Several years ago I wrote an article, “‘And on the Earth You Shall Sleep’”: Talmud Torah and Rabbinic Asceticism” (Journal of Religion 83 : 204-225). In that article, I compared rabbinic “asceticism” (which I broadly define as a set of self-disciplinary practices and training of the self) to similar techniques employed by contemporary Greco-Roman philosophers (as well as early Christians). For both rabbis and philosophers, he entire point of these “ascetic” practices was to train or discipline the self. My own essay builds upon the studies of Pierre Hadot, who argued that the function of the Stoic exercises performed by Marcus Aurelius and others was precisely to cultivate the virtue of self-discipline, which in turn is a prerequisite for knowledge. The application of this insight to the rabbis was further extended by both Jonathan Schofer and Eliezer Diamond. Self-discipline, for these ancients, was not a single act but a state of being.
Earlier this week I was pleasantly surprised to hear a story on the radio about the latest scientific research on willpower. We have, it turns out, a single source of willpower. Every time we resist a temptation – that is, exercise our willpower – we deplete our store. And yet, like exercising a muscle, as we fatigue it we also strengthen it. By engaging in acts of self-discipline we strengthen our willpower. The piece went on to note that the practice of religion helps to “build up that self-control.”
Marcus Aurelius and the early rabbis may not have had access to controlled studies, but they were clearly onto something!