Western AsceticismThe 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.
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