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Asceticism is the practice of austere self-discipline, voluntary undertaken, in order to achieve a higher or spiritual ideal. The term is derived from the Greek askein, which in the time of Homer meant, "to practice an art or skill." Later in Greece the term took on a broader meaning of "exercise"; so the early ascetics were skilled in athletics and the military arts. The various Greek philosophical schools, such as the Pythagoreans (see Pythagoreanism), Stoics, Sophists, and Cynics, used asceticism as a system of moral practices to free men of vices. Plato viewed asceticism as a means of not only conditioning the body but also conditioning it up to a point at which the soul-the sum total of ideals-could be free. The term seemed to have come into Christian and Western thought through the Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher Philo.
The above is the Western version of the development of asceticism, however, asceticism has Eastern roots too. The earliest exponents of asceticism were the Jain Buddhists whose religious teachings influenced the Essenes. Jain Buddhist monks had penetrated the courts of Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, and Epirus by the 4th century BC. They claimed to have gained magical abilities through self-denial.
One the original reasons for practicing austere self-denial was man's desire to be able to give birth. Oriental myths said the first creator-gods acquire their ability to produce living things by "practicing fierce asceticism for ten thousand years." Although men were never able to acquire the female ability to give birth, they have claimed the abilities to fly, walk on water, heal the lame and blind, and perform other miracles.
Asceticism in its broadest sense is man's practice of renunciation of his physical self and world in order to attain a higher ideal or spiritual good; in summary, it's the renunciation of the physical, which has been deemed of lesser worth, for the spiritual. This has been the teaching of most cultural and almost explicitly all religious training. It is true almost every society from the primitive to the most sophisticated teach some type of asceticism to teach self-control that is expected from its members without which the society could not exist.
The need for such social asceticism can readily be recognized, although members of such societies may complain such asceticism may be too stern or lack at times. And, occasionally during these times is when social and religious asceticism tend to intermix. Such conjunctures can cause conflicts. Many such conflicts have occurred within the Christian church and a majority of them focused upon sexual activity of the members. Many of the medieval clergy became over zealous on this issue. It was reasoned that the reason man fell from grace was because of woman, therefore, man could only return to grace by renouncing woman. Sexuality was declared to be the worst of all heresies and sins since it was St. Augustine who said all men were conceived in sin, the effect of original sin.
However, let not the reader forget that the church that is now condemning sexuality as the worst of all sins, several centuries earlier condemned the Gnostics (see Gnosticism) as heretics for their refusal to bear children. One of the Orthodox Church's charges against the austere Gnostic sects was that they practiced almost total monasticism, but this was when the church was still in its infancy and needed members. Also, St. Augustine, one of the church's leading exponents against sexuality, was a member of the Gnostic Manichaens before becoming a Christian.
Protestant theologians shared similar views too. Calvin said that, because of its origin in sexuality and in a woman's body, every child was "defiled and polluted" in God's sight even before it saw the light of day; a newborn infant is a "seed-bed of sin and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God." When Martin Luther married an ex-nun he still did not hold sex in a high regard. "Had God consulted me on the matter, I would have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay."
Here lies the hidden component of asceticism, the arrogance in the idea that man can instruct God in what he should do, which leads many people to think they are governed by a "man-made god." Those sharing this latter conception usually are not misled by the unnatural humility of asceticism. "Nothing is prouder than the humility of the ascetic of the other-worldly spirit that proclaims itself superior to the whole natural world, or than the mysticism that renounces the self only to commune with God himself." True humility is the desire to unite with and be within the whole of things but not above it.
Asceticism is not to be completely condemned. As previously mentioned every society has taught some form of asceticism to promote self-control within its members. Such social asceticism is justified for social existence. But, the key to its validity is in its function; to teach self-control without which there could be no social structure. This is far different than people practicing asceticism in order to commune with God, or condemning sexuality because they believe it to be sinful. If their reasoning is questioned it soon become fallacious or nonexistent. It soon becomes obvious for the individual wishing only to commune with God gains self-satisfaction rather than his proposed goal of the denial of self. The one who proclaims the sinfulness of sexuality seemed not to have considered the conclusion that God created sexual propagation for the continuation of people. Whether one includes God within this conclusion or not seems insignificant, to desire to eliminate sexual propagation because it is sinful seems to erroneously deny the fact of its necessity. Also denied are the natural love between mother and child, husband and wife, lovers, and the pleasure of sexual activity in general.
When discussing asceticism, William James said that it was the lack of self-consciousness that led to intolerance and persecution of every kind. "Between his own and Jehovah's enemies a David knows no difference; a Catherine of Siena, painting to stop the warfare among Christians which was the scandal of her epoch, can think of no better method of union among them than a crusade to massacre the Turks; Luther finds no word of protest or regret over the atrocious tortures with which the Antibaptist leaders were put to death; and a Cromwell praises the Lord for delivering his enemies into his hands for 'execution.' In the absence of intellectual criticism and widening, all the 'saintly virtues of the strenuous life' may become similarly corrupted. Thus purity may lead to escapism and the endless monotony of extreme forms of the monastic life; charity may turn the world over to unscrupulous aggression and the enemies of mankind; and asceticism may jeopardize the health for the sake of an unlimited mortification."
It appears that the tension between the physical and spiritual has persisted within the world for as long as man can remember. It pervades most religions with the belief that the spiritual is superior to the physical. This spiritual-physical split obviously overlooks the fact that within the existence of human life both are necessary. The spiritual nature of humankind separates man from other creatures in the animal kingdom. But, without the physical, the body and vehicle of the spiritual, the spiritual side, or spirituality, of man could not exist. Within such an appraisal of the situation it appears somewhat imprudent to stress the physical should always be sacrificed for the spiritual; for, as with all vehicles, the physical must be maintained too to insure the existence of both.
Sources: 56, 62-65; 76, 318; 77, C. J. McNaspy, S.J., "America" Magazine, 2, 429-430.