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  Asceticism (from Greek askesis, ‘exercise’) is the practice of self-denying exercises, of leading an austere way of life, in order to enhance one\'s mental powers or spiritual perception, to overcome vice and cultivate virtue. It has been practised worldwide and is particularly associated with early Western philosophy (for example the Greek Stoics and Cynics) and religion (where denial of the world was held to allow concentration on God or the gods). This latter is the view held particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism. Here, asceticism is seen as a way of detaching oneself from the world so that one can better contemplate the divine. It gives self-control and trains one to bear hardships for the cause. In Buddhism, it was also seen as a means of identification with or imitation of one\'s Lord.

It is significant that the Buddha and many other great figures in the world\'s religions began by practising lives of great austerity, but later modified or abandoned extreme ascetism. Christ was not an ascetic—on the contrary, he was criticized for enjoying parties—but demanded self-denial in terms of giving up home and family for the sake of the Gospel: inner discipline, not outward ascetic ostentation. This accords with the Judaic idea that the world was given by God to humankind for our enjoyment. Perhaps because of this last belief, asceticism in Judaism was rare, being confined mainly to prophets and mystics. In the Early Christian Church it was seen as an aid to prayer and meditation, and as a preparation for martyrdom. In the 3rd century, Origen and Clement of Alexandria began studying its theoretical basis, using Stoic ideas of the purification of the soul from passion (also a justification for asceticism in Buddhism). Their work paved the way, in theological terms, for the beginnings of Christian monasticism, of which asceticism was a main component. In the Reformation it reappeared as something for all lay people in Puritanism. The well-known Puritan ethic involving integrity, thrift, hard work (so that one has the resources for education and charitable work), fasting and renunciation of ‘worldly’ pleasures, has passed beyond religion into the secular world: it is now incarnate, for example, in the Green movement, and transcends the boundaries of nationality, politics and religion. EMJ



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