“Discipline” is the common translation of the Greek noun askêsis. Its English derivative “asceticism” denotes a sustained routine of abstinence, more severe than the occasional self-denial which was enjoined before rites and festivals. Motives for such austerity were seldom religious: sexual continence was enjoined on particular orders like the Vestal Virgins, but not on Jewish or polytheistic priesthoods. Philosophers were more likely to adopt a lifelong regimen to maintain their equanimity or free the soul from bodily attachments. Thus Epicureans and certain Platonists shunned the ties of marriage, though absolute continence was not prescribed. Pythagoreans starved the concupiscent element of the soul by abstaining from meat (and thereby also spared themselves the guilt of shedding the blood of a kindred being). Diogenes the Cynic set an example of self-sufficiency which was sometimes hyperbolically imitated and sometimes ostentatiously violated by his followers. Among Jews the nomadic Rechabites drank no wine, while Nazirites neither drank wine nor cut their hair; but only in the Hellenistic era do we hear of Essenes whose frugal regimen precluded meat and the knowledge of women. Philo’s treatise on the Therapeutae attests the cohabitation of male and female celibates in a community devoted to prayer and worship. It is, however, in Christian circles that abstinence is first prescribed as a norm for all and not merely for the elect. Jesus had “nowhere to lay his head”, while Paul declared virginity superior to marriage. Their teachings presupposed the imminent and of the world; abstinence from flesh and sexual intercourse was said to imply contempt for all things created in encratites, Marcionites and Manichees, yet orthodox Christians also held that the clergy should not take wives after ordination, and Eusebius commends the rigorous practices of Origen.Less
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