religious community or be sure that he has achieved autonomous self-fulfillment in a man-to-God relationship?

Skorpen's idea of maturity through worldly experience may only be partially suggested by Hindu tradition; the topic was a new and burning controversy within religious organizations at the time of his writing this article. While it is true that Western renunciates need to be scrupulous in their self-awareness and motivation, Skorpen proposes a standard that the worldly do not apply rigorously to themselves, depending on serendipitous series of experiences in the cultural marketplace to smooth the edges of personality in those who live in the world, hardly a systematic education in ethics or psychology.

Why, ultimately, should the Western would-be renunciate wait for society to devise an asrama system -- which, of course, will never happen? Further, should that would-be renunciate pay such scrupulous heed to society's ethics anyway when in a pluralistic modern world only pragmatism and etiquette, not ethics, prevails?

Because the Hindu system incorporated the option for renunciation, it met the Kantian criteria for moral behavior. The stages of life could be generalized without moral offense to reason or social necessity. No Kierkegaardian suspension of ethics was called for; there was no "either/or," no "fear and trembling." In the Hindu system, renunciation was not unreasonable, absurd, or irrational.

Skorpen cites the long tradition in Hinduism -- from the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita to modern thinkers like Ramakrishna and Ramana. upholding the goal of self-liberation. He concludes that Hinduism has achieved the goal of reconciling society and individual, participant and renunciate -- a goal that eludes the West.

The Hindu thoroughly internalizes morality as a representative of a class, so that moral conflicts are resolved not by modern reason but by appeal to authority -- in this case the authority of scripture and thought, fixed in the mythos era and its consciousness. In the West, the individual has developed outside of authority and mythos, both to the enhancement of self-knowledge but also to the detriment of ego.

Hinduism evolved Advaita Vedanta as metaphysical non-dualism to mitigate the negative aspects of the authority of scripture and tradition. Both tradition and Vedanta see the centrality of ego as the chief obstacle to self-realization. In contrast, the Western world has prized liberation of ego from all forms of captivity: God, nature, society, other egos. But only in the West, with self-realization culminating in the ego's captivity to itself, has the urgency to reintegration emerged. This reintegration is a return not from captivity so much as alienation.

Renunciation of ego is the goal of Hindu non-dualism, but non-dualism has always haunted Western though as pantheism and annihilation of self. Skorpen sees Eckhart, Suso, and John of the Cross as possible sources for Renaissance and later development of perspectives on human limitations of self, distinctions from God, and a progression of selfhood straight through to existentialism. Thus have East and West developed in "diametrical opposition," concludes Skorpen.


Skorpen makes three conclusions:

  1. Western religious renunciation cannot be justified from the moral point of view;
  2. the Hindu pattern, in contrast, is acceptable from the moral point of view given the premise that renunciation is a necessary means to self-realization, and
  3. though Hindu religion and anthropology are "ill-suited to Western social practice," nevertheless, the Hindu pattern of renunciation "proposes a course of human growth leading up to renunciation that might better serve the renunciate ... than does the Western pattern."