Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.50

Richard Finn, Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World. Key Themes in Ancient History.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xii, 182.  ISBN 9780521681544.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Richard Goodrich, Gonzaga University (

Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman World is the latest entry in Cambridge University Press' Key Themes in Ancient History series. The front matter of the volume states that the series is designed to serve two audiences: "students and teachers of Classics and Ancient History" and "those engaged in related disciplines." Although this book has important points to make and demonstrates considerable erudition and engagement with both primary and secondary materials, I am not convinced that it serves its intended audiences. I would not use this book to introduce the subject to my students if I were teaching a class on early asceticism.

A preliminary caveat: the title of this book is misleading. I agreed to review the volume expecting an examination of the little-studied world of pre-Christian asceticism, the role ascetic practices played in the lives of Graeco-Roman philosophers and the practitioners of traditional Roman religions. The first two chapters do discuss non-Christian asceticism, but nearly two-thirds of the book is given over to Christian asceticism, a topic for which there is no shortage of monographs. Those who are interested in non-Christian asceticism should realize that this is not the focus of this book.

Finn argues two main points. The first is that the monastic movement can only be understood in the context of pagan and Jewish ascetic practices. The opening two chapters of the book are dedicated to supporting this contention, offering an overview of the ways in which ascetic practices were employed by the precursors of the Christians.

Discussion of asceticism in the Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition is colored by Porphyry's On Abstinence, a work that suggests that there was a common base of ascetic practices, shared by the different schools of philosophy. Finn subjects this claim to critical analysis, surveying the place of asceticism in the Graeco-Roman world. Instances of temporary abstinence (fasting and sexual renunciation, in both priest and pilgrim) can be found among those who would approach the divine in the pagan cults. These practices created a sacred space where the cleansed human and the divinity could make contact. Nevertheless, involvement in these purification rituals was ad hoc and did not appear to be anything more than the proper preparation someone might make before appearing in the presence of a divine being.

Evidence that asceticism might have been one of the technologies used by philosophers to develop the soul is also lacking. Among the Cynics asceticism was used to foster traditional virtues such as self-control, frugality, and the ability to endure hardship. For Stoics, asceticism—practiced in moderation—was useful for training young men in virtue. The chapter closes with an examination of Pythagorean practices; Neo-Platonists had singled out this group as exemplars of the ascetic tradition, but, as Finn argues, this recourse to Pythagoras and his followers owes more to Neo-Platonic concerns and emphases than to a Pythagorean understanding of asceticism. For the Neo-Platonists, the ascetic practices were employed to draw closer to the divine, although the Neo-Platonists were divided upon which practices were the most useful in pursuing this goal.

In chapter two, Finn turns his attention to the practice and significance of asceticism within the Hellenic and Rabbinic streams of Judaism. The works of Philo of Alexandria play an important role in Finn's analysis; he argues that Philo constructs an idealized version of the place and meaning of asceticism in Hellenistic Judaism. From reconfiguring Moses as a Middle Platonic sage to casting the Therapeutai in terms of Greek philosophy, Philo is paradigmatic for how external observers assign significance to ascetic practices that would not have been shared by the actual members of the community. In fact, argues Finn, the ascetic practices of groups like the Therapeutai are much closer to the practice of the Levitical priesthood than Philo's platonizing interpretation would suggest. Sexual abstinence and fasting are located within the context of the Hebrew scriptures, where these ascetic disciplines are employed as purification rituals in advance of contact with Yahweh. Communal fasting was also used to gain Yahweh's support for military operations and to express penitence. A slightly different meaning is found among the texts of Qumran, where ascetic practices lead to an advance in holiness; they also figure in penitential activities which are required to return to right standing with Yahweh after a sin. Finn closes his chapter on Judaism with an analysis of asceticism in Rabbinic Judaism, noting the use of communal fasting for relief from natural disasters as well as the strengthening link between temporary ascetic practices and Torah study.

Finn's second major argument is that conventional accounts of the monastic movement have focused on the Egyptian Desert Fathers while overlooking the other ways asceticism manifested itself in various Christian communities. The last three chapters of this book are aimed at remedying this deficiency.

In chapter three, Finn picks up the ascetic practices explored in his previous chapter, and examines how the Christians of the first two centuries understood and used them. Focusing primarily on fasting (whether from food or drink) and sexual abstinence, he argues that the earliest Christians did not agree on the significance or necessity of the practices for the faith. The practice of Christian fasting was often imbued with the same meanings present in Jewish fasting, but the practitioners could also point to their abstinence as a way Christianity was different from Judaism. Fasting was also one way the Christians set themselves apart from Roman culture, and the arguments over when to fast (the Quartodeciman controversy) suggest attempts to unify Christian communities into a cohesive whole.

Sexual renunciation, either temporary or permanent, came to be associated with a deeper participation in the divine life. Sexual desire was one of the evils that entered the created order through the Fall; renunciation of this desire was a necessary prerequisite for returning to paradise. As Christianity marched toward the fourth century, theologians began to promote virginity and chastity as the ideal for the unmarried, while the married were exhorted to engage in sex for the purposes of procreation only. Clement of Alexandria was one of the first Christian authors to attempt to tie asceticism back into a Greek philosophical background. Following the lead of Philo, Clement linked asceticism to the traditional virtue of frugality, thus providing a means for aristocratic Christians to reconcile their interest in Christianity with their classical backgrounds.

Chapter four focuses on the contribution of Origen, the third century Alexandrian exegete, to the development of monasticism. Origen is credited with fusing the Christian message and Greek philosophical ideals to produce a framework for the contemplation of the divine. Fasting, which had been tied to mourning and prayer in early Christianity and Judaism, was imbued with a new meaning by Origen: a believer could extirpate sin through the ascetic life and, like Abram at Mamre, begin to see God clearly. Sin was destroyed through voluntary poverty, sexual renunciation, and rigorous ascetic activity. Virginity and celibacy were promoted as the best vehicles for the contemplative life, a view that was vigorously championed by later bishops and promoters of monasticism. The writers who followed Origen's lead usually had their own agendas in promoting a chaste lifestyle; at the very least, the act of giving counsel to the multiplying ascetic groups bolstered their own standing and authority over groups of celibate men and women. The chapter concludes with a survey of Origen's influence over several important monastic theologians, including Basil of Caesarea, Evagrius, and John Cassian.

Finn's final chapter explores the monastic traditions that stood outside of the Origenistic stream and evolved into different forms than what was found among the Egyptian Desert Fathers. Pachomian monasticism, for instance, grows into a self-supporting federation, with intra-monastic trade allowing monasteries to stand apart from secular culture. At the other extreme was the eremitic lifestyle of the Syrian ascetics, who read apostolic claims to be wanderers in the wilderness as a blueprint for an ascetic life. Manual labor was seen as a byproduct of Adam's fall, and thus these monks eschewed work as something that would impede their goal of union with God. Syrian monks haunted the wilderness around settled communities, living off the alms of the faithful. Their spiritual elitism and withdrawal from the institutional church led to controversy with the bishops and their condemnation as Messalians.

Where the Syrian experiment led to monks who stood apart from the established church, North Africa saw ascetic practices integrated into ecclesiastical life. Finn singles out Augustine as one of the driving forces behind this blending of ascetic and ecclesiastical interests. This form of monasticism was in part a response to church politics: the Donatists had rejected monasticism and labeled it an aberration within the church. Augustine promoted the ascetic life as an expression of Christian unity, one that stood against Donatist separatism. The clerical use of the ascetic disciplines was intended to foster the good of the church rather than advance the spiritual life of the individual. Harnessing monasticism to the church was one approach that bishops might entertain in order to neutralize the monks who otherwise might be seen as competitors with the established church.

Taken as a whole, this book has some very interesting points to make. Finn is quite successful in arguing that the meaning of ascetic practices is often found in the eye of the beholder. Ranging from the Neo-Platonic interpretations of Pythagorean practices to the promotion of chastity by later Christian bishops, the meanings assigned to ascetic acts by their practitioners could often vary widely from that of later interpreters and commentators upon them. He also amasses a great deal of evidence to support his account of the ways in which asceticism was used by various groups. While reading the book I wondered if less evidence and more analysis of selected points might have been more helpful for the target student audience. A specialist will have no problem following Finn's arguments, but those looking for an introduction to the topic may find themselves a bit overwhelmed.

At other points explanation seems a bit thin. One place where this is particularly evident is in Finn's chapter on Origen. Finn's implicit argument is that Origen is a key figure in the history of Christian asceticism, and yet he only devotes four pages to Origen's ascetic theology. If Origen is as important as Finn thinks he is (and his chapter titles "Christian asceticism before Origen", and "Origen and his ascetic legacy" certainly suggest this importance) then it is mystifying why the analysis of his ascetic theology is so underdeveloped. There is also, at certain points, a failure to "connect the dots", clarifying the connections between different practitioners. In the section entitled "Origenistic Asceticism in the Latin West—John Cassian", Finn offers an excellent summary of John Cassian's ascetic theology, but fails to explicitly state how this system was indebted to Origen's thought (in fact, apart from the section title, Origen's name does not appear in this section). Once again, a specialist in late antique monasticism will not need this help, but a student or someone from a related discipline might.

In conclusion: although thoughtful, well-written, and with some important points to make, this work is probably not as well suited for its proposed audience as it might have been. A student or non-specialist approaching the subject for the first time will want a bit more explanation and clarity than is found in this volume.

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