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ASCETICISM . The word asceticism is derived from the Greek noun askēsis, meaning "exercise, practice, training." The Greek athlete, for example, subjected himself to systematic exercise or training in order to attain a goal of physical fitness. In time, however, the word began to assume philosophical, spiritual, and ethical implications: one could "exercise" and "train" not only the body in the pursuit of a physical goal but alsosystematically and rigorouslythe will, the mind, and the soul so as to attain a more virtuous life or a higher spiritual state.

Although the modern word asceticism has eluded any universally accepted definition, the term, when used in a religious context, may be defined as a voluntary, sustained, and at least partially systematic program of self-discipline and self-denial in which immediate, sensual, or profane gratifications are renounced in order to attain a higher spiritual state or a more thorough absorption in the sacred. Because religious man (homo religiosus ) seeks a transcendent state, asceticismin either rudimentary or developed formis virtually universal in world religion.

Origins of Asceticism

The origins of asceticism are found in primitive or archaic society, that is, in prehistory. Many of the major ascetic forms such as fasting, sexual continence, and seclusion appear universally among present-day primitives or nonliterate peoples. The purpose of such prohibitions or taboos is very frequently to escape or avoid the influence of demonic powers. There is, for example, a prevalent belief in primitive societies that evil forces may enter the body while one is eating. To avoid this, one fasts for certain periods or abstains from certain foods altogether. The objective of primitive prohibitions may also be purification. In preparation for ritual activities of a particularly sacred nature, such as initiation, marriage, or sacrifice, participants rid themselves of impurity by engaging in often austere acts of self-denial. Such purity is particularly necessary if one is to approach the gods. To a lesser degree, one may also use austerities as a form of penance to atone for transgressions, thus averting the wrath of a deity. Certain practices, particularly fasting and seclusion, are also employed to induce visions or vivid dreams. Among American Indians, for example, such techniques are used during puberty initiations to evoke a revelation in dream or a vision of the youth's guardian spirit.

Although the origins of asceticism may be found in primitive society, it is often argued that asceticism per se exists there only in rudimentary form or not at all. One's position on this issue depends almost entirely upon how one defines asceticism, thus making the issue less soluble but also less critical. It should be observed, however, that such ascetic forms as fasting, seclusion, infliction of pain, and even bodily mutilation have a far more compulsory, less voluntary character in preliterate than in literate societies. The ordeals associated with puberty rites, for example, are more or less imposed. Further, the austerities to which the primitive submits rarely demonstrate a systematic and sustained program of ascetic behavior, when compared with comprehensive systems such as yoga or monastic life. Also, a preponderant number of primitive austerities, acts of self-denial, and taboos have as their sole intent the avoidance of evil, so it is questionable whether they should even be labeled asceticism. But since in almost all societies asceticism is elitist, being meant for the few, a developed asceticism in primitive society should be sought among such sacral specialists as the shaman. Although the shaman is often "compelled" by higher powers to assume his role, the rigors of shamanic life are hardly imposed from without in the usual sense. Seclusion, fasting, sexual continence, and endless vigils are part of a sustained self-discipline calculated to generate visions, bring communion with spirits, and penetrate sacred realms.

Forms and Objectives of Asceticism

Viewed cross-culturally, the variety of ascetic forms is limited. Virtually universal are (1) fasting, (2) sexual continence, (3) poverty, under which may be included begging, (4) seclusion or isolation, and (5) self-inflicted pain, either physical (through such means as whipping, burning, or lacerating) or mental (e.g., contemplation of a judgment day, of existence in hell, or of the horrors associated with transmigration). More difficult to define, but perhaps also more significant, is what may be termed an "inner asceticism," consisting essentially of spiritual rather than physical discipline. Such asceticism involves not detachment from or renunciation of any specific worldly pleasure but rather detachment from or renunciation of the world per se. It is reflected in the biblical attitude of being "in the world, but not of it," or in the Bhagavadgītā' s "renunciation in action, rather than renunciation of action." It appears in almost every major religion yet has no equivalent in primitive thought. In addition to the universal forms indicated, specific note must also be made of that set of practices or techniques (e.g., specific postures, chanting, breathing techniques) that make up the yogic and meditative complex indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Yoga, although an asceticism of the body, is an inner asceticism as well.

Asceticism in classical and modern religion is generally rooted in a developed and well-articulated philosophical or theological system. Such a system provides the rationale or justification for ascetic activity. It is helpful to consider the objectives of asceticism from the perspective of these systems, whether theistic or nontheistic.

Virtually all theistic traditions develop a mystical movement wherein the individual, through an ascetic program, seeks a personal union with the deity. This desire for personal experience of the deity may be seen as a reaction against doctrinal abstraction or ethical formalism. Even theistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in which the gap between creator and creature is perceived to be unbridgeable, have produced ascetics in pursuit of such mystic union: the eleventh-century Jewish mystic Baye ibn Paquda; Johannes Eckhart (d. 1327 ce) and Johannes Tauler (d. 1361 ce) in medieval Christianity; and the entire ūfī movement in Islam. Because the mystic seeks to bridge the gap between man and God, the effort has often been perceived as audacious from the perspective of theistic orthodoxy. Virtually all mystics in a theistic tradition, therefore, make it clear that the state of apparent union with the deity is only momentary and, at best, a foretaste of that salvation yet to come. The ūfī, like many mystics in theism, does not claim to be equal to God, but rather to be extinguished or lost in him.

In nontheistic traditions this thirst for the ultimate through mystical experience takes on varied forms. It is frequently a quest for the true or essential self, which is perceived to be identical with the ground or foundation of all creation. The Hindu yogin employs the sophisticated techniques of Yoga to realize that his ātman, or permanent self, is one with brahman, the unchanging foundation of all. The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali (first century ce) describes breathing and meditative techniques, which, when coupled with sexual continence, fasting, bodily postures, and other disciplines, permit the individual to move "inward and downward" until his true essence is "perceived." Similarly, the meditative techniques of Zen Buddhism permit the practitioner to realize the Buddha nature within himself.

Experiential knowledge of the true self in nontheistic traditions is frequently related to the liberation of the self from the sorrows and illusions of this phenomenal world. According to the Hindu philosopher Śakara (788820 ce), the body and personality with which we habitually identify ourselves are revealed to be no more than māyā, or illusion. Our suffering and bondage are rooted in ignorance, which ascetic-meditative effort gradually dispels through the mystical knowledge that it produces. The Jain monk, through the most rigorous of ascetic techniques involving total passivity and detachment from the world, seeks to purify and eventually liberate his true self (jīva ) from the material defilements that most actions produce. Although Theravāda Buddhism denies the existence of any permanent self, its objective is, like that of the Indian traditions, liberation from the round of worldly suffering. An ascetic life of monastic simplicity and celibacy, an ascetic program of detachment, and a meditative effort to cultivate a selfless state lead the Theravāda monk to realization of nirvāa "extinction" or "liberation."

Unlike the theistic systems, in which a mystical experience generated through ascetic activity can never grant salvation, nontheistic systems frequently equate such an experience or realization with salvation itself. Awareness of one's ātman in Hinduism or of one's purua in Sākhya (i.e., a philosophical system associated with traditional Yoga) or of one's Buddha nature in Zen is enlightenment or salvation. Unlike the theistic religions, nontheistic systems frequently affirm that salvation is attainable here on earth. One becomes "liberated in life" as in Tantrism, or one realizes, as in Zen, that one was never bound.

In both theistic and nontheistic systems asceticism may be seen as a meritorious form of behavior, a good work, or a laudable course of action felt to ensure or facilitate a preferred condition after death. Self-denial is considered to be a way of earning posthumous reward. In theistic traditions such as Catholicism, Śaivism, and Vaiavism, such activity has often been thought to ensure or facilitate salvation in a way that mysticism cannot. A monastic life of self-denial, for example, in which one is secluded from the temptations of the flesh, could be esteemed as a more perfect life than one lived in the world. Despite its prevalence, however, this effort to earn one's own salvation has frequently appeared problematic and even pretentious in theistic traditions, given their emphasis upon salvation as a gift of the deity. In nontheistic traditions ascetic works are logically more appropriate. Through self-denial, for example, one can burn out bad karman (the effect of past deeds) and improve one's future state in the ongoing round of transmigration. In nontheistic systems, however, ascetic works divorced from knowledge or realization can never generate salvation itself, but only some lesser objecive.

In both theistic and nontheistic systems, acts of self-denialparticularly self-inflicted painmay serve as a form of penance for previous misdeeds. Hindu law books such as the Mānava Dharmaśāstra (composed between 200 bce and 100 ce) detail numerous activities of this kind to atone for transgressions, so that the penitent can avoid torment in either the next life or an intermediate hell. In the theistic traditions of Islam and medieval Christianity, activities such as self-flagellation were often employed. In nontheistic systems these practices function mechanistically to overcome the negative consequences of evil deeds, whereas in theistic traditions they are performed in order to warrant the forgiveness of a personal god. Because its objective is merely forgiveness, in theistic systems asceticism as a form of penance has enjoyed a less problematic rationale than has asceticism as a way of achieving salvation itself. This is particularly true when ascetic acts are seen as an expression of repentance rather than as a means of earning it.

Most evident in Catholicism, but confined neither to it nor to theistic traditions in general, is the use of asceticism, particularly self-inflicted pain, as a means of experiencing or reexperiencing the sufferings of either a deity or a human paradigm (i.e., a model individual). Nontheistic Jainism produced ascetics whose acts of self-denial took as their model the activities of Jain saints (tīrthakara s) such as Pārśva or Mahāvīra. The Hindu hero Bhīma was so pierced by arrows during the great battle described in the Bhagavdgītā that, supported by their shafts, he lay parallel to the ground. This event forms the model for the well-known bed of nails employed by some Indian holy men. In Catholic Christianity the imitation of Christ's suffering is raised to a level of mystical significance. Suffering not only as Christ suffered but with him has become a means of mystical union with the deity. In this regard, suffering became virtually an end in itself, taking on soteriological significance.

Viewed cross-culturally, a given ascetic form may have different, even opposite objectives. In primitive society, for example, self-flagellation or scourging is intended primarily to drive away demonic powers that have attached themselves to the individual. In Christianity, however, the same activityonce prevalent in Italy, the Rhineland, and Mexicowas intended to produce pain, thereby bringing the ascetic into mystical union with the suffering Christ. Likewise, fasting in Christianity often has sought to produce pain, either as penance or, again, as a way of identifying with the suffering deity.

In Yoga, however, the purpose of fasting is quite different. The objective is not to cause but to alleviate discomfort. By fasting, the yogin conditions his body so he can go for prolonged periods not only without food but, more important, without the thought of food. Fasting is therefore a technique through which the yogin becomes oblivious of his body and is thus able to direct all his mental energies toward meditation. Similarly, the many other forms of self-discipline found in Yogathe postures and sexual continence, for instanceare to be seen less as privation than as techniques to redirect energies toward a meditative end.

Yoga itself, however, as an ascetic form, has different objectives. In most of Upanisadic Hinduism its purpose is to realize the unity of one's permanent self, or ātman, with the unchanging foundation of the universe, or brahman. In Theravāda Buddhism its goal is to realize that there is no permanent self, while in the Sākhya system it seeks to realize that the true self is ideally in a state of total isolation from the phenomenal world of flux.

In virtually every religious tradition, meditation or contemplation takes place in some degree of seclusion. Anthony (d. 356 ce) and other Christian saints lived for prolonged periods alone in the African desert. The early Buddhists likened themselves to rhinos who wandered alone, far from the haunts of men, and Daoist recluses sought to commune with nature beyond the reach of civilization and its distractions. But again, the goals of such secluded exercises are varied. The Daoist seeks harmony with nature and therewith serenity and joy. The Theravāda Buddhist seeks to realize that nature is transient and thus a source of sorrow. Saint Anthony, somewhat like a Tibetan Buddhist, went forth to confront demonic powers in their own ominous haunts.

Cross-cultural Issues

Although universal, asceticism is far more prevalent in certain traditions than in others. Classical Jainism, early and Tibetan Buddhism, early Christianity, and various branches of Hinduism are heavily ascetic, whereas Confucianism, Shinto, Zoroatrianism, and Israelite religion are not.


Although it is narrow to suggest that only traditions that postulate an evident dualism between soul and body or God and world or matter and spirit produce ascetic activity, it is nonetheless fair to suggest that dualistic philosophies are inclined both to justify and generate a dramatic and developed asceticism. Jain asceticism, for example, is rooted in the dualism between spirit and matter and the need for purging the former of the latter. Much Hellenistic Christian asceticism, particularly self-inflicted pain, was rooted in a dualism between spirit and flesh in which the body was perceived as evil. The ascetic efforts of the Theravāda Buddhist are rooted in the dualism between sasāra, bondage in the round of transmigration, and nirvāa, or liberation.

Although dualistic traditions, with the exception of Zoroastrianism, lend themselves well to ascetic activity, it would be wrong to conclude that asceticism necessarily involves a denigration of this world, the material realm, or the body. Although some ascetic traditions are otherworldly, many others are not. The Tantric tradition of Hinduism and its Buddhist equivalent, the Vajrayāna, are clearly ascetic, employing various yogic and meditative techniques. Yet the worldly realm, including the body and its passions, is not denigrated by them. The body, in fact, is seen as a means toward salvation, a servant of the spirit requiring nurture, even praise. Similarly, those in a Zen or Daoist monastery exhibit many ascetic traits, yet are far more inclined to rejoice in and affirm this world than to reject it.

The most complete repudiation of world-rejection may be found in what the German sociologist Max Weber (18641920) termed "inner-worldly asceticism," which abandons specific ascetic activities as well as monastic life to attain salvation in the midst of worldly activity. Although it exists to a limited degree in various religions, the most thoroughgoing expression of inner-worldly asceticism appears in the reformed traditions of Protestantism. A disciplined, methodical, controlledin short, asceticpursuit of one's vocation in the world came to be seen as both service to God and confirmation of one's salvation.

Asceticism and normal behavior

Although the ascetic need not renounce the world per se, he desires the sacred and therefore rarely accepts life as it is given. Seeking to transcend the normal or the natural, he rejects the given in favor of the possible. For this reason the ascetic frequently does the opposite of what human nature or social custom may dictate. In Yoga this practice is explicitly referred to as "going against the current." The yogin does not sit as natural man sits, breathe as natural man breathes, eat as natural man eats. Ascetic behavior not only deviates from the norm, it very frequently seeks an extreme. Viewed cross-culturally, however, these extremes may be diametrically opposed. The ascetic, for example, may shave his head completely, as do most Buddhist monks; or he may never cut his hair at all, as is the case with many Hindu holy men. The ascetic may wear very distinctive clothing, as does the Roman Catholic priest, or he may wear no clothing at all, as do the "sky-clad" (Digambara) monks of Jainism.

Some ascetics constantly wander, as did Mahavira, the founder-reformer of Jainism, who to avoid permanent ties remained no more than one night in any village. Other ascetics, however, restrict their movement dramatically, living, as did many Christians, in cells so small that they could hardly move. The ascetic may also differentiate himself either by remaining perpetually silent or by chanting and reciting continually. The ascetic may nurture, cleanse, or purify his body inordinately, or not only neglect his body but abuse it in countless ways. The ascetic may overcome the human norm either by abstaining from sex or by making sex a significant part of his ascetic routine. In "left-handed" Tantrism, for example, sexual intercourse affords a ritual procedureindeed, a technique, which, when coupled with meditation, is used to alter consciousness. The activity is dramatically ascetic, as no ejaculation is permitted; the semen is withheld or "returned" at the last moment. By so returning his semen, the Tantric too "goes against the current," transcending normal or profane activity.

According to almost every religious tradition, ascetics, because of their activity, develop magical powers or miraculous abilities. Although often recognized as an obstacle to higher spiritual goals, such reported powers play an important role at the popular level. Muslim fakirs who walk unharmed on burning coals, Indian yogins who levitate, Christian saints who miraculously heal, Tibetan lamas who read minds, Buddhist monks who remember past lives, Chinese Daoists who live forever, and primitive shamans who flythese are but a few examples.

The psychology of asceticism

Despite the fact that all religions condemn extreme forms of asceticism, pathological excesses have appeared in every tradition. Examples are multiple, from the recluses who avoid all human contact to the individuals who receive ecstatic pleasure from the most aberrant forms of self-inflicted pain. But despite these aberrations, it would be misguided to seek the heart of asceticism or its primary psychological impetus in neuroses or psychoses. Yogic meditation, Christian monasticism, and Zen technique exemplify the major advances made by asceticism, both Eastern and Western, in self-understanding and the effort to lift repression and make the unconscious conscious. The psychological heart of asceticism seems to lie in a reaction against the purely theoretical, the doctrinal, or the abstract. Above all, the ascetic wishes to know through experience.

See Also

Fasting; Meditation; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; Mortification; Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Ordeal; Samnyasa; Spiritual Discipline; Tapas.


Few works provide a detailed overview of the subject. "Asceticism," an extensive entry in volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1909), contains thirteen articles. Although still useful, this survey is dated, particularly in its methodological approach. A more readable overview, although also dated and written from a clearly Christian perspective, is Oscar Hardman's The Ideals of Asceticism: An Essay in the Comparative Study of Religion (New York, 1924).

Many works deal with asceticism in specific religious traditions. Outstanding is Mircea Eliade's Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1969), which discusses a wide range of ascetic practices in India and Tibet. A classic collection of information and observation, readable if not always credible, is John Campbell Oman's The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India: A Study of Sadhvism (London, 1903). Sukumar Dutt's Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture (London, 1962) is excellent, though only one of several related works by the author. D. T. Suzuki's The Training of a Zen Buddhist Monk (Kyoto, 1934) is a classic by Zen's most famous representative in the West. For the Christian tradition, Walter Nigg's Vom Geheimnis der Mönche (Zurich, 1953), translated by Mary Ilford as Warriors of God (New York, 1959), is a very readable, often insightful account of the ascetic saints, particularly those who founded religious orders. Owen Chadwick, in Western Asceticism (London, 1958), has selected and edited a collection of very useful primary source materials also representative of the Roman Catholic tradition. The various essays by Max Weber on the social psychology of asceticism, translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Oxford, 1958), are pioneering and perceptive. J. Moussaieff Masson's "The Psychology of the Ascetic," Journal of Asian Studies 35 (August 1976): 611625, is a one-sided but interesting article that sees the ascetic as essentially psychotic.

New Sources

Bianchi, Ugo. "Askese. 1. Religionsgeschichtlich." In Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, vol. 1. Freiburg, Germany, 1994, pp. 10741077.

Bianchi, Ugo (ed.). La tradizione dell'enkrateia. Motivazioni ontologiche e protologiche. Rome, 1985. A collection of seminal studies on ascetic doctrines and practices in Early Christianity and its environment, including an introduction important from the methodological point of view.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York, 1988. An immensely learned book ranging over six centuries of Mediterranean history and based on a clear anthropological vision. Very full bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987. Innovative.

Cantalamessa, Raniero, ed. Etica sessuale e matrimonio nel cristianesimo delle origini. Milano, 1976.

Clark, Elisabeth A. Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith. Essays on Late Ancient Christianity. New York and Toronto, 1986. A collection of ground-breaking essays by a prominent scholar of Christian asceticism.

Fischer, Klaus. Erotik und Askese. Cologne, Germany, 1979. Erotic scenarios in Indian religious art as forms of asceticism.

Rousselle, Aline. Porneia. De la maîtrise du corps à la privation sensorielle. Paris, 1983. A pioneering research.

Verardi, Giovanni. "The Buddhists, the Gnostics and the Antinomistic Society, or the Arabian Sea in the First-Second Century ad." Annali Istituto Orientale Napoli 57 (1997): 323346. A very stimulating comparison between Gnostic and Buddhist ascetic models.

Vööbus, Arthur. A History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient. Louvain, 1958. The basic reference work.

Walter O. Kaelber (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 08 2018


The Greek noun σκησις from which "asceticism" is derived means "exercise," "practice," or "training" for the purpose of obtaining something that is worth aspiring to, that represents an ideal.


Displaying an extraordinary flexibility in their application, σκησις and its cognates (the verb σκε[symbol omitted]ν, "to practice," and the noun σκητής, "one who practices") are related to a fourfold ideal in ancient literature.

Association with Training. In connection with the ideal of bodily excellence, the word and its cognates denote the strenuous training and the whole mode of life that leads to the highest possible degree of physical fitness either of the athlete (Aristophanes, Plut. 585; Plato, Republic 403E; Xenophon, Mem. 1.2.24; Plutarch, De gen. Socr. 24.593D) or the soldier (Thucydides, 2.39; 5.67; Xenophon, Cyr. 8.1.34). The σκητής, "the man who is trained," is contrasted with the διώτης, "the one who is untrained" (Xenophon, Mem. 3.7.7; Eq. Mag. 8.1).

With the development of philosophy came the training of the mind. To the ideal of the athlete and soldier there was added the ideal of the man who by exercising his intellectual faculties acquired wisdom. Heraclitus [Frg. 129 (H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griesch und Deutsch, ed. W. Kranz, 3 v.)] says that Pythagoras "practiced research" (στορίην σκησεν) and, by using an eclectic method, "created for himself a wisdom that was his own." Isocrates (Bus. 22) points to the benefit derived from "philosophy's training," namely, its power "to establish laws and to inquire into the nature of the universe." He contrasts the training of the mind with that of the body and recommends a liberal education and "a training of this sort" (τν σκησιν τν τοιαύτην) for young men (Antid. 302; 304). Elsewhere (Ad. Demon. 40) he gives the advice: "But above all train (σει) your intellect; for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a good mind in a human body." With this the word σκησις and its synonym μελετή entered the field of education and, together with two other termsφύσις (natural endowment) and μάθησις (acquisition of knowledge), or èπιστήμη (knowledge)has an important place in Greek philosophical thought, but especially in the pedagogical system of the Sophists. The three terms occur frequently in ancient literature. They are mentioned by Plato (Phaedrus 269D) as the necessary requirements for a good orator.

Association with Ethics. The idea of the body's requiring strenuous training in preparation for an athletic contest or for warfare was easily extended to the areas of mental culture and ethics. The ideal aspired to was that of καλòς κγαθός, the "good and worthy man." As early as Herodotus (1.96; 7.209) the verb σκε[symbol omitted]ν is found in such combinations as "to practice justice" or "veracity." In the sense of a systematic and comprehensive training as a self-preparation for a virtuous course of conduct it is used by Xenophon (Mem. 1.2.19). Comparing those who do not "train" the body with those who neglect the "training" of the soul, he observes that, as the former cannot perform the functions proper to the body, so the latter cannot perform those proper to the soul, because they are not able to control their will with regard to what they ought and ought not to do. Hence one should cultivate the association with good men, because it is an σκησις τ[symbol omitted]ς ρετ[symbol omitted]ς, a "training for virtue" (cf. same idea in Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1170a 11). The training for virtue is then expounded especially by Epictetus. A chapter in his Dissertationes (3.12), entitled περ σκήσεως, is devoted to this subject. The object of this training, according to Epictetus, is the freedom of the sage who acts without hindrance in choice and in refusal. It is, therefore, principally a training of the will. If one is fond of pleasure, loath to work, or hot-tempered, he must, "to train himself" (σκήσεως νεκα), turn to a behavior directly contrary to the dictates of those urges. Similarly, indulgence in drinking, eating, and sensual love must be counteracted by a training in the opposite direction (Dissertation 3.12.712). Moreover, whatever is outside the moral purposebe it women's beauty, compassion, or fameis of no concern to the sage (ibid. 3.3.1419; cf. 4.1.81).

Association with Religion. With the growth of a stronger sense of personal religion, in the history of Greek religious life, οκησις assumed a final meaning, denoting an act of religious devotion or an exercise of piety. In this sense οκησις is probably first used by Isocrates (Bus. 26) who describes Busiris, a legendary king of Egypt, as establishing for his subjects "numerous and varied exercises of piety" (σκήσεις τ[symbol omitted]ς σιότητος), convinced that this would accustom them to obeying the commands of those in authority. Religious asceticism, in the form of purificatory observances such as fasting and refraining from sexual intercourse, was practiced especially by sects of a religio-mystic temper like the Orphics and Pythagoreans. It continued to gain ground with the spread of the Oriental mystery religions, especially those of Attis-Cybele and Isis, that followed an elaborate system of ascetical exercises as cathartic measures before certain celebrations, and, through the proselytizing efforts of mendicant preachers of the Cynic school, it exhorted men to combat their appetites and to practice virtue.

In Cynic-Stoic popular philosophy the concept of οκησις grew narrower and assumed a negative character, not in the sense that the ideal aspired to had ceased to be positive, but in that the main stress was laid on a complete detachment from the comforts and enticements of the world, on a radical suppression of the appetites, and on a predisposition to accept every hardship in the pursuit of this ideal, in accordance with the Epictetian precept: νέχον κα πέχον, "endure and renounce" (Favorinus apud Gell., Noct. Att. 17.19.6). This negative attitude is prominent also in Orphic-Pythagorean asceticism: the soul was to be purified by the denial and inhibition of the body and its impulses. Because of this strong negative emphasis, the notion of οκησις as "practice" or "training" receded into the background. The influence of Cynic-Stoic philosophy and Orphic-Pythagorean thought is still discernible in the notion of the modern word "asceticism," which has eluded a generally accepted definition. In common usage it refers ordinarily to all those phenomena in the history of religion that are characterized by a methodical, and often minutely regulated, practice of a varied amount of austerities, ranging from the denial of comforts, emotions, desires, and activities to the actual self-infliction of pain.

Most frequently asceticism is conceived as the product of a more or less developed system of dualism, its basic motive being the endeavor to free the spiritual part of man from the defiling corruption of the body. This one-sided conception is no doubt too narrow. Although dualism is most conducive to asceticism, not all asceticism is dualistic. The two weekly fasts of the Pharisee (Lk 18.12) can unhesitatingly be termed ascetical practices. Yet, in observing them, the Pharisee was not motivated by any kind of dualistic speculation but considered them simply an especially meritorious work and a self-understood expression of his piety. Dualistic ideas no doubt were a powerful impulse toward asceticism, but, besides them, many other factors were active in its birth and development: the fear of hostile influences from demons, the conception of asceticism as a potent means to enter into communion with the supernatural, the sense of sin with the concomitant urge for atonement, the idea of earning salvation by merit, a radical otherworldliness of interest in view of the instability and transitoriness of all things earthly, and an ethical rigorism provoked by weariness with exaggerated cultural refinement and hope for a realization of the ascetic ideal in simple social environments.


Both may be grouped into acts of self-discipline passing over into the outward life on the one hand and exercises of an inward kind on the other. To the former belong fasting, sexual continence, renunciation of bodily comforts, and actual infliction of pain.

Fasting. The history of religion reveals a widespread belief among primitive peoples that taking food is dangerous because demoniac forces may enter and harm the body. As a precaution, primitive man fasted or avoided certain foods that he considered dangerous because they were attractive to such pernicious forces. This originally negative aim to avert evil can, by the natural development of the same idea, be changed into a positive one. To be free from disturbing demoniac influences means also to be in a state of ritual purity, a necessary condition, it seems, for one who wants to enter into communion with the supernatural. This purity is supposed to bring man nearer to the divine, to endow him with extraordinary, superhuman powers. It is, therefore, required in the sacred rites of initiation. It is demanded also of the seer or prophet, to free his soul from any possible obstruction so that the god can take full possession of him during the ecstasy. In the same sense, the ascetic of religio-mystic temper hopes that such a state of purity will aid him in surmounting the barrier separating man from god, lift him up into the spiritual, and lead him to his final goal, the union with the divine. Finally, fasting is practiced as an act of devotion and morality. In its religio-ethical aspect it aims especially at controlling the lower appetites and promoting the cultivation of virtues.

Sexual Continence. As in fasting, the aim of sexual continence originally is apotropaic, or evil-averting. Cohabitation is regarded as producing ceremonial uncleanness. Ritual purity, on the other hand, is considered a necessary condition for approaching the divine. Hence Greek inscriptions, dealing with regulations concerning the ritual purity of lay worshippers entering sacred precincts, put great stress on their freedom from the defilements of sexual intercourse. Continence was a requisite also for participation in certain religious celebrations such as the Eleusinian Mysteries or the festival of the Thesmophoria. Connected with the same idea was a custom according to which a number of ancient Greek priesthoods were held by a boy or a girl until the age of puberty, but not after, or by old women. Sometimes priestly functions were performed by priestesses who were obliged to remain virgins during their tenure of office, either for a certain period or for life. Chastity was made one of the rules also of Buddhist monasticism.

Isolation and Self-infliction of Pain. Other external acts of self-discipline, practiced especially among primitive peoples in the training preparatory to admission to the mysteries of their tribal religions, and practiced also by Buddhist monks, include retirement from the world or solitary confinement, utmost simplicity in dwelling and clothing, sleeping on the bare ground or in an uncomfortable position, privation of sleep, and general neglect of the body. These austerities are sometimes increased by the infliction of pain, a method used by the fakirs of India. To this category belong immobility in diverse postures of the body, self-laceration, and other kinds of self-torture. The highest expression of non-Christian asceticism is found in spiritual exercises. They include such observances as silence, the examination of conscience, the study of sacred writings, prayer, mental concentration, and meditation. Buddhism provides remarkable examples of this kind.


Hardly any religion is without at least some traces of asceticism. Ascetical practices, rooted in magical or crude religious beliefs and belonging to a rigorously enforced set of purificatory rites for males at the age of puberty, or at a time previous to their admission to the tribal community, are found among the more advanced agricultural, herding, and higher hunting tribes that constitute most of the uncivilized population of the world. While the boys undergoing initiation are introduced into the religious lore and the moral code of the tribe, they must live in seclusion, submit to a harsh discipline with regard to the quantity and quality of their food, and bear with fortitude tests of endurance and actual torment. The purificatory rites to be observed by pubescent girls correspond in character to those imposed on boys at initiation. Moreover, in the mind of primitive man childbirth and death are phenomena that, because of their mysteriousness and therefore dangerousness, require certain precautions and abstentions such as seclusion, fasting, and cessation of customary activities. The medicine man also must be an ascetic, lean from fasting, because it is only through severe and constant self-discipline that he is able to acquire and retain occult powers.

Primitive Survivals in Higher Religions. Survivals of this primitive asceticism, which aims simply at averting a polluting evil that might threaten man from without, occur even in such highly developed religions as that of the Hebrews. Thus the rule requiring sexual abstinence of priests as preparation for liturgical functions is rooted ultimately in the belief that sexual phenomena, especially intercourse, produce ceremonial uncleanness and thus disqualify for worship (cf. Ex 19.15; Lv 15. 1618; 1 Sm 21.5; 2 Sm 11.513). A similar notion is at the root of the widespread custom in later Judaism to abstain from sexual intercourse on the Sabbath. To the same category belongs, apart from the extraordinarily complicated system of dietary laws, the abstention from wine observed by the priest before offering sacrifice (Lv 10.9; Ez 44.21), by the Nazirite for the period of his vow (Nm 6.3; Am 2.11; cf. Jgs 13.4, 7, 14), and by the Rechabites for life (Ez 35). The traditional ritual of mourning after a death also included restrictions such as fasting, abstaining from sexual intercourse, and avoidance of bathing and anointing.

Ascetical Aspects of Hebrew Practices. There are religions in which asceticism does not figure as an essential feature. Among the Hebrews the Old Testament concept of man and the world as the handiwork of an infinitely perfect God, precludes a dualistic view of the world. Married life and earthly possessions are thought of as having their foundation in a divine order and being God's gifts to man. What God in turn demands of man is not renunciation of these gifts, but the fulfillment of certain obligations laid down by the Mosaic Law in cult and in the moral and social spheres. Despite its essentially nonascetic character, however, the religion of the Hebrews contained seeds from which ascetical practices in the strict sense of the word could later develop.

The doctrine of reconciliation or atonement, always set forth by the teachers of Israel as their peculiar faith, led to the custom of penitential fasting. While at first the only fast day strictly enjoined in the Law (Lv 16.29; 23.27; Nm 29.7) was the Day of Atonement (Tishri 10), four more fast days were introduced into the Jewish calendar of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months during the Babylonian Exile (Zec 7.3, 5; 8.19) to commemorate disasters in the history of the Jewish people. How long the fast days of the fourth, seventh, and tenth months were kept after Zechariah, was no longer known in later rabbinic tradition. Only the fast day of the fifth month (Ab 9) seems to have continued as a national day of mourning in the post-Exilic period; it grew in importance after the Romans captured Jerusalem a.d. 70, since on this day, according to rabbinic tradition, both the first and the second temple were destroyed by fire.

On what day the so-called Fast of Esther (Est 9.31), now kept on the eve (Adar 13) of the Feast of Purim, was observed in antiquity, is not known. Many other fast days were later introduced; the Megillat Taanit (Scroll of Fasting) lists as many as 24. They were, however, not considered obligatory and were never accepted universally. In times of national emergencies, such as war, and imminent danger of extermination or public calamities, such as drought or locusts devouring the harvest, extraordinary general fasts were ordered by the authorities (Jgs 20.26; 1 Sm 7.6; 2 Chr 20.3; Jdt 4.9; Est 4.16; Jer 14.12; 36.6; Jl 1.14; 2.12, 15; Jon 3.5; 1 Mc 3.47; 2 Mc 13.12; Syr. Bar Ap 86.1; Josephus, Ant. Jud. 11, 134; id., Vita 290).

The more vigorous way of fasting consisted in abstaining from food and drink and in avoiding other physical pleasures such as bathing, anointing, and sexual intercourse; and in donning penitential garments, sprinkling the head with dust and ashes, and performing acts of self-humiliation. Since fasting on these days was accompanied by prayer and almsgiving, it was considered meritorious and pleasing to God. A certain measure of asceticism was then generally regarded as a sign of virtuous and holy living (Jdt 8.6; Testament of Joseph 9; Henoch 108.7; Lk 2.36; 18.12; Josephus Vita 2). Fasting was used also to strengthen the prayer of the prophet and to prepare him for the reception of divine revelations (Dn 9.3; 10.2, 3, 12). As with other ascetical exercises, it is characteristic of the prophet in a number of late Jewish apocalypses (4 Ezr 5.13, 19f; 6.31, 35; 9.2325; 12.51; Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 9.2; 12.5; 20.5; 21.1; 43.3; 47.2; cf. Apocalypse of Abraham 9.7; Ascension of Isaia 2.711).

A fully developed ascetical system, however, remained a foreign thing in Jewish thought. As in ancient Greece, it found a home only in such closed and exclusive societies of spiritualistic enthusiasts as the Essenes who lived outside of the broad current of Jewish piety and formed a kind of religious order, following an established mode of life with vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. An idealized picture of asceticism is given by Philo of Alexandria in his treatise De vita contemplativa, in which he describes the mystic-contemplative life of the Therapeutae, a colony of Jewish ascetics in Egypt.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture); buddhism; hinduism; jainism; yoga; mystery religions, greco-oriental.

Bibliography: e. d'ascoli, La spiritualità precristiana (Brescia 1952). g. van der leeuw, Phänomenologie der Religion (2d ed. Tübingen 1956). f. pfister, "Lanx Satura," no. 2, Ασκησις, Festgabe für A. Deissmann (Tübingen 1927) 7681. h. strathmann, Geschichte der frühchristlichen Askese, v.1 Die Askese in der Umgebung des werdenden Christentums (Leipzig 1914). j. de guibert and m. olphe-gallard, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed., m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 1:936960. j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 1:63111, introduction and separate articles by a number of specialists on Buddhist, Greek, Hindu, Japanese, Jewish, Islamic, Persian, Roman, Semitic and Egyptian asceticism. h. windisch, g. kittel, Theologisches Wöterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935) 1:492494. r. mohr and r. schnackenburg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 1:928932. h. strathmann, Reallexikon für Antike und Christenum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1941) 1:749758. r. mensching et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 1:639642. h. dressler, The Usage of σκήω and Its Cognates in Greek Documents to 100 A.D. (Washington 1947).

[r. arbesmann]


views updated May 29 2018


ASCETICISM . Rigorous abstention from any form of self-indulgence which is based on the belief that renunciation of the desires of the flesh and self-mortification can bring man to a high spiritual state. Asceticism never occupied an important place in the Jewish religion. Judaism did not believe that the freedom of man's soul could be won only by the subjugation of the flesh, a belief which was central in religions based upon anthropological dualism. Apart from the *Nazirites and the *Rechabites who constituted special groups, and the mortification practiced by Ezekiel (4:4–15) which was apparently to induce a vision, the only ascetic practice mentioned as of universal application is fasting which is called in the Bible "affliction of the soul" (Lev. 23:27; Isa. 58:3). In addition to the *Day of Atonement numerous fasts are mentioned as having been instituted on special occasions (see: *Fasting) but they are mostly expressions of remorse, sadness, and grief or acts to aid concentration in prayer rather than religious practices in their own right. The prophets emphasize over and over again the fact that fasting and mortification of the body by themselves do not please God. They are justified only if they help change man's moral actions.

The rabbis went even further; they consider asceticism and privation as a sin against the will of God, that people should enjoy the gift of life. Hillel considered taking care of and bathing the body a religious duty (Lev. R. 34:3). In practice, however, there were many ascetics among Jews during the period of the Second Temple. Y.F. Baer maintains (Yisrael ba-Ammim (1955), 22) that during this and the preceding period Judaism possessed a definite ascetic character and furthermore, the teachings of the first tannaim also leaned toward asceticism. This doctrine, though later rejected by the halakhah, according to him left its permanent traces in all the realms of halakhah and aggadah and in all spheres of Jewish life, and in it he sees the origin of the ascetic and monastic elements so prevalent in Christianity. Most other scholars disagree with this view. On the contrary Christian theologians (see e.g., Bousset-Gressman, Die Religion des Judentums in spaethellenistischen Zeitalter (1966), 428–29) saw in the fact that there is so little emphasis on asceticism in Judaism proof of the inferior religious quality of Judaism as compared with Christianity. This very point was used by Jewish apologists (e.g., M. Lazarus, Die Ethik des Judenthums, 1 (19042), 272–80) to demonstrate the higher standards of the Jewish religion. The entire subject of the attitude of early rabbinic Judaism to asceticism is summed up against its historical background, in a study by E.E. Urbach (Y. Baer Jubilee Volume (1960), 48–68). It maintains that the principal motive for Hellenistic asceticism in all its various manifestations, also found in Philo, does not occur in the Talmud, namely: the antithesis between the body and the soul, between the flesh and the spirit. The motivations for asceticism, according to Urbach, are fear of sin and a strong attraction to the sanctuary and sacrifices. Such cases of asceticism are included within the context of the halakhah dealing as it does with practical matters of the world. The heroic religious deeds of the *Ḥasidim during the rule of *Antiochus Epiphanes left no impression in this respect and did not give rise to ascetic ideals. Only the destruction of the Second Temple and the serious religious problems that arose with the cessation of the daily sacrifices gave rise to an ascetic movement and also endowed the fasts with a new significance. The scholars and leaders of that generation spared no effort to deprive this movement of its extremist character. The generation of *Jabneh witnessed its decline, but during the period of persecution and forced conversions that followed the movement spread and grew strong. The Jewish doctrine of *kiddush ha-Shem crystallized at that time and the problems of theodicy were more deeply considered. Acts of asceticism and the acceptance of suffering were numerous, as evidenced by the fate of many of the sages in Ereẓ Israel and Babylonia. But even in the cases of these scholars, two phenomena generally typical of asceticism were missing: unusual acts of self-denial contradicting human nature, like total sexual deprivation or celibacy, and the establishment of a special caste and closed society of ascetics. The *Essenes and similar Jewish sects practiced austerity as conditional for a life of justice and purity; they did not however laud asceticism as a value in its own right. Instances of asceticism in the Talmud and the Midrashim are, according to Urbach, not remnants of a fanatical ascetic doctrine which degenerated, but the result of definite events in the history of the Jewish people at that time.


In addition to historical circumstances, there are also personal motivations for asceticism within Judaism. Abstinence from pleasures in itself is not considered a way of religious worship of God. The characteristic of asceticism when found among the rabbis is not the pains and privations to which a man subjects himself, but the end which he proposes to achieve. Abstinence may be self-imposed as a penance for a mortal sin. In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs it is stated that for seven years Reuben drank no wine or other liquor, no flesh passed his lips, and he ate no appetizing food, but continued mourning over his great sin. In the fear of the Lord, Simeon afflicted his soul with fasting for two years for his hatred of Joseph. Judah, in repentance for his sin with Tamar, until his old age took neither wine nor flesh and saw no pleasure. That fasting has an expiatory value is distinctly expressed in the Bible (Isa. 58:3) as well as in the Psalms of Solomon (3:8–9): the righteous man continually investigates his household to remove the guilt incurred by transgression. He makes atonement for inadvertent sins by fasting, and afflicts his soul. R. Sheshet, a Babylonian amora of the third century, would have his fasting received as a substitute for sacrifice. When he was fasting he used to pray: "Lord of the Universe, Thou knowest that, while the Temple stood, if a man sinned he brought a sacrifice and they offered only the fat and the blood, and atonement was made for him. And now I have sat in fasting, and my fat and blood have been diminished; may it be Thy will that this diminution of my fat and blood be as though I had offered a sacrifice upon Thine altar, and be Thou gracious unto me" (Ber. 17a). It is perhaps in this aspect that fasting is associated with almsgiving (Ber. 6b; cf. Tob. 12:8).

The regulations of mourning do not prescribe fasting or other afflictions though in the interval between the death and the burial (except on Sabbath) the mourners must abstain from flesh and wine (mk 23b). Yet there is an aspect of fasting which is connected with the mourning for a national calamity, like the fast of the Ninth of Av. Fasting is always a potent auxiliary of prayer. "If a man prays and is not answered, he should fast, as it is written (Ps. 20:2) 'The Lord will answer thee in the day of distress'" (tj, Ber. 4:3, 8a). Fasting is also mentioned as a preparation for revelation (Dan. 9:3, 20–22; 10:2 ff.; cf. Yoma 4b).

The destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e., the disastrous results of the widespread rising under Trajan, and the final catastrophe of the Bar Kokhba War, revived the temper in which the four memorial fasts in Zechariah had been kept (Zech. 7:3–5; 8:19). Private fasting also became more frequent. After the destruction of the Temple some altogether gave up eating meat and drinking wine, because the daily sacrifice and libation had ceased; some of the leading rabbis however disapproved their abstinence. R. *Joshua b. Hananiah pointed out to them that their logic would carry them much farther; they could not eat figs and grapes because the first fruits could no longer be brought, nor bread because there were no more "two loaves" and shewbread, and not drink water because there was no water libation at Tabernacles (Tosef., Sot. 15:11–12).

After the Bar Kokhba War R. Ishmael b. Elisha said: "From the day when the Temple was destroyed we should by right make a decree binding upon ourselves not to eat flesh nor drink wine, but it is a principle not to impose on the community a decree to which the majority of the community cannot adhere (Hor. 3b; Av. Zar. 36a). And from the triumph of the heathen empire which imposes upon us dire and cruel edicts and stops the study of the Law and fulfillment of the commandments, and does not let us circumcise our sons, we should by right make a decree for ourselves not to take a wife or beget sons, so that the seed of Abraham might come to its end in this way. Such a decree, however, would not be observed and the deliberate violation of it would be worse than marrying without seeing anything wrong in it" (bb 60b; cf. Shab 148b; Beẓah 30a).

Whether abstinence was a result of a national or a personal motivation, the rabbis disapproved of it. A vow of abstinence is an iron collar (such as is worn by prisoners) about a man's neck and one who imposes on himself a vow is like one who should find such a collar lying loose and stick his own head into it. Or, a man who takes a vow is like one who builds an illegal altar (bamah), and if he fulfills it, like one who sacrifices on such an altar (Ned. 22a). R. Isaac said: "Are not the things prohibited you in the Law enough for you that you want to prohibit yourself other things?" An ingenious interpretation of Numbers 6:11 discovers that the Nazirite had to make atonement by sacrifice for having sinned against his own soul by making himself miserable by abstaining from wine. Such a man is called (in the text) a sinner, and, a fortiori, if one who has denied himself the enjoyment of nothing more than wine is called a sinner, how much more one who denies himself the enjoyment of everything (Ta'an. 11a). In this spirit is also the saying of Rav: A man will have to give account on the judgment day of every good permissible thing which he might have enjoyed and did not (tj, Kid. 4:12, 66d). For an apt summing up of this principle see Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (De'ot 3:1).

[Pinchas Hacohen Peli]

Sectarian Asceticism

In the postbiblical period the ascetic tradition, exemplified before the Exile in the Nazirites, Rechabites, etc., persisted as a "wilderness" tradition. From time to time, especially when conditions in the main centers of population seemed to become religiously or otherwise unbearable, pious Israelites withdrew to the wilderness to resume a more ascetic way of life. Such were the "many who were seeking righteousness and justice" who went down to the wilderness of Judea with their families and cattle to escape the intolerable conditions imposed by Antiochus Epiphanes but were pursued by the king's officers and massacred on the Sabbath (i Macc. 2:29–38). Similar movements in the Herodian period are reflected in apocalyptic works like the Assumption of *Moses, where a levite named Taxo and his seven sons fast for three days and then take up residence in a cave, ready to die there sooner than transgress God's Law (9:1–7), or the Martyrdom of Isaiah, where Isaiah is followed to his desert retreat by his disciples clothed in garments of hair (2:7–11).

The best-known instances of asceticism in the later years of the Second Temple are the *Qumran sect, the *Essenes, and the *Therapeutae. The first of these (c. 130 b.c.e.–70 c.e.), of which the *Zadokites who migrated to the region of Damascus formed a part, is treated in the articles on the Book of the Covenant of *Damascus, the *Dead Sea Scrolls, and *Yaḥad. The evidence for the Essenes is not entirely consistent: on the one hand they were to be found in considerable numbers in every city (Jos., Wars, 2:124), while on the other hand they are described by Philo and Pliny the Elder (and indeed by Josephus himself) in terms which strongly suggest a desert community. The situation probably was that the fully initiated members of the various Essene orders lived a communal and ascetic life in the wilderness, while they had sympathizers or "associate members" in most of the cities of Palestine, and perhaps of the Diaspora too. The Essene group which Pliny describes (Nat. Hist. 5:17) lived on the west shore of the Dead Sea; its headquarters are nowadays widely identified with the ruined buildings at Qumran. The Essenes maintained themselves by manual labor and were punctilious in their religious observances, which included communal prayer, Bible study, and frugal meals. Full members were bound by such strict oaths that even one who was expelled from the order could not bring himself to break them, and was liable to die of starvation in consequence. They had neither wives nor servants, although Josephus mentions one company of Essenes who, exceptionally, did marry for the sole purpose of begetting children (Wars 2:160f.).

The Therapeutae, of whom Philo speaks (Cont. 2 ff.) immediately after his account of the Essenes, were a Jewish ascetic order comprising both men and women, living in the Egyptian desert on the landward side of Lake Mareotis, near Alexandria. Their designation is derived by Philo from the Greek verb therapeuo, but he is not sure whether it means primarily "healers" or "worshipers." If it is the former, it recalls a suggested derivation of "Essenes" from Aramaic ʾāsyā ("healer"). They lived in individual huts, giving themselves to contemplation, prayer, praise, and Bible study, in which they followed a traditional allegorical interpretation. Every seventh day they met in community to worship and eat. On other days they practiced extreme frugality in food (some even partaking only once a week), and even on the Sabbath their fare was as plain as possible. The weekly meal, according to Philo, was regarded as the eating of the showbread – which suggests a priestly character for their order. A noteworthy feature of their worship was their choral singing, which on the Sabbath eve followed their meal and lasted till dawn. What relation, if any, they bore to the Essenes or any other ascetic group in Israel is uncertain.

John the Baptist is not called an ascetic by Josephus (Ant., 18:116–9), but he is so described in the Gospel tradition. According to Mark (1:6) he wore camel's hair, girt with a leather belt, and lived on locusts and wild honey; according to Q (the non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke) he ate no bread and drank no wine (Luke 7:33; cf. Matt. 11:18), which may be compared with what is said of the Rechabites in Jeremiah 35:6–10. The material special to Luke suggests rather that John was a lifelong Nazirite (Luke 1:15): he grows to manhood in the desert (1:80) and in his preaching urges his hearers to share their clothes and food with the destitute (3:11). Bannus, another ascetic of the wilderness with whom Josephus spent some time (c. 55 c.e.), clothed himself with leaves or bark, ate food which grew naturally, and practiced frequent purifying ablutions, both by day and by night (Life, 11–12). The account in the Slavonic Josephus (between Wars 2:110 and 111) of a wild man of the woods who had a confrontation with Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea, seems to be based in part on the portrayals of John the Baptist and Bannus. In another Slavonic addition (after Wars, 2:168) John the Baptist avoids not only bread and wine but also the flesh of animals; here may be traced some influence on the tradition from the Encratites (the second-century ascetic Christian sect who abstained from meat, wine, and marriage). Some forms of wilderness asceticism toward the end of the Second Temple period probably arise from the self-denial imposed on those engaged in a holy war (Deut. 20); this appears in some of the Qumran texts (see *War Scroll).

[Frederick Fyvie Bruce]

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Among medieval religious philosophers, the general line of the talmudic approach to asceticism is maintained.

The medieval philosophical approaches to asceticism may be characterized by three stages: (a) a moderate approach, affirming the value of family and social life in accordance with the Aristotelian "golden mean" (Nicomachean Ethics 2:1; see on Maimonides, below); (b) limited asceticism, recognizing the need to sustain the body; (c) absolute asceticism and withdrawal from family and social life. The medieval philosophers regarded these stages as corresponding to levels of perfection: the first, moderate stage is that of the common people and of the first steps on the path to wisdom; the second stage of limited asceticism, making do with the minimum required for continued physical existence, characterizes a more perfect class of people; those who reach the highest level of perfection practice extreme asceticism.

*Saadiah Gaon mentions in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions (treatise 10), among the various conceptions of the ideal life, the way of asceticism. He finds it unacceptable as a correct way of life, since, if it were practiced by everyone, it would lead to the end of man's existence on earth. This would be counter to the will of God that the world be peopled and built up by men, who should carry out His commandments in life in this world. Saadiah states that man is constituted by both body and spirit; hence, both must be attended to.

On the other hand, *Baḥya ibn Paquda in his Duties of the Hearts prescribes a measure of regular fasting and other ascetic regimens as indispensable for the achievement of ethical perfection (part 9). Solomon ibn *Gabirol, while not advocating asceticism directly, presents a doctrine compatible with Neoplatonic philosophy, from which a proponent of asceticism might derive considerable comfort. According to Gabirol, the soul is the human being, and it should be the aim of man's life to prepare the soul for union with the world of its element. Thus, man's physical appetites are to be held in reign by reason (Tikkun Middot ha-Nefesh, passim).

*Judah Halevi in his Kuzari describes the righteous person as one who gives every part of his personality its due, thus decidedly protesting against the notion that inflicting mortifications on one's body is itself a virtuous act. "Our religion," says Halevi, "is divided among fear, love, and joy, by each of which one can approach God. Your contrition on a fast day is not more acceptable to Him than your joy on the Sabbath and holy days, if it is the outcome of a devout heart" (2:50; cf. 3:1 ff.).

On the other hand, Halevi describes the perfect ḥasid as yearning for absolute asceticism and abandonment of social and family life, like the biblical *Enoch and *Elijah (3:1). For Halevi, then, the ideal of extreme asceticism is not desirable in our day because prophecy is no longer possible.

The most pronounced support for asceticism among the medieval philosophers came from *Abraham b. Ḥiyya, who actually advocates sexual abstinence as the ideal (Meditation of the Sad Soul, Eng. tr. (1969), 133). However, this view is strongly condemned in the treatise Iggeret ha-Kodesh, attributed to *Naḥmanides, where in a mystical vein sexual intercourse is exalted, when motivated by sacred intentions, as a lofty activity of men (see especially ch. 2).

*Maimonides' attitude is consistent with his philosophy of the "middle path." His emphasis on a contemplative, virtuous life naturally has as its corollary a depreciation of terrestrial pleasures; yet, he warns against the other extreme of complete abstinence. In his discussion of the topic in his introduction to the tractate Avot (4th chapter) and in his Mishneh Torah (De'ot, 3), he stresses that the Torah does not wish man to deprive himself of pleasures. God is not the enemy of man's body. The way of the golden mean calls for a conduct of life equidistant from the two extremes of overindulgence and self-deprivation.

While certain individuals may at certain times derive benefit for their moral constitution from a policy of extreme self-deprivation, this should not be made a general program of life. Such deprivation is like certain medicines that may be beneficial for certain sicknesses, but will harm the normal healthy person. Maimonides' interpretation in his introduction to Avot of Numbers 6:1, that the Nazirite must offer a sacrifice, because by refraining from such pleasures as wine he "sinned against his [own] soul," was opposed by Naḥmanides, who argued to the contrary that the Nazirite's sacrifice reflects atonement for leaving the higher sanctity of being a Nazirite in favor of returning to ordinary life. The dispute between them reflects talmudic discussions, with Naḥmanides following the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar (in Ta'anit 11a) and Maimonides following the view of the rabbis in Nedarim 10a.

In any event, in his Guide for the Perplexed Maimonides adopts a more pro-ascetic view and hints that extreme asceticism is the goal of such perfect persons as the prophets, and he accepts Aristotle's view that the sense of touch is the most repugnant of all the external senses, and accordingly regards sexual relations negatively.

*Abraham b. Moses b. Maimon expressed a positive attitude toward asceticism in his Arabic work Kifāyat al-ʿĀbidīn ("Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God," Heb. ed. 1965), a philosophy reminiscent of Sufi views.

The ambivalent attitude towards asceticism, on the one hand rejecting it as the recommended moral way for the masses and on the other hand presenting it as an ideal of perfection, continued to permeate medieval Jewish thought. The radical rationalism of the 13th–15th centuries regarded conjunction with the Active Intellect – the beatitude sought by the philosopher – as attainable only after death. For the person who has reached perfection, matter becomes superfluous. Such rationalism led to idealizing extreme asceticism.

Extreme asceticism also came to be idealized as a repressed ideal of the religious Jew in other non-philosophical conceptions of human perfection, in the Kabbalah and in 12th–13th century German Ḥasidism (Ḥasidut Ashkenaz), which posit utter self-nullification and assimilation into the divine world.

Mystical tendencies towards asceticism took several forms. First, the mystical way leads to conjunction or communion (devekut) with the divine, and in some cases even to union with the divine world. Such views frequently result in an ascetic ethos. Second, the theurgic interest in Kabbalah focuses on repairing (tikkun) the divine world, with the result that the terrestrial dimension of physical life is rendered marginal. Third, certain trends, such as German Ḥasidism, developed a series of ascetic techniques in order to effect what was called a "counterbalance of repentance" (teshuvat ha-mishkal), namely, in order to attain perfection the penitent had to undergo suffering which would counterbalance his prior sinful pleasure. On the other hand, the movement's tendency towards asceticism was opposed by their concern for the sanctity of sex and for theurgic practices. Mystical attitudes towards asceticism thus remained mixed and complex.

Perhaps Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto best summarized the prevalent Jewish attitude toward asceticism. In Mesillat Yesharim (end of chapter 13) he explains that, while it is proper for a person to limit his superfluous enjoyments to guard against debasement of his character, it is wrong and sinful to deprive oneself of enjoyments in a manner that will cause one needless suffering and be detrimental to one's bodily and spiritual health.

Thus, while a moderate and balanced morality always dominated Jewish thought, the ascetic motif was never lacking.

[Jacob Haberman /

Dov Schwartz (2nd ed.)]

Women and Asceticism

Biblical legislation places limits on ascetic practices women might take upon themselves. According to Numbers 30:4–17, a woman's vows and self-imposed obligations were valid only if her father or guardian, in the case of a minor, or husband, in the case of a married woman, did not object when he learned about them. The vows and self-imposed deprivations of a widow or divorced woman, however, were considered binding.

Issues connected with women's self-imposed ascetic vows are discussed in the Talmud (tb Ned. 81a–84a), including abstention from food, from bathing, from wearing certain clothes, and most importantly, from cohabitation and sexual relations. Following the model of biblical legislation, the rabbis affirmed that the male guardian or husband has the prerogative to annul all such vows as soon as he hears of them; however, if he delays significantly, he cannot annul them later. Generally, the rabbis disapproved of women who assumed obligations requiring extremes of self-denial and expressed particular disapproval of women who devoted themselves to excessive prayer and unusual degrees of fasting. Such a woman would be derelict in her central religious obligation, her domestic duties to her husband and family. Thus, tbSotah 22a understands the "female 'pharisee' … who brings destruction upon the world" in R. Joshua's statement in Sotah 3:4, as "a maiden who gives herself up to prayer." In the parallel passage in tj, the disapproval is extended to a woman "who gives herself up to fasting."

While celibacy and monastic living allowed a significant number of medieval Christian women, and to a certain extent, also, some Muslim women, to cross gender boundaries, engage in a variety of ascetic spiritual exercises, and secure a place alongside men as scholars, saints, and mystics, rabbinic insistence on universal marriage from early adolescence ruled out such life alternatives for medieval and early modern Jewish women. The effort to distance women from asceticism is also indicative of their absence in Jewish mystical life, where such practices were typical of the male elite.

The popular conception that East European Ḥasidism enabled a significant number of women to become mystical leaders with permitted access to the ascetic mortifications usually reserved for male leaders has been shown to be a 20th-century historiographical myth. It was only within the anti-nomian practices of the Shabbatean movement that gender barriers were removed sufficiently to allow for female participation in the spiritualization of physical existence and the advent of a new messianic reality.

[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]


non-talmudic: M. Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins (1961); H. Sérouya, Les Esséniens (1959); M. Simon, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus (1967); J. Steinmann, St. John the Baptist and the Desert Tradition (1958); J. Thomas, Le mouvement baptiste en Palestine et Syrie (1935). add. bibliography: rabbinic: J. Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (2002); D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993); E. Diamond, "Hunger Artists and Householders: The Tension between Asceticism and Family Responsibility among Jewish Pietists in Late Antiquity," in: Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 48 (1996), 28–47; S.D. Fraade, "Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism," in: A. Green (ed.), Jewish Spirituality (1986), 253–88. medieval: Guttmann, Philosophies, index; G. Vajda, La théologie ascétique de Bahya ibn Paquda (1947). add. bibliography: Kreisel, "Ascetism in the Thought of Bahya and Maimonides," Da'at, 21 (1988), v–xiii; A. Lazaroff, "Bahya's Ascetism against its Rabbinic and Islamic Background," jjs, 21 (1970), 11–38; S. Schwarzschild, "Moral Radicalism and Middlingness in the Ethics of Maimonides," in M. Kellner (ed.), The Pursuit of the Ideal, Albany (1990), 137–160. add. bibliography: D. Schwartz, "The Tension Between Moderate Ethics and Ascetic Ethics in Medieval Jewish Philosophy" (Heb.), in: D. Stitman and A. Sagi (eds.), Between Religion and Ethics (1993), 186–208. add. bibliography: women: A. Rapoport-Albert, "On Women in Hasidism, S.A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition," in: A. Rapoport-Albert and S.J. Zipperstein (eds.), Jewish History. Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky (1988); idem, Female Bodies, Male Souls: Asceticism and Gender in the Jewish Tradition (2006).


views updated Jun 08 2018


There is a morbid fascination in any survey of the ascetic practices of humankind. Fasting, the virgin priestess, and the mutilation of the body are common features of ancient religions. In monastic Christianity the austere ideals of celibacy, obedience, and poverty have been both practiced and admired. Even today there are many who observe Lent and those for whom fasting and penance are seldom out of season. The most accomplished ascetics have been the wanderers (sunnyasins ) of ancient India and the anchorites of fourth-century Egypt. One sunnyasin held his arms above his head with fists clenched until the muscles in his arms atrophied and the nails grew through his palms. It is said that the anchorite St. Simeon Stylites tied a rope tightly around himself until it ate into his body and his flesh became infested with worms. As the worms fell from his body he replaced them in his putrefied flesh, saying, "Eat what God has given you."

Behind such ascetic practices usually lies the philosophical theory of "asceticism," a theory that demands and justifies this unnatural way of life. Although the term ascetic was originally applied to any sort of moral discipline, it has since acquired a narrower and more negative meaning. Asceticism may now be defined as the theory that one ought on principle to deny one's desires. Asceticism may be partial or complete. Partial asceticism is the theory that one ought to deny one's "lower desires," which are usually identified as sensuous, bodily, or worldly and are contrasted with more virtuous or spiritual desires. Complete asceticism is the theory that one ought to deny all desires without exception. Asceticism may also be moderate or extreme. Moderate asceticism is the theory that one ought to repress one's desires as far as is compatible with the necessities of this life. Extreme asceticism is the theory that one ought to annihilate one's desires totally.


The belief that austerities (tapas ) burn away sin was a product of the non-Aryan tradition of ancient India. This belief persisted, and austerities were recommended by the yogis and the Jains. All orthodox systems of Indian philosophy agreed that the goal of life is liberation (moksa ) from this world of suffering, and most maintained that the renunciation of worldly desires is necessary for liberation. Although the Buddha tried and rejected austerities, his principle that the cause of suffering is craving led later Buddhists to advocate renunciation and even to practice austerities. The Jains held that liberation is possible only when one has annihilated all passion, because passion attracts karma, believed by this sect to be a subtle form of matter that holds the soul in bondage.

Asceticism seems to have entered Western philosophy from the mystery religions that influenced Pythagoreanism about the end of the sixth century BCE. Although Greek ethics was predominantly naturalistic, Plato sometimes argued that one ought to repress the bodily desires in order to free the soul in its search for knowledge. Some Cynics renounced worldly desires in order to pursue virtue in independence. The early Stoics defined emotion as irrational desire and held up the ideal of the apathetic man in whom all emotions had been annihilated. Plotinus emphasized the ascetic side of Plato's philosophy and claimed that matter is the source of all evil.

This undercurrent of asceticism rose to the surface in medieval philosophy with its emphasis on religious otherworldliness. The foundations of this asceticism were laid by such theologians as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose, and even St. Augustine. They believed that the desires of the flesh should be repressed in order to achieve moral virtue and the contemplation of God. Their view molded the monastic institutions that were established in the fourth century. Virtually unchallenged, this asceticism remained a potent influence on religious life until the Renaissance.

Of modern philosophers, only Arthur Schopenhauer has been an important advocate of asceticism; he would have one completely annihilate the will to live in all its manifestations. Jeremy Bentham and Friedrich Nietzsche have each criticized asceticism from very different standpoints.

Arguments for Asceticism

The arguments for asceticism fall into three main classes. First, there are those that attempt a direct justification of self-denial. Although some of these arguments might justify a complete asceticism, they have traditionally been used to support only a partial asceticism. (1) We know by some authority that one ought to deny one's lower desires. One authority is the Bible, in which we find both express ascetic commandments and examples like those of the Virgin Mary and the celibate Christ. (2) The sacrament of penance requires the denial of worldly desires. Although one is cleansed of original sin by baptism, subsequent sins must be expiated by penance; the best way to make penance more than a formal ritual is to express repentance in a life of self-denial. (3) By undergoing the suffering of self-denial, one is taking up the cross of Christ. Since Jesus came into this world as a model for all men, all men ought to share in his redemptive suffering. (4) People ought to deny their lower desires to prove their virtue, for the ascetic life is a test of devotion to God, and those who pass the test will win a heavenly reward. (5) The suffering of self-denial is required by our guilt. Since every person has sinned, the retributive theory of punishment requires that every person suffer. By inflicting pain upon oneself, one balances the scales of justice and lifts the guilt from one's soul. (6) Self-denial is valuable because it develops certain character traits such as persistence and self-discipline, which are essential to living well.

The second class of arguments attempts to justify denial indirectly through a criticism of the lower desires. Since these criticisms are aimed only at certain desires, they can support only a partial asceticism. (1) The lower desires cost too much to satisfy. Gratification must be purchased with great effort, and perhaps these desires are insatiable, so that no expenditure of effort will gratify them. (2) The lower desires are misguided, for their objects are really evils or, at best, indifferent things. In either case, no genuine value is realized by fulfilling one's desires. (3) Although the objects of the lower desires are good, they are much less good than higher values like virtue, knowledge, or heaven. Since an individual's time and energy are limited, one ought not to allow these lower desires to distract from the pursuit of what really matters. (4) The lower desires are intrinsically evil. Since they turn people away from God and his commands toward earthly objects, they are infected with the sin of pride. (5) Although not sinful in themselves, the lower desires do motivate one to sinful actions. Thus greed may tempt a person to steal, and lust can lead to adultery. (6) These lower desires interfere with the pursuit of knowledge, which is essential for the good life. They interfere either by causing an agitation that destroys one's power of reasoning or by fixing one's attention on sensory objects that distract from the transcendent reality.

The third class of arguments also attempts to justify asceticism indirectly through a criticism of desire per se. Since these arguments are aimed at all desires, they support a complete asceticism. (1) Schopenhauer argued that desire, by its very nature, can yield nothing but suffering. Desire springs from a lack and consists in a dissatisfaction. When it meets with hindrances, it produces nothing but frustration, because it cannot attain its object; when it does attain its object, it produces nothing but boredom, because desire ceases with fulfillment and leaves one with an undesired object. Since desire necessarily involves dissatisfaction, frustration, and boredom, the only escape is by the annihilation of all desire. (2) The Buddhists and the Jains maintain that one ought to annihilate desire in order to achieve liberation from this world of pain. A person must destroy all desire because desire is the cause of rebirth into this world. For the Buddhist, desire causes rebirth because, being selfish, it causes selfish actions; these, by the moral law of karma, cause rebirth in painful forms. For the Jain, desire magnetizes the soul so that it attracts karmic matter which, by the physical laws of mechanics, weighs down the soul and causes it to be reborn into this lower world of pain.

Arguments against Asceticism

It is much harder to classify the traditional arguments against asceticism. Many of them attack some presupposition of the doctrine. (1) Many, but not all, forms of asceticism require a dualism of mind and body. The various philosophical difficulties with metaphysical dualism therefore tend to undercut asceticism. (2) Ascetic practices are often recommended as a means of freeing the soul from the body so that it can contemplate the truth. Actually these practices make knowledge in all its forms impossible because self-denial produces frustration, uneasiness, and pain, which make clear thinking difficult, and self-mutilation destroys the bodily health that is the physiological basis of thought. (3) Asceticism usually assumes that desires are like little animals inside the self that grow when they are fed and wither when they are starved. Freudian psychology, however, reveals that one does not destroy a desire by suppressing it but that the desire continues to exist and to exert itself in new and usually devious ways. Hence ascetic practices may not be an effective means of annihilating or even of controlling desire. (4) Ascetic practices are often thought to be a means to, and even a guarantee of, moral goodness, but in fact they are no protection against vice. The ascetic may become complacent in his confidence in his ascetic practices; he may become proud of his ascetic achievements; and he may even despise others who are less accomplished in asceticism. (5) The religious arguments for asceticism frequently assume that God requires one to renounce available goods and even to inflict harm upon himself, but this is inconsistent with the benevolence of God. (6) There is also a religious argument against the view that bodily desires or worldly objects are essentially evil. Both this world and human nature must be good, because they are creatures of a Creator who is perfectly good.

Another group of arguments is pragmatic in nature. (1) As Bentham pointed out, asceticism cannot be consistently practiced because it runs counter to the basic motives in human nature. Since the function of morality is to guide conduct, asceticism is incapable of becoming a genuine moral standard. (2) To the limited extent that asceticism can be put into practice, its effects are harmful. It obviously increases the amount of suffering in the world. If Freudian psychology is correct, its attempt to suppress natural desires will result in various neuroses. Finally, it stultifies vitality, produces emotional excesses, and fosters the weakling at the expense of the strong man.

Then there are those arguments that attempt to refute asceticism by showing that it has unacceptable implications. (1) Asceticism condemns worldly concerns and natural impulses. This implies that one ought to abandon all social ties and mortify all family affection, which would be immoral. (2) If it is good for one to suffer, it should be better for everyone to suffer. This implies that a person has a duty to inflict pain on others, but not even the hardened ascetic will accept this. (3) If pleasure is really bad, it would seem that pain must be good. This implies the absurd conclusion that the best of all possible worlds would be the one with the least pleasure and the most pain.

Finally, there is Nietzsche's ad hominem argument. Those who are incapable of living well disguise their impotence and fear by inverting morality in order to excuse their own moral sickness and to restrain the strong men who appear dangerous. Although the ascetic priest condemns the will to power, he uses ascetic ideals as a means of maintaining his own power over the sick herd. Thus an analysis of the psychological origin of asceticism reveals that it is far from a worthy ideal.

Asceticism is the doctrine that one ought to deny his desires. In practice, denial means refraining from the fulfillment of desires and sometimes mortifying the desire by inflicting upon oneself the very opposite of what is desired. This involves abstinence from genuine goods, the frustration of unfulfilled desires, and even self-inflicted pain. Unless one is prepared to accept the view that abstinence, frustration, and pain are intrinsically good, the ascetic life can hardly be defended as an end in itself.

If ascetic practices are to be recommended, they must be a necessary evil, a means to something better. One might regard the ascetic life as a means to liberation from this world of suffering. It would be unrealistic to deny that we all suffer from time to time and that there are those for whom life is mostly suffering. It would be equally unrealistic, however, to deny that for most of us the evils we experience are more than balanced by the genuine values we enjoy. Granted the existence of evil, the obvious expedient is to improve our world rather than to make it even worse by adding the sufferings involved in ascetic practices. If escape were desirable, there is no guarantee that the ascetic life would actually lead to freedom.

One might advocate the ascetic life as a means of pleasing God and winning the eternal bliss of heaven. Asceticism seems most plausible within a religious context. But are its theological presuppositions themselves plausible? Is there really an immortal soul to be rewarded or a God to do the rewarding? Even the believer may reject asceticism on religious grounds. A benevolent deity would hardly have created us with natural desires and then commanded us to deny these very desires and to suffer the consequent evils of frustration and pain.

The ascetic life might be urged as a means to that knowledge which in turn brings the good life. Ascetic practices are supposed to help by freeing the soul from the body. Still, no empiricist would admit that the body, which is the source of all experience, is a hindrance to knowledge, and even a rationalist like Plato concedes that experience reminds reason of the truth. Unless reason is thought of as a disembodied spiritin which case it is hard to see how the body hinders reason in the first placeit would seem that ascetic practices make one less, rather than more, capable of the clear and sustained reasoning that is required for attaining knowledge.

Finally, the ascetic life might be advanced as a means to virtue. It must be admitted that some desires sometimes cause one to act wickedly, but these same desires also cause one to act virtuously. The sexual desire that can lead to adultery more often leads to conjugal fidelity. Hence there is a double error in regarding sexual desire as evil. It does not always, or even usually, express itself in sinful action; and if adultery is a sin, that is because it does violence to the institution of marriage, which is itself an expression of sex. As this example shows, natural desires are in themselves morally neutral, and to deny desire is to forbid the virtuous act as well as the sin. Instead of being a means to virtue, self-denial is actually a vice. Virtue requires at least prudence and benevolence, but the ascetic is imprudent in abstaining from available goods and in even inflicting harm upon himself. By concentrating on the cultivation of his own soul through suffering, the ascetic tends to become callous toward the suffering of others and to ignore his obligation to work for their welfare.

The ascetic life is not good in itself, nor is it a means to liberation, divine reward, knowledge, or virtue. It does not follow that one must accept the advice of Callicles to attempt gratification of every desire without regard for temperance or justice. Self-discipline is a genuine virtue, but it denies desire only when this is necessary to achieve an inclusive and harmonious satisfaction. Asceticism goes beyond this point to advocate an unnecessary and pointless denial. The logical conclusion is that asceticism should be rejected.

See also Augustine, St.; Bentham, Jeremy; Buddhism; Christianity; Cynics; Gregory of Nyssa; Karma; Liberation in Indian Philosophy; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Pain; Plato; Plotinus; Punishment; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Renaissance; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Stoicism.


Ambrose, St. "On Virgins." In Ambrose, translated by Boniface Ramsey. Early Church Fathers. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Ambrose, St. "Letter 59 [63]." In Letters, translated by Mary M. Beyenka. The Fathers of the Church, vol. 26. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954. Both the treatise and the letter provide a justification of asceticism on primarily scriptural grounds.

Athanasius, St. "Life of Antony." In Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, translated by Robert C. Gregg. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1980. The biography of a model ascetic.

Augustine, St. The City of God Against the Pagans, edited and translated by Robert W. Dyson. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. An attack on the life of the flesh.

Bentham, Jeremy. "Of Principles Adverse to That of Utility." In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, edited by J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. London: Athlone Press, 1970.

Blanshard, Brand. Reason and Goodness. New York: Macmillan, 1961. A brief, incisive criticism.

Buddhaghosa. "Chapter 17." In The Path of Purity: Being a Translation of Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga. 3 vols. (1923, 1929, 1931), translated by Pe Maung Tin. Reprint (3 vols. in 1). London: Pali Texts Society, 1975. A brief statement of the view that liberation requires annihilation of desire.

Davids, T. W. Rhys, and C. A. F. Rhys David. "Udumbarikā-Sīhanāda Suttanta." In Dialogues of the Buddha, Part 3. Sacred Books of the Buddhists, vol. 4, edited by T. W. Rhys Davids. 1921. Reprint. London: Pali Text Society, 1977. Criticism of austerities.

Diogenes Laërtius. "Diogenes" and "Zeno." In Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Vol. 2, Books 610. Loeb Classical Library. 1925. Limited but helpful information.

Gregory of Nyssa, St. "On Virginity." In Ascetical Works, translated by Virginia W. Callaban. The Fathers of the Church, vol. 58. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1967. A defense of the ascetic life as means to virtue.

Lecky, William E.H. History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, Vol. 2, 107148, 164194. London: Longmans, Green, 1869. A critical history of the rise of Christian asceticism.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, translated by Douglas Smith. Oxford World's Classics (1996). Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Nietzsche's most sustained criticism of ascetic ideals.

Pantañjali. "Chapter II: Practices." In The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, translated by Alfred Scheepers. Amsterdam: Olive Press, 2005. Especially Sutras 32 and 43, which give injunctions to practice austerities.

Plato. Phaedo, translated by David Gallop. Oxford World's Classics (1993). Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An important argument for freeing the soul from the body.

Plotinus. The Enneads, translated by Stephen Mackenna, abridged by John Dillon (19171930, 1956). Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. An influential condemnation of matter.

Reid, J. S. "Asceticism [Roman]." In Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913. An informative survey.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Translated by E. F. J. Payne. New York: Dover, 1966. A wordy but interesting argument for the annihilation of the will.

Umasvati. That Which Is: Tattvārtha Sūtra, translated by Nathmal Tatia. The Sacred Literature Series, edited by Kerry Brown and Sima Sharma. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994. The basic document of the Jains.

other works of interest

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Magisterial survey of early Christian sexual renunciation.

Brown, Peter. "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity." Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971):80101. Explores the role and social function of the ascetic individual within society.

Clark, Elizabeth. Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Incisive study of early Christian asceticizing hermeneutic of scripture.

Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. Useful survey of monastic development and transmission from fourth century Egypt to seventh century Europe.

Elm, Susanna. Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. On the role of women in the development of ascetic traditions and institutions.

Flood, Gavin. The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Comparative study of asceticism and identity formation across time and religious traditions.

Francis, James. Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Analysis of the cultural perceptions of asceticism as "deviant" during the period from 121 CE to 217.

Harpham, Gregory Galt. The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987. Important theoretical consideration of the implications of asceticism on language, text, and meaning

North, Helen. Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966. Follows the conceptual development of "self-control" from the Greek archaic period into the Patristic centuries.

Silbur, Ilana F. Virtuosity, Charisma and the Social Order: a Comparative Sociological Study of Monasticism in Theravada Buddhism and Medieval Christianity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Both a corrective and extension of Weber's pioneering work on religious [ascetic] virtuosi.

Theodoret of Cyhrrus, St. History of the Monks of Syria, translated by Richard M. Price. Cistercian Studies Series, no. 88. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985. Contemporary history of the peculiar ascetic behaviors of the early anchorites of Northern Syria.

Valantasis, Richard. "Constructions of Power in Asceticism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995): 775821. On the reconstitution of subjectivity, social dynamics, and symbolic meaning through performative behaviors.

Wimbush, Vincent L., and Richard Valantasis, eds. Asceticism (1998). Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Very useful reference tool spanning periods, traditions, and religions.

Carl Wellman (1967)

Bibliography updated by Brent A. Smith (2005)


views updated May 21 2018

asceticism comes from the Greek word ‘askesis’, meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘training’ — in an athletic sense. It refers to the rigorous and systematic techniques used to alter patterns of life — especially concerning eating, sexual behaviour, and sleep — in order to achieve religious ends. Underlying ascetical practices is the belief that there exists a relationship between such practices and moral development, that is, between the body and the soul or mind. This training or control of the body is seen as the deepest sign of moral transformation. For example, in the early Church it was thought that one could smell sanctity: a virgin would look and smell different, and it was believed that saints' dead bodies, if later exhumed, would be found still intact and would smell sweet. To discipline and train the body is to discipline and train the soul, and thus to purify the soul from its passions in order to love God more perfectly.

Asceticism, in some form or another, is found in most religions, though it is treated with some suspicion in Judaism and Islam on the grounds that its practices may deny the goodness of God's creation. It has been found amongst certain groups of philosophers, such as the Stoics and Cynics, to indicate practices designed to overcome the vices and develop the virtues.

Asceticism in Christian history

Asceticism developed within early Christianity in the context of eschatological beliefs. Early Christians lived in expectation of the second coming of Christ in which all the bodies of those already gathered into Christ's kingdom would share in the glory of His risen body. Living with these eschatological hopes, some began to think that through human control and renunciation of the body — their own ascetical behaviour — they might hasten this second coming of Christ and thus the full redemption of the world. There had been some precedent for this is the community of the Essenes, for example — the community of male Jews living near the Dead Sea in the first century, who had sought to bring Israel back to God by their own disciplined way of life.

Perhaps the first organized Christian ascetics were those who came to be known as Encratites in the second century, some of whom were linked to Gnosticism, or to Ebionite or Docetic groups. They believed that the church should be made up of women and men who were sexually continent and who also abstained from wine and meat. These activities were to be avoided because they linked humans to animals. To engage in a society which relied upon marriage arrangements was to enter into the animal-like cycle of coupling, reproduction, and death. Some of these Encratite communities produced the apocryphal Gospels and Acts, such as the group in Syria which produced the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas. These texts strongly urge abstention from the world: structures of society, such as family, marriage, wealth, and dependents, are all to be rejected. The body is the ‘switching-point’ where one meets the world and where one must therefore break the connection. All Encratites lived as groups of celibate male and female Christians, not as individual recluses, and they survived and grew by attracting converts.

In the fourth century, with the formation of Christendom after Constantine's conversion, asceticism developed more fully, and celibacy became the ideal for Christians. Historians have often explained this by suggesting that Christians were seeking a form of purity which had been lost with the Christianization of the Empire. Christians ceased to be persecuted and therefore the possibility of the ultimate act of ascetical Christianity — martyrdom — was removed. As Christianity became rich and established, with the building of lavish churches and cathedrals, and the clergy became more powerful and entwined in the state's activities, there seemed to be a new need for a symbolic punishment: the answer, especially for clergy, was to engage in ascetical practices. There is much truth in this explanation — although before the fourth century there were others, as well as the Encratites, who engaged in asceticism.

Asceticism in its ‘golden age’, within Christianity, took several forms. Some went into the desert, especially the Egyptian desert, to battle their demons — most famously, perhaps, St Antony at the end of the third century. There was a long tradition of people doing this, including Jesus himself: it was seen as a thoroughly biblical activity, a response to a call from scripture. The enormity of the desert represented leaving the ‘world’ and ‘this present age’. Both women and men went into the desert and the sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers were collected, as people visited them to seek their wisdom. Their circumstances varied enormously. Some had their libraries with them, while others found a cave or created a cell on the ridge of a mountain where they hoped to survive against the heat, the scarcity of food, and the wild animals. All kept an ascetic regime of vigil and prayer, eating and fasting, and some manual labour. Sexual continence was important but probably not an overriding concern for many, as they struggled to survive both physically and psychically within the vastness of the desert and within the ascetic regime. The greater concern was that the ascetic might lose his or her humanity (what we might call sanity) — break out of the strict regime and approach or even reach mental breakdown. The body was central in all of this activity: these desert ascetics paid great attention to it because they were striving for purity of heart and thereby a future glory for their bodies. Some lived alone while others gathered into groups and in this way, initially in Egypt, monasticism evolved — that is, the organization of monks and nuns into formalized communities. The Egyptian monks, in particular, cultivated a singleness of heart: their practices of self-mortification were designed to reduce the need for food, sleep, and sex, and thereby ‘remake’ the body, taking it back to its ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ state. The fourth-century Life of Antony, traditionally attributed to Athanasius, highlights the ways in which Antony's body did not suffer from being shut up for 20 years, but rather was restored to its natural state.

There were those who wished to lead the ascetic life but could not leave their city. These included women and clergy. Many women, especially élite women, who wished to lead the ascetic life, dedicated their lives as Holy Virgins and created ascetic households: ‘the desert in the city’. Girls and women who dedicated themselves to God in this way rejected the calls of society. They tended to be women from the upper orders of society where the primary purpose was to circulate wealth through their marriages and the bearing of male heirs. Ambrose, in his treatise De Virginibus, gave encouragement to those young women who wished to dedicate themselves as Holy Virgins but encountered opposition from their parents. Indeed, Ambrose grew up in such a holy household, for his elder sister, Marcellina, was a consecrated virgin and lived with their widowed mother and companions in their wealthy Italian home. The ‘cubiculum’, the inner bedroom of consecrated virgins such as Marcellina, was the only ‘desert’ which Italian Christian men such as Ambrose would have known.

In the Middle Ages, a growing emphasis on the humanity and passion of Christ led to ascetical practices based on an imitation of the physical sufferings of Christ, in particular amongst the mendicant orders. The fifteenth-century Imitation of Christ (most probably written by Thomas à Kempis) instructed the Christian in this sort of ascetic spirituality.

Sixteenth-century Reformation theologies of salvation, which emphasized the depravity of humankind and the worthlessness of any human activities, necessarily undermined the whole rationale for, and practice of, asceticism. Heirs of the Protestant reformation, such as Puritans, well-known for abstaining from the pleasures of the body, cannot be said to have been truly ascetics, for their practices of denial were cast merely in negative terms; asceticism proper is for the body and not against it, a view which has continued into the modern period within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Asceticism and Buddhism

Buddhist ascetical practices are about releasing a person from desire, suffering, and rebirth as represented by the body, sex, and death. That is, achieving Nirvana, and freeing a person from addictive attachments. But over and against what can often seem a dualistic attitude to mind and body within Buddhism, many Buddhist texts see extreme physical ascetical practices as fruitless. This stems from the Buddha's own experience. In the early stages of his quest for Enlightenment, he embarked on a very extreme form of self-mortification, and he became very thin: his limbs withered, his ribs became gaunt, his scalp shrivelled and his belly clung to his backbone. A sculpture of the Buddha, now in the Lahore Museum, represents him in this state. He found that neither these ascetical practices nor his earlier life of comfort as a prince brought him to any understanding of the questions he had about life, suffering, and death. Thus he developed his ‘Middle Way’. His emphasis was on moderation, for he believed both indulgence and denial to be confusing to the mind. In several discourses he was critical of those monks who practised extreme asceticism: those who went naked or wore only rags, those who slept on the ground or on thorns, and those who restricted their food intake very severely. The Buddha allowed 12 optional ascetic practices, all of which emphasized moderation; he resisted attempts to make five of these compulsory for monks.

There is perhaps a tension within Buddhist attitudes about asceticism and the body, as reflected in a set of 13 ascetical practices named the dhuntangas. These are: wearing rag robes; using only three robes; begging alms; visiting all houses when begging; eating once a day; eating only from the bowl; not taking second helpings; living in the forest; living at the foot of a tree; living in the open air; living in a cemetery; being satisfied with whatever dwelling one has; sleeping in a sitting position and never lying down. This list is generally not found in canonical texts, and several of the practices have been seen as marginal, and continue to be regarded as marginal today. Indeed contemporary Buddhist monks and nuns, for example in Thailand, have found that physical decorum is important, alongside any of these ascetical practices, in the presentation of their bodies socially. The proper external conduct of the body — such as the wearing of the robe neatly, good deportment, downcast eyes, and observation of good behaviour — is frequently seen as evidence for a state of virtue. This social reality, coupled with an emphasis on moderation in asceticism, contrasts with Buddhist meditations on the body which would seem to present — and sometimes cultivates — a very dualistic notion of mind and body.

Asceticism and other major religions

Sikhs regard asceticism with some caution, for austere practices and penances are seen as irrelevant and unhelpful to spiritual development, though an appropriate self-discipline may involve abstention from alcohol and advocacy of a vegetarian diet. There is an exception in an ascetic order, the Udasis. Islam likewise regards asceticism with suspicion, although fasting during the month of Ramadhan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, derived from the Koran.

Judaism has generally given little place to asceticism, except in early ascetic groups such as the Essenes, and amongst the Nazirites; Jewish ascetics who vow to abstain from grape products, from cutting hair, and from touching a corpse. A Nazirite is described as ‘holy to the Lord’ in Leviticus 21: 6. The rabbis expressed varying, sometimes conflicting views about the Nazirites; for example, in one Talmudic passage, one rabbi remarks that the Nazirite is holy because he denies himself wine, and a person who fasts, denying himself all food and drink, is even holier, while another rabbi says the Nazirite is a sinner because he denies himself God's gift of wine, and a person who fasts completely is an even greater sinner.

Rather, in Judaism, the emphasis is always on thanksgiving for daily blessings. For example, fasting in itself is usually seen as displeasing to God and is important only for specific reasons on specific designated occasions, such as Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, a wide variety of views on asceticism are found in the Talmud. In the Jerusalem Talmud it is said, against asceticism, that a person will be obliged to give an account before God for every legitimate pleasure he has denied himself. Medieval Jewish thinkers were often influenced by Greek philosophy, sometimes taking a dualistic attitude to body, with the view that the destruction of the soul occurs in direct proportion to the building up of the body.

Jane Shaw


Brown, P. (1988). The body and society. Men, women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. Columbia University Press, New York.
Coakley, S. (ed.) (1997). Religion and the body. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

See also religion and the body.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Asceticism (Gk., askesis, ‘exercise’, as of an athlete). The practice of self-denial or self-control as a means of religious attainment through discipline. Asceticism occurs in all religions, since in all religions there are more important things in life than living, and to attain particular goals, or to serve others, the giving up of some things on one's own behalf may be the only way forward. Nevertheless, asceticism is somewhat suspect in Judaism (but see BAḤYA BEN JOSEPH) and in Islam, because it seems to imply a denial of the goodness of God's creation. Even so, ṣawm (fasting during the month of Ramadhan) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam; see also ZUHD.

In Hinduism, the most basic structure of ordinary life, the four stages of life (āśrama) are marked by discipline, culminating in complete renunciation; the practice of asceticism is marked pravrajya (going forth from home). The efficacy of self-mortification (tapas) is so great that even the gods engage in it. This is even more marked in Jainism, where the ideal is the one who dies his death before it actually occurs (see SALLEKHANĀ). The practice of control becomes literally manifest in the many techniques of yoga.

All of these were practised by Gautama in the early stages of the quest for enlightenment which culminated in his becoming the Buddha.

Renouncing these practices as counterproductive, the Buddha came to be critical of contemporary ascetic movements, and in several discourses he describes and criticizes their many and varied practices. Although the Buddha prohibited extreme practices, he allowed twelve optional practices (dhutanga) of a moderately ascetic kind but resisted the attempt to make five of them compulsory for monks; thirteen are listed in Visuddhimagga 11.

Among Jains, the commitment to asceticism is the central dynamic of the whole system. Those far enough advanced in the emancipation of jīva from karma (see GUNASTHĀNA) undergo initiation (dīkṣa) and take the Five Great Vows (mahāvrata); but the laity are closely integrated, by being on the same path, and by the formality of dāna, gifts in support of the ascetics. The two immediate aims of the Jain ascetic counterbalance each other, saṃyama being restraint, and tapas being the generation of ‘heat’ (i.e. spiritual power).

Among Sikhs, asceticism is viewed with caution: the Gurus advocated for all Sikhs full involvement in family life coupled with self-discipline. For the amritdhārī this frequently means a vegetarian diet and avoidance of alcohol. Austerities and penances are considered painful, irrelevant and not conducive to spiritual development. (see GRAHASTI; NIRMALĀ; SRĪ CHAND; TOBACCO.)

The origins of Christian asceticism are to be found in the strongly eschatological consciousness of early Christians who looked forward to an imminent end of the world in which good would triumph over evil in a holy war. They were to prepare themselves by watchfulness, prayer, fasting, and, for many, sexual continence (cf. 1 Samuel 21. 5), anticipating martyrdom as the test of their faithfulness and a sign of the imminence of the final struggle. With the triumph of Christianity in the 4th cent. this attitude of eschatological awareness was inherited by the monastic movement, and Christian asceticism became archetypically monastic. A systematic understanding of the demands of such asceticism on human nature was developed, notably by Evagrius, and later by Cassian and Dorotheus. The Renaissance brought a reaction against Christian asceticism, intensified by the Reformation with its tendency to suggest the worthlessness of human effort.


views updated May 17 2018

39. Asceticism (See also Austerity, Discipline.)

  1. Albigenses heretical and ascetic Christian sect in France in 12th and 13th centuries. [Christian Hist.: EB, I: 201]
  2. Alexis, St. patron saint of beggars and hermits. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary, 22]
  3. Anthony, St. founder of monasticism. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 49]
  4. Béguines 12th-century French mendicant order. [Fr. Hist.: Espy, 9899]
  5. Cathari heretical and ascetic Christian sect in Europe in 12th and 13th centuries. [Christian Hist.: EB, II: 639]
  6. Cistercians Roman Catholic monastic order observing strict asceticism, founded in 1098. [Christian Hist.: EB, II: 948]
  7. Clare, St. founder of mendicant Order of Poor Glares. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 69]
  8. Crazy Ivar lived in hole on side of river bed. [Am. Lit.: O Pioneers!, Magill I, 663665]
  9. Diogenes (412323 B. C.) despised worldly possessions; made his home in a tub. [Gk. Hist.: Hall, 104]
  10. Fakirs fanatical mendicant sects found primarily in India. [Asian Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 310]
  11. Franciscans 13th-century religious order whose members lived in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, IV: 273]
  12. Gandhi, Mohandas K. (18691948) Indian spiritual leader; embodied Hindu abstemiousness. [Indian Hist.: NCE, 1042]
  13. Jerome, St . Christian monastic leader who searched for peace as hermit in desert. [Christian Hist.: EB, V: 545]
  14. Manichaean Sabbath Manichaean observance of Sunday, demanding abstinence from food and sex. [Christian Hist.: EB, VIII: 746]
  15. Paul of Thebes, St . first Christian hermit; cave-dweller most of life. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 268]
  16. Priscillianism rigorously ascetic Christian sect found in Europe until the 6th century. [Christian Hist.: EB, VIII: 219]
  17. Stoicism philosophical school in Greco-Roman antiquity advocating rationality and austerity. [Gk. Hist.: EB, VIII: 746]
  18. Stylites, St. Simeon Christian monk whose philosophy was so ascetic that he dwelt atop a column to meditate. [Christian Hist.: EB, IX: 216]
  19. Timon of Athens lost wealth, lived frugally; became misanthropic when deserted by friends. [Br. Lit.: Timon of Athens ]
  20. Trappist monks order with austere lifestyle. [Rom. Cath. Hist.: NCE, 2779]
  21. Waldenses members of 12th-century French religious movement living in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, X: 519]
  22. Xenocrates temperate philosopher, noted for contempt of wealth. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1169]


views updated May 14 2018

asceticism the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons. The term comes (in the mid 17th century, via medieval Latin or Greek) from Greek askētēs ‘monk’, from askein ‘to exercise’.


views updated Jun 27 2018


This entry includes two subentries:

Hindu and Buddhist Asceticism
Western Asceticism