Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Many historical religions, both ancient and modern, have pursued an ethic of self-denial as a path of salvation. In both Eastern and Western faiths, the strict control of the body, affective and sexual abstinence, and an ascetic worldview have been prescribed as essential preconditions of spirituality and wisdom. Self-denial is frequently understood as a process of renunciation to enable the soul to escape the prison of the flesh. In the Greek tradition, the motif of corporeal transcendence can be traced from the Pythagorean sects of the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Orphism, to the ambivalent figure of Socrates and the Socratic sects, and on to Platonism and Neoplatonism; in Latin culture, its practice is often associated with the mystery religions and, on a more public plane, the philosophy of the Stoics, the term stoicism still being in use today as a synonym particularly for emotional self-denial. As a powerful doctrinal element in early Christianity, asceticism or the "mortification of the flesh" was supported by both the Eastern and the Western branches of the church, evolving into the asceticism of the monk's path, institutionalized in the medieval monastic system.

After Max Weber's famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Scribner 1930 [1904-1905]), we now view the individualist, this-worldly ascetic ethic of the Protestant sects as one of the important cultural preconditions for the rise of capitalism and the modern world order. The pervasive presence of the dualist cosmology of matter and spirit—body and soul—in modern culture is no doubt one of the products of ancient asceticism.

See also Asceticism

Barry Sandywell

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