Asceticism of the Mind: Forms of Attention and Self-Transformation in Late Antique Monasticism

Inbar Graiver

Studies and Texts 213 • 2018 • x + 238 pp. 

New in Paperback (2021): ISBN 978-0-88844-429-5 • $37.50
Casebound: ISBN 978-0-88844-213-0 • Cloth • $80

Asceticism is founded on the possibility that human beings can profoundly transform themselves through training and discipline. In particular, asceticism in the Eastern monastic tradition is based on the assumption that individuals are not slaves to the habitual and automatic but can be improved by ascetic practice and, with the cooperation of divine grace, transform their entire character and cultivate special powers and skills. Asceticism of the Mind explores the strategies that enabled Christian ascetics in the Egyptian, Gazan, and Sinaitic monastic traditions of late antiquity to cultivate a new form of existence.

At the book’s center is a particular model of ascetic discipline that involves a systematic effort to train the mind and purify attention. Drawing on contemporary cognitive and neuroscientific research, this study underscores the beneficial potential and self-formative role of the monastic system of mental training, thereby confuting older views that emphasized the negative and repressive aspects of asceticism. At the same time, it sheds new light on the challenges that Christian ascetics encountered in their attempts to transform themselves, thereby lending insight into aspects of their daily lives that would otherwise remain inaccessible. Asceticism of the Mind brings rigorously historical and cognitive perspectives into conjunction across a range of themes, and in so doing opens up new ways of exploring asceticism and Christian monasticism. By working across the traditional divide between the humanities and the cognitive sciences, it offers new possibilities for a constructive dialogue across these fields.


An excerpt from the introduction


Inbar Graiver, a postdoctoral scholar at the Faculty of Theology at Humboldt University, studied philosophy, comparative literature, grammar, and general history before she completed her doctorate in medieval and late antique history at Tel Aviv University. Her current research is devoted to the ancient, late antique, and early Byzantine history of psychological knowledge and the processes related to its production, dissemination, and application. Her articles have appeared in The Journal of Early Christian StudiesThe Journal of Religion, and The Journal of Cognitive Historiography.


“In Asceticism of the Mind, Inbar Graiver makes extensive use of the insights of social cognition and related disciplines such as cognitive psychology to offer new perspectives on  the practices of early Christian ascetics and monastics, focusing especially on what she calls attentiveness, that is, the methods ascetics used to focus their minds on the divine. This is an original and timely book that has much to offer to scholars of Christianity, early and late, and to all others interested in ascetic discipline.” — Susanna ElmUniversity of California, Berkeley

“This is a highly original study of the strategies employed in the Eastern monastic tradition to influence character and mental disposition by cognitive means. The book explores the methods utilized by monks for self-transformation and self-stabilization that are described in detail in their writings and situates these writings within late ancient religious history, as well as examining them in the perspective of recent experiments on attention, introspection, and related problems in the field of cognitive psychology. In her patient and well-informed analysis of these texts, Inbar Graiver makes an important contribution to the growing literature linking the humanities and the brain sciences.” — Brian StockUniversity of Toronto


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