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.


  1. Lupton,  (1996) Food, the Body and  the Self. Sage, London.
  2. Pace,    (1983)  Asceti e   mistici in  una  societa` secolarizzata. Marsilio, Venice.
  3. Seguy, (1968) Ernst Troeltsch ou de l’essence de la religion a la typologie des christianismes. Archives de Sociologie des Religions  25: 3 11.
  4. Se´guy, (1972) Max Weber et la sociologie historique des  religions.  Archives de  Sociologie des Religions 33: 71 104.
  5. Troeltsch,  (1992) The  Social Teachings of the Christian  Churches, 2  vols.  John  Knox  Press, Louisville.
  6. Weber, (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Charles  Scribner’s  Sons,   New York.
  7. Weber, (1963) The Sociology of Religion. Beacon Press, Boston.

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