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(əsĕt`ĭsĭzəm), rejection of bodily pleasures through sustained self-denial and self-mortification, with the objective of strengthening spiritual life. Asceticism has been common in most major world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: all of these have special ascetic cults or ascetic ideals. The most common ascetic practice is fastingfasting,
partial or temporary abstinence from food, a widely used form of asceticism. Among the stricter Jews the principal fast is the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur; in Islam the faithful fast all the daytime hours of the month of Ramadan. Fasting is general in Christianity.
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, which is used for many purposes—to produce visions, as among the Crow; to mourn the dead, as among various African peoples; and to sharpen spiritual awareness, as among the early Christian saints. More extreme forms have been flagellation (see flagellantsflagellants
, term applied to the groups of Christians who practiced public flagellation as a penance. The practice supposedly grew out of the floggings administered as punishment to erring monks, although flagellation as a form of religious expression is an ancient usage.
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) and self-mutilation, usually intended to propitiate or reach accord with a god. Asceticism has been associated with taboo in many non-Western societies and in such well-developed religions as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. See EssenesEssenes
, members of a small Jewish religious order, originating in the 2d cent. B.C. The chief sources of information about the Essenes are Pliny the Elder, Philo's Quod omnius probus liber, Josephus' Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews,
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; fakirfakir
, [Arab.,=poverty], in Islam, usually an initiate in a Sufi order. The title fakir is borne with the understanding that poverty is the need to be in relation to God.
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; hermithermit
[Gr.,=desert], one who lives in solitude, especially from ascetic motives. Hermits are known in many cultures. Permanent solitude was common in ancient Christian asceticism; St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Simeon Stylites were noted hermits.
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; RechabitesRechabites
, in the Bible, a family that practiced asceticism. Organized by Jonadab, who helped Jehu purge Israel of the Baal cult, they drank no wine, built no houses, sowed no seed, planted no vines, and lived in tents. The Rechabites were apparently related to the Kenites.
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See W. J. Sheils, ed., Monks, Hermits and the Ascetic Tradition (1985).

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the doctrine and practice of self-denial in which practitioners abstain from worldly comforts and pleasures. Asceticism has been a feature of many world religions, and for some practitioners (e.g. the members of some monastic orders) it may involve a fatalistic retreat from most worldly endeavours. Despite this association with fatalism and escape from the world, its challenge to mundane values has also meant that it has often been associated with resistance to political authority and been instrumental in social change. For example, according to WEBER (1922), Protestant asceticism played a decisive role in the rise of modern western capitalism (see PROTESTANT ETHIC).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the limitation and suppression of sensual tendencies and desires (“mortification of the flesh”) as a means of attaining religious or ethical goals. In addition, asceticism can also be a moral norm (readiness for self-restraint and the ability to sacrifice oneself) in the name of definite social goals.

The beginnings of asceticism were already manifested in primitive society (where asceticism was caused by the severe conditions of existence)—for example, in initiation ceremonies. Asceticism was developed considerably in Eastern religions (for example, Brahmanism, Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the ancient Jewish sects of healers, and the Essenes), as well as in religious and philosophical movements in ancient Greece, such as the cult of Orpheus and Pythagoreanism. The motivation for asceticism is different in various religious and philosophical teachings. Thus, the asceticism of the Cynics was determined by their idea of freedom from wants and social ties. In dualistic religious doctrines which regard the body and material things as a “prison of the soul,” asceticism is a way of overcoming the flesh, of liberating oneself from it (especially in Mani-chaeanism). But in essence, in an antagonistic society, religious asceticism has a class significance. The church’s elevation of asceticism to a virtue has distracted the masses of the people from the struggle to improve their material standing and has diminished in their eyes the importance of property, which is owned by the ruling classes in an exploitative society.

The most common forms of asceticism are living as a hermit, fasting, celibacy, and various forms of self-inflicted torure. During the epoch of the primitive accumulation of capital, the bourgeois religions rejected asceticism, in the first place because it was a “renunciation of the world.” Within Protestantism (Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Puritanism) there was formulated a so-called secular asceticism, “the whole secret of which consists of bourgeois frugality” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 7, p. 378). Completely different in its social significance was plebeian and proletarian asceticism, which “we discover in all medieval uprisings having a religious coloration and in modern times in the initial stage of every proletarian movement” (ibid., p. 377). Such an asceticism was a protest against the exploitative establishment. The preaching of asceticism by the ideologists of early revolutionary peasant movements was connected with the need for equality of possessions and with the struggle against the luxury of the ruling classes. With the development of its productive forces and the growth of its revolutionary awareness, the proletariat gradually has freed itself from religious-ascetic ideology. Plebeian-proletarian asceticism, insofar as it has remained religious, has degenerated into a petit bourgeois ideology and receives its principal support in sectarianism. The preaching of asceticism, which is introduced by sectarian elements into the revolutionary movements of certain countries where the population has an especially low standard of living, is in contradiction to communist morality. While giving its due to revolutionary self-sacrifice, steadfastness, and heroism in the struggle for social progress and for communism, the Marxist-Leninist ethic rejects any efforts to disparage the value of life on earth. It refuses to ignore the tasks of achieving the complete satisfaction of spiritual and material needs of the personality on the basis of socialism and communism. Asceticism is profoundly alien to communist ideology, which has set as its goal the total and harmonious development of man.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


heretical and ascetic Christian sect in France in 12th and 13th centuries. [Christian Hist.: EB, I: 201]
Alexis, St.
patron saint of beggars and hermits. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewer Dictionary, 22]
Anthony, St.
founder of monasticism. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 49]
12th-century French mendicant order. [Fr. Hist.: Espy, 98–99]
heretical and ascetic Christian sect in Europe in 12th and 13th centuries. [Christian Hist.: EB, II: 639]
Roman Catholic monastic order observing strict asceticism, founded in 1098. [Christian Hist.: EB, II: 948]
Clare, St.
founder of mendicant Order of Poor Glares. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 69]
Crazy Ivar
lived in hole on side of river bed. [Am. Lit.: O Pioneers!, Magill I, 663–665]
(412–323 B. C.) despised worldly possessions; made his home in a tub. [Gk. Hist.: Hall, 104]
fanatical mendicant sects found primarily in India. [Asian Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 310]
13th-century religious order whose members lived in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, IV: 273]
Gandhi, Mohandas K.
(1869–1948) Indian spiritual leader; embodied Hindu abstemiousness. [Indian Hist.: NCE, 1042]
Jerome, St
. Christian monastic leader who searched for peace as hermit in desert. [Christian Hist.: EB, V: 545]
Manichaean Sabbath
Manichaean observance of Sunday, demanding abstinence from food and sex. [Christian Hist.: EB, VIII: 746]
Paul of Thebes, St
. first Christian hermit; cave-dweller most of life. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 268]
rigorously ascetic Christian sect found in Europe until the 6th century. [Christian Hist.: EB, VIII: 219]
philosophical school in Greco-Roman antiquity advocating rationality and austerity. [Gk. Hist.: EB, VIII: 746]
Stylites, St. Simeon
Christian monk whose philosophy was so ascetic that he dwelt atop a column to meditate. [Christian Hist.: EB, IX: 216]
Timon of Athens
lost wealth, lived frugally; became misanthropic when deserted by friends. [Br. Lit.: Timon of Athens]
Trappist monks
order with austere lifestyle. [Rom. Cath. Hist.: NCE, 2779]
members of 12th-century French religious movement living in poverty. [Christian Hist.: EB, X: 519]
temperate philosopher, noted for contempt of wealth. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1169]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.