Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jack Dorsey, cofounder and CEO of Twitter and founder and CEO of Square, wakes up at 5 a.m. After drinking a juice made from Himalayan sea salt, water, and lemon, he takes an ice bath. He meditates for one hour each morning and one hour each evening. On weekends, he eats nothing and drinks only water. Before going to bed, he moves between a dry sauna and an ice bath. A device monitors the quality of his slumber.

Dorsey was raised Catholic, but he is no longer a believer. He is a Stoic, a practitioner of Vipassana meditation, and a biohacker. He is forty-three, unmarried, and childless.

I am a practical philosopher. Every day, I speak with people who work in technology, finance, entrepreneurship, and venture capitalism about basic matters of human existence. My clients live in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, and they are earnest, conscientious, open-minded, and thoughtful. If reason demands it or creativity suggests it, they’re willing to deviate from orthodoxy. The men tend to be secular humanists, scientific materialists, and experimenters on themselves. Now middle-aged, and despite—or perhaps because of—their great success in life, they have begun to search for they know not what. Long asleep to the good life, they have begun to wake up to what they once took for granted. How they will live henceforth is up for grabs. They are not completely lost, but they have not yet come home.

Recently, I began to notice that well-educated, bright, well-off, urban thirty-five- to forty-five-year-old heterosexual American men are tending either to remain single or to marry late in life. When they do marry, they have few children. One client of mine, a cofounder of a startup, conducted a straw poll and found that half of his two dozen male friends in this age range were unmarried, and only three had children.

The United States Census finds that fewer American men are married than ever before (only 52 percent, with 36 percent never having been married as of 2018), and that those who marry do so later in life. (The mean age of men at time of marriage in 2018 was thirty; in 1950, it was twenty-four). Upon marrying, they have fewer children (1.9 ­children in 2018 versus 2.3 in 1971). These trends are not confined to the United States. According to Euromonitor International, a marketing research firm in London, households in developed countries are getting smaller: In 2012, couples without children began to outnumber couples with children worldwide, and a scant 0.4 children per household is projected in developed countries by 2030. These numbers are consistent with broader trends toward singlehood status in the United States: Fewer Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four are involved in romantic relationships (51 percent, reports the Washington Post), and more and more Americans are remaining single for long stretches of their lives. Apparently, Americans aren’t just ­bowling alone.

The materialist explanation, which proposes that economic inequality and financial insecurity are the causes of these trends, is insufficient, since the men I talk to are not in debt, have made sound financial investments, and have six- or seven-figure salaries.

But the standard conservative view, which proposes the sexual revolution as the prime mover, misses something crucial as well. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Kay S. Hymowitz asks, “Where have the good men gone?” She concludes that heterosexual men in their twenties and thirties are in a purgatory of “pre-adulthood,” characterized by easy hookups and listlessness, because the traditional masculine virtues are no longer highly regarded. Granted, as my women clients often tell me, well-educated women are looking for mature men in their thirties and frequently come up empty. Yet as The Atlantic recently reported, “Young people are having less sex,” not more, and so the characterization of captains of industry as sexual conquistadors unwilling to accept their responsibilities may not be right, either. Or so I’ve come to think.

It seems that something outside the domains of economics and ­sexuality bears on the question before us. My hypothesis is religious. The men I have in mind are “secular monks” who embrace a secular “immanent frame,” ascetic self-possession, and a stringent version of human agency. This secular monasticism may be generating a new kind of celibacy.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor coins the term “immanent frame” with a view to describing what it’s like to live in the modern world. “We come,” he writes, “to understand our lives as taking place within a self-­sufficient immanent order.” It is an order that requires nothing transcendent in order to function. It seems to arise out of itself and unfold according to its own internal, self-­perpetuating logic.

This analysis applies neatly to the daily lives of secular monks. A feeling of “mundanity” and “diurnality” pervades their existence: The practical conduct of everyday life defines the scope of human existence, with daily affairs, tasks, and projects all shaped by habits. There is no world but this one, no day but today, no self but the one knitted together in this perishable mind-body composite. Mundanity, diurnality, and finitude combine to make up a profane ordinariness, an order in which it is unimaginable that anything could possibly happen beyond what is typical and expected. I am finite, time is scarce, and this world is all there is.

For a secular monk, the only knowable pursuits are human pursuits, the only genuine aims human aims. A secular monk is “secular” in the sense that his cares and his projects are delimited by his day and his world. He can conceive of nothing else.

But is he “monastic”? He has that religious mentalité Max Weber described, which goes hand in hand with the emergence of modern capitalism. As Weber saw it, what distinguished Calvinism was its critique of otherworldly Catholic monasticism, which made room for each devout Calvinist to be “a monk all his life”; henceforth, all would be devoted to pursuing “ascetic ideals within mundane occupations.” Each Calvinist is ascetic inasmuch as he exerts rational, “constant self-control” over himself, so that by means of active supervision, “constant thought,” he can direct his will. His object is the calling, a “mundane occupation” through which he can exercise his will for the sake of God’s glory. He produces fruits, and those fruits might be a sign of God’s favor.

Secular monks inherit from Calvinism the veiling of the transcendent—in their case, the veiling of the very possibility that the transcendent could ever disclose itself. They inhabit an epistemically uncertain world and suffer existential anxiety and loneliness. Above all, they commit to work—to working on themselves and on the world—as the key to salvation. Practitioners submit themselves to ever more rigorous, monitored forms of ascetic self-control: among them, cold showers, intermittent fasting, data-driven health optimization, and meditation boot camps.

The result is a “life design” or “life-hacking” of the kind urged by the life designer Tim Ferriss. Ferriss’s philosophy—at once secular, ascetic, and Pelagian—­begins with the metaphysical primacy of human agency. In Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, Ferriss asserts, “You are the author of your own life.” As human agents, we should divide our actions into means and ends, and if we’re good optimizers, we will discover and use the most effective means by which we can satisfy those ends. This defines human existence as Ferriss sees it: an endless game of self-one-upsmanship. Ferriss sees his job as the crafting of “tools for success.” Any technique, detached from any tradition, is fair game for mashup and remixing for the purpose of ­self-fashioning.

Though Ferriss concedes that human beings are “imperfect creatures,” he presumes that human perfectibility is a worthy and attainable goal. Why else experiment with a wide range of life-optimization tools? The goal is the optimization of ourselves according to a personal notion of success, the nearest we may ever get to perfection. Thus Ferriss: “Success, however you define it, is achievable if you collect the right field-tested beliefs and habits” (my emphasis). The only thing standing in the way of success, for Ferriss, is your faulty pragmatism: the bad habits that govern your conduct and the unverified beliefs that you hold too close. And since your conduct in life is what finally matters, you should not maximize all of your abilities indiscriminately, but instead “find your unique strengths and focus on developing [good] habits around them.” Secular wisdom is effective decision-making.

You are your own author. Stand on the shoulders of performance titans. Cull their wisdom and design your own life practice for success. Map it all out. And, for sure, get after it now.

Some of the secular monks I speak with emphasize preparation. They feel that they must always anticipate the unknown. They may refer to their own deaths, climate change, an opaque and volatile world, or something more elusive. Other secular monks, often those with a background in finance, emphasize optionality, a term that refers to the consideration of alternative investment opportunities alongside the opportunity being pursued. Figuratively, optionality has come to mean the ability to have plenty of options in life without being obliged to pursue any of them. To avoid the regret that comes from lost potential, one must continue to open up new paths of action.

Those secular monks with a more entrepreneurial bent emphasize ­creativity. They are sympathetic to Steve Jobs’s famous line about the aim of modern human agency: “I want to put a ding in the universe.” Here, creation dovetails with impact and legacy. These men want to create something larger than themselves, to leave something behind. They want to be like gods.

A final group of secular monks defines success in terms of optimization. These individuals always want to improve upon whatever they’re doing. Everything that exists and everything one does can be upgraded. The process can go on indefinitely.

This is not the end of the story. Beneath the desire for success is something more. Why does Jack Dorsey engage in spiritual exercises? To gain superhuman powers? To end suffering? To attain enlightenment? To humble his undeserving heart? No, he does it in order to maintain “clarity” and “focus” and to boost “mental confidence.”

Dorsey is a secular abbot for secular monks. He embodies the ascetic self-control of the Calvinist, the aspiration for indomitable human agency, and the secular orientation to the practical conduct of everyday life. He puts all three in the service of success.

Dorsey and other secular monks fear slavery and impurity. For these life designers and technologists, a slave is someone who falls victim to circumstance, indecisiveness, and waywardness. Freedom may be achieved through ascetic exercises whose point is to strengthen resolve and sharpen focus.

Freedom from slavery is consonant with the desire for purity. To be pure means to exist without limits, to live without being confined. Living free of circumstance, torpor, and listlessness: Such is the vision of godliness, or the good life.

Needless to say, this ascetic conception of the good life leaves no room for marriage and parenthood. A long-term commitment to a woman and children opens one to enslavement. The “new celibacy” is one of the habits of success. Family life is constant disruption. You can’t sleep soundly when your child wails all night with a cough and fever. You can’t perfect yourself when you must always consider your wife’s needs. Secular monkhood requires a strict regimen. It’s good for a man to be alone. 

Andrew Taggart is the founder of Askole.

Photo by JD Lasica via Creative Commons

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift