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date: 21 October 2017


“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.

About 290, a saying of Jesus (Matthew 19.21) prompted Antony, a rich inhabitant of Kome in Egypt, to give his goods away to the poor and retire to a life of prayer and tribulation in the desert. He was followed by other solitaries, who “made the desert a city” and vied with each other in their privations; the pattern for coenobitic or communal monasteries, however, was established by Pachomius, whose settlements in Egypt coupled regular devotions with the study and composition of Christian literature. Zealots for orthodoxy, Coptic monks were often ready to put an armed host at the service of the Alexandrian patriarch; Greek-speaking communities, more intrepid in theological speculation, were also the first to produce instructions for the directions of the mind and subjugation of false desires. Apophthegms of the spiritual “fathers” were collected in Greek and Coptic, and were translated into Latin by John Cassian, the first to draw up a list of deadly sins. The distinctive form of western monasticism, instituted by Benedict of Nursia, laid a high premium on both manual and intellectual labour, thereby furnishing a model for civic life in the middle ages. The Syriac world was famous for its Stylites, who lived for years on top of pillars without protection from the elements, receiving food from reverent crowds below.

The glory that accrued from their excesses enabled them to act as arbiters where imperial governments exercised only nominal jurisdiction. Worldly motives can also be supplied for enrolment in cenobitic communities, which offered relief from want to the poor and deliverance from municipal obligations to the decurial class. A virgin who joined such an order spared her father the cost of her dowry while escaping the pains of childbirth and the prospect of connubial despotism. Aspirations to sexual equality are attested in conciliar pronouncements which forbid male attire to women. At the same time, one must remember that monastic asylum was purchased at the cost of poverty, chastity and unquestioning obedience to superiors. Baffled demons and confuted heretics are tendentious increments to the life of Antony, but Evagrius Ponticus claims to speak from knowledge when he urges that the true monk has no desire but to serve his neighbour and unite the soul with God.


P. Rousseau, Pachomius (1985).Find this resource:

P. Brown, The Body and Society (1988).Find this resource:

D. Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (1993).Find this resource:

S. Elm, Virgins of God (1994).Find this resource:

G. Gould, The Desert Fathers on Community (2002).Find this resource:

W. Harmless, Desert Christians (2004).Find this resource:

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