Asceticism is a lifestyle of rigorous self-discipline, often using some form of self-denial and/or simple living as the means for spiritual improvement and development. The word itself is rooted in the Greek word ascesis, emphasizing a disciplined lifestyle. The ancient Greeks used it in reference to both athletes and philosophers. Athletes were ascetic in the sense that they were disciplined to train hard every day in preparation for competition. The term was used of philosophers when discussing those who, for the sake of wisdom, spent more time in contemplation, and avoided what were considered more worldly pursuits, for the purpose of developing character and virtue. While the practice of asceticism is generally equated with healthy religious and/or spiritual development by those who practice and preach it, throughout history there are many stories of asceticism gone awry wherein, for example, with the hopes of achieving a closer relation to that which is considered divine, an individual or group took the practice of asceticism to the extreme, risking good health. As such, the practice of asceticism and the benefits that come with it are often debated and disputed.
One example of a Greek philosopher who emphasized the ascetic life was Pythagoras, a Greek who sought to instill virtue in his followers through a very disciplined lifestyle. The hope was that as persons gave up their illogical pursuit of passions, they gained character and wisdom and no longer sought after more worldly pursuits. Both Stoics and Cynics were also considered ascetic as they emphasized a disciplined lifestyle in which one progressed in virtue and moved away from a variety of vices because of a disciplined lifestyle. Ascetic discipline continued to be a theme in many Greek philosophical circles well into the second and third centuries C.E.
Asceticism has long been a part of most major religious traditions as well. Most religions have groups who seek spiritual wisdom through some form of selfdiscipline and self-denial. In Hinduism, Brahmins have long emphasized the ascetic lifestyle Some of their practices were extremely rigorous including the practices of rolling on the ground for hours at a time, and standing on tiptoes throughout the day, as well as remaining exposed to the extremes of weather for long periods with little or no clothing. Judaism has had various groups that practiced forms of asceticism through very austere lifestyles. Most notable were the Nazarites who were noted for their separation from the rest of society, avoidance of wine and any by-products, and never cutting their hair. Buddhism also has an ascetic emphasis, but in a more communal setting than the Brahmins. For the Buddhists, there is not necessarily the desire to progress toward God or some other spiritual being, but to reach the state of nirvana through a lifestyle that emphasizes chastity, honesty, and the avoidance of intoxicating drinks.
In early Christianity, ascetic practices were often seen as preparation for martyrdom. In the Roman world of the first through the third centuries, Christians faced the very real possibility that they would be martyred for their faith. Therefore, the Church wanted all believers to be ready in both body and spirit for their coming test. Ascetic disciplines such as fasting, celibacy, and prayer were all thought to be ways that one could unite body and soul with God.
As the prospects for persecution dimmed with the rise of Constantine in the early fourth century, another approach to the ascetic life developed. Ascetics began to move out into the deserts of Egypt and the wilderness of Syria seeking God. Again these men and women sought God's wisdom through a very disciplined life, unencumbered with the day-to-day routines of life in the more inhabited regions of their world. Anthony of Egypt is the first literary figure of this Christian movement. He was a young Alexandrian who, upon hearing a sermon to give up all he had and follow God, dispersed his family's wealth and went to live the ascetic life in the Egyptian desert at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century. His life is chronicled in the Life of Anthony penned by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt during that time. Asceticism in Christianity began to move in a more communal direction with the coming of the Middle Ages. Especially with the formation of religious orders in the West, the ascetic life became somewhat institutionalized, particularly in Benedict of Nursia's Rule of the sixth century.
Asceticism has almost always involved self-denial and a very austere life, but has also served as an equalizer in many traditions. Persons from all socioeconomic groups have heard its call. In Christianity in particular, it has given women an avenue for leadership, as there have been many exemplary women ascetics in the Christian tradition. Asceticism continues in most religious traditions through the present age, and continues to serve as a trigger of religious and/or spiritual development.