The Debt of the Living: Ascesis and Capitalism

Elettra Stimilli 

Howard Caygill  (Discussant)

6-7.30pm, 2nd May 2017

Ben Pimlott Lecture Theatre, Goldsmiths


Max Weber’s account of the rise of capitalism focused on his concept of a Protestant ethic, valuing diligence in earning and saving money but restraint in spending it. However, such individual restraint is foreign to contemporary understandings of finance, which treat ever-increasing consumption and debt as natural, almost essential, for maintaining the economic cycle of buying and selling.

In The Debt of the Living (SUNY Press, 2017), Elettra Stimilli returns to this idea of restraint as ascesis, by analyzing theological and philosophical understandings of debt drawn from a range of figures, including Saint Paul, Schmitt and Agamben, Benjamin and Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, and Foucault. Central to this analysis is the logic of “profit for profit’s sake”—an aspect of Weber’s work that Stimilli believes has been given insufficient attention. Ascesis is fundamental not because it is characterized by renuncixation, but because the self-discipline it imposes converts the properly human quality of action without a predetermined goal into a lack, a fault, or a state of guilt: a debt that cannot be settled. Stimilli argues that this lack, which is impossible to fill, should be seen as the basis of the economy of hedonism and consumption that has governed global economies in recent years and as the premise of the current economy of debt.

For an introduction to the topic, see Elettra Stimilli ‘Market, Debt, New Fundamentalisms’.


Elettra Stimilli is Senior Research Fellow of theoretical philosophy at the Department of Philosophy at Sapienza University of Rome. She is the author of Debito e Colpa (2015), with Dario Gentili e Mauro Ponzi Il culto del capitale (Quodlibet, 2014), with Dario Gentili, Differenze italiane. Politica e filosofia: mappe e sconfinamenti (DeriveApprodi, 2015), and Jacob Taubes. Sovranità e tempo messianico (Morcelliana, 2004).

Howard Caygill is Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London. He is the author of On resistance: a philosophy of defiance (Bloomsbury, 2013), Levinas and the political (Routledge, 2002), Walter Benjamin: the colour of experience (Routledge, 1998), A Kant dictionary (Blackwell, 1995), Art of judgment (Blackwell, 1989)

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