Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Virtues - Detachment

Detachment entails overcoming desire and/or withdrawing into oneself. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism all include it prominently in their teachings. Paul goes so far as to say unmarried men and virgin women need not worry themselves with finding a mate, “for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:25-31).

The first aspect of the virtue, overcoming desire, is an idyllic state of being. Often sought, rarely attained, the loosening of every fetter fastening us to this world is a thing much easier to talk about than to do. Many use self-sacrifice as a training tool, with the most apparent being the ritual fast. The believer abstains from eating, despite their hunger. In this way, the adherent may learn to suppress natural urges and motivations. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, has several legends premised on his proclivity for fasting.

The second aspect of detachment, the retreat into oneself, is also addressed as a positive in most religions. Prayer, meditation, Luke 17:21, etc, imply that there is something of value to be found within oneself, and that there is a need for calm self-focus. I can’t say I agree completely, but there is clearly a need to improve ourselves before judging others (and Jesus agrees in Matthew 7:3).

Beyond this, there is a danger of becoming self-involved and aloof if one delves too deeply into one’s mind/soul. Calm reflection may be a necessity, but to condemn and ignore the world is not something I think would work if practiced on a global scale. The hermit has his place; it is not inside society, but outside screaming crazy things about the end being neigh. For some reason, people sometimes listen and take them seriously. That, boys and girls, is how religions are born.

This is certainly the most seldom practiced of all virtues. While most people vocally claim to follow a system that preaches detachment, we are a society (and planet) obsessed with material existence. I see no fault in this, as this is the only world I perceive to exist. However, this leaves “Christian America” with no footing. We are a country that practices usury, fiscal manipulation, material obsession, and we plaster God’s name all over our money (for good luck, maybe?). If we’re a Christian nation, we’re a horrible one. Thank God we aren’t.

Systems that push detachment believe in life after death, so there is little problem in suggesting we deny ourselves the satisfaction of the here and now. I believe there is life before death. But unlike the message of greed, "He with the most toys wins," I believe the one who laughs most wins.


  1. >Systems that push detachment believe in life after death

    Buddhism values detachment, but doesn't believe in a life after death (at least not one you should be attached to)

  2. I understand detachment not as abstinence, but as not getting too hung up on material things. When you lose something you can take it in stride without it upsetting you greatly.

    It allows you to live happily on little since you recognize that your happiness is not dependent on material things, as long as you have the minimum to be healthy

  3. In that all religious systems are “detached” from empirical reality, obviously this would be a virtue. However a few more thoughts and musing on the topic...

    I believe the “overcoming desire” element of this virtue has a direct socio-economic basis within the relevant community of believers in that this is only really considered a virtue in religions where the overwhelming majority of believers are impoverished but live along side a small number of wealthy believers. In such communities it is vital to separate tangible wealth from “spiritual” wealth and the notion of “overcoming desire” for tangible wealth is obviously a helpful device for accomplishing this. Whereas smaller religious communities that do not have such a radical wealth discrepancy within them do not necessarily need to use this device. Think for example of most tribal belief systems ranging from say modern Judaism ( which basically rejects the entire concept of asceticism) to most of the world's indigenous people's religions.

    Without contesting your suggestion that ritual fasting is an example self-sacrifice and overcoming desire, I think it is also important to note that ritual fasting provides one tangible action that believers can actively take to please their God, self-sacrifice notwithstanding. Ritual fasting can, and often does, play the same role as other tangible actions, like physically going to church and the like. Right now here in Eastern Europe, the Orthodox are fasting on their way to Easter (next Sunday), and many people who never go to church and who lead generally “sinful” lives are participating. Similarly, many of my Muslim friends certainly do not lead “good” Muslim lifestyles (drinking, smoking, eating haram food, &c.), but when the month-long Ramadan fast comes, most of them participate. In both cases, the participants in the fasting – personal friends of mine – are not participating because they seek to “overcome desire” or become ascetics, but because it is something tangible they can do for a limited period of time that should “show” their belief in and love for their God.

    I would also argue that the “overcoming desire” element runs in direct opposition to the basic Capitalism, which is what has led to the “right-wing” atheists of the the Ayn Rand variety. There is absolutely no conceivable way to honestly reconcile the teachings of Jesus with Objectivist Capitalism. This has been a big problem for the American right-wing. On one side you have those who choose God first (the evangelicals, for example) who focus on “values” and social issues (the Right to Choose, gay marriage, &c.) and on the other end you have the Randian atheists (“Greed is Good!” and adults should emulate the myopic self-centeredness and greed of five year old children). In the middle you have a huge number of ignorant people who refuse to accept the obvious and try to support both of these extremes, leading inevitably to non-stop study in blind hypocrisy and selective memory. Visit Free Republic to see this confusion in practice... :)

    I am not so sure that the “retreating into oneself” should be included in the “Detachment Virtue” because it is NOT actively encouraged in most religious systems for the rank-and-file, just for a small elite of believers. All religions are fundamentally social constructs and all religions have some mystical (the efforts of the individual to commune with God) element; however, mysticism and “retreating into oneself” are not meant for all believers, just an elite few. Even the tribal animist shaman goes off by his or herself to “commune with God” but no religion encourages all of its people to do so, as if they did the entire social construct would collapse. This is the realm of priests and rabbis, of monks and nuns, of dervishes and gurus; not the average believer. Most religions encourage their followers to esteem this small elite within their community, but do not encourage their average followers to take this path. After all, the tithing plate would be rather empty if the whole congregation retreated into themselves. :)

  4. Spinoza: Buddhism is most certainly a salvation faith. The purpose is to escape rebirth. What is the state outside of this cycle? Bliss, heaven, the after life, nirvana? In this case, I think it's merely semantics, and that the goal is similar.

    Regarding the virtuous nature of detachment, I see the value in it, I just think it can easily be taken to an extreme at the expense of others. We are not islands in a vast ocean, we're all connected and interacting. I think attachment (especially between people) is vital.

    John: I was looking at it from a founder's point of view; the one(s) forming a religion do(es) it for this reason. How followers treat or participate in these rituals is worthy of its own essay, as there is obviously quite a range from apathy to zealotry (with most occupying a realm of casual hope).

    If only the most holy in the religious community withdraw, I would consider this a virtue. As I'm sure you're aware, not all virtues are attainable by every believer. Religions weren't created during the age of "participation trophies." Buddhism in particular teaches that only a few will attain nirvana. However, I still believe prayer/meditation to be a token gesture performed by the masses that can be attributed to this aspect of religion.

  5. You should check out the Greek philosophers called the Epicureans and the Stoics. They were atheist in belief and denied an after life or super natural salvation, but valued detachment and were also not materialistic (in the sense of being hedonist).

  6. I'm well aware of the pursuit of ataraxia and apatheia, the respective ideal state of Epicureans and Stoics.

    I think these lifestyles derive from an austere few and cannot be applied to most people, least of all someone with as much passion as myself.

    I find that most who are capable of detachment will pursue it with no outside instruction.


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