Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

A system of self-denial or discipline in pursuit of religious values. Archaic purification, initiation, and other rites contain ascetic elements, but more systematic asceticism emerges in Hindu world renunciation, Buddhism, and early religious brotherhoods such as the Jewish Essenes. Opposition to Roman luxury gave early Christianity an ascetic cast, as hermits, pillar saints, and small isolated cadres of monks urged rigorous limitations on dress, diet, sleep, sexuality, and possessions. Extremes of self-mortification reappear in later groups such as the fourteenth-century Flagellants and the Russian Skoptsy ("castrators").

More influential were organized communities of medieval monks under the Benedictine type of rule. Vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience, they were devoted to systematic labor, prayer, the expiation of sins, and religious scholarship. Conflicts over religion and wealth were revived by the mendicant orders (e.g., Franciscans and Dominicans), who insisted on salvation through apostolic poverty and criticized wealthy church officials and worldly monks. Intransigence over the issue of poverty led the Franciscan Spirituals to be persecuted during the Inquisition.

Asceticism has been variously assessed. Nietzsche traced the genealogy of ascetic ideals and saw their origin in the priestly will to power. Weber's more sociologically influential view emphasized self-disciplined conduct and asceticism's socially transformative power, and distinguished other-worldly from inner-worldly asceticism. Material success threatened to undermine medieval monasticism's other-worldly, ascetic quest for salvation. Protestantism opposed monastic other-worldliness as a sin against brotherliness yet carried the spirit of asceticism into everyday life. It demanded that everyone serve God, and thereby the wider community, by leading the life of a monk in devotion to a worldly calling, thus enhancing moral discipline and revolutionizing society.

Although ascetic ideals are less central in recent history, they continue to influence social change in, for example, Gandhi's nonviolent campaigns and the "Puritan" cast of movements such as the Russian Bolsheviks and the Nation of Islam.

See also Self-Denial, Virtuoso

Donald A. Nielsen


V.L. Wimbush and R. Valantasis (eds.), Asceticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

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