The name ἀσκητής (from ἀσκέω, to exercise) is borrowed from profane writers, by whom it is generally employed to describe the athletes, or men trained to the profession of gladiators or prize-fighters. In the early Christian church the name was given to such as inured themselves to greater degrees of fasting and abstinence than other men, in order to subdue or mortify their passions. SEE EXERCISE. The Christian ascetics were divided into abstinentes, or those who abstained from wine, meat, and agreeable food, and contineites, or those who, abstaining from matrimony also, were considered to attain to a higher degree of sanctity. Many laymen as well as ecclesiastics were ascetics in the first centuries of our era, without retiring on that account from the business and bustle of life. Some of then wore the pallium philosophicum, or the philosophic mantle, and were therefore called Christian philosophers, and formed thus the transition link to the life of hermits and monks. Romanist writers pretend that the ascetics were originally the same with monks: the monastic life, however, was not known till the fourth century (Pagi, Crit. in Bar. A.D. 62, N. 4). The difference between ascetics and monks may be thus stated:
1. The monks were such as retired from the business and conversation of the world to some desert or mountain; but the ascetics were of an active life, living in cities as other men, and only differing from them in: the ardor of their devotional acts and habits.
2. The monks were only laymen; the ascetics were of any order.
3. The monks were bound by certain laws and disciplinary regulations; but the ancient ascetics had no such laws. The habits and exercises of the ascetics may nevertheless be regarded as the introduction of monasticism. The root of asceticism in the early Christian church is to be found in a Gnostic leaven, remaining from the early struggle of the church with Gnosticism (q.v.). The open Gnosticism was crushed; but its more seductive principle was imbibed, to a large extent, even by the best of the church fathers, and remained to plague Christianity for hundreds of years in the forms of asceticism, celibacy, monasticism, and the various superstitions of the same class in the Romish Church. That principle makes the "conditions of animal life, and the common alliances of men in the social system, the antithesis of the Divine perfections, and so to be escaped from, and decried by all who pant after the highest excellence." See Taylor, Ancient Christianity, vol. i, where this subject is treated at length and with great mastery of both history and philosophy. SEE ABSTINENCE; SEE FASTING; SEE MONKS.
As soon as the inward and spiritual life of the Christians declined, the tendency to rely on external acts and forms increased; and if the previous bloody persecutions had driven individuals from human society into the deserts, the growing secularization of the church, after Christianity became the state religion, had the same effect to a still greater degree. All this paved the way for monasticism (q.v.); and the church thought herself compelled by the overwhelming tide of opinion within and without to recognise this form of asceticism, and to take it under her protection and care. From the African Church a gloomy and superstitious spirit spread over the Western Church, intensifying the ascetic tendencies. There were not wanting healthier minds-as Vigilantius (q.v.) and others-to raise their voices against fasting, monkery, and the outward works of asceticism generally; but such protests were vain, and became ever rarer. From the 11th century, the Cathari, Waldenses, and other sects assailed the external asceticism of the church; the classic Petrarch fought on the same side; and so did Wickliffe, Huss, and Jerome of Prague, in their struggles at reformation. After a preliminary skirmish by Erasmus, the struggle was decided in the Reformation of the 16th century. The fundamental principle of that movement, that salvation is secured by justification through faith, and not through dead works, struck at the root of monkery and mortification in general. But the victory has not been so complete as is often assumed. The ascetic spirit often shows itself still alive under various disguises even in Protestantism. SEE SHAKERS. The great error of asceticism is to hold self-denial and suffering to be meritorious in the sight of God, in and for itself. Its germinant principle, in all ages of the church, has been, as stated above, a Gnostic way of viewing the relations between God, man, and nature, tending. to dualism and to the confounding of sin with the very nature of matter. See Zockler, Kritische Geschichte der Askese (Frankf. 1863, 8vo); Schaff, Church History, § 94; Mercersburg Review, 1858, p. 600; Coleman, Ancient Christianity, ch. 7:§ 5; Bibliotheca Sacra, Oct. 1858, p. 600; Bingham, Orig. Eccl. bk. 7:ch. i; Mosheim, Comm. i, 381. SEE HERMIT.