Flood, Gavin, The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory and Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Gavin Flood presents new and compelling approaches to an ancient and familiar phenomenon: asceticism. What distinguishes Flood's method from the many historical and theoretical works of recent scholarship is the focus on self. What is the conception of the self which performs the acts and renunciations we have come to call asceticism? The book is useful in exploring this question in standard Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist texts, but also is taking a methodological look at modern concepts and interpretations.

Some limitations are built in. The audience is scholarly and academic. Readers seeking a neatly concise presentation of asceticism in comparative religious practices will be lost in a thicket of terminology and technicalities. One is reminded of a doctoral dissertation, where the author must prove to readers a command of the literature in the field, a knowledge of the main commentators and sources, and a cautious, even ponderous presentation of controversy or hypotheses.

Flood does not offer a chronology or historical anecdotes, leaving that to standard surveys, instead delving into deep anthropology and phenomenology. Often, Flood reaches an interesting observation but backs off saying something like "this is not the place to discuss this or explore that." We are barely introduced to new lines of thought when they are taken from us.

Such are the limits of the presentation to the majority of potential readers interested in these ideas, but certainly not a limitation of the ideas themselves. The book's strength is in proposing thoughtful and provocative ways of conceiving of asceticism and the self. These insights are many and valuable. The book is important in articulating these lines of thought and method, and we cannot afford to be dissuaded by its limitations of style or audience.

For review purposes, the best approach will be to follow the line of thought from chapter to chapter, placing into plain language the valuable observations and conclusions of Flood's compelling study. There is much insight, and both forest and trees need to be pointed out.

CHAPTER 1. Setting the Parameters

This may be the most important chapter of the book because it clearly indicates what the author thinks about the topic. Asceticism, he tells us, cannot exist "where religion is de-cosmologized and where the idea of deferring the gratification of desire for some other good is accepted only with hesitation." Flood maintains that "no ideology of repeated abstinence [exists] in secular life." He acknowledges that there may be biological, neurological, and mechanical bases for the "universal human predisposition to asceticism" but that "without the accompaniment of tradition and an articulated idea of transcendence" there is no true asceticism.

This sets asceticism into a particular cultural manifestation, since religion is a subset of culture and not outside of it. With this understanding, Flood identifies tradition as continuity. Tradition is the cultural narrative that shapes the individual's life. Following tradition, the ascetic individual subordinates the self to a sense of continuity in order to achieve transformation.

Here is the heart of what Flood calls the "ambiguity of self." On the one hand, the person uses tradition to eradicate subjectivity. On the other hand, the person paradoxically asserts his or her subjectivity and uniqueness in order to get to a point of transforming and transcending it. The author calls this the "ironic self," which pursues voluntarily acts of will while renouncing self-will. And it is this pattern that Flood finds universal in religion, especially in those he studies in this book: Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And this is the pattern of what we commonly call asceticism.

The ascetic sees life as a flow of the body towards death, and attempts to reverse this flow of body and time, not to deny it but to, in effect, buy time to understand it, discipline it, and transform and transcend the meaning of this flow. The ascetic follows a "range of habits or bodily regimes designed to restrict or reverse the instinctual impulses of the body" with the idea that this pursuit will bring about a greater good or happiness.

The person, as part of culture, is always subject to authority and institutional power. But the ascetic also seeks to transcend that power. In order to achieve this, the ascetic appropriates tradition and makes it a narrative for subjectivity and the reversal of the flow of time and power. This may involve eradicating physical desires, minimizing worldly interaction, embracing simplicity of physical circumstances, renouncing aesthetic pleasures, pursuing mental disciplines such as prayer or meditation, and cultivating self-effacement in humility and detachment. As Flood puts it: "Through acts of will the ascetic self takes on the forms prescribed for it by tradition and generates long-term patterns of behavior intended, ironically, to subvert that will."

Because the self lives in a culture, it appropriates the relevant elements of the respective tradition to form memory, a memory that is "performed" through the body. This performance, Flood insists, is carried out in a public domain, in a community, using ritual. Ritual, for the ascetic self, is the subjective appropriation of traditions in the enactment or reenactment of cultural memory. Thus ascetic traditions:

  1. exist within or as part of cosmological religious tradition; by cosmological is meant that the religion addresses universal questions of being, meaning, the universe, and the like;
  2. interiorize cosmology, meaning that interiority of the self becomes subjectivity when it intersects with the cosmos, and this subjectivity "recapitulates cosmology";
  3. enact the memory of tradition through performance of ascetic acts.

With respect to the last point, Flood notes that remembrance of tradition is the overcoming of forgetfulness, and that asceticism, as the overcoming of forgetfulness, is "fundamentally opposed to modernity."

This incompatibility of asceticism with modern times may be illustrated by the following chart, based on Flood:

Antiquity past
medieval Christianity past & future (symbolic eschatology)
Renaissance present
Enlightenment future
Modernity present & future (as extended present)

Antiquity looks to the past, as does medieval Christianity, which, however, also looks to the future, but as a symbolic eschatology. With the Renaissance, culture lives only for the present creativity and struggle for power. The Enlightenment projects this sense of creativity and power into the future, with its faith in reason and progress. Modernity takes the Renaissance vision of the present but extends it without regard to material parameters, into the future in the continuity of Enlightenment faith. The present is a mix of modern and post-modern, the latter a critique of modern ideology, but so far only resides among the intellectual and creative classes.

The purpose of this sketch is simply to demonstrate that memory and tradition are most powerful in cultures finding their values in a continuity with the past, so that asceticism (as defined by Flood) is only possible in antiquity and the Middle Ages. A culture consciously obliterating the past cannot produce asceticism.

Remembrance of tradition is remembrance of the cosmos. How is this possible without a sense of place within the cosmos? How was this sense delivered to individuals except through cosmological traditions, be they mythologies or religions? This remembrance of the cosmos is a familiarization with the structure of the cosmos and brings with it the possibility of liberation. Enacting this memory brings with it the possibility of transformation required for liberation. Says Flood, "reversal of the body's flow is the performance of the reversal of time, which is simultaneously an anticipation of the end of time."

Finally, too, this first chapter reflects on the ambiguity of self, that paradoxical assertion of the will in order to get to the point of renouncing the will. In all of the traditions Flood examines -- Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and others -- this intensification of the subjective self points to freedom from biological necessity, to the self consciously cultivating meaning outside of biological necessity. Ultimately, this means that the self, losing the will, is pure subjectivity, no longer the self. Yet this subjectivity is bound to be tradition specific. Flood notes: "The leading tendencies of the texts [of these traditions] show how the ascetic self is set within a cosmological tradition that runs against contemporary sensibilities."

Chapter 2. The Asceticism of Work: Simone Weil

After the weighty material in Chapter 1, the reader might expect the book to plunge into the texts of the three religious traditions. To begin with Simone Weil, who lived in the modern era and who was not formally religious, seems odd. But in fact, Weil is an excellent case study, demonstrating how the ascetic self must contradict modernity and yet safeguard self from the conventions of religion.

Simone Weil was a philosopher and teacher. Her social sensibilities were trained in ancient Greek philosophy and Marxist analysis, and she upheld the basics of Marxian sociology regarding power and authority. As a philosopher and instructor, however, she did not experience the reality of social struggle, and she renounced teaching to work in factories. There she sensed the monotony and injustice of modern technology, labor, and power, but also realized that their effect on the self had not been addressed in any sociology. Weil became attracted to Christianity, especially Catholicism, seeing the cosmology she needed, but she never became Catholic. For Weil, daily life and work became an asceticism where religious belief did not give her a comfortable tradition.

Weil saw work as an emptying out of the self but without an assertive will on the part of the worker to do so. Thus the worker renounced self, specifically creative self (as Marx said), not even remediable with intentionality for transcendence. An ascetic self was not possible for the vast majority of people. For herself, the potential for asceticism would have to be created and defined by herself, as in the work of charity. Weil volunteered for medical teams in the Spanish Civil War but fell ill and had to quit this insightful venture. Ultimately, Weil could not identify a community or tradition for herself, but she became a self-directed ascetic in her personal ethics and sacrifices, and her fierce resistance to power and authority. Her philosophical writings are an engaging mix of Greek philosophy, Christian idealism, and existentialism fearlessly facing the modern world.

Chapter 3. The Asceticism of Action: the Bhagavad-gita and Yoga-sutras

Asceticism in Hindu tradition revolves around the will in action and non-action. The Bhagavad-gita presents Krishna's resolution as intentionality: "non-action in action, action in non-action." For the Hindu philosopher Shankara, agency is illusory. The true self is the immutable witness or universal consciousness, not the individual. Patanjali, author of the Yoga-sutras, goes further: the ideal is withdrawal from exteriority and pursuit of a regimen of ascetic practices. Flood notes that Patanjali's Yoga-sutras "are an excellent example of the way in which the ascetic self internalises tradition and recapitulates cosmology in inwardness."

The practices or austerities recommended by Patanjali are intended to achieve a concentration of mind that stills fluctuations resulting from externals. This stilling of the mind creates a mindfulness equivalent to memory, that is, memory of the transcendent and the One. Ritual helps confirm the practices and virtues that accompany mindfulness and reverse the flow of time.

But the grand dilemma of historical Hinduism was that the performance of acts of virtue (dharma) was governed externally by macro-history and power relationships, chiefly caste. Even the four vsarama stages of celibate youth, married household, mature hermit, and renouncer, do not address social and economic issues, being the original brahmanic obligations corresponding to stages of life. Only with non-Brahmanic practice culminating in renouncers of all ages did a breakthrough occur. These non-Brahmanic practices were tantric, Jain and Buddhist.

Chapter 4. The Asceticism of Action: Tantra

This chapter is a  brief treatment of the anti-Brahmanic and anti-caste impulse in Hinduism. The conventional dharma of the householder based on rituals and a life of material profit and legitimate pleasures, was rejected by the medieval Hindu school of Shiva tantrism. This school deliberately opposed the conventional and inefficacious dharma with radical acts of defiance, with deliberate transgression of the rules of convention. This might mean the consumption of meat and wine or ritual sex, but tantra also meant deliberate flouting of social conventions in the ascetic sense. There emerged the various eccentric practices of enduring pain, exaggerated ritual, or living in cremation grounds. Eccentric sadhus still bear witness to tantric Hinduism, as do elements of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Chapter 5. Asceticism of the Middle Way

This chapter concentrates on Buddhism, specifically the Pali texts of the Theravada tradition. The important breakthrough of Buddhism, influence in part by Jainism, is that the moral quality of actions become equivalent to intention, so that the entire universe becomes ethical. This distinguishes intentionality from ritual and dharma (as in Hinduism) and defines a new method of liberation. Liberation is not achieved through ritual but through insight, and asceticism is a prerequisite to insight.

The first insight is the recognition of suffering and the need to eradicate suffering by destroying ignorance and desire, not through rituals or extreme practices but through virtue, meditation, and insight leading to wisdom. This, after all, is the core of asceticism, and the foundation for building an ascetic self.

The Hindu renouncer, an exceptional precursor of the middle way, becomes the model for the followers of the Buddha. As Flood points out in describing the evolution of Buddhism from individual to sangha or community:

The ideal of the solitary, wandering ascetic seeking his own liberation was still a strong cultural trope in the community and, indeed, a social reality in the forest-dwelling monks. Despite the fact that the tradition developed monasticism as an institution, it never loses the ideal of the Buddhist path as solitary. Although living in community, each follows the path alone; although eradicating individual choice and individuality markers, each asserts the will to follow the path.

The Buddhist path is ... a path travelled alone. ... It is in this context and in memory of the solitary, wandering ascetic that the tradition allowed for more extreme ascetic practices.

Thus, while the historical Buddha exhausted the ascetic extremes of Hinduism and instead advised a middle way, Buddhist austerities were more severe than any modern person would consider. Buddhaghosa's Path of Purity outlines practices "for the solitary heroic renouncer, treading the path to nibbana." To Buddhaghosa, "the ideal of the ascetic self is minimum interaction with the world and an inner detachment cultivated through asceticism."

There are analogies with Jain and Hindu tantric practices in Buddhaghosa, but the emphasis is on a transition from ritual to ethics. This theme is further pursued by the Pali text Questions of King Milinda, which further develops the link of mindfulness to ethics and asceticism.

Chapter 6. Asceticism of the Desert  

This chapter deals with early Christianity and covers material more familiar to Western readers: the Desert Fathers and the Orthodox theologians. An important historical turning point in the history of Christian asceticism was the institutionalizing of the Church under the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Asceticism succeeded martyrdom as the exemplar of religious ritual, transmuting into monasticism.

However, Orthodox thought continued to prefer eremitic to coenobitic ideals, even within monastic settings, and clearly supported eremitic asceticism through the writings of Evagrius, Macarios, Maximus the Confessor, John Climaticus, and Simeon the New Theologian.

Evagrius developed a cosmology compatible with neo-Platonism, presenting the ascetic ideal as the model for achieving redemption. Developing Christology, Maximus saw deification of the self as reversing the flow of the body. Neilos of the Holy Mount went so far as to distinguish the institutionalized monk as merely an external versus the superiority of a person mastering the self. And Cassian, who did much to transmit desert spirituality to the West, developed the ideal of apatheia and linked cosmology to virtue, distinct from ritual, as the path of salvation.

Chapter 7. Asceticism of Love and Wisdom

Flood continues the analysis of Christianity in this chapter, focusing on the Middle Ages. Despite the religious continuity and especially Cassian's identification of the tools of asceticism in ritual, reading, and internalization, Flood correctly notes that "once out of the desert, monasticism became intimately linked with structures of political power."

St. Peter Damian came to represent the revolt against institutionalization. Although other figures have their place in this movement, Peter Damian "advocated  Christianity as a life of solitude and asceticism" and viewed the monastery as a "gateway to the solitary life of the hermit." This view of monasticism contradicted the historical trend of the time. In other quarters of Europe, the Beguines challenged the conventions of Church authority with their emphasis on self-perfection and transcendence, with Margaret Porete going so far as to describe the negation of the will and annihilation of self in God.

This period is one of those rich and complex eras where Flood naturally identifies highlights and cannot delve too much into detail. There is no treatment of anchoritic literature or other eremitic movements. Nevertheless, the outlines of the ascetic self, distinct from the conventions of the time, are clear.

8. The Ritual Formation of the Ascetic Self

In two concluding chapters of part 2, titled "Theorizing the Ascetic Self," the author addresses the place of the ascetic self in modern times. Chapter 8 functions as an intermediate chapter offering an extended definition of ritual.

Ritual, writes Flood,

is the patterning of life or the ordering of temporal sequence in conformity to tradition or the received culture. ... [Ritual is] a form through which culture is recapitulated through the generations and which expresses ethical values, rooting them in the body. ... [Ritual is] the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely coded by the performers.

This gives ritual the burden of absorbing all of tradition and memory. Ritual will serve as the form through which the self discovers or rediscovers values, practices, and concepts that will confirm and give weight and direction to subjectivity. But a culture based on power and authority will capture and attempt to transform ritual to its own purposes, which is the case in recent time. Flood concludes that "the cultivation of the ascetic self occurs in ritually rich cultures."

9. The ascetic self and modernity

Flood has already suggested that asceticism will find no hospitable grounds in modernity, chiefly because the modern era (in the West) is almost entirely concerned with political power, while asceticism is the opposite, the renunciation of power.

What is modernity? Stemming from the Enlightenment reaction to religion, modernity is based on the Kantian notion of autonomy and individualism, and the Nietzschean critique of asceticism as irrational (versus the Apollonian) and weak (versus the Dionysian). Modernity is based, too, on elements of psychoanalysis (Freud), sociology (Max Weber), and phenomenology (Husserl). It projects progress as immanent to the historical process.

Flood elaborates on the philosophy of Nietzsche and Foucault to illustrate the modernist critique of the past. Foucault saw power as the domination of self and the self's conformity to power and authority, excluding agency and subjectivity and suggesting a determinist view of the individual.

However, post-modernism is itself a critique of these modern premises, seeing them as biased, based on a particular power or authority perspective, falsely optimistic in its belief in reason, progress, collective psychology, and social change.


Flood concludes that the legitimacy of the ascetic self is based on scriptural tradition distinct from the claim to truth of the respective scripture or religion. The ascetic self is based on a form of life, not a form of belief. Ultimately, it is

voluntarily self-oppressive in the desire to internalize the transcendent goals of tradition, but this internalization (and performance) contains the potential for the political resistance to injustice and contains the metaphysical resources for opening out a world previously closed.

Flood has presented a fascinating exploration of a complex topic, and identifies methods for exploring the ascetic self that will prove invaluable. The groundwork is now available for a pursuit of several questions. Is the ascetic self possible in post-modernity outside of conventional definitions of tradition? What is the relationship between eremitism and the ascetic self today? Is a text-based asceticism the only possibility, given that no pure text-based tradition exists without the appropriate material and cultural conditions? What are the possibilities of a post-modern eremitism constructed eclectically from the text-traditions of the world? Is a secular ascetic self possible? What is the role of psychology and spirituality today?

Though a popular audience will miss a great deal, Flood's book is worthwhile to the discerning reader for the ground it breaks and the depth of vision it presents. Even readers familiar with asceticism and religious thought will begin to look at asceticism in a new and refreshing light.