Front Page Titles (by Subject) 14.: On Asceticism and Its Position - Judgments on History and Historians
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
14.: On Asceticism and Its Position - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
On Asceticism and Its Position
(I) Asceticism does not arise from justification by works (it does not become that until late), nor does it come into being as penance by proxy for others who in their lives on earth have no time to do penance (this, too, is a late concept), but it is the authentic expression of the genuine pessimism inherent in Christianity. Entirely consistent with this is celibacy—not by any means solely as a denial of sensuality, although this, too, plays a strong part in it (sensual enjoyment is a direct contradiction of Christianity which in this respect strongly sunders itself from the nature religions), but because the survival of mankind is not at all desirable. In the fourth and fifth centuries the will to extinction exists in the noblest minds quite independent of the external fate of the Empire. Side by side with this there lives a mob that in the midst of all the misery is fanatically devoted to circuses.
Only after the migrations of the Germanic tribes did the ascetically inclined eo ipso become priests or monks, and only then was the clergy as such obliged to constitute the ascetic caste, something that was often rather badly out of keeping with its real behavior. Christianity was to be put into consistent practice in at least one definite class. This explains the demand for celibacy which appeared repeatedly and finally prevailed. The clergy was to represent that perfection which a layman could not achieve; only in this way could the clergy be worthy of dispensing the means of salvation of the church. Only in return for such renunciation could the clergy demand that show of respect which was based on its being regarded by others as holy.
To be sure, penance by proxy and justification by works already appear here. In the meantime, the question of celibacy became involved with the entire gradually won position of power for the hierarchy, which had to possess the priests completely and safeguard church property from being squandered and used up by the priests’ families.
How early was the intercessory prayer of an ascetic, the precursor of penance by proxy, considered valuable? How early were monasteries endowed for the sake of such prayers?
(II) Asceticism and its complete realization in the monastic life is the New Testament taken literally; the average Christian was no longer rising to its strict observance in his life on earth. Even by the second century the great Christian community had included also those of moderate virtue, the no longer quite saintly. Side by side with the century that had turned Christian there had earlier arisen fearful ascetic heresies like Montanism; later, however, orthodox Christianity peacefully detached itself as the monastic life and in this found its wholly justified representation. The monks are the consistent Christians, and the laymen salve their consciences with the thought that in addition to themselves such Christians exist and that perfection simply is not the business of the age. In the monasteries, too, charismata which are no longer possible or admissible on the outside may continue.