Book Review: Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism

Vincent L. Wimbush, Claremont Graduate University

First published in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, vol. 8, no. 4 (1996), by Walter de Gruyter.


The study of asceticism in the West, still focused primarily upon Christian traditions, has come a rather long way in the last two decades. From focus upon texts, upon the history of ideas and practices (mainly of the early church desert "fathers"), and upon the general arts of the spiritual life, a shift of emphasis and scope is evident: Not only has the circle of students and conversation partners in the field been widened beyondchurch historians and theologians to include philosophers, cultural critics, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and literary critics, the scholarly agenda itself has also been broadened. It is no longer enough for asceticism to be defined by the rhetorics and behaviours of the Christian desert fathers; an understanding of the universality and complexity of the ascetic impulse has more recently led many scholars of a particular tradition to seek conversation with, and to learn from, scholars of other traditions. Even where there is focus primarily upon Christianity, it can no longer be assumed that the earliest or most representative model of ancient Christian asceticism is the desert figure; an understanding of the diversity and complexity of early Christianity, on the one hand, and asceticism, on the other, simply will not sustain such narrow representation. Christian asceticism did not begin or end in the desert. One can now find support and company in the attempt to understand ascetic impulses and behaviours as universal phenomena, even as one focuses mainly upon one particular historical and cultural tradition. The shift in scholarly agenda and in types of conversation partners has not lessened but increased interest in the particular representation of the ascetic. The significant change now lies in the change of attitude, especially in recognizing the importance of lack of closure regarding the ascetic in anyone tradition or period of history. The quest on the part of many students of asceticism has changed from trying to offer the definitive statement about an historical ascetic figure or tradition - as though such a statement or figure or tradition could exhaust asceticism - to the attempt to use such study as springboard into the study of the complexities of the ascetic life and of cultures themselves. Respect for the many different, even conflicting, cultural and historical representations and cultural and socio-political ramifications is maintained.