Asceticism and the Free Society

The underlying thesis in the essay below is that 1) man is fundamentally a moral being, and 2) the restoration of culture is fundamentally a moral enterprise. The essay is reproduced by permission of the Acton Institute but note something about that: There is more interest in the Orthodox contribution about the intersections of faith and culture outside of Orthodox circles than within it. What does that say about us, that we are asleep at the switch? Yes, maybe it does. Apart from the boutique issues we don’t really say much.

The author brings forward the necessity of ascetic discipline (think of it as self-discipline as an exercise not only of body but also the soul) as an ordering principle not only for the self, but the larger culture as well. No man is an island which is also to say that no man is an individual. Conservatives are correct in resisting the collectivist impulse of secular liberalism but if they think that individualism is the antidote they are mistaken and will end up living in the same arid lands of dehumanization that foster a greater loss of human dignity and ultimately liberty. A fuller vision of the human person is required and the author starts making the case for it below.

Source: Acton Institute Blog

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Sophia Institute annual conference at Union Theological Seminary. This year’s topic was “Marriage, Family, and Love in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.” My paper was titled, “What Makes a Society?” and focused, in the context of marriage and the family, on developing an Orthodox Christian answer to that question. The Roman Catholic and neo-Calvinist answers, subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, respectively (though not mutually exclusive), receive frequent attention on the PowerBlog, but, to my knowledge, no Orthodox answer has been clearly articulated, and so it can be difficult to know where to begin. To that end, it is my conviction—and a subject of my research—that a historically sensitive, Orthodox answer to this question can found be in the idea of asceticism, rightly understood.

While I will not reproduce my paper here, I wanted to briefly summarize two of its main points that might have broader interest. First of all, what is asceticism? Second, how can asceticism be viewed as an organizational principle of society? Lastly, I want to briefly explore—beyond the scope of my paper—the relevance of this principle for a free society.

With regards to the first question, it is very important to recognize that there are many forms of asceticism. Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis and basically means exercise. Applied to our spiritual lives, it carries the connotation of denying our bodily comforts in order to train our souls through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc. Often, however, people only think of the negative forms when they hear the word, such as, for example, the sort of asceticism that St. Paul denounces in his Epistle to the Colossians, writing,

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (2:20-23)

The problem with this sort of asceticism was that it confused means with ends. The ascetic disciplines (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, simplicity, etc.) are not ends in themselves, not for Christians anyway. This attitude toward them can be seen in the many sayings of the desert fathers, in which, for example, they criticize those who refuse hospitality for the sake of their fast.

Rather, according to St. Moses the Ethiopian, the disciplines “are to be rungs of a ladder up which [the heart] may climb to perfect charity [i.e., love].” And according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “True asceticism is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation.” Rather than viewing the body as something evil that deserves to be mistreated, it views it as the means by which we improve our souls, training ourselves in the virtues and, ultimately, love. It is the means by which we put to death our members on the earth and set our minds on things above (cf. Colossians 3:1-11). In this way, Christian asceticism actually has an exceptionally high view of the body: it is not evil or devoid of spiritual worth but rather essential to our spiritual development.

But how can asceticism, often associated exclusively with monks and mystics, be a societal principle? As I write in my paper,

[W]e can confirm this by reflecting on the everyday habitus of the family. Do we not call dysfunctional a family in which the children are allowed to eat ice cream for breakfast, where the family spends no intentional time together, and disobedience is never disciplined? Do we not rightly call deadbeat a parent who abandons his/her children, refusing to sacrifice in order to provide for them, instead pursuing a selfish existence? Healthy families, on the other hand, eat meals together according to their own established dietary limitations (“eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert,” for example); they share time and space with one another; the parents sacrifice their time and desires in order to work to provide for the children; the children are required to do chores to contribute to the household; and so on. Society simply does not “work” apart from ascetic self-renunciation.

I go on to clarify: “True, such asceticism may be quite light by most standards and not the perfect embodiment of the ideal, but the basic principle must, nonetheless, be present.” Understood in this way, there is no society that can survive apart from some degree of asceticism.

I find this to be a perspective particularly suited to the Orthodox tradition because there is still an expectation there that everyone would take part in asceticism to some extent. Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days, and the periods of Advent and Lent, among others, are periods where greater emphasis is not only put on fasting, but prayer, almsgiving, simplicity, repentance, etc. Intentional asceticism is still an integral part of the Orthodox ethos, and the Orthodox tradition is full of wisdom regarding the ascetic way of life.

All of this is well and good, but what does it mean for a free society? According to Edmund Burke,

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Asceticism is historically the means by which Christians train themselves, in cooperation with divine grace, to put “a controlling power upon will and appetite.” The more self-restraint people have within, the more limited government they can afford to have. The more austere people are with themselves, the more they will have to give to others, thus reducing the need for government assistance. Thus government austerity requires a culture of austerity (and generosity).

In our nation today, both are needed to a great extent. We have a problem with debt that is only getting bigger by the day, and a significant portion of it is due to making promises to future generations that we cannot realistically keep if our attitudes and practices toward debt and deficits do not change. We are simultaneously promising our children all sorts of entitlements, many of which are in fact laudable things and worth trying to save, but all of which together are economically unsustainable at our current rate. Yet if we want our government to be more austere for the sake of fiscal responsibility—and we should—then we also ought to encourage a more ascetic culture, where austerity for the sake of generosity and love, i.e. true asceticism, is seen as a way of life, what holds our society together, and the means by which we are truly free. Otherwise it will be our own passions that “forge [our] fetters,” and we will only need to look in the mirror to see who to blame.


  1. And what have we learned here? All that research and writing to conclude what the Prophet proclaimed in two verses:

    “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God: yes, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do to them; and he did it not. (Jonah 3:8-10)

    Well, except for the positive outcome, but as Met. Anthony (Khrapovitsky) quietly instructed confessors, “We are far removed from the time of Grace.” Translation: no one bothers to speak to Nineveh, “that great city,” because no one is listening.

    On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask as to where the “fruit” of the asceticism so aptly described may be found: Are the sick being healed? Demons driven away? Lives restored? Certainly not by me. And I do not know of one single person who was healed by a “Conservative actively resisting the collectivist impulse of secular liberalism,” but it could just be me and a statistical selection bias error. I strongly suspect, however, that the issue is the state of faith, the weakness of faith, the lack of faith. Period. It is obvious & transparent beyond all the rhetoric. And when we speak with a lack of moral authority, no one listens. “We also ought to encourage a more ascetic culture?” Seriously? Freely we have been given, freely… we must be given again. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord! Like the streams in the Negev.” (Ps. 125:4)

    I don’t know what it is, Abouna, but of late you seem inordinately “struck” by mediocre scholarship. Maybe you need to listen to more hip-hop. Just a thought…

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse

      No one bothers to speak to Ninevah? Met. Jonah did.

      On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask as to where the “fruit” of the asceticism so aptly described may be found: Are the sick being healed? Demons driven away? Lives restored?

      Actually, yes, people are being healed, demons are driven away, and lives are being restored.

      • Met. Jonah you say… And how did that whole “moral authority” thing work out for him? The only way to rescue him is to blame Nineveh, that great city. Unfortunately, admirable acts do not make admirable men (and likewise, magnanimity, a warm smile, or a white hat). I leave to your imagination what the Prophet Jonah might have possessed that would move a king and a great city to repent, but a hint is “genuineness.” And as to your “actual” confirmation that the gifts of asceticism are present – more importantly, present to the point where we, in good conscience, can “encourage a more ascetic culture” because we demonstrate this in practice – I say “γεύσασθε καὶ ἴδετε ὅτι χρηστὸς ὁ κύριος” (Ps. 34:8) which we commonly translate as “taste and see that the Lord is Good (Christos),” but in the vernacular translates, “show me the money.” A conservative speech & (unidentified) healings hardly constitute “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation.” (1 Pet. 2:9) We need to take and receive – to become Nineveh – before we presume to encourage others.

        • Fr. Johannes Jacobse

          I think +Jonah’s critics would never be satisfied even if Christ came back and preached. No one reached into American society with the lucidity +Jonah did, and no one is on the horizon to replace him.

          • I beg to disagree; we have many who preach to Nineveh. They just happen to be mostly parish priests, but that is OK. Also, I do think that in this age global communications, there are more ways to do so than preaching on the agora. Bottom line: having a Metropolitan helps but is not essential in our witness to the world.

        • In that Mr. Michalopulos has set a light on my comment, it seems to beg my clarification:

          The point I was attempting to make was that the “miracle” of Nineveh had nothing to do with the Prophet Jonah per se. He was, in fact, a reluctant, indifferent prophet whose entire admonition is summed up in one sentence: “”Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4). Certainly the people of Nineveh heard him, but they “believed God,” obeyed the king, and joined with one another mutually in fasting & repentance; and by this obedience, fasting, & repentance, they literally changed the mind of God!

          My point, then, was to inquire 1) where are the moral authorities whose “genuineness” of presence leaves no question that they are “sent by the Lord,” and who will, in their person, provoke a “change of mind and a turn of heart?” And 2) where are characteristics of the faith founded in obedience, fasting, and repentance that are the demonstrable “fruits” of the ascetic way? My suggestion is that, ultimately, the answer to the former speaks to the answer to the latter.

          Somehow, my comment – “speaking to Nineveh” – has been has concretized into the literal act of “preaching & speech-making.” This was not my point. I spoke of the moral authority, the one who provokes unity, provides direction, who provokes trust, in whose presence “there is the Church.” One is only reminded of the words of, as St. Chrysostom notes, “that Great Moses,” as to the value of “inspiring delivery”

          “And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?'” (Ex. 6:12)

          Mr. Kraeff’s point is well taken that Nineveh is indeed ministered to by God’s chosen priests, likened to a service above that of the angels and archangels. What is missing, however, is leadership and authority, and this is never derived from its characteristics, but likewise never mistaken in its genuineness: “‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you’. Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord.” (Jonah 3:2-3). The Ninevites, in turn, inspired Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to proclaim for history, “I know it when I see it.”

          • Fr. Johannes Jacobse

            The change of heart and mind occurs through the preaching and hearing of the Gospel. The Gospel is the prophetic word since Pentecost because it reveals Christ when preached and heard.

            I hope Met. Jonah returns to speaking. Clearly he has a gift for it. I think he is as effective as Fr. Tom Hopko was/is and reaches contemporary culture in ways the few Orthodox speakers do.

            As an aside, don’t forget that much of the Prophet Jonah’s reticence was due to being sent to a nation other than Israel. It was the first indication that the God of Abraham was more than the God of the Abrahamic tribe. That book must have been revolutionary in its day.

            • That’s an astute exegetical observation, Fr. Hans. It shows a continuity between Jonah and, say, Third Isaiah.

        • No careful reader of the Bible needs to imagine “what the Prophet Jonah might have possessed that would move a king and a great city to repent.” It wasn’t “genuineness” or any other innate personal characteristic. It was the Word of God that came to him and instructed him in how to speak to the king. Jonah’s unsuitability for the task is underlined by his reaction to God’s command. So it is with many of the prophets (Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) who object to being chosen by God and even argue with him. It is the divine Word that moves the king and the great city to repent.

          So personality has nothing to do with it. Mr. Stankovich acknowledges as such in a later post, yet still tries to return to the idea that “genuineness of presence” is what is needed. It is not. What is needed is faithful preaching of the Word of God, the kind that all the prophets got down to sooner or later. Without this, nothing else matters or has any true effect. People can fast and pray and bewail their sins as much for egotistical self-gratification as they can for true repentance.

  2. And What does it say that the vast majority of Orthodox Bishops in America (who should be models of such asceticism) live robust suburban lifstyles never having to worry about a single material need for their entire lives?

    I admire Dylan’s opitimism alot but it looks like he hasn’t been mugged by Orthodox reality in America. Everything that is wrong in America is equally wrong with the American Orthodox Hierarchy.

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse

      It says that most of them are out of touch.

    • Geo Michalopulos

      Amen, Andrew.

      • George,

        Now that taxes are going up, those Orthodox leaders who live large lives should realize that the amount of available income people have to donate to the Church will be reduced.

        • Don’t count on it Andrew. If they are as out of touch as Fr. Hans suggests, they will simply not fathom the connection. That is, of course, a symptom of the problem. However, I wonder how many of us go out of our way to politely, respectfully and persistantly communicate with our bishops. I’m blessed, I am a member of a cathedral parish and see my bishop frequently and he makes himself available to us and I am always able to e-mail him

          The connection between a bishop and his flock is not just one way.

          BTW comfortable suburban bishops means that they have comfortable suburban flocks. If we want better bishops, we have to be less of this world as well (the point, I think of the original post).

        • D.O.M. (Perignon)

          Nice observation, Andrew. Telling it like it is. These bloated whited sepulchers of whom you speak (the Orthodox Hierarchy) also do not speak about important moral issues and cower in the face of blatant societal evil. I was raised to respect the church leadership and honor our bishops; however, it is clearly obvious to me that they have lost touch with their people, the “average joe” pew dweller. They, like our corrupt governement, are celebrating Palm Sunday each day and each weekend with their hands out asking for more money.

        • Fr. Johannes Jacobse

          Some are out of touch, some are not. D.O.M, keep the discussion on the issues, not personalities.

  3. Real asceticism requires faith. It is an expression of knowing God’s abundance in humility that He provides: life, health, all of our physical and spiritual needs.

    Repentance is an ascetical act.

    The ideological solutions of statism vs. individual sovereignty or worse scientism are each filled with the lust of power, control of others and the dark hopelessness and arrogance of nihilism, i.e. the demonic spirit. THIS KIND COMES OUT ONLY BY PRAYER AND FASTING.

    The Cross, in all its forms, is the answer.

    One way is death, the other, abundant life. Real life, not the erstatz life of the world.

    Although the Cross nor man is fundamentally moral in content but ontological

    Neither do I find Mr Stankovich’s quote at all applicable in fact his use of that quote shows to me he has missed the point and is merely practicing “cut and paste” exegesis once again.

    It matters not what others do, only whether I follow the Lord where He leads me into the Church.

    This post reminds me how poorly I am doing and how I have to shed the mind and heart of “The Critic” before I can hope to enter The Kingdom.


  1. […] His plaint is real. Except during the brief interlude of Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen’s leadership of the OCA, the Orthodox Church has done precious little over the years to “preach to Nineveh.” Fr. Hans Jacobse, the proprietor of the AOI pointed this out in his reply. […]

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