Western Asceticism

Peter Dinzelbacher. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Asceticism, defined for our purposes within the context of the premodern tradition, refers to specific passive and active practices that are engaged in out of ideological motives: on the one hand, abstinence from nourishment, sleep, sexuality, social communication, and social ties—thus from natural human expression—and from other components of civilization, such as bodily cleanliness; on the other hand, the active cultivation of physical revulsion, whether through intentional exhaustion or bloody self-mutilation. As long as the passive practice is performed in a balanced manner, it may bring positive physical and spiritual results. More common, however, are examples wherein this sort of practice leads to abiding physical and spiritual damage; with the active sort this is generally the case. While technically similar, certain therapeutic practices, engaged in for medical reasons, are not to be considered asceticism in this context. Asceticism, although grounded in metaphysical motivations, is decidedly a concept concerned with practical realization; thus the following will discuss both theory and practice.

The Ancients

The ancient Greek word askesis referred at first to the physical practices of soldiers and athletes, and only later to intellectual exercises such as philosophizing, training of the will, or morality. Religious asceticism only played a role with small groups (cultish chastity of the priestesses of the Roman goddess Vesta, castration of the priests of the Egyptian god Attis), or during specific times (yearly abstinence for several days in honor of Ceres) or activities (especially magic).

The main arguments for asceticism lay, on the one hand, in the realm of a cult’s purity codes and, on the other, in the philosopher’s requirement for ethical strengthening of will and nonattachment: marriage and children would only disrupt the thinker’s conduct of life. Thus retreat from the world was recommended by philosophers such as Plato, and many wise men, like Apollonius of Tyana in the first century C.E., took vows of chastity. Related is the philosophical ideal of imperviousness to all earthly circumstances (apathy, ataraxy). Within Orphicism, Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, and Cynicism there were strains that viewed the physical as far inferior to the spiritual. The essential ancient conception (the soma sema doctrine, for example, in Plato’s Gorgias) was that the soul, caught in the “grave” of the body, should be liberated through a weakening of precisely this body. Examples of this idea occurred in the Eleusian fasts, in Neoplatonism, and—most clearly delineated—in Manichaeism. Passive asceticism was considered the best means to attain this liberation. Ascetic tendencies supported, furthermore, a strand of ancient medicine that energetically recommended abstinence from sexuality, as the discharge of semen was thought to weaken the body and soul of both men and women.

In Old Testament Judaism, asceticism only appeared in the form of cultish abstention, or fasting, as practiced by the Nazareans or John the Baptist, or more strictly in sects such as the Therapeutae. The Celts utilized fasting as a coercive method for deciding disputes: they fasted at their enemy’s door, thereby compelling him to fast as well, on pain of loss of honor.

Early Christianity

The most important early Christian ascetic forms were fasting and sexual abstinence. The former, as habitual practice, cannot be traced back to Jesus—his disciples did not even fast on the Sabbath. He said of himself, “The son of man came eating and drinking,” wherefore he was criticized as a “glutton and drunkard” (Matt. 11:19). His apparently exceptional forty-day fast in the desert (like Moses and Elias) became, nevertheless, the paradigm whereby this practice later became part of the permanent imitatio Christi. The basis for the ideal of chastity was in Jesus’s saying “And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Matt. 19:12). Yet this was practiced very rarely (according to the most important theologian of the third century, Origen of Alexandria), in order to avoid comparison with the priests of Attis. Paul was more influential, teaching, in the face of the imminent coming of the end of the world, that he who has a wife shall behave as if he has none (1 Cor. 7:29). He only allowed for physical love reluctantly, as a concession; it was far preferable that all believers would be as chaste as he. For how else could one concentrate oneself entirely upon Christ? The doctors of the church built upon these elements enthusiastically and combined them with misogynist components of the Judaic creation doctrine and ancient philosophy. St. Jerome (c. 347-419 or 420), who devalued marriage in favor of chastity, and St. Augustine (354-430), who argued that original sin is reenacted through the sex act, laid the foundations of the Christian sexual ethic that are still with us today. Doubts about the eschatological salvation of married people (as in the ascetic sect of the Encratites) were, however, consistently refuted as heresies.

Christian asceticism, as a movement that truly shaped the conduct of life, found its most emphatic expression in the monastic fathers in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, who were also paradigms for the ideal of contemptus mundi and self-mortification. The spread of asceticism throughout the Western world paralleled that of monasticism, which based itself consistently upon vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The following aspects contributed to its ideological background:

  1. The wish to imitate the religious founder (imitatio Christi), a consequence of a (hardly authentic) saying of Jesus, “And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is unworthy of me” (Matt. 10:38).
  2. The reception of the pagan soma sema doctrine: spiritualized, this led to the commandment, in harmony with a dualistic belief system, to “leave” all pleasurable earthly things in order not to sully oneself with material goods (contemptus mundi).
  3. The monastic ideal of the angelikos bios, the angelic life, which implied wakefulness, fasting, and sexual abstinence, since angels neither sleep, nor eat, nor love.
  4. Self-punishment during earthly existence in order to avoid the incomparably more horrific divine revenge in the beyond; also, taking on penance for another’s sins (with the same intention) as atonement toward the Godhead.
  5. Presentation of an immaterial oblation.
  6. Weakening of the body with the aim of rendering it less susceptible to sinful practices.

The Middle Ages

The high and late Middle Ages were the epochs of the widest proliferation of ascetic ideals in European history. Up to the turn of the first century, self-mortification was almost exclusively the duty of the “virtuosos” of this religion, the monks; it was only after the church reform of the high Middle Ages that an outbreak of lay piety initiated this ideal for every truly engaged Christian in the world. A maxim of St. Bartholomew of Farne (d. 1193) can be taken as paradigmatic of the wide proliferation of the soma sema doctrine: “We must inflict our body with all kinds of adversity if we want to deliver it to perfect purity of soul!” The mendicant orders, founded in the thirteenth century, were especially important for the spread of ascetic ideals among the laity. Their basic tenets, grounded in asceticism, were traditional: contempt of the world as well as weakening and chastisement of the body as an instrument of sin. In addition to these goals of self-salvation, and in contrast to older monasticism, the goal of brotherly love fostered the attempt to atone for the sins of other believers, both living and deceased. The founders of the Minorites and the preaching orders created a precedent as well. St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226) taught, “I have no greater enemy than my body,” arguing that “We should feel hatred towards our body for its vices and sinning!” For St. Francis this attitude entailed fasting and self-flagellation for the disciplining of the body, which he called “brother donkey.” This metaphor, beloved by the ascetics, expresses the idea of the body as a beast of burden that, according to Legenda maior, the life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274), “should be weighed down by hard work, often scourged with the whip, and nourished with poor fodder.” As for St. Dominic (c. 1170-1221), aside from the usual waking and fasting, three times every night he would “whip himself with an iron chain: once for himself, once for the sinners in the world, and one for the sinners who are suffering in purgatory.”

The most common ascetic practices of the Middle Ages and the early modern period were poverty, self-flagellation, fasting, waking, hunger, and other works of penitence.

Self-flagellation (disciplina), previously rare, spread first with the teachings of the doctor of the church Pier Damiani (1007-1072): he recommended that one flagellate oneself for the duration of forty psalms daily, on high holy days one-half more again. His treatise De laude flagellorum (In praise of flagellation) established this idea: participation in the sufferings of Christ promises a part in his glory (self-punishment and reward). Many saints of the late Middle Ages individually practiced similar self-punishments; as a collective practice, self-flagellation was institutionalized in convents such as those of the Dominicans in southern Germany. This ascetic act was practiced collectively by the laity as well, at least since the advent of the many flagellant movements from 1260 to 1348, which were reactions against plague and apocalyptic fears; there sprang up, in Italy above all, numerous penitential brotherhoods (penitenti) with the popular name Battuti. A practice initially developed as a reaction against a particularly terrifying crisis situation became thereby an abiding institution that existed into modern times. Self-flagellation was, as a rule, practiced along with meditations on the Passion, with the aim of imitating Christ’s sufferings. Ludolf of Saxony (c. 1295-1377), for example, demanded in his widely read Vita Christi that the reader should whip himself, at least in his imagination, to perfect the scourging, and should stretch his arms out in the form of a cross, to imitate the Crucifixion.

Genuflection (veniae) was one of the most common methods of prayer, practiced already in ancient times. The prayer position became, in the ancient church, a penitential practice and, at least from the high Middle Ages on, an ascetic achievement: St. Maria of Oignies (c. 1177-1213), for example, managed up to six hundred genuflections without interruption.

Wakefulness (vigiliae) found its theological justification in Luke 6:12, when Jesus kept a vigil before calling the twelve apostles. Here too the monks of the Middle Ages attempted to outdo their religious leader: some, for example, such as the beatified Benevenuta of Bojanis, bathed their eyes in vinegar. Sleep deprivation was a given in any case, since sleep was constantly interrupted by the cloister’s prayer rhythm; it was further assured by hard beds.

Penitential robes (cilicium) and girdles (cingulum, catena) were often worn by those living in the world, even under everyday clothing. The beatified father confessor Wilbirg of St. Florian (c. 1230-1289), who chastised himself with an iron girdle that inflamed the skin egregiously, outlined their typical rationale: “In this way I have afflicted my flesh hardily and through this affliction have I won a reward which is not small.”

Fasting (ieiunum) was not only prescribed during certain times in the church year (Holy Week) but was, beyond this, the most frequently practiced ascetic achievement. The two female doctors of the church, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) and St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), followed this practice: in order to force themselves to regurgitate, they inserted, amid great pain, plant stems or branches down their throats to their stomachs. Catherine called this act “retribution” and introduced it with the words “And now we will deliver retribution to this most wretched sinner!” In 1380 she died of thirst, following an ascetic trial. According to themselves and the reports of their contemporaries, many late medieval ascetics took their holy anorexia to the point that they were able to live entirely without nourishment: these included Benevenuta of Bojanis, Elsbeth Achlerin, St. Lidwina of Schiedam, and the Swiss national saint, Nicholas of Flüe.

Total chastity (castimonia), in accordance with the abovementioned ideal of Paul and the church fathers, was a matter of course for all who took their priestly role or monasticism seriously. It is not surprising that numerous visions by celibate men and women have come down to us that openly or subliminally incorporate sexuality, be it in the form of sadistic punishment fantasies in purgatory or hell or as the mystical love union of bride and Christ. As many married lay people began, following the eleventh-and twelfth-century church reforms, to strive for monastic ideals, the problem of accommodating asceticism and the debitum maritum came sharply to the fore. Some couples, like the count and countess St. Eleazar and St. Delphina of Sabran (fourteenth century), carried on a chaste marriage. Women with less pious husbands, like St. Dorothy of Montau (1347-1394) or St. Francesca of Rome (1384-1440), made every sexual coupling into a torture through self-mutilation.

Ascetic practices of this kind were not generally intended to be private matters; they were supposed to be public, as part of a contemporary worldview that saw the ascetic’s suffering body as a sign written for God—a visible demonstration of election and an exhortation to imitation. The contemporary paintings and sculptures of, for example, St. Bernardino of Siena, John of Capistrano, and Nicholas of Flüe, document this clearly.

Asceticism gained, from the high Middle Ages on, a further function that had not previously been present—the mystical inducement of trancelike or ecstatic states. In this function—which fully parallels the preparation for the soul’s journey of shamanism, excepting that Christianity does not employ drugs—asceticism was practiced by almost all experiential mystics from the late Middle Ages to the present, although it evoked criticism from some theoretical mystics, such as Meister Eckehart (c. 1260-?1327).

Extreme ascetic trials were often demanded as tests of obedience or as punishments by father confessors or cloister leaders; the disciplining of the individual therefore served the interests of the churchly authority’s exercise of power. The internalization of asceticism as an ideal could also, seen from a sociological perspective, subconsciously serve this same goal.

Western Christianity did not consist only of Catholics, of course, but included, with increasing frequency toward the turn of the first millennium, alternative sects as well. Heresies, developed as a result of intensive theological and philosophical reflection, such as Amalric of Bena’s doctrines in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but also, in time, Protestantism, show a particular tendency toward asceticism. Sects that leaned toward libertine ideas, however, such as the Adamites, the Free Spirit Brotherhood, and the Luciferians, were naturally opposed to asceticism. Asceticism, however, took on an enormous significance in the dualistic heresy of the Manichaean tradition. According to its teachings, the material world was evil, especially anything that was related to sexuality and its accompanying animal satisfactions. The “light soul” needed to be freed from the prison of “dark materiality.” Thus the Cathars (Albigensians) fasted three days in every week and an additional forty days every year. Marriage was forbidden. An extreme form of nutritional deprivation, the endura, was practiced as well, whereby terribly ill sect members would fast themselves to death; sick babies would be deprived of their milk, a practice that was called “preparing a good end.” The intensification of Catholic asceticism since the twelfth century was, to a large extent, a reaction to these practices, an attempt, in other words, to outdo these heretical dualists.

The Early Modern Period

In Catholic lands the medieval ascetic forms were continued in principle, especially in the Latinate countries, aided by the development of a thorough theoretical collection of texts on asceticism and mysticism systematizing the abovementioned theological foundations. St. Veronica Giuliani (1660-1727), who, among other things, used her tongue to lick half of her cloister clean of dust and spiders, may be taken as a practical example; the most widespread theoretical example of a direttio ascetico (ascetic instruction) was the Direttorio ascetico by the Jesuit Giovanni Scaramelli (1687-1752).

Sects like the Jansenists had strands who practiced extreme forms of asceticism: in Paris, after 1730, there appeared the female Convultionists, who swallowed burning coals or pebbles, suffered under the body weight of other members, and voluntarily underwent crucifixion for hours at a time. This was a mass movement that spread through the energy of group dynamics and evolved during communal religious services.

The Protestant reformers, more emphatically even than the humanists, rejected the asceticism that had previously been quite well known because they counted it as an act of “good works” and a mark of monasticism. With the exception of Methodists and Anglicans, Protestant piety recognized retreat from the world but no active asceticism. Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch have seen this attitude as a strict work ethic and a denial of the earned pleasures of an upwardly mobile life of production and consumption; in other words, Calvinism is an “internal asceticism,” or a secularized equivalent of monastic asceticism (implying, naturally, a considerable expansion of the term’s meaning). To the Enlightenment philosophers, asceticism was no longer comprehensible and became merely a cause to mock Catholicism.


Since the Enlightenment, even the Catholic Church has come, more and more, to reject the above-described ascetic forms—at a distance from an approximately eighteen-hundred-year tradition—as aberrations and “exaggerations.” In the early twenty-first century, Catholic theologians of this denomination define asceticism as balanced, consisting of harmless penances like moderation in alcohol and nicotine intake or separation from the entertainment industry, as components of a lifetime of striving for perfection. In twenty-first-century monastic life, ascetic achievements are limited to a daily practice regulated by prayer times and reduced to a mild fast before the holy days. Often asceticism is just a synonym for morality—practices that manifest a striving toward God (avoidance of sin, practice of the virtues, or concentration on God). Even Pope Pius XII’s teaching that a Christian should wish to seek physical pain in order to take part in the sufferings of Christ, should reject sensual satisfaction and debase his flesh, has not altered the general watering down of the ascetic ideal. That ideal has more in common now with the (Protestant) philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which reached back to the original meaning of the word: Immanuel Kant saw in asceticism a cheerful fulfillment of duty, Friedrich Nietzsche an exercise of the will. In the modern age, asceticism, thus secularized, is practiced for purely personal purposes: in sports (painful training and sexual abstinence in order to attain ultimate achievement), for the realization of aesthetic norms (fasting to attain an ideal figure, sometimes to the extent of a striving for gauntness), or for the attainment of social and lucrative ends. In 2004, for example, the English television station Channel 4 aired a reality show in which the contestants competed to see who could go without sleep the longest—a week of sleep deprivation brought the winner 140,000 euros.

Another ascetic form, grounded in subjective ethics—not religious as a rule—is fasting for the implementation of an ideological stance (as in ancient Ireland). In modern times it has become a common method (hunger strike) to appeal through the media for the sympathy of the public.


As a widespread phenomenon, asceticism was historically significant only within the religious realm. Self-discipline and self-infliction of pain, as voluntary practices of piety, primarily functioned as part of a predetermined contract with the Godhead in the sense of a religious do ut (principle of reciprocity) that anticipated a reward in this and the other world. Asceticism was therefore always commonly seen as a means to an end, although it may have been, for those with corresponding psychosomatic dispositions, a goal in itself. Remarkably, no other religion besides Christianity so positively values suffering and pain. This value begins with voluntary participation in the Passion of the religious leader, attains a decided accent with Paul, the martyrs, and monasticism, and reaches its high point in the era between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries. And Christianity alone uses, as its most important symbol, a physical body that has been pierced with nails to an instrument of torture and left there to die. In the third chapter of her major work, Il dialogo, Catherine of Siena emphasizes the foundations of Catholic asceticism: “For God, who is infinite, wants infinite love—and infinite suffering.”

With the advent of Protestantism and, above all, through the Catholic Church’s own reception of the Enlightenment, such roads to the heavenly realm became obsolete. Behind this change was also a fundamental transformation of the historical perspective on the body, which manifested itself in law with the elimination of torture and capital punishment. From a social psychology perspective, asceticism is defined as an elite organization of conduct of life that critically rejects the general cultural values of the “masses”; psychologically, asceticism is seen as a socially accepted and rewarded overcompensation for guilt feelings, as in masochism and the death instinct. In the Western world of the early twenty-first century, traditional Christian asceticism, with very few exceptions, no longer exists; asceticism only exists in purely personal, secularized, analogous forms, which inspire more criticism than admiration.