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Allegory of Chastity (1475) by Hans Memling
Allegory of Chastity (1475) by Hans Memling

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Asceticism describes a life characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures (austerity). Those who practice ascetic lifestyles often perceive their practices as virtuous and pursue them to achieve greater spirituality. Many ascetics believe the action of purifying the body helps to purify the soul, and thus obtain a greater connection with the Divine or find inner peace. This may take the form of self-mortification, rituals or renunciations of pleasure. However, ascetics maintain that self-imposed constraints bring them greater freedom in various areas of their lives, such as increased clarity of thought and the ability to resist potentially destructive temptations.


Religious motivation

Self-discipline and abstinence in some form and degree is a part of religious practice within many religious and spiritual traditions. A more dedicated ascetical lifestyle is associated particularly with monks, yogis or priests, but any individual may choose to lead an ascetic life. Shakyamuni Gautama (who left a more severe ascetism to seek a reasoned "middle way" of balanced life), Mahavir Swami, Anthony the Great (St. Anthony of the Desert), Francis of Assisi, and Mahatma Gandhi can all be considered ascetics. Many of these men left their families, possessions, and homes to live a mendicant life, and in the eyes of their followers demonstrated great spiritual attainment, or enlightenment.


Christian authors of late antiquity such as Origen, St. Jerome, St. Ignatius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine interpreted meanings of Biblical texts within a highly asceticized religious environment. Scriptural examples of asceticism could be found in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, the twelve apostles and the Apostle Paul. The Dead Sea Scrolls revealed ascetic practices of the ancient Jewish sect of Essenes who took vows of abstinence to prepare for a holy war. An emphasis on an ascetic religious life was evident in both early Christian writings (see the Philokalia) and practices (see hesychasm). Other Christian practitioners of asceticism include individuals such as Simeon Stylites, Saint David of Wales and Francis of Assisi.

The deserts of the Middle East were at one time inhabited by thousands of hermits< including St. Anthony the Great (aka St. Anthony of the Desert), St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Simeon Stylites.

Sexual abstinence was only one aspect of ascetic renunciation. The ancient monks and nuns had other, equally weighty concerns: pride, humility, compassion, discernment, patience, judging others, prayer, hospitality and almsgiving. For some early Christians, gluttony represented a more primordial problem than lust and as such the reduced intake of food is also a facet of asceticism. As an illustration, the systematic collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the desert fathers and mothers has more than twenty chapters divided by theme; only one chapter is devoted to porneia ("sexual lust"). Today, the monastic state of Mount Athos, having a history of over a millennium, is a center of Christian spirituality and asceticism in Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Evagrius Ponticus: Monastic teaching

Evagrius Ponticus, also called Evagrius the Solitary (345-399 AD) was a highly educated monastic teacher who produced a large theological body of work, mainly ascetic, including the Gnostikos (from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, "learned", from γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge), also known as The Gnostic: To the One Made Worthy of Gnosis. The Gnostikos is the second volume of a trilogy containing the Praktikos, intended for young monks to achieve apatheia, i.e. " a state of calm which is the prerequisite for love and knowledge ", in order to purify their intellect and make it impassible to reveal the truth hidden in every being. The third book, Kephalaia Gnostika , was meant for meditation by advanced monks. Those writings made him part of the most recognized ascetic teachers and scriptural interpreters of his time, which include Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

The Gnostikos consists of one hundred sayings defining the habits, actions and virtues of the monk and interpretations of Scriptures expressed in the form of apophthegms (or " sentences "), that is, proverbs monks should memorized, think deeply about, constantly reminding him of his purpose. In every " sentence ", Evagrius hid a scriptural verse in the interest of shaping the reader’s actions and mind. This is explained by the idea that acting by the Scriptures is the best way to get to understand the Scriptures. For the meaning of the sentences and the pedagogy to become clearer, one must discover the reference in each apophthegms. Therefore, this short book specifies at some extent the monastic line of conduct, what a monk is supposed to know and the knowledge he is not supposed to share so that Evagrius hs "[…] veiled certain things, other things we have obscured, so as not ‘to give holy things to dogs, or throw pearls before swine " (Matt 7.6). This last point was really important to Evagrius since, according to him: " Sometimes it is necessary to feign ignorance, because those who ask are not worthy of understanding. And you will be truthful, because you are connected to a body and do not now have integral knowledge of things ". Accordingly, monk must have "material for explaining what is said [in Scripture], and that you have room for all things, even if a part should escape (him); this is proper to an angel, in fact, that nothing of what is on the earth escapes him".

The ascetic literature of this period has the particularity to link pre-Christian Greek philosophical traditions to the Christian ascetic lifestyle, especially Plato and Aristotle, looking for the perfect spiritual way of life. According to Clement of Alexandria, Philosophy and Scriptures can be seen as "double expressions of one pattern of knowledge ". These 3 components form a whole, the intellect being paired with the rational part of the soul and the body to the desiring parts of the soul. Once this is mastered, the gnostikos becomes head of a spiritual hierarchy whose role is to inform the Church ministers and thereby, reflects the image of Christ the teacher since following his conduct is equated to being his disciple, and leads to union with Christ himself.

Modern day members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) also follow strict ascetic dictates, refraining from pre-marital relations, avoid coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs.

Philosophical view

In the third essay ("What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?") from his book On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche discusses what he terms the "ascetic ideal" and its role in the formulation of morality along with the history of the will. In the essay, Nietzsche describes how such a paradoxical action as asceticism might serve the interests of life: through asceticism one can overcome their desire to perish from pain and despair and attain mastery over oneself. In this way one can express both ressentiment and the will to power. Nietzsche describes the morality of the ascetic priest as characterized by Christianity as one where, finding oneself in pain or despair and desiring to perish from it, the will to live causes one to place oneself in a state of hibernation and denial of the material world in order to minimize that pain and thus preserve life, a technique which Nietzsche locates at the very origin of secular science as well as of religion. He associated the "ascetic ideal" with Christian decadence.


See also

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