of the 

Plato and Aristotle, Raphael
The School of Athens, Vatican



 THE Greek word for asceticism: σκησις, askēsis  originally referred in classical Greek to training, practice, exercise, or discipline.  It was particularly used in regard to the quest for  athletic excellence, but was also applied to training for a profession, an art, or a mode of life.
LATER the Greek philosophers employed it in reference to moral perfection; it described the exercise and art of refraining from vice and practicing virtue (the word “virtue” aretē, ἀρετή,  means “excellence”, and also originally referred to athletic excellence).



The following is adapted from:
H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, H. S.Jones, & R.McKenzie, (Clarendon, Oxford University Press: Oxford;  New York, 1996)


THE VERB, ASK, ἀσκέω,


I , work raw materials, ερια, κέρα, Il.3.388, 4.110;

1). work curiously, form by art, [κρητῆρα] Σιδόνεσ πολυδάδαλοι εὖ ἤσκησαν ib.23.743; ἑρμῖν᾽ ἀσκήσας Od.23.198; πτύξασα καὶ ἀσκήσασα χιτῶνα having folded and smoothed it, ib.1.439; ἅρμα .. χρυσῷ καὶ ἀργύρῳ εὖ ἤσκηται Il.10.438; χορὸν ἤσκησεν ib.18.592; γόμφοις ἀ. Emp.87: added in aor. part. to Verbs, [θρόνον] τεύξει ἀσκήσας elaborately, Il.14.240; [χρυσὸν] βοὶς κέρασιν περίχευεν ἀσκήσας Od.3.437; [ἔξυα᾽ ἀσκήσασα Il.14.179.

2). of personal adornment, dress out, trick out, ἀ. τινὰ κόσμω Hdt.3.1; ἐς κάλλος ἀσκεῖ decks herself, E.El.1073; δέμας Id.Tr.1023:—freq. in Pass., σκιεροῖς ἠσκημένα γυίοις furnished with .., Emp.61.4; πέπλοισι Περαικοῖς ἠσκημένη A.Pers.182; οὐ χλιδαῖς ἠσκημένον S.El.452; of buildings, παστὰς ἠσκημένη στύλοισι Hdt.2.169; Παρί λίθ σκημένα Id.3.57; abs., οκημα σκημένον Id.2.130; σμα λόγοισ σκ. tricked out with words only, not real, S.El.1217:—Med., σμ πλοισ σκήσατο adorned his own person, E.Hel.1379, cf. Alc.161.

II. practise, exercise, train, esp. in Prose and Com., properly of athletic exercise,

. . . 3). c. inf., ἄσκει τοιαύτη μένειν practise, endeavour to remain such, S.El.1024; λέγειν ἠσκηκότες Id.Fr.963; εὐσεβεῖν ἠσκηκότα E.Fr.1067; ἀ. γαστρὸς κρείττους εἶναι, τοὺς φίλους ἀγαθὰ ποιεῖν, X.Cyr.4.2.45, 5.5.12, cf. Mem.2.1.6; ἤσκει ἐξομιλεῖν παντοδαποῖς he made a practice of associating .., Id.Ag.11.4.

4). abs., practise, go into training, Pl.R.389c, X.Cyr.2.1.29; ο σκέοντες those who practise gymnastics, Hp.Acut.9; περὶ τὰς βαναύσους τέχνας Plb.9.20.9.


THE NOUN, ASKĒSIS, ἄσκησις  -εως, ἡ, (ἀσκέω)

I. exercise, practice, training, ἐξ ἀσκήσιος ἀγαθοὶ γίνονται Democr.242, cf. Protag.3, Pl.Prt.323d, al.; γυμνασίων καὶ ἀσκησίων ἐπιμελόμενοι Hp.VM4, cf. Th.2.39; πολεμική X.Cyr.8.1.34; ππική IG2.478b18: in pl., exercises, ἔθεσι καὶ ἀσκήσεσι Pl.R.518e, cf. Plt.294d.

II. c. gen., ἄ. τινος practice of or in a thing, Th.5.67; ἀρετῆς X.Mem.1.2.20; δειλίας ἀλλα᾽ οὐκ ἀνδρείας Pl.Lg.791b.

III. generally, mode of life, profession, Luc.Vit.Auct.7; of a philosophical sect, ἡ Κυνικὴ ἄ. Id.Tox.27.

2. of religious sects, asceticism, Str.15.1.61, 17.1.29, Ph.1.643, J.BJ2.8.10.

IV. adornment, τν τριχν  (of the hair) Aeschin.Socr.18.



The following is adapted from:
of the
G. KITTEL, tr. G. Bromley, (Eerdmans, 1963)


THE VERB, ASK, ἀσκέω,

IN the New Testament this word is found only at Acts. 24:16:

SO I always exert myself (askō) to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men at all times.

ν τούτ κα ατς σκω̂ πρόσκοπον συνείδησιν χειν πρς τν θεν κα τος νθρώπους δι παντός

IT is used here in the sense of “I exercise or exert myself.” In taking pains to have a conscience void of offence towards God and man, Paul is careful to listen constantly to the admonishing and warning voice of conscience in order not to offend God or man and not to neglect any obligations towards them.

THIS sense of askein/ἀσκεῖν is already current in classical and Hellenistic Greek, and also in Jewish Hellenism [the Greek-speaking Jewish tradition, influenced to some extent by Greek philosophy, especially Plato].

In the ancient Greek literary tradition Homer uses the term only in the sense of technical adornment and artistic effort.1 From the time of Herodotus and Pindar, however, it acquires the more spiritual sense of exercising a virtue.

 e.g., Hdt., 1,96; VII, 209: τν ληθείην σκέειν; Plat.Euthyd., 283a: σοφίαν κα ρετν σκει̂ν; Gorg., 527e: δικαιοσύνην καρετήν; though naturally also in the opp. sense, as in Aesch.Prom., 1065: κακότητ σκει̂ν. With the acc., σκει̂ν in this sense (e.g., in Ac. 24:16) has also an infin., e.g., Xenoph.Cyrop., V, 5, 12: σκω̂ντος φίλους ς πλει̂στα γαθ ποιει̂ν; Epict.Diss., III, 12, 10: σκησον, ε γοργς εἰ̂, λοιδορούμενος νέχεσθαι, τιμασθες μ χθεσθη̂ναι.

AN important special meaning develops in relation to , i.e., the training of the body (soma askein/σω̂μα σκει̂ν) in the sense of gymnastic and athletic exercises; hence  askētes = athlētes

σκητής == θλητής (→ θλέω), as may be seen clearly in Xenoph.Mem., 1, 2, 19: ρω̂ γάρ, σπερ τ του̂ σώματος ργα τος μ τ σώματα σκου̂ντας ο δυναμένους ποιει̂ν, οτω κα τ τη̂ς ψυχη̂ς ργα τος μ τν ψυχν σκου̂ντας ο δυναμένους. Thus σκει̂ν becomes synon. with → γυμνάζεσθαι (cf. Epict.Diss., III, 10, 7: νεκα τούτου γυμναζόμην, π του̂το σκουν), or with → μελετα̂ν (cf. Epict.Diss., I, 25, 31; 1 Tm. 4:7).2

[THROUGH the writings of the Greek philosophers] the Greek world was already familiar with spiritual asceticism in the sense of exercise in the taming of the passions and the doing of righteous acts, or of conscious and almost technical exercise in the control of thoughts and impulses. We can see this in the older Sophists, who singled out

askēsis/σκησις as a third factor alongside

nature (phusis/φύσις) and

instruction (mathēsis/μάθησις) in the process of education.

Further examples are to be found especially in Epict.Diss., III, 3, 16: κα του̂το ε πολου̂μεν κα πρς του̂το σκούμεθα καθ μέραν ξ ρθρου μέχρι νυκτός, γίνετο ν τι, ν τος θεούς, and again in IV, 1, 81; III, 2, 1, where there is mention of the three τόποι in which the man who would be καλς κα γαθός must exercise himself. Cf. also III, 12, 8.

IN [the philosopher] Epictetus, however, we can already see indications of the later concept of asceticism, i.e., the voluntary adoption of renunciations, privations and self-chastenings, cf. Ench., 47.

PHILO of Alexandria [, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus whose mystical commentaries on the Old Testament strongly influenced the mystical exegesis of early Christianity] introduced both the term [askēsis] and the reality into theological ethics. He allots the three functions in the Sophist doctrine of education, i.e.,

instruction (mathēsis/μάθησις)

nature, (phusis/φύσις), and

asceticism (askēsis/σκησις) ,

to the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.5 Jacob is for [Philo] the model ascetic = [moral] athlete  σκητής == θλητής, the spiritual wrestler (on the basis of Genesis 32:24 ff.);6 cf. Leg. All., III, 190 πτερνισθήσεται πρὸς του̂ πάλην ἠσκηκότος Ιακώβπάλην δ οὐ τὴν σώματος, ἀλλ ἣν παλαίει ψυχή, πρὸς τοὺς ἀνταγωνιστὰς τρόπους αὐτη̂ς πάθεσι καὶ κακίαις μαχομένη. Here we have the foundation of the later ecclesiastical concept of asceticism to the degree that in this bodily and spiritual training the emphasis lies on the taming of desires and abstention from all enjoyment.7 Philo already makes the link λιγοδεΐαν κα γκράτειαν σκει̂ν in Praem. Poen., 100, as also καθαρν εσέβειαν σκει̂ν in Abr., 129.

IT is from [Philo] particularly that the fathers of the Christian Church from the time of Clement of Alexandria and Origen adopt both the usage and the corresponding scriptural types (Jacob etc.). Cf. Cl. Al.Paed., I, 7, 57; Strom., I, 5, 31 (Jacob the athlete / θλητής and ascetic / σκητής); Orig.Cels., VII, 48 (of Christians): σκου̂σι τν παντελη̂ παρθενίαν; and the ancient burial inscription:8 τν μοναδικν σκήσας βίον.9 Yet already in Tat.Or. Graec., 19 there is reference to the θανάτου καταφρονει̂ν κα τν ατάρκειαν σκει̂ν of the philosophers, which they preach but do not practise.  Ascesis/σκησις is here training and perseverance in renunciation and contempt for death. The asceticism of Christian monasticism has one of its roots in that of the New Testament. But it does not take from it either the despising of the body or the prescription of definite exercises.

APART from Acts 24:16, Paul never uses the word [asceticism]. Yet in substance we already find in Paul this training in bodily and spiritual self-discipline and renunciation, e.g., in 1 Cor. 9:25–27,

25 Every athlete exercises self-control (enkrateuesthai) in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel (hupōpiazō) my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

where the words → enkrateuesthai/γκρατεύεσθαι and hupōpiazō/πωπιάζω μου τ σμα κα δουλαγωγ obviously depict the asceticism (askein/ἀσκεῖν)of the spiritual athlete. This meaning is not so dramatically expressed in Acts 24:16. It is obvious, however, that the concern of the apostle to have a conscience void of offence is a definite task which fully occupies him from morning to night in all the situations in which he has dealings with God and human beings.

IT the Septuagint [the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Jews who lived outside of Israel] askein/σκει̂ν and its derivatives are almost completely absent. Only in 2 Macc. 15:4 do we find σκει̂ν τν βδομάδα, “to keep the Sabbath” (= → τηρει̂ν in Rev. 1:3 and → παρατηρει̂ν in Gl. 4:10); in 4 Macc. 13:22 askesis/σκησις occurs in the sense of discipline and training in the keeping of the Law: κα αξονται σφοδρότερον δι συντροφίας κα τη̂ς καθ μέραν συνηθείας κα τη̂ς λλης παιδίας κα τη̂ς μετέρας ν νόμ θεου̂ σκήσεως. [. . .]

IT is perhaps surprising that when σκει̂ν is so common in Jewish Hellenism and Christian literature from the time of the post-apostolic fathers, it should occur only once in the NT, and its derivatives not at all. For Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 9:25 ff.), the author of Acts and above all the author of the Pastorals this is possibly a mere accident. Cf. especially 1 Tm. 4:7f., where γύμναζε σεαυτόν seems to be the equivalent of σκει and σωματικ γυμνασία of σκησις, just as τ δ σκει̂ν εσέβειαν might well have been written for the antithetical δ εσέβεια.


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