Noughted by crosses

May 31, 1996

Man, says Marx, is not an abstract being "squatting outside the world". Therefore, in a psychologically mature age, we seek and we find worldly motives behind even the activities of holy men. Asceticism as the conquest of the body (one's own, other people's and women's) has few modern admirers. Secularity has taught us all to relax about the body, though some now frantically seek the elixir of life to make youth a permanent state. Faced with the choice between downgrading the body for God's pleasure and kicking religion in the teeth for teaching us to despise the body, many would choose the latter.

This volume, with its almost 50 contributors, excludes virtually all facets of the secular reservation about asceticism. This must be deliberate; the result is innocent of the intellectual refinements associated with Marx, Freud and other secular prophets. The main focus is Christian asceticism but there are pieces on ascetic discipline in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

We learn much about the origins and history of Christian asceticism in its early Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian environments. The reader is shocked by the sheer variety of bodily deprivations invented by enthusiastic believers. There is abstinence to attain spiritual hygiene, and also flagellation and self-torment. The Church fathers and other hermits retired into the desert to fight against the self and, literally, the demons dwelling there. These men not only suffered the body, they suffered in it. Thus, if the sexual pressure on the body and spirit proved insufferable, even castration was welcomed. Blessed are those who neither reap nor sow.

St Paul encouraged an internal discipline to replace the external rituals of inherited Judaism. In his canonical letters, the apostle commends training (askesis) for righteousness. The ascetic is like an athlete but he exercises the soul; the body can take care of itself. To us, this appears as one-sided salvation; and many would reverse the maxim.

In the section on the motivations for self-renunciation, we read that ascetics abandon physical pleasures for the sake of the higher pleasures of self-mastery. True but simplistic; the route to self-mastery is culturally specific. What would be the contents of the Bible and the Koran if, say, the Semites had been indifferent to women but inordinately fond of alcohol? There is, curiously, not a word about the temptations of religious power, the most thrilling form of pleasure. It is exciting to know all one's enemies are off to Hell.

An innocent psychology of asceticism infects the entire volume. Yet we cannot understand the psychobiography of religious genius without probing motives. If someone lives in the heat of a religious emotion physically sustained only on a diet of honey and wild locusts, we wonder about the compensations. A Spartan simplicity in diet may accompany the most complex and disreputable of emotional motivations. Even the ascetic living on top of a pillar, watching his body rot, may take a perverse pride, even pleasure in contemplating so masochistically stubborn an integrity. Is asceticism sometimes merely the mask worn by the will to power?

Again, not a word about the paradoxes of asceticism. Men who have tried to shrink the self physically have none the less engaged in a degree of self-praise that would be called pride if it were found in ordinary people. Humility and hubris - I wish a milder word would do - took turns to kindle the flame of piety. Critical hagiography shows that seminal religious figures were artists who lived free lives while preaching conformity to that flock of yes men politely called disciples.

Indeed, from a religious point of view, ascetics may be guilty of heresy! In relying so heavily on will-power, an ascetic may be tempted to glory in his own capacity to achieve self-control. If so, we have a denial of grace, a kind of mild Pelagianism.

Although all the contributors discuss asceticism as a primarily religious phenomenon, not all the articulate motivations for asceticism are religious. Doing a doctorate, for instance, is really a secular training in intellectual asceticism: few doctoral theses advance our knowledge. Serious writing is a form of secular penance; and being on a diet is the commonest form of fasting. Ironically, in a secular industrial society no one needs to reduce the self to size since society does it for us - automatically, decisively and yet so casually. As people jostle for places on the tube or queue for unemployment benefit, everyone feels he is nothing. No religion noughts the self so effortlessly.

Nothing in the volume explains the failure of asceticism today or its appeal in the past. Traditionally, the chief nurseries of western asceticism have been Greek philosophy and the Semitic faiths. Today, we admire the moral passion behind asceticism but while the ancients asked "How can we live well?", we ask "How can we live?". Life, not the examined life, is the modern problem. Asceticism presupposed that one's body was not really one's own, that it was held on trust, that the soul was really in charge. Such beliefs were powerful only in an apocalyptic age where the clock of sacred history was constantly positioned at one minute to midnight.

Shabbir Akhtar teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.


Editor - Vincent Wimbush and Richard Valantasis
ISBN - 0 19 508535 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £87.50
Pages - 636

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