Definition:

An “ascetic” (pronounced uh-sett-ick or /ə•sεt’•ik/) is one who renounces material comforts and lives a life of austerity or self-denial in order to improve themselves spiritually.

“Ascetic” can also be used as an adjective, pertaining to an ascetic or a characteristic of an ascetic’s existence, or meaning “austere” or “self-effacing.”

“Asceticism” can mean the principles and practices of an ascetic, especially the doctrine that self-denial and austerity better one’s existence and the practice of such austerity, or a trait of extreme self-denial.

The antonym of asceticism is hedonism, the belief that pleasure is the greatest good.

Etymology:

The word “ascetic” comes from Ancient Greek askesis, meaning "training, practice or exercise". This word, in turn, is formed from askein, a verb which means "to work." The word originally applied to anyone who undertook intense training, but its meaning changed to apply to just those who forsook material pleasures. The verb shows that the Greeks respected these ascetics and knew that living as they did was difficult.

Hedonism and Asceticism:

Examples of asceticism can be found in most religions around the world, as well as several secular instances. Similarly, hedonism can often be seen throughout history, though not as often in religion. I'm afraid I'll have to briefly visit the history of hedonism here...

The Epicureans are largely considered to be the first hedonists, as they valued a moderate life and indulging in simple pleasures. However, Epicurus seemed to value not so much pleasure as a reduction in desire. He also demonstrated that too much of a good thing might later decrease one's happiness stemming from that good thing. Nevertheless, the Epicureans never emphasized abstention from material pleasures, and so were somewhat hedonistic.

The next philosophers to formalize a hedonistic theory were John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, who, in their theory of utilitarianism, said that the greatest good would be that which causes the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of people. Bentham believed, in effect, that pleasure could be calculated, its intensity multiplied by its duration. Mill, on the other hand, stratified pleasure, placing, for example, spiritual pleasures above material pleasures. Needless to say, both theories had flaws. The first would espouse the claim that since deporting all of the 1 million East Timorese to, say, the center of a reactor core would make most of the 224 million Indonesians happy, it would be a good thing to do. The second, on the other hand, seems a little more sound, but the difference between Mill's levels of pleasure is far from obvious, and the entire idea seems simply a clever sort of semantics.

In 1986, Dr. John Piper founded Christian Hedonism, which said that we must enjoy God to the fullest (although, once again, he emphasized spiritual enjoyment over material enjoyment). This is the most recent example of explicit philosophical hedonism.

Now for asceticism. Asceticism has been a part of most major religions since prehistory, but hit its heights in, for example, Gnosticism and Jainism. However, asceticism and hedonism never really faced off until the Reformation. The two were, however, often combined (as in early Taoism) or were both refuted (as in the Buddha's Middle Way). One who seeks the enjoyment of spiritual pleasures could be considered a member of both, whereas one who seeks to prevent all desire could be considered a member of neither.

Philosophical History

Around the birth of Christianity, and elsewhere in the Eastern world, philosophers believed that, by facing hardship and giving up wealth, a person was restored to eir "natural state" — that is, the condition of the body before the "fall of man". This is a tad reminiscent of the Aristotelian belief that all things would return to their "natural place," but with religious overtones. Around the same time, the Gnostics went so far as to posit that, due to original sin, the material world is inherently evil and that we must achieve transcendence and escape our bodies. The implications of this on the religion were many and far-reaching, but the Gnostics (or Magi) were seen as sorcerers and decimated before the ideas could take hold.

A distinction (culled, in all honesty, from Wikipedia) was made by Maximilian Weber between two kinds of asceticism: innerweltliche and ausserweltliche asceticism — that is, asceticism "within the world" and asceticism "outside the world". The former designates asceticism which is done while living an otherwise normal social life (this could include anything from Calvinism to vegetarianism); the latter implies that the ascetic completely withdraws from the world (giving, for example, hermits and monks).

Religious Asceticism:

In this section I hope to include examples of the history and involvement of asceticism in various religions. As I have never been a member of most existing religions, I would appreciate contributions from those in the know on anything I may have missed.

Judaism:

In theory, asceticism should be part of Judaism since day one, given that the original sin committed in the Garden of Eden gave the material world an eternal layer of sin. However, this is a predominantly Christian way of thinking, and modern Jewish philosophers generally embrace the fact that we should enjoy God's pleasures. This is not to say, however, that asceticism has not had a part in Jewish history.

Of special note are the Essenes or Essaioi, a Jewish group prominent around Judea in the first century BC. The main reference works here are Josephus' The Jewish War and Antiquities, written in the late first century AD. According to him, there were many groups, spread throughout the area's cities and the country, which differed on many theological beliefs. Most of them believed in a communal but celibate life, reflecting Weber's innerweltliche asceticism; most were probably vegetarians, or refused to cook their food; they engaged in communal ownership and thus did not trade; and they refused to accept the five books of Moses as canon. They are reputed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In modern Judaism, religious laws and observances such as the Sabbath, the kosher tradition, and other laws essentially dating back to Moses provide a weaker form of religious asceticism. (It is, of course, no small feat to give up the cheeseburger!) And, of course, Jews have a range of degrees of liberalism about their religious beliefs. The missionary-like lifestyle of the Jehovah's Witnesses could also be considered ascetic. Nevertheless, asceticism is ostensibly rejected by the Jewish rabbis and, for the most part, has no place in the religion.

Christianity:

While neither the most populous or the oldest religion in the world, Christianity is famed for its numerous branches and cults ranging from the Lutherans to the Greek Orthodox Church to the Anabaptists. However, due to the church's view on original sin, asceticism is present all the way back to Creation. Let's take a few examples:

The early days of the Christian faith had a decidedly ascetic bent as a contrast to the usual bloodlusting pagan Roman. But given the amount of persecution a Christian would have had to cope with, a large amount of wealth was, for the most part, out of the question.

As Constantine enforced Christianity, Christians became more wealthy and powerful, and thus more indulgent, leading to more hedonistic views. This was not immediately apparent until the split between the Catholic Church and Byzantine Orthodox Church. While both were headed by the Pope, distance and economic difference led to the Byzantines preserving the old Christian ways and the Catholics turning more and more to ceremony and hedonism. The split could be considered complete around the 13th century and the destruction of Constantinople. By then, the Catholic Church had devised the infamous system of indulgences, by which richer members of the laity could pay the clergy to be fast-tracked to heaven. (Also around this time, the ascetic Franciscan order was founded.) This led to the Reformation, which will be discussed below; but for us, it is enough to know that the Counter-Reformation enforced stricter Catholicism and led to an end to this degree of Catholic hedonism.

Now, on to the Protestants. Although Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation, saw many problems with Catholicism (at least 95), the primary ones stemmed from the hedonism of the Catholic clergy. Thus, most of the Protestant religions (Anglicanism excluded) began on a note of deep asceticism: no dancing, no drinking, et cetera. Of course, such beliefs and loyalties have changed over the years as more sects were formed and their political motivation changed. For example, the Episcopal Church had some restructuring to do after its break from the Anglican church, and events like Vatican II changed the face of the Catholic Church.

The ausserweltliche order of the ascetic Christians can be seen in monasteries throughout the world. Dominicans, Franciscans, and their like are great examples of the (mostly Catholic) Christian ascetic brother- and sisterhood. Other examples of this type of asceticism include the missionaries sent out to undeveloped countries by several sects, the itinerant ministers of the American Christian faiths, and the required missions that Mormon boys are sent on around age 18.

Buddhism:

To place Buddhism, one of the most populous religions in the world, on the scale of asceticism and hedonism, we simply have to examine its origins. As the story goes, the Buddha, Prince Siddartha Gautama, was a prince in India who was sheltered by his father from an early age. However, he saw examples of disease, old age, and death, and realized that his religion could not explain it, and his hedonistic life could not help it. So he went off to become a holy man. At first, he tried an ascetic lifestyle, but realized that this did not help him or his cause at all. Hence, Buddha preached the Middle Way, the path between asceticism and hedonism.

And yet ... this answer does not satisfy. To reach Nirvana, the ultimate spiritual goal, Buddhists must eliminate all desire, a seeming ascetic wish. Zen Buddhists would argue that "all desire" includes the desire to reach Nirvana, but they beg another question: Isn't Zen Buddhism a decided monastic lifestyle? While these questions are unsettling, the "official" Buddhist path is in between asceticism and hedonism, and there it must remain. On to a very similar-sounding religion...

Jainism

Okay, I put this one in for completion's sake. The story of Jainism goes as follows: Prince Mahavira was an prince from India who was sheltered by his father from an early age. However, he saw examples of disease, old age, and death, and realized that his religion could not explain it, and his hedonistic life could not help it. So he went off to become a holy man. Sound familiar? Mahavira and the Buddha were actually different men, and their stories do diverge: Mahavira decided that an ascetic lifestyle was necessary for fulfillment. Some of his tenets included poverty and vegetarianism. However, Jainism never really caught on.

Hinduism

The main ascetic order of the Hindus is the group of Sadhus, holy men who undergo extreme acts of devotion to a particular god. Those who have seen the Guinness Book of World Records for 2000 will recall a certain man who held his arm in the air for several months straight. This is a typical example of a Sadhu act of devotion.

The caste system of Hinduism requires some groups of Hindus to live more, and some to live less, ascetically. However, unlike other religions, Hinduism is not largely recognized as completely ascetic or hedonistic.

Islam

The Prophet Muhammad was a known ascetic, and this tradition has carried down, by and large, to the modern-day Muslim. Asceticism, or zuhd, is followed especially by holy men such as imams, ayatollahs, and Sufis. Not to give the religion a bad name, but extreme acts of devotion to Islam are common — indeed, the religion is often famed for it — and, thus, asceticism has a definite place in Islam.

Secular Asceticism

Asceticism can often be found for non-religious purposes: we see, for example, the artist or musician who deprives himself of food or sleep for inspiration. A typical example (remember the Spartans?) is an athlete who undergoes an intense regime in order to train himself for a competition. Asceticism, like faith, is a good meme: it is able to breed itself inside people's heads and spread into both their religion and their life.

Sources:

  • Ed. Charles R. Swindoll. Insight for Living Ministries. "Hedonism vs. Asceticism". (http://www.insightforliving.ca/public.php?level=2&page_id=462). Viewed June 13, 2006.
  • "Asceticism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 22 Jun 2006, 15:24 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 Jun 2006 (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Asceticism&oldid=60008380).
  • "Hedonism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Jun 2006, 00:43 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 19 Jun 2006 (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hedonism&oldid=59034922).
  • "Rechabites." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. ©2001-2005 Columbia University Press. 20 Jun 2006 (http://www.bartleby.com/65/re/Rechabit.html).
  • "Asceticism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. ©2001-2005 Columbia University Press. 20 Jun 2006 (http://www.bartleby.com/65/re/ascetici.html).
  • "Essenes." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 21 Jun 2006, 08:28 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Jun 2006 (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Essenes&oldid=59777975).
  • Many thanks to XWiz for lending me his palette.

As*cet"i*cism (#), n.

The condition, practice, or mode of life, of ascetics.

 

© Webster 1913.

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