The concept of asceticism shows the unity of efforts through which an individual desires to progress in his moral, religious, and spiritual life. The original meaning of the term refers to any exercise, physical, intellectual, or moral, practiced with method and rigor, in hopes of self-improvement and progress. Notwithstanding the great flexibility that characterizes the application of asceticism, the concept always alludes to a search for perfection based on the submission of the body to the spirit, recalling the symbolic distinction between exterior and interior life.
Following the evolution of the concept of asceticism within different historical and social contexts, it is possible to see its strategic importance within the social sciences, especially in regard to understanding the western world. Aside from the combination of physical and intellectual exercises, which have always had their own social relevance, asceticism refers to the complex relationship between nature and culture, as well as to the classic religious relationship between faith and reason; such aspects are the fruit of a continual and dynamic negotiation that develops within concrete social and cultural contexts.
The Historical Aspects of Asceticism
A comprehensive look at the historical evolution of the concept of asceticism allows for a description of what one refers to when using the term. Etymologically, the term comes from Greek and it was Homer who used it only to describe artistic technique and production. Herodotus and Thucydides used the term in reference to physical exercises and effort undertaken by athletes and soldiers in order to keep their bodies fit. Coupled with this physical aspect of asceticism is the moral dimension, where a constant and prolonged effort is what leads intellect to wisdom and virtue. The methodical training of the spirit, which was celebrated by nearly all classical philosophers, involves the progressive liberation of the soul from the body, which was considered bad and deviant.
It is with the Pythagoreans that the concept of asceticism is used in a specifically religious sphere, referring to the perfecting exercises the soul undertakes in order to deserve the contemplation of God. Already in the classical world the concept had pieced together the physical with moral and religious dimensions: exercising the body, controlling the passions, mortification through abstinence and renunciation, and good works were considered sub sequent stages that educated the virtuous man.
In early Christianity, all the above elements were interpreted and organized in a coherent manner. Especially within monastic life, almost as if to substitute the bloody sacrifices of the early martyrs, penance and asceticism become necessary to win the struggle against sin and to gain particular graces from God.
Perceived in this manner, Christian life becomes an austere struggle that combines suffering and renunciation in a continual effort to overcome temptations of the flesh. Just such control of the instincts, and sometimes even of the legitimate inclinations of desires, marks the particular relationship that the ascetic has with his own body. Besides poverty and obedience, in the first centuries of Christian life chastity was advised, which sometimes manifested itself in extreme forms of radical hostility toward sexuality. Aside from corporal mortification, especially within the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions, work, silence, and prayer together with fasting and vigils were characteristic elements of asceticism.
In the Middle Ages, ascetic practices left the monasteries to involve groups of laypeople, who, imitating the great religious orders such as the Dominicans or Franciscans, came together to give birth to the Third Orders. Asceticism in this period became further refined, developing new methods designed to perfect the exercises of the spiritual life. Among these a special place was devoted to mental prayers, which included the continual repetition of simple prayer formulas such as the rosary or brief invocations to the saints. Together with the repetition of oral formulas were repeated exterior acts of veneration, such as genuflection, often practiced with a deep penitential spirit, and the use of the hair shirt and other means of mortification.
Asceticism And Mysticism
With the advent of the modern era, especially with the Reformation, a radical critique of asceticism as it was conceived in the Middle Ages can be found. However, Luther’s doc trine of justification, which denied the worthiness of human efforts to obtain salvation, did not lead to ethical and moral indifference. The Reformation promoted a new understanding of asceticism, which changed from physical discipline and was manifested in the workplace, married life, respect for parents, and the undertaking of political responsibilities, obviously alongside prayer and meditation on the Bible. Max Weber (1958) discusses Protestant ethics in terms of this worldly asceticism and considers modern capitalism as an expression of the Puritan Calvinist mentality.
Even Catholics realized the excessiveness and the risks of an indiscriminate application of asceticism. The Church warned against excesses, distancing itself from the most gruesome and inhumane practices. Even in the theological field a new sensitivity developed, which, notwithstanding the necessity of human effort, stressed the preeminence of God’s actions. What was important was not human actions but passive human acceptance of the works of the Spirit. The excessive willingness of asceticism was replaced by a mystical attitude that valued physicality, affections, and the emotions of the person, thus overriding an openly dualistic and often Man Ichean vision. However, asceticism and mysticism were not to be considered as being opposed to one another, but as two aspects of the same spiritual journey. Especially from modern times on, this journey did not privilege mortification of the body and the passions but underlined the importance of the individual’s harmonious development, in both physical and spiritual dimensions. Starting from renunciation for its own sake, there is a movement from a choice that is functional toward the fulfillment of a more harmonious and balanced personality.
The Sociological Approach to Asceticism
The founding fathers of sociology showed great interest in both asceticism and mysticism, above all particular forms of religious cohesion that developed from these two experiences throughout the centuries. Interest in these issues remains alive even in the con temporary world, and sociologists find it not only within new religious experiences but also in connection with different fields such as caring for the body or political activism.
Max Weber contrasts asceticism and mysticism, specifying that the former considers salvation as the result of human actions in the world, while the latter refers to a particular state of enlightenment, which is reached only by a few select people through contemplation.
While asceticism calls people to actively dedicate themselves in the world to incarnate the religious values in it, in the mystical perspective the world loses importance in order to give way to a union with God. The logic of mysticism is to run away from the world, while the logic of asceticism has a belligerent attitude toward the world full of sin. Weber points out how asceticism is a broad and, in certain aspects, ambiguous sociological category. On the one hand, it means the systematic and methodological effort to subordinate natural and worldly instincts to religious principles. On the other hand, it refers to the religious criticism of the often utilitarian and conventional relationships of social life. Therefore, it is possible to distinguish two different forms of asceticism. One is founded on a highly negative perception of the world. The second considers the world as God’s creation. Even though the world is the place where humans can sin, it is also the concrete situation where the virtuous person fulfills his vocation with a rational method. According to the second definition of asceticism, the individual, in order to find confirmation of his own state of grace and privilege, lives his existence in the world as if he were an instrument chosen by God.
Asceticism, when it is put into concrete practice in the life of a religious group, as is the case with Calvinism or in the various Protestant sects, can become a forcefully dynamic element of social and cultural trans formation, instigating reform or revolutionary movements. Starting from the distinction between asceticism and mysticism, Weber points out the difference between western and eastern religions. Even though it is not a strict contrast, eastern religions rely on mysticism, while western religions are centered on ascetic ideals and ethics. This does not mean that in western Christianity there are no mystical experiences, especially within the Catholic sphere, which determine ascetic practices that reinforce the authority of the hierarchical Church. Jean Se´guy (1968) hypothesizes that in Catholicism, the sociological category of mysticism is often functional in order to affirm obedience as a virtue, and, therefore, intended as asceticism.
Reworking Weber’s distinction between the Church and the various sects, Ernst Troeltsch (1992) uses the concept of asceticism to verify the plausibility of each part. With such a goal in mind, he proposes a detailed analysis of all the forms of Christian asceticism according to different historical periods, economic and social contexts, and types of religious groups. First, there is the heroic asceticism of the early Christians. Based on Christ’s ethics more than on hostility toward the world, it consists of a feeling of indifference toward what is bound to disappear. It then follows that the definition of asceticism, based on Augustine’s pessimistic view of the world, devalues the material world in comparison to the interior world, making it necessary to stop and or discipline the impulses of the flesh. Medieval Christianity sought to establish a compromise with mundane reality; while monks practiced fleeing from the world, laypeople had to accept its dynamics. Lutheranism successively proposed a secular asceticism that considered the effort of transforming the world as an instrument of continuous conversion, while Calvinism considered work and professional achievement as signs of divine election. Finally, within the sects, asceticism mainly became a renunciation of the world, expressed in various ways from indifference to hostility and resignation. Asceticism in this particular light is not the repression of the senses but, rather, a denial of established power.
Asceticism In The Contemporary World
Far from disappearing, asceticism is present in the contemporary world, and not only in the context of oriental religious experiences such as some practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. While in a strictly religious sphere new forms of asceticism could be tantric practices or yoga, Deborah Lupton (1996) relates asceticism to the issue of food and awareness of the body, and Enzo Pace (1983) puts it in the context of political activism.
According to Lupton, in western cultures food and diet are interpreted in a dialectic that puts asceticism and hedonistic consumption as the two extremes. Eating, together with the corporeal experience, demands the continual exercise of self discipline: such ascetic practices of diet, besides having over the centuries a typically religious value, represent a means to build one’s own subjectivity. Furthermore, as in religion ascetic renunciations are rewarded by God’s grace, so self control and self denial with regard to food are rewarded by a healthy, slim, and fit body. Fitness, body building, and dieting would then be the ascetic practices of the contemporary era, where it is considered morally good to eliminate the need for bad or unhealthy food. Even today temptation of the flesh, considered as food and no longer as an entity opposed to the soul, must be energetically resisted through a rigorous dietetic asceticism.
Enzo Pace reflects on the relationship between religion and politics within the Italian context, with reference to the Democrazia Cristiana Party. He hypothesizes that the pre dominance of an ascetic attitude in the political arena, which characterized dissent in a few Catholic groups, was succeeded by a mysticism typical of charismatic movements, which separate their faith from any presence in society and politics to give space to the acts of the Spirit. Lay neo asceticism promoted subjective adhesion to one’s faith rather than objective membership of a specific institution: such subjective tension rediscovered the ethical religious basis of one’s own choice founded on personal contact with the Bible, and therefore not controlled by an ecclesiastical institution. This form of political asceticism underlines the importance of social and political dedication, experienced in terms of Christian vocation, starting with workers and those in marginalized situations and poverty openly criticizing the progressive secularization of the Church, which made political com promises with the state party, Democrazia Cristiana. The interesting point of this hypothesis, which goes beyond the concrete Italian context, is that it shows that the worldly asceticism of political dedication permits interpretation of one’s own political actions as being connected to the evangelical message of equality, justice, and solidarity, even if such religious identity is no longer perceived as directly dependent upon a religious institution that guarantees it.
Analyzing the role of asceticism in the Protestant sphere, Jean Seguy (1972) highlights that it is not necessarily connected to work ethics but can assume other modes of expression, such as giving up tobacco or alcohol, a particular way of dressing, the adornment of a place of worship, or decoration of one’s home. Se´guy’s observations, integrating Weber’s interpretive scheme, still leave open the inquiry on the role of asceticism in the modern world.
- Lupton, (1996) Food, the Body and the Self. Sage, London.
- Pace, (1983) Asceti e mistici in una societa` secolarizzata. Marsilio, Venice.
- Seguy, (1968) Ernst Troeltsch ou de l’essence de la religion a la typologie des christianismes. Archives de Sociologie des Religions 25: 3 11.
- Se´guy, (1972) Max Weber et la sociologie historique des religions. Archives de Sociologie des Religions 33: 71 104.
- Troeltsch, (1992) The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, 2 vols. John Knox Press, Louisville.
- Weber, (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
- Weber, (1963) The Sociology of Religion. Beacon Press, Boston.
Back to Sociology of Religion