From Nordan Symposia
Jump to navigationJump to search


Ascetic Fall Mood--18x24 2.jpg

Asceticism (from the Greek ἄσκησις, áskēsis, "exercise") describes a life-style characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures (especially sexual activity and consumption of alcohol) often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Christianity and the Indian religions (including yoga) teach that salvation and moksha (liberation) involve a process of mind-body transformation that is effected through practicing restraint with respect to actions of body, speech and mind. The founders and earliest practitioners of some religions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, the Christian desert fathers) lived extremely austere lifestyles refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. This is to be understood not as an eschewal of the enjoyment of life but a recognition that spiritual and religious joy supercede such pleasure.

It may be a misunderstanding in the popular imagination that "extreme" asceticism is considered a sort of perversion (e.g., self-flagellation by birch twigs as the archetypal stereotype of self-mortification). However, the intention of askēsis enjoined by religion is to bring about greater freedom in various areas of one's life (such as freedom from compulsions and temptations) and greater peacefulness of mind (with a concomitant increase in clarity and power of thought).


The adjective "ascetic" derives from the ancient Greek term askēsis (practice, training or exercise). Originally associated with any form of disciplined practice, the term ascetic has come to mean anyone who practices a renunciation of worldly pursuits to achieve higher intellectual and spiritual goals.

Askesis is a Greek Christian term; the practice of spiritual exercises; rooted in the philosophical tradition of antiquity. Askesis is the discipline of repressing lust. Originally introduced as the spiritual struggle of the Eastern Orthodox Church as the style of life where meat, alcohol, sex, and comfortable clothing are avoided, the term is now used in several other relations.

"Worldly" versus "otherworldly"

Max Weber made a distinction between innerweltliche and ausserweltliche asceticism, which means (roughly) "inside the world" and "outside the world", respectively. Talcott Parsons translated these as "worldly" and "otherworldly" (some translators use "inner-worldly")

"Otherworldly" asceticism is practiced by people who withdraw from the world in order to live an ascetic life (this includes monks who live communally in monasteries, as well as hermits who live alone). "Worldly" asceticism refers to people who live ascetic lives but don't withdraw from the world, much like Vincent Van Gogh in the 1800s.

Weber claimed that this distinction originated in the Protestant Reformation, but later became secularized, so the concept can be applied to both religious and secular ascetics.

(See Talcott Parsons' translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translator's note on Weber's footnote 9 in chapter 2)

David McClelland suggested that worldly asceticism is specifically targeted against worldly pleasures that distract people from their calling, and may accept worldly pleasures that are not distracting. As an example, he pointed out that Quakers have historically objected to bright colored clothing, but that wealthy Quakers often made their drab clothing out of expensive materials. The color was considered distracting, but the materials were not. Amish groups use similar criteria to make decisions about which modern technologies to use and which to avoid.

Secular motivation

Examples of secular asceticism:

  • A Starving Artist is someone who minimizes their living expenses in order to spend more time and effort on their art.
  • Eccentric inventors sometimes live similar lives in pursuit of technical rather than artistic goals.
  • Hackers often consider their programming projects to be more important than personal wealth or comfort. This is sometimes viewed as a manifestation of computer addiction, more than a philosophical acceptance of ascetic principles.
  • Various individuals have attempted an ascetic lifestyle to free themselves from modern-day addictions, such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, fast food, gambling, and sex.
  • Many professional athletes abstain from sex, rich foods, and other pleasures before major competitions in order to mentally prepare themselves for the upcoming contest.
  • Straight Edge people abstain from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and casual sex as part of a sub-culture lifestyle choice.
  • Many revolutionaries have also adopted asceticism, the most important perhaps being Vladimir Lenin, who was the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Lenin adopted ascetics after reading 'What is to be Done', a book written by Nikolai Chernyshevsky.