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§ 104. Ascetic Virtue and Piety.


Ad. Möhler (R.C.): Geschichte des Mönchthums in der Zeit seiner ersten Entstehung u. ersten Ausbildung, 1836 ("Vermischte Schriften," ed. Döllinger. Regensb. 1839, II. p. 165 sqq.).

Is. Taylor (Independent): Ancient Christianity, 4th ed. London, 1844, I. 133–299 (anti-Puseyite and anti Catholic).

H. Ruffner (Presbyt.): The Fathers of the Desert; or an Account of the Origin and Practice of Monkery among heathen nations; its passage into the church; and some wonderful Stories of the Fathers concerning the primitive Monks and Hermits. N. York, 1850. 2 vols.

Otto Zöckler (Lutheran): Kritische Geschichte der Askese. Frkf. and Erlangen, 1863 (434 pages).

P. E. Lucius Die Therapeuten und ihre Stellung in der Geschichte der Askese. Strasburg, 1879.

H. Weingarten: Ueber den Ursprung des Mönchthums im nach-Konstantinischen Zeittalter. Gotha, 1877. And his article in Herzog’s "Encykl." new ed. vol. X. (1882) p. 758 sqq. (abridged in Schaff’s Herzog, vol. II. 1551 sqq. N. Y. 1883).

Ad. Harnack: Das Mönchthum, seine Ideale und seine Geschichte. Giessen, 1882.

The general literature on Monasticism is immense, but belongs to the next period. See vol. III. 147 sq., and the list of books in Zöckler, l.c. p. 10–16.


Here we enter a field where the early church appears most remote from the free spirit of evangelical Protestantism and modern ethics and stands nearest the legalistic and monastic ethics of Greek and Roman Catholicism. Christian life was viewed as consisting mainly in certain outward exercises, rather than an inward disposition, in a multiplicity of acts rather than a life of faith. The great ideal of virtue was, according to the prevailing notion of the fathers and councils, not so much to transform the world and sanctify the natural things and relations created by God, as to flee from the world into monastic seclusion, and voluntarily renounce property and marriage. The Pauline doctrine of faith and of justification by grace alone steadily retreated, or rather, it was never yet rightly enthroned in the general thought and life of the church. The qualitative view of morality yielded more and more to quantitative calculation by the number of outward meritorious and even supererogatory works, prayer, fasting, alms-giving, voluntary poverty, and celibacy. This necessarily brought with it a Judaizing self-righteousness and overestimate of the ascetic life, which developed, by an irresistible impulse, into the hermit-life and monasticism of the Nicene age. All the germs of this asceticism appear in the second half of the third century, and even earlier.

Asceticism in general is a rigid outward self-discipline, by which the spirit strives after full dominion over the flesh, and a superior grade of virtue.699699    Ἄσκησις, from ἀσκέω,to exercise, to strengthen; primarily applied to athletic and gymnastic exercise-, but used also, even by the heathens and by Philo, of moral self-discipline. Clement of Alex. represents the whole Christian life as an ἄσκησις (Strom. IV. 22) and calls the patriarch Jacob an ἀσκητής(Paedlag. I. 7). But at the same time the term ἀσκηταίwas applied from the middle of the second century by Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Jerome, etc., to a special class of self-denying Christians. Clement of Alex., styles them ἐκλεκτῶν ἐκλεκτότεροι(Quis Dives salv. 36; Strom. VIII. 15). Thus " ascetics" assumed the same meaning as " religious" in the middle ages. Zöckler takes a comprehensive view of asceticism, and divides it into eight branches, 1) the asceticism of penal discipline and self-castigation; 2) of domestic life; 3) of diet (fasting, abstinence); 4) of sexual life (celibacy); 5) of devotion; 6) of contemplation; 7) of practical life; 8) of social life (solitude, poverty, obedience).99 It includes not only that true moderation or restraint of the animal appetites, which is a universal Christian duty, but total abstinence from enjoyments in themselves lawful, from wine, animal food, property, and marriage, together with all kinds of penances and mortifications of the body. In the union of the abstractive and penitential elements, or of self-denial and self-punishment, the catholic asceticism stands forth complete in light and shade; exhibiting, on the one hand, wonderful examples of heroic renunciation of self and the world, but very often, on the other, a total misapprehension and perversion of Christian morality; the renunciation involving, more or less a Gnostic contempt of the gifts and ordinances of the God of nature, and the penance or self-punishment running into practical denial of the all-sufficient merits of Christ. The ascetic and monastic tendency rests primarily upon a lively, though in morbid sense of the sinfulness, of the flesh and the corruption of the world; then upon the desire for solitude and exclusive occupation with divine things; and finally, upon the ambition to attain extraordinary holiness and merit. It would anticipate upon earth the life of angels in heaven.700700    Matt. 22:30. Hence the frequent designation of monastic life as a vita angelica.00 It substitutes all abnormal, self-appointed virtue and piety for the normal forms prescribed by the Creator; and not rarely looks down upon the divinely-ordained standard with spiritual pride. It is a mark at once of moral strength and moral weakness. It presumes a certain degree of culture, in which man has emancipated himself from the powers of nature and risen to the consciousness of his moral calling; but thinks to secure itself against temptation only by entire separation from the world, instead of standing in the world to overcome it and transform it into the kingdom of God.

Asceticism is by no means limited to the Christian church, but it there developed its highest and noblest form. We observe kindred phenomena long before Christ; among the Jews, in the Nazarites, the Essenes, and the cognate Therapeutae,701701    As described by Philo in his tract De vita contemplativa (περὶ βίου θεωρητικοῦ). Eusebius (II. 17) mistook the Therapeutae for Christian ascetics, and later historians for Christian monks. It was supposed that Philo was converted by the Apostle Peter. This error was not dispelled till after the Reformation. Lucius in his recent monograph, sees in that tract an apology of Christian asceticism written at the close of the third century under the name of Philo. But Weingarten (in Herzog X. 761 sqq.) again argues for the Jewish, though post-Philonic origin of that book.01 and still more among the heathens, in the old Persian and Indian religions, especially among the Buddhists, who have even a fully developed system of monastic life, which struck some Roman missionaries as the devil’s caricature of the Catholic system. In Egypt the priests of Serapis led a monastic life.702702    The Serapis monks have been made known by the researches of Letronne, Boissier, and especially Brunet de Presle (Mémoire sur le Sérapeum de Memphis, 1852 and 1865). Weingarten derives Christian monasticism from this source, and traces the resemblance of the two. Pachomius was himself a monk of Serapis before his conversion. See Revillout, Le reclus du Serapeum (Paris 1880, quoted by Weingarten in Herzog X. 784).02 There is something in the very climate of the land of the Pharaohs, in its striking contrast between the solitude of the desert and the fertility of the banks of the Nile, so closely bordering on each other, and in the sepulchral sadness of the people, which induces men to withdraw from the busy turmoil and the active duties of life. It is certain that the first Christian hermits and monks were Egyptians. Even the Grecian philosophy was conceived by the Pythagoreans, the Platonists, and the Stoics, not as theoretical knowledge merely, but also as practical wisdom, and frequently joined itself to the most rigid abstemiousness, so that "philosopher" and "ascetic" were interchangeable terms. Several apologists of the second century had by this practical philosophy particularly the Platonic, been led to Christianity; and they on this account retained their simple dress and mode of life. Tertullian congratulates the philosopher’s cloak on having now become the garb of a better philosophy. In the show of self-denial the Cynics, the followers of Diogenes, went to the extreme; but these, at least in their later degenerate days, concealed under the guise of bodily squalor, untrimmed nails, and uncombed hair, a vulgar cynical spirit, and a bitter hatred of Christianity.

In the ancient church there was a special class of Christians of both sexes who, under the name of "ascetics" or "abstinents,"703703    Ἀσκηταί, continentes also παρθένοι, virgines.03 though still living in the midst of the community, retired from society, voluntarily renounced marriage and property, devoted themselves wholly to fasting, prayer, and religious contemplation, and strove thereby to attain Christian perfection. Sometimes they formed a society of their own, 704704    Ἀσκητήριον.04 for mutual improvement, an ecclesiola in ecelesia, in which even children could be received and trained to abstinence. They shared with the confessors the greatest regard from their fellow-Christians, had a separate seat in the public worship, and were considered the fairest ornaments of the church. In times of persecution they sought with enthusiasm a martyr’s death as the crown of perfection.

While as yet each congregation was a lonely oasis in the desert of the world’s corruption, and stood in downright opposition to the surrounding heathen world, these ascetics had no reason for separating from it and flying into the desert. It was under and after Constantine, and partly as the result of the union of church and state, the consequent transfer of the world into the church, and the cessation of martyrdom, that asceticism developed itself to anchoretism and monkery, and endeavored thus to save the virgin purity of the church by carrying it into the wilderness. The first Christian hermit, Paul of Thebes, is traced back to the middle of the third century, but is lost in the mist of fable; St. Anthony, the real father of monks, belongs to the age of Constantine.705705    Paul of Thebes withdrew in his sixteenth year, under the Decian persecution (250), to a cavern in the lower Thebais, and lived there for one hundred and thirteen years, fed by a raven, and known only to God until St. Anthony, about 350, revealed his existence to the world. But his biography is a pious romance of Jerome, the most zealous promoter of asceticism and monasticism in the West. "The Life of St. Anthony" (d. about 356) is usually ascribed to St. Athanasius, and has undoubtedly a strong historic foundation. Eusebius never mentions him, for the two passages in the Chronicon (ed. Schöne II. 192, 195) belong to the continuation of Jerome. But soon after the middle of the fourth century Anthony was regarded as the patriarch of monasticism, and his biography exerted great influence upon Gregory of Nazianzum, Jerome, and Augustin. See vol. III. 179 sqq. Weingarten denies the Athanasian authorship of the biography, but not the historic existence of Anthony (in Herzog, revised ed. vol. X. 774).05 At the time of Cyprian706706    Epist. LXII.06 there was as yet no absolutely binding vow. The early origin and wide spread of this ascetic life are due to the deep moral earnestness of Christianity, and the prevalence of sin in all the social relations of the then still thoroughly pagan world. It was the excessive development of the negative, world-rejecting element in Christianity, which preceded its positive effort to transform and sanctify the world.

The ascetic principle, however, was not confined, in its influence, to the proper ascetics and monks. It ruled more or less the entire morality and piety of the ancient and mediaeval church; though on the other hand, there were never wanting in her bosom protests of the free evangelical spirit against moral narrowness and excessive regard to the outward works of the law. The ascetics were but the most consistent representatives of the old catholic piety, and were commended as such by the apologists to the heathens. They formed the spiritual nobility, the flower of the church, and served especially as examples to the clergy.



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