1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Asceticism
ASCETICISM, the theory and practice of bodily abstinence and self-mortification, generally religious. The word is derived from the Gr. verb ἀσκέω, “I practise,” whence the noun ἄσκησις and the adjective ἀσκητικός; and it embodies a metaphor taken from the ancient wrestling-place or palaestra, where victory rewarded those who had best trained their bodies. Not a few other technical terms of Greek philosophic asceticism, used in the first instance by Cynics and Neo-pythagoreans, and then continued among the Greek Jews and Christians, were metaphors taken from athletic contests—but only metaphors, for all asceticism, worthy of the name, has a moral purport, and is based on the eternal contrast of the proposition, “This is right,” with the proposition, “That is pleasant.” The ascetic instinct is probably as old as humanity, yet we must not forget that early religious practices are apt to be deficient in lofty spiritual meaning, many things being esteemed holy that are from a modern point of view trifling and even obscene. We may therefore expect in primitive asceticism to find many abstentions and much self-torture apparently valueless for the training of character and discipline of the feelings, which are the essence of any healthy asceticism. Nevertheless these non-moral taboos or restraints may have played a part in building up in us that faculty of preferring the larger good to the impulse of the moment which is the note of real civilization. Aristotle in his Ethics defines, as the barbarian’s ideal of life, “the living as one likes.” Yet nothing is less true; for the savage, more than the civilized man, is tied down at every step with superstitious scruples and restrictions barely traceable in higher civilizations except as primitive survivals. It is not that savages are devoid of the ascetic instinct. It is on the contrary over-developed in them, but ill-informed and working in ways unessential or even morally harmful. It is the note of every great religious reformer, Moses, Buddha, Paul, Mani, Mahomet, St Francis, Luther, to enlighten and direct it to higher aims, substituting a true personal holiness for a ritual purity or taboo, which at the best was viewed as a kind of physical condition and contagion, inherent as well in things and animals as in man.
It is useful, therefore, in a summary sketch of asceticism, to begin with the facts as they can be observed among less advanced races, or as mere survivals among people who have reached the level of genuine moral reflection; and from this basis to proceed to a consideration of self-denial consciously pursued as a method of ethical perfection. The latter is as a rule less cruel and rigorous than primitive forms of asceticism. Under this head fall the following:—Fasting, or abstention from certain meats and drinks; denial of sexual instinct; subjection of the body to physical discomforts, such as nakedness, vigils, sleeping on the bare ground, tattooing, deformation of skull, teeth, feet, &c., vows of silence to be observed throughout life or during pilgrim-ages, avoidance of baths, of hair-cutting and of clean raiment, living in a cave; actual self-infliction of pain, by scourging, branding, cutting with knives, wearing of hair shirts, fire-walking, burial alive, hanging up of oneself by hooks plunged into the skin, suspension of weights by such hooks to the tenderer parts of the body, self-mutilation and numerous other, often ingenious, modes of torture. Such customs repose on various superstitions; for example, the self-mutilation of the Galli or priests of Cybele was probably a magical ceremony intended to fertilize the soil and stimulate the crops. Others of the practices enumerated, probably the greater part of them, spring from demonological beliefs.
Fasting (q.v.) is used in primitive asceticism for a variety of reasons, among which the following deserve notice. Certain animals and vegetables are taboo, i.e. too holy, or—what among Semites and others was the same thing—too defiling and unclean, to be eaten. Thus in Leviticus xi. the Jews are forbidden to eat animals other than cloven-footed ruminants; thus the camel, coney, hare and swine were forbidden; so also any water organisms that had not fins and scales, and a large choice of birds, including swan, pelican, stork, heron and hoopoe. All winged creeping things that have four feet were equally abominable. Lastly, the weasel, mouse and most lizards were taboo. All or nearly all of these were at one time totem animals among one or another of the Semitic tribes, and were not eaten because primitive men will not eat animals between which and themselves and their gods they believe a peculiar tie of kinship to exist. Men do not eat an animal for which they have a reverential dread, or if they eat it at all, it is only in a sacramental feast and in order to absorb into themselves its life and holy properties. Such abstinences as the above, though based on taboo, that is, on a reluctance to eat the totem or sacred animal, are yet ascetic in so far as they involve much self-denial. No flesh is more wholesome or succulent than beef, yet the Egyptians and Phoenicians, says Porphyry (de Abst. ii. 11), would rather eat human flesh than that of the cow, and so would two hundred and fifty millions of modern Hindus. The privation involved in abstention from the flesh of the swine, a taboo hardly less widespread, is obvious.
Similar prohibitions are common in Africa, where fetish priests are often reduced to a diet of herbs and roots. That such dietary restrictions were merely ceremonial and superstitious, and not intended to prevent the consumption of meats which would revolt modern tastes, is certain from the fact that the Levitical law freely allowed the eating of locusts, grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches, while forbidding the consumption of rabbits, hares, storks, swine, &c. The Pythagoreans were forbidden to eat beans.
Another widespread reason for avoiding flesh diet altogether was the fear of absorbing the irrational soul of the animal, which especially resided in the blood. Hence the rule not to eat meats strangled, except in sacramental meals when the god inherent in the animal was partaken of. It is equally a soul or spirit in wine which inspires the intoxicated; the old Egyptian kings avoided wine at table and in libations, because it was the blood of rebels who had fought with the gods, and out of whose rotting bodies grew the vines; to drink the blood was to imbibe the soul of these rebels, and the frenzy of intoxication which followed was held to be possession by their spirits. The medieval Jews also held that there is a cardiac demon in wine which takes possession of drunken men; and the Mahommedan prohibition of wine-drinking is based on a similar superstition. The avoidance of wine, therefore, by Rechabites, Nazirites, Arab dervishes and Pythagoreans, and also of leaven in bread, is parallel to and explicable in the same way as abstention from flesh. Porphyry (de Abst. i. 19) acquaints us with another widespread scruple against flesh diet. It was this, that the souls of men transmigrated into animals, so that if you ate these, you might consume your own kind, cannibal-wise. Contemporary meat-eaters set themselves to combat this prejudice, and argued that it was a pious duty to kill animals and so release the human souls imprisoned. In the same tract Porphyry relates (ii. 48) how wizards acquired the mantic powers of certain birds, such as ravens and hawks, by swallowing their hearts. The soul of the bird, he explains, enters them with its flesh, and endows them with power of divination. The lover of wisdom, who is priest of the universal God, rather than risk the taking into himself of inferior souls and polluting demons, will abstain from eating animals. Such is Porphyry’s argument.
The same fear of imbibing the irrational soul of animals, and thereby reinforcing the lower appetites and instincts of the human being, inspired the vegetarianism of Apollonius of Tyana and of the Jewish Therapeutae, who in their sacred meals were careful to have a table free from blood-containing meats; and the fear of absorbing the animal’s psychic qualities equally motived the Jewish and early Christian rule against eating things strangled. It was an early belief, which long survived among the Manichaean sects, that fish, being born in and of the waters, and without any sexual connexion on the part of other fishes are free from the taint which pollutes all animals quae copulatione generantur. Fish, therefore, unlike flesh, could be safely eaten. Here we have the origin of the Catholic rule of fasting, seldom understood by those who observe it. The same scruple against flesh-eating is conveyed in the beautiful confession, in the Cretans of Euripides, of one who had been initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus and became a “Bacchos.” The last lines of this, as rendered by Dr Gilbert Murray, are as follows:—
"Robed in pure white, I have borne me clean
From man’s vile birth and coffined clay,
And exiled from my lips alway
Touch of all meat where life hath been."
This Orphic fast from meat was only broken by an annual sacramental banquet, originally, perhaps, of human, but later of raw bovine flesh.
The Manichaeans held that in every act of begetting, human or otherwise, a soul is condemned afresh to a cycle of misery by imprisonment in flesh—a thoroughly Indian notion, under the influence of which their perfect or elect ones scrupulously abstained from flesh. The prohibition of taking life, which they took over from the Farther East, in itself entailed fasting from flesh. A fully initiated Manichaean would not even cut his own salad, but employed a catechumen to commit on his behalf this act of murder, for which he subsequently shrived him.
We come to a third widespread reason for fasting, common among savages. Famished persons are liable to morbid excitement, and fall into imaginative ecstasies, in the course of which they see visions and spectres, converse with gods and angels, and are the recipients of supernatural revelations. Accordingly King Saul “ate no bread all the day nor all the night” in which the witch of Endor revealed to him the ghost of Samuel. Weak and famished, he hardly wanted to eat the fatted calf when the vision was over. Among the North American Indians ecstatic fasting is regularly practised. A faster writes down his visions and revelations for a whole season. They are then examined by the elders of the tribe, and if events have verified them, he is recognized as a supernaturally gifted being, and rewarded with chieftaincy. All over the world fasting is a recognized mode of evoking, consulting and also of overcoming the spirit world. This is why the Zulus and other primitive races distrust a medicine man who is not an ascetic and lean with fasting. In the Semitic East it is an old belief that a successful fast in the wilderness of forty days and nights gives power over the Djinns. The Indian yogi fasts till he sees face to face all the gods of his Pantheon; the Indian magician fasts twelve days before producing rain or working any cure. The Bogomils fasted till they saw the Trinity face to face. From the first, fasting was practised in the church for similar reason. In the Shepherd of Hermas a vision of the church rewards frequent fasts and prayer; and it is related in extra-canonical sources that James the Less vowed that he would fast until he too was vouchsafed a vision of the risen Lord. After a long and rigorous fast the Lord appeared to him. Not a few saints were rewarded for their fasting by glimpses of the beatific vision. Dr Tylor writes on this point as follows (Prim. Cult. ii. 415): "Bread and meat would have robbed the ascetic of many an angel’s visit: the opening of the refectory door must many a time have closed the gates of heaven to his gaze."
Among the Semites and Tatars worshippers lacerate themselves before the god. So in I Kings xviii. 28 the priests of Baal engaged in a rain-making ceremony, gashed themselves with knives and lances till the blood gushed out upon them. The Syriac word ethkashshaph, which means literally to "cut oneself," is the regular equivalent of to "make supplication." Among Greeks and Arabs, mourners also cut themselves with knives and scratched their faces; the Hebrew law forbade such mourning, and we find the prohibition repeated in many canons of the Eastern churches. At first sight these rites seem intended to call down the pity of heaven on man, but as Robertson Smith points out, their real import was by shedding blood on a holy stone or in a holy place to tie or renew a blood-bond between the God and his faithful ones. We have no clear information about the mind of the Flagellants, who in 1259, and again in 1349, swarmed through the streets of European cities, naked and thrashing themselves, till the blood ran, with leather thongs and iron whips. They were penitents, and no doubt imbued with the ancient belief that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.
Asceticism then in its origin was usually not ascetic in a modern sense, that is, not ethical. It was rather of the nature of the savage taboo (q.v.), the outcome of totemistic beliefs or a mode of averting the contaminating presence of djinns and demons. Above all, fasting was a mode of preparing oneself for the sacramental eating of a sacred animal, and as such often assisted by use of purgatives and aperients. It was essential in the old Greek rites of averting the Kêres or djinns, the ill regulated ghosts who return to earth and molest the living, to abstain from flesh. The Pythagoreans and Orphic mystae so abstained all their life long, and Porphyry eloquently insists on such a discipline for all who "are not content merely to talk about Reason, but are really intent on casting aside the body and living through Reason with Truth. Naked and without the tunic of the flesh these will enter the arena and strive in the Olympic contest of the soul."
It is time to pass on to Buddhist asceticism, in its essence a more ethical and philosophical product than some of the forms so far considered. The keynote of Buddhist asceticism is deliverance from life and its inevitable suffering. Once at a village where he rested the Blessed One (Buddha) addressed his brethren and said: “It is through not understanding and grasping four Noble Truths, O brethren, that we have had to run so long, to wander so long in this weary path of transmigration, both you and I.” These noble truths were about sorrow, its cause, its cessation and the path which leads to that cessation. Once they are grasped the craving for existence is rooted out, that which leads to renewed existence is destroyed, and there is no more birth. The Buddha believed he had a way of Truth, which if an elect disciple possessed he might say of himself, “Hell is destroyed for me, and rebirth as an animal, or a ghost, or in any place of woe. I am converted, I am no longer liable to be reborn in a state of suffering, and am assured of final salvation.”
Suffering, said the sage in his great sermon at Benares, is inseparable from birth and old age. Sickness is suffering, so is death, so is union with the unloved, and separation from the loved; not to obtain what one desires is suffering; the entire fivefold clinging to the earthly is suffering. Its origin is the thirst for being which leads from birth to birth, together with lust and desire, which find gratification here and there; the thirst for pleasures, for being, for power. This thirst must be extinguished by complete annihilation of desire, by letting it go, expelling it, separating oneself from it, giving it no room. This extinction is achieved in eight ways, namely rectitude of faith, resolve, speech, action, living, effort, thought, self-concentration.
In this gospel we must be done with the outer world, participation in which is not the self, yet means for the self birth and death, appetites, longings, emotions, change and suffering, pleasure and pain. He that has put off all lust and desire, all hope and fear, all will to exist as a sinful, because a sentient, being, has won to the heaven of extinction or Nirvāna. He may still tread the earth, but he is a saint or Brahman, is in heaven, has quitted the transient and enjoys eternity.
Such was the Buddha’s gospel, as his most ancient scriptures enunciate it. Nirvāna is constantly defined in them as supreme happiness. It is not even clear how far, if we interpret it strictly, this philosophy leaves any self to be happy. However this be, its practical expression is the life of the monk who has separated himself from the world. Five commandments must be observed by him who would even approach the higher life of saint and ascetic. They are these: to kill no living thing; not to lay hands on another’s property; not to touch another’s wife; not to speak what is untrue; not to drink intoxicating drinks.
Though couched in the negative, these rules must be interpreted in the amplest and widest sense by all believers. The Order, however, which the would-be ascetic can enter by regular initiation, when he is twenty years of age, entails a discipline much more severe. He has gone forth from home into homelessness, and has not where to lay his head. He must eat only the morsels he gets by begging; must dress in such rags as he can pick up; must sleep under trees. Mendicancy is his recognized way of life. Furthermore, he must abstain all his life from sexual intercourse; he may not take even a blade of grass without permission of the owner; he must not kill even a worm or ant; he must not boast of his perfection. In practice the lives of Buddhist monks are not so squalid as these rules would lead us to suppose. Thanks to the reverent charity of the laymen, they do not live much worse than Benedictine monks; and the prohibition to live in houses does not extend to caves. Everywhere in India and Ceylon they hollowed out cells and churches in the cliffs and rocks, which are the wonder of the European tourist.
But long before the advent of Buddhism, the hermit, or wandering beggar, was a familiar figure in India. No formal initiation was imposed on the would-be ascetic, save (in the case of young men) the duty to live at first in his teacher’s house. One who had thus fulfilled the duties of the student order must “go forth remaining chaste,” says the Āpastamba, ii. 9. 8. He shall then “live without a fire, without a house, without pleasures, without protection; remaining silent and uttering speech only on the occasion of the daily recitation of the Veda; begging so much food only in the village as will sustain his life, he shall wander about, neither caring for this world nor for heaven. He shall only wear clothes thrown away by others. Some declare that he shall even go naked. Abandoning truth and falsehood, pleasure and pain, the Vedas, this world and the next, he shall seek the Universal Soul, in knowledge of which standeth eternal salvation.”
Such a life was specially recommended for one who has lived the life of a householder, and, having begotten sons according to the sacred law and offered sacrifices, desires in his old age to abandon worldly objects and direct his mind to final liberation. He leaves his wife, if she will not accompany him, and goes forth into the forest, committing her and his house to his sons. He must indeed take with him the sacred fire and implements for domestic sacrifice, but until death overtakes him he must wander silent, alone, possessing no hearth nor dwelling, begging his food in the villages, firm of purpose, with a potsherd for an alms bowl, the roots of trees for a dwelling, and clad in coarse worn out garments. “Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for his appointed time, as a servant waits for the payment of his wages. Let him drink water purified by straining with a cloth, let him utter speech purified by truth, let him keep his heart pure. Let him patiently bear hard words, let him not insult anybody, let him not become any one’s enemy for the sake of this perishable body.... Let him reflect on the transmigrations of men, caused by their sinful deeds, on their falling into hell, and on their torments in the world of Yama.... A twice-born man who becomes an ascetic thus shakes off sin here below and reaches the highest Brahman” (Laws of Manu, by G. Bühler, vi. 85).
This old-world wisdom of the Hindus, a thousand years before our era, is worthily to be paralleled from the Manichaeism of about the year 400. Augustine has preserved (contra Faustum, v. 1) the portraiture of a Manichaean elect as drawn by himself:—
“I have given up father and mother, wife, children and all else that the gospel bids us, and do you ask if I accept the gospel? Are you then still ignorant of what the word gospel means? It is nothing else than the preaching and precept of Christ. I have cast away gold and silver, and have ceased to carry even copper in my belt, being content with my daily bread, nor caring for the morrow, nor anxious how my belly shall be filled or my body clothed; and do you ask me if I accept the gospel? You behold in me those beatitudes of Christ which make up the gospel, and you ask me if I accept it. You behold me gentle, a peacemaker, pure of heart, a mourner, hungering, thirsting, bearing persecutions and hatreds for righteousness’ sake, and do you doubt whether I accept the gospel.... All that was mine I have given up, father, mother, wife, children, gold, silver, eating, drinking, delights, pleasures. Deem this a sufficient answer to your question and deem yourself on the way to be blessed, if you have not been scandalized in me.”
The Greek Cynics (see Cynics) played a great part in the history of Asceticism, and they were so much the precursors of the Christian hermits that descriptions of them in profane literature have been mistaken for pictures of early monasticism. In striving to imitate the rugged strength and independence of their master Socrates, they went to such extremes as rather to caricature him. They affected to live like beggars, bearing staff and wallet, owning nothing, renouncing pleasures, riches, honours. For older thinkers like Plato and Aristotle the perfect life was that of the citizen and householder; but the Cynics were individualists, citizens of the world without loyalty or respect for the ancient city state, the decay of which was coincident with their rise. Their zeal for renunciation often extended not to pleasures, marriage and property alone, but to cleanliness, knowledge and good manners as well, and in this respect also they were the forerunners of later monks.
Philo (20 B.C.-A.D. 40) has left us many pictures of the life which to his mind impersonated the highest wisdom, and they are all inspired by the more respectable sort of cynicism, which had taken deep root among Greek Jews of the day. One such picture merits citation from his tract On Change of Names (vol. i. 583, ed. Mangey): “All this company of the good and wise have of their own free will divested themselves of too copious wealth; nay, have spurned the things dear to the flesh. For of good habit and lusty are athletes, since they have fortified against the soul the body which should be its servant; but the disciples of wisdom are pale and wasted, and in a manner reduced to skeletons, because they have sacrificed the whole of their bodily strength to the faculties of the soul.”
His own favourite ascetics, the Therapeutae, whose chief centre was in Egypt, had renounced property and all its temptations, and fled, irrevocably abandoning brothers, children, wives, parents, throngs of kinsmen, intimacy of friends, the fatherlands where they were born and bred (see Therapeutae). Here we have the ideal of early Christian renunciation at work, but apart from the influence of Jesus. In the pages of Epictetus the same ideal is constantly held up to us.
In the Christian Church there was from the earliest age a leaning to excessive asceticism, and it needed a severe struggle on the part of Paul, and of the Catholic teachers who followed him, to secure for the baptized the right to be married, to own property, to engage in war and commerce, or to assume public office. One and all of the permanent institutions of society were condemned by the early enthusiasts, especially by those who looked forward to a speedy advent of the millennium, as alien to the kingdom of God and as impediments to the life of grace.
Marriage and property had already been eschewed in the Jewish Essene and Therapeutic sects, and in Christianity the name of Encratite was given to those who repudiated marriage and the use of wine. They did not form a sect, but represented an impulse felt everywhere. In early and popular apocryphal histories the apostles are represented as insisting that their converts should either not contract wedlock or should dissolve the tie if already formed. This is the plot of the Acts of Thecla, a story which probably goes back to the first century. Repudiation of the tie by fervent women, betrothed or already wives, occasioned much domestic friction and popular persecution. In the Syriac churches, even as late as the 4th century, the married state seems to have been regarded as incompatible with the perfection of the initiated. Renunciation of the state of wedlock was anyhow imposed on the faithful during the lengthy, often lifelong, terms of penance imposed upon them for sins committed; and later, when monkery took the place, in a church become worldly, partly of the primitive baptism and partly of that rigorous penance which was the rebaptism and medicine of the lapsed, celibacy and virginity were held essential thereto, no less than renunciation of property and money-making.
Together with the rage for virginity went the institution of virgines subintroductae, or of spiritual wives; for it was often assumed that the grace of baptism restored the original purity of life led by Adam and Eve in common before the Fall. Such rigours are encouraged in the Shepherd of Hermas, a book which emanated from Rome and up to the 4th century was read in church. They were common in the African churches, where they led to abuses which taxed the energy even of a Cyprian. They were still rife in Antioch in 260. We detect them in the Celtic church of St Patrick, and, as late as the 7th century, among the Celtic elders of the north of France. In the Syriac church as late as 340, such relations prevailed between the “Sons and daughters of the Resurrection.” It continued among the Albigenses and other dissident sects of the middle ages, among whom it served a double purpose; for their elders were thus not only able to prove their own chastity, but to elude the inquisitors, who were less inclined to suspect a man of the catharism which regarded marriage as the “greater adultery” (maius adulterium) if they found him cohabiting (in appearance at least) with a woman. There was hardly an early council, great or small, that did not condemn this custom, as well as the other one, still more painful to think of, of self-emasculation. In the Catholic church, however, common sense prevailed, and those who desired to follow the Encratite ideal repaired to the monasteries.
Authorities.—E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London, 1903); Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites (London, 1901); J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion; F. Max Müller, The Sacred Books of the East; Victor Henry, La Magie dans l’Inde antique; J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (London, 1900), and Adonis, Attis, Osiris (London, 1906); Georges Lafay, Culte des divinités d’Alexandrie (Paris, 1884); Döllinger, Sectengeschichte des Mittelalters (Munich, 1890); Fr. Cumont, Mysteries of Mithra (Chicago, 1903); Zöckler, Gesch. der Ascese (1863). See also under Purification. Goldziher, “De l’ascetisme aux premiers temps de l’Islam,” in Revue de l’histoire des religions (1898), p. 314; Muratori, De Synisactis et Agapetis (Pavia, 1709); Jas. Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1885); T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics (Oxford, 1883); Franz Cumont, Les Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (Paris, 1907); Porphyrius, De Abstinentia; Plutarchus, De Carnium Esu. (F. C. C.)