“Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World

Richard Finn OP “Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World” (Key Themes in Ancient History) [Cambridge University Press, 2009]
Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World
“Asceticism deploys abstention, self-control, and self-denial, to order oneself or a community in relation to the divine. Both its practices and the cultural ideals they expressed were important to pagans, Jews, Christians of different kinds, and Manichees. Richard Finn presents for the first time a combined study of the major ascetic traditions, which have been previously misunderstood by being studied separately. He examines how people abstained from food, drink, sexual relations, sleep, and wealth; what they meant by their behaviour; and how they influenced others in the Graeco-Roman world. Against this background, the book charts the rise of monasticism in Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, and North Africa, assessing the crucial role played by the third-century exegete, Origen, and asks why monasticism developed so variously in different regions.”
”“Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World” is the latest entry in Cambridge University Press’ “Key Themes in Ancient History” series. The front matter of the volume states that the series is designed to serve two audiences: “students and teachers of Classics and Ancient History” and “those engaged in related disciplines.” Although this book has important points to make and demonstrates considerable erudition and engagement with both primary and secondary materials, I am not convinced that it serves its intended audiences. I would not use this book to introduce the subject to my students if I were teaching a class on early asceticism.
A preliminary caveat: the title of this book is misleading. I agreed to review the volume expecting an examination of the little-studied world of pre-Christian asceticism, the role ascetic practices played in the lives of Graeco-Roman philosophers and the practitioners of traditional Roman religions. The first two chapters do discuss non-Christian asceticism, but nearly two-thirds of the book is given over to Christian asceticism, a topic for which there is no shortage of monographs. Those who are interested in non-Christian asceticism should realize that this is not the focus of this book.
Finn argues two main points. The first is that the monastic movement can only be understood in the context of pagan and Jewish ascetic practices. The opening two chapters of the book are dedicated to supporting this contention, offering an overview of the ways in which ascetic practices were employed by the precursors of the Christians….
Finn’s second major argument is that conventional accounts of the monastic movement have focused on the Egyptian Desert Fathers while overlooking the other ways asceticism manifested itself in various Christian communities. The last three chapters of this book are aimed at remedying this deficiency.
In chapter three, Finn picks up the ascetic practices explored in his previous chapter, and examines how the Christians of the first two centuries understood and used them. Focusing primarily on fasting (whether from food or drink) and sexual abstinence, he argues that the earliest Christians did not agree on the significance or necessity of the practices for the faith. The practice of Christian fasting was often imbued with the same meanings present in Jewish fasting, but the practitioners could also point to their abstinence as a way Christianity was different from Judaism. Fasting was also one way the Christians set themselves apart from Roman culture, and the arguments over when to fast (the Quartodeciman controversy) suggest attempts to unify Christian communities into a cohesive whole.
Sexual renunciation, either temporary or permanent, came to be associated with a deeper participation in the divine life. Sexual desire was one of the evils that entered the created order through the Fall; renunciation of this desire was a necessary prerequisite for returning to paradise. As Christianity marched toward the fourth century, theologians began to promote virginity and chastity as the ideal for the unmarried, while the married were exhorted to engage in sex for the purposes of procreation only. Clement of Alexandria was one of the first Christian authors to attempt to tie asceticism back into a Greek philosophical background.
Following the lead of Philo, Clement linked asceticism to the traditional virtue of frugality, thus providing a means for aristocratic Christians to reconcile their interest in Christianity with their classical backgrounds.
Chapter four focuses on the contribution of Origen, the third century Alexandrian exegete, to the development of monasticism.
Origen is credited with fusing the Christian message and Greek philosophical ideals to produce a framework for the contemplation of the divine. Fasting, which had been tied to mourning and prayer in early Christianity and Judaism, was imbued with a new meaning by Origen: a believer could extirpate sin through the ascetic life and, like Abram at Mamre, begin to see God clearly. Sin was destroyed through voluntary poverty, sexual renunciation, and rigorous ascetic activity. Virginity and celibacy were promoted as the best vehicles for the contemplative life, a view that was vigorously championed by later bishops and promoters of monasticism. The writers who followed Origen’s lead usually had their own agendas in promoting a chaste lifestyle; at the very least, the act of giving counsel to the multiplying ascetic groups bolstered their own standing and authority over groups of celibate men and women. The chapter concludes with a survey of Origen’s influence over several important monastic theologians, including Basil of Caesarea, Evagrius, and John Cassian.
Finn’s final chapter explores the monastic traditions that stood outside of the Origenistic stream and evolved into different forms than what was found among the Egyptian Desert Fathers.
Pachomius 2
Pachomian monasticism, for instance, grows into a self-supporting federation, with intra-monastic trade allowing monasteries to stand apart from secular culture. At the other extreme was the eremitic lifestyle of the Syrian ascetics, who read apostolic claims to be wanderers in the wilderness as a blueprint for an ascetic life. Manual labor was seen as a byproduct of Adam’s fall, and thus these monks eschewed work as something that would impede their goal of union with God. Syrian monks haunted the wilderness around settled communities, living off the alms of the faithful. Their spiritual elitism and withdrawal from the institutional church led to controversy with the bishops and their condemnation as Messalians.
Where the Syrian experiment led to monks who stood apart from the established church, North Africa saw ascetic practices integrated into ecclesiastical life. Finn singles out Augustine as one of the driving forces behind this blending of ascetic and ecclesiastical interests. This form of monasticism was in part a response to church politics: the Donatists had rejected monasticism and labeled it an aberration within the church. Augustine promoted the ascetic life as an expression of Christian unity, one that stood against Donatist separatism. The clerical use of the ascetic disciplines was intended to foster the good of the church rather than advance the spiritual life of the individual. Harnessing monasticism to the church was one approach that bishops might entertain in order to neutralize the monks who otherwise might be seen as competitors with the established church.”
An extract from “Richard Finn, “Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World. Key Themes in Ancient History” Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 182. ISBN 9780521681544” Reviewed by Richard Goodrich, Gonzaga University

See also:
Vincent L Wimbush “Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: a Sourcebook” [Augsburg Fortress, 1990]
Ascetic behaviour
“At once profoundly counter-cultural and related to secular society, ascetic movements left rich, fascinating, and often difficult to interpret literary documents. The twenty-eight texts translated in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity are an invaluable resource for reconstructing the ascetic movements of the ancient world in all their diversity, volatility, and contemporary excitement. These texts reveal not only the assumptions, values, and teachings of ascetic authors but also the practices by which ascetic women and men wove these commitments into their bodies and life-styles. As a sourcebook, this volume contributes generously across religious and philosophical persuasions to our knowledge of asceticism in antiquity.
(Margaret R. Miles, Harvard Divinity School)
The number and variety of writings included in this volume give the reader a fine first-hand sense of the various phenomena that go under the rubric of asceticism.
(Ronald F. hock, University of Southern California)
Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity brings together a collection of fascinating texts dealing with a subject of both historical and contemporary interest. A number of these texts have never before been available in English translation, which makes the collection doubly welcome. Ancient traditions, Christian and other, of asceticism are still deeply interwoven into modern Western attitudes about the body and sexuality. Too often we discuss (or dismiss) asceticism in broad terms, with the presupposition that we know exactly what it is and means. These texts reveal something of its actual diversity, both in practice and in theory. They offer the attentive reader new insight into antiquity and perhaps new ways of asking questions about modern issues as well.
(L. William Countryman, The Church Divinity School of the Pacific)
In presenting a selection of twenty-eight texts in translation with introductory essays, Vincent L. Wimbush and his co-authors have produced the first book on asceticism that does full justice to the varieties of ascetic behavior in the Greco-Roman world. The texts, representative of different religious cults, philosophical schools, and geographical locations, are organized by literary genre into five parts that give a fascinating insight into the interplay of different ascetic practices and motives. Texts and accompanying introductions help the reader to outline the questions and problems linked with the study of such a variegated phenomenon, instead of giving simple statements and solution. This highly useful approach emphasizes the differences as well as the similarities of the various types of ascetic piety in practice and theory and is therefore a most valuable contribution to the study of the Greco-Roman world in general. This book is an indispensable tool for ancient historians, patristic scholars, theologians, and social scientists, and will certainly be a widely used textbook in various disciplines.
(Han J. W. Drijvers, University of Groningen)”


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