Asceticism in the Modern World: The Religion of Self-Deprivation

By Betsy C. Chadbourn
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 1/4 |

Among the questions that have attracted my attention during my theological career thus far, nothing has struck me more forcibly than the possibility of asceticism existing in the modern world. Modern asceticism initially appears an absurdity. A non-existent. Something of the past, along with the once thriving Christian that laid its foundations. Before, we associated the ascetic with monkish values, the valorisation of chastity, a life of deprivation. Repulsion toward the flesh. Hostility for food. Enmity on all we call pleasure. Yes, modernity is surely an exodus from such; a secular haven for the positive body-image ideal. This, in fact, is something of a contemporary fallacy.

Here, I wish to explore the idea that asceticism has not, in fact, been lain to rest, but still flourishes amongst the cultural phenomena of our day. The argument has been sectioned into four areas of discussion. The first involves the place of historical ascetic ideas in everyday consumption; the second, the continually thriving dieting and the malevolent eating disorder; the third, the exponential growth of vegetarianism and veganism; and the fourth, the modernist creation of a ‘hedonistic asceticism’. I shall also reflect on these ideas through the work and criticisms of three key thinkers: Caroline Walker Bynum, David Grumett and Friedrich Nietzsche.

To Define

Firstly, I find it necessary to define what we here mean by ‘asceticism’. Asceticism is described as: ‘the practicing of strict self-denial of worldly pleasures as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline’1. Although this definition is helpful, in this paper we shall be examining asceticism with more specificity, under a topic which concerns every person, every day, in every corner of the world: food. Our asceticism is about the rigid control over the body and all of its facets. It is a retreat from an excess of consumption. But it is also something which can be practiced to excess itself. Here we are concerned with both the impulse to exceed denial, and the want to moderate it. Finally, the abstinence we will see below can be summarised in one, somewhat oxymoronic, statement: a hedonistic asceticism.

Indian AsceticAn Indian ascetic wearing an iron collar, circa 1870. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images, available from Wikimedia Commons.)

A Brief History: Farewell to Food for the Soul

Asceticism was once a thriving practice. Monastic law governed the church-peoples with startling rigidity, and even laymen were subject to the complicated world of the feast and the fast. People looked to their stomachs, or rather, what they were putting in them, to prepare themselves for the purity of heaven. Food for the soul, we may call it. But as the Reformation dawned on society, asceticism seemed lost for good.

However, it would be a terrible inaccuracy to believe that the Reformation buried the ascetical life forever2. In fact, it could be argued that asceticism is flourishing, in ways never before seen. With the decline in religious belief and practice, ascetic instincts have transformed themselves into their secular doppelgangers. Food for the soul is no longer relevant. It’s all about the body. There is a rapidly declining concern in pleasing God through consumption, but instead, a drive to seek materialistic modes of salvation through the strict control of the body.

The Malevolent Eating Disorder

One of these modes can be taken to alarming levels of excess: anorexia. Here referred to as: ‘the malevolent eating disorder’, it is characterized by ‘immoderate food restriction, irrational fear of gaining weight, and distorted body self-perception’3.

The anorexia phenomenon has become a central theme in western culture. It is something, in one form or another, that has been present since Ancient Greece; a dualist tradition in which the body is seen as ‘a form of limitation of which we aspire to transcend and free ourselves from’4. Though central to the anorectic’s psychology, these beliefs are also fundamental elements in the tradition of modern Western asceticism. It seems appropriate, then, that the two should be linked.

Indeed, evangelical diet and fitness programmes have created a business from thinness, linked it with Christian piety, and hit their own consumer goals, creating a holy trinity of dieting, fit for modernity. Within this system, we also see a secular boom; producing a body that is lithe and lean has become ‘a middle-class mode of enlightenment’5. Yes, anorexia is about achieving domination of the body and the self in the context of a world that feels out of control. But can we definitively call it asceticism?

First, some history. There is much debate within academia pertaining to anorexia, and whether it even existed before the modern day. In Caroline Walker Bynum’s work particularly, we see otherwise. We look to explore the historical evidence of abnormal eating patterns as a telescope into the changing, or not changing, forms of asceticism in modernity; whether there is even a place for it. We shall also be focusing on the female demographic, due primarily to modern anorectic statistics leaning in their favour, but also down to lack of scholarly evidence for male anorexia pre-modernity.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

To briefly set the scene, the fourth century was a complex period for Christianity. It moved from being a persecuted sect to being supported by a new Christian Emperor, to vying with Constantine’s successors over unorthodox beliefs, to being persecuted by Julian the Apostate, and finally being declared the official state religion... MORE»
Advertisement
Eating disorders have plagued society for many centuries. Since the ancient times of Saint Catherine of Siena and Julius Caesar to the modern era of the late Princess Diana of Wales and singing phenomenon Karen Carpenter, men and women have used food as a way to control the human physique. In the eyes of many people, it is believed that by achieving the perfect body, through any means necessary, one can achieve the acceptance of others and ultimately... MORE»
The copious amounts of forgotten and disregarded food that are tossed mindlessly into our landfills are a global travesty of massive proportions. Americans alone waste enough food in a day to transform the Rose Bowl, a football stadium capable of seating 90,000 people, into a landfill (Bloom, 2010). As an affluent nation, securely... MORE»
The concept of food security is dynamic; it has been changing to incorporate new ideas over the years since it was established. In this piece, I will argue that if cultural acceptability is to be added as a tenant of food security then so must sustainability. Cultural acceptability addresses the needs of various ethnicities, for example providing kosher foods for the Jewish population and halal foods for the followers of Islam. Since there is a new... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in Opinion

2016, Vol. 8 No. 02
At 7am in the morning after the Referendum on Scottish Independence, a triumphant David Cameron stood on the steps of number 10 Downing Street and announced to the world that the Scottish people had, with 55% of the electorate voting No, comprehensively... Read Article »
2013, Vol. 5 No. 11
As the lights dropped and I sank into my seat, I thought I was ready for 12 Years a Slave, the 2013 film adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 slave narrative. I was expecting a movie, a story told with images, music and sound. But, what I witnesssed... Read Article »
2015, Vol. 7 No. 03
In a previous article I wrote about fine-tuning in the Universe and the empirical evidence for a Grand Designer that can be found within our reality. This argument of course occurs within the context of ongoing fiery debate between theists and secular... Read Article »
2014, Vol. 6 No. 11
In today’s society, the categorization of gender in our educational system is leading to a socialization of masculinity and femininity, which is reaffirmed by gender-biased curriculum, testing, and activities. By attempting to define gender... Read Article »
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04
The copious amounts of forgotten and disregarded food that are tossed mindlessly into our landfills are a global travesty of massive proportions. Americans alone waste enough food in a day to transform the Rose Bowl, a football stadium capable of... Read Article »
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03
The debate between science and religion over the existence of a higher power often leads to little more than a shouting match. We become so emotionally invested in our personal opinions of whether or not God exists that when presented with dissenting... Read Article »
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08
Sitting at home reading one night, you come across the term “WikiLeaks.” Unaware of its meaning, you exhale forcefully, knowing what’s next. Donning a dark black hoodie, you walk out to the street and down to an abandoned alley... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

How to Use Regression Analysis Effectively
5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article
How to Read for Grad School