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Aesthetic and Ascetic

St. Anthony - Desert Father (Ascetic)St. Anthony The Great was an Ascetic who resisted wild beasts in the desert

It seems these days that there are far too many ascetically pleasing pieces of art hanging on walls, or aesthetic monks running about Europe. Didn’t catch what was wrong with that sentence? Take another look. Since when was a monk visually pleasing, or a painting self-denying? If this doesn’t make you cringe, it certainly makes the staff of Where Books Begin start climbing the walls.

Admittedly, I was a religion major in college. I know what an ascetic is. I’ve written papers on these guys. But most people haven’t. Most people, when they sit down to write, know exactly the idea they want to convey, but have only heard the word in conversation, or are defeated by their computer’s spell check, or just get mixed up. It’s an honest mistake.

So what are these two words? What do they really mean?

As far as definition goes, these two words could hardly be more opposite to each other. Ascetic is defined as "abstinence from worldly pleasures or creature comforts", often with the aim of spiritual gain. Usually, the word refers specifically to monks.

Aesthetic, on the other hand, is defined as "concerning the appreciation of beauty or good taste". In other words, an ascetic is one who denies worldly pleasures, while one who appreciates aesthetics celebrates them.

So the question becomes, how on earth did two words which have such different meanings ever come to sound — and look — so similar?

Let’s start with ascetic. The word ascetic originally comes from the Greek, ἀσκεῖν, askein, to work. Eventually, the word was applied specifically to monks who, you guessed it, worked hard to attain spiritual perfection. Very hard. These monks were known to do such things as wear hair shirts (the origin of another English phrase), go days without eating and, of all things, sit atop high poles. There was a whole movement of pole-sitters.

Ἀσκεῖν, askein, however, is a Greek verb, and monks tend to be nouns. So the word was altered to reflect this new use. The monks were now called Ἀσκητής, Asketes. The word eventually mutated into ἀσκητικός,ή,όν, asketikos, the form eventually adopted into English.

As for Aesthetic, it entered the English language relatively late — in 1798. It was borrowed from the French, esthétique, which itself originated (once again) from Greek, αἰσθητικός,ή,όν, aisthetikos, or αἰσθάνεσθαι, aisthanesthai, meaning “perceptible to the senses”, or “to perceive”, respectively.

The real problem arose when the words were brought into English. We’ve got lazy tongues, we Americans. Saying asketic is hard. That “k” sound is difficult to sneak into the word. Try saying it aloud, just to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Over time, that “k” just dropped out of the word. And once that “k” sound was gone, the aural distinction between ascetic and aesthetic became much harder to pick up on.

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