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Empirical Examinations of Asceticism from the Perspective of Cultural Evolution

Panel Chair: Anders Klostergaard Petersen | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

In the wake of renewed interest in cultural evolution - associated with Bellah and Eisenstadt - this panel focuses on the phenomenon of asceticism from a cultural evolutionary perspective. Whereas the first two papers are concerned with empirical analyses of asceticism in the religious context of late Second Temple Judaism and formative Islam, the last two papers − in continuity of Sloterdijk − extend the phenomenon to include wider cultural phenomena such as art. All four papers share Sloterdijk’s understanding of áskesis as programs of training. It is on the basis of such an admittedly more comprehensive concept of asceticism that we are able to include not only various forms of religiously motivated bodily self-renunciation but also, for instance, art. Through the various examples provided we shall examine asceticism in terms of continuity, transformation, and discontinuity. Thereby, the panel covers all four of the central themes of the World Congress.

Sif Egede

Asceticism as Martyrdom: Excessive Askesis in the Context of Late Second Temple Judaism

In Bellah’s concept of the Axial Age, renunciation from the world constitutes a prevalent feature. The devaluation of the earth and concomitantly worldly goods correlates to a parallel change in religious life style. Although periodic ascetic practices such as fasting are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, asceticism comes to the fore of the discussion in the first century BCE story of the mother and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees. Convinced of other-worldly life, they exemplify the ultimate ascetic action: martyrdom. Contrary to other contemporaneous ascetic movements, these ascetics are not depicted as merely renouncing their daily lives as a consequence of a philosophical and religious devaluation of the world. They are sacrificing their lives for the sake of the Torah. The narratives about this radical form of self-sacrifice serve to glorify extreme asceticism in late Second Temple Judaism – at least so in the context of 2 and 4 Maccabees.

Mette Bjerregaard Mortensen

Asceticism in the Early extra-Quranic Tradition

Based on Weber’s typology of authority (from charismatic to traditional and institutional authority), I scrutinise the phenomenon of asceticism in the context of formative Islam. The underlying idea is that there is an intrinsic relationship between the emergence of particular forms of genre and specific types of authority. Whereas the Quran is predominantly epitomising a charismatic type of authority, the subsequent emergence of a vast body of extra-Quranic literature (hadith and sirah) is indicative of the transition towards a traditional form of authority. The more distant Muhammad becomes as founder of the new religious movement, the more important is the need for retaining the traditions of Muhammad in terms of biography (sirah) and as a model to be emulated (hadith). Both elements exhibit the transition to a traditional form of authority and the evolvement of ascetic practices (most explicitly in the hadith literature).

Anders Klostergaard Petersen

Asceticism in the Transition from Religion to Art: Bridging the Gap between Asceticism in the Context of Religion in Particular and in the Context of Culture in General

Traditionally, asceticism is conceived of as a religious phenomenon. In the wake of Peter Sloterdijk, however, one may examine it as a far more prevalent phenomenon disseminated with the emergence of early modernity to wider and semi-autonomous sectors of culture such as education, sports and arts. In order to account for this process of increased diffusion, I shall apply a cultural evolutionary perspective that will allow us to account for the continuity in and of ascetic practices, on the one hand, and the discontinuity in terms of the emergence of secular forms of asceticism, on the other hand. Operating with a macro-perspective that takes us back to the emergence of utopian or axial age forms of religion in antiquity, I shall scrutinise the phenomenon in terms of a continuum at which we for obvious analytical purposes may impose various caesura that, simultaneously, will enable us to account for important transformations.

Lieke Wijnia

Transforming Art into Programs of Training: Self-Staging in Contemporary Art

The contemporary art scene offers a relevant field to be explored in the framework of asceticism as programs of training (Sloterdijk). This applies not least to the most influential current of performance art. This paper highlights the work of Serbian artist Marina Abramovic (1946). Since her first performance in the early 1970s, Abramovic has tested and explored physical and mental boundaries, her own as well as those of her audiences. While continuously demanding committed involvement, her long-durational works have seen a remarkable transition in character, from physical to mental intensity. In performances like The Artist is Present (2010) and 512 Hours (2014), Abramovic not only creates the conditions for her own self-staging but also for the audience members. I explore the dual character of performance art as a contemporary form of asceticism by examining how the performances offer a mode of training for both the artist and the audience.


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