1902 Encyclopedia > Asceticism


ASCETICISM, from Greek SxrKrj<TK, meaning the exercise or training to which the athletes subjected them-selves when preparing for the games or contests, is used metaphorically to denote the habitual practice of exercising restraint over, or subduing, the bodily desires and affections which tend to lower objects, in order thereby to advance in the higher life of purity and virtue. It is the means by which the mind withdraws itself from the hindrances and temptations of the world, and clears its vision for what is spiritual and true. In its lowest stage it consists in the mortification of the flesh by fasting, penance, and the like; but in a higher sense it involves the uprooting of all worldly or temporal desires, and withdrawal from the natural relations of life. The origin of such a peculiar aspect of thought or mode of action is to be found in the wide-spread idea, not wholly Oriental, that in Unity or Identity alone is true goodness and happiness, while in Multiplicity or Difference is evil and misery. Unity is but the abstract expression for God, the Absolute, or Spirit, and Multiplicity for Matter, in which both Orientals and Greeks thought to find the origin of evil. Now, in man exist both spirit, which is the shadow of or emana-tion from the divine, and the body, with its various desires and passions, which is of the nature of matter, and there-fore in itself evil. True happiness—nay, true life for man —consists in contemplation of God, absorption into the divine unity and essence; and this ecstatic vision can only be attained by the cultivation of the spirit, and the morti-fication of the body. The desires and passions must be subdued, rooted up, and the means recommended are solitude, poverty, celibacy, fasting, and penance. We find, accordingly, that in all nations, those who seek divine illumination prepare themselves by these means. In this respect the Hindoo fakirs, jogis, dervishes, and gymnoso-phists, and the numerous sect of the Buddhists, are at one with the Hebrew prophets, Nazarites, and Chasidim, and with the priests of the Grecian mysteries. In most of the Greek schools of thought, however, asceticism had less a mystical and religious than a moral and practical bearing. Even the solitude and abstinence practised by the Pytha-goreans were connected partly with their theory of metem-psychosis, but mainly with their ethical training. Socrates, who called temperance, or self-restraint, the chief of virtues, had in view only the higher ethical life of the human spirit; and the Cynics and Stoics, who carried out his doctrine to an extreme, endeavoured to stifle the natural desires, and violate the natural relations of life, in order to realise their ideal of a wise and self-sufficing man of virtue. In Plato, however, appears very prominently the idea of matter as in itself evil and hostile to the divine; and among the neo-Platonic and neo-Pythagorean schools of Alexandria, who draw mainly from him, the doctrine and practice of a mystical and religious asceticism were essentially involved in their philosophical systems. About the same time similar principles had taken root among the Jews, and appeared in Palestine among the Essenes (by some sup-posed to be an offshoot from the Chasidim), in Egypt among the Therapeutaa, Into the heart of this circle of ideas Christianity entered ; it incorporated many of them, and lent additional strength to the principle of asceticism in its higher signification. The deep sense of the nothing-ness of temporal phenomena when compared with spiritual realities, the conviction that in this world believers are but pilgrims, exposed to many temptations through the weak-ness of the flesh, in which is the origin of sin, and the many expressions which seemed to imply that riches and the ties of marriage were real hindrances in the Christian life, contributed to strengthen the already powerful ten-dency towards ascetic practices. Accordingly, in the early church celibacy and poverty, with occasional fasting and penance, were commonly recommended as means for the attainment of true virtue and communion with God, and such practices soon began to be looked upon as having a special merit in themselves, The natural consequence was that certain enthusiasts—such as Paul of Thebes, Anthony, and Simeon Stylites—vied with each other in their fana-tical asceticism, withdrawing to the desert, and spending their lives in self-mortification. The persecutions of the church, which drove the Christians together, and the intro-duction of cenobitism by Pachomius in the 4th century, gave rise to monasticism, in which, for the first time, asceticism was reduced to an organised system. But the constant reforms required to preserve the purity of the monastic life, and the continuous protests against the whole practice, which began in the 11th century with such men as Peter of Bruis and Henry of Lausanne, and cul-minated in the Reformation, demonstrated the weakness of the foundation on which the system had been built. Asceticism, meanwhile, was not confined to the church, but had spread through the heretical and religious sects which sprang up alongside of it. The Ebionites and Gnostics inculcated the subjection of the body to the spirit; the new religion of Mani advocated the absolute withdrawal of all desires from the world; and among the followers of Ma-homet, one sect, the Persian Sufis, specially distinguished themselves by their practice of abstinence and solitary meditation. Even in modern times, although ascetic practices have been modified, traces of the idea on which they rest are not wanting. The principles of the Quaker Society, of the Methodists, of the Communist bodies in America,—e.g., the Shakers,—and other enthusiasts, are modifications, more or less pronounced, of the ascetic way of thinking.

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