Paul C. Dilley. Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognition and Discipline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
In considering the monastic mind(s) of late antiquity, Paul Dilley rejects models entrenched in a Cartesian dualism—opting instead to explore modes of embodied cognition. He proposes that the cognitive training practiced by early Christian monks led to the “gradual acquisition of a new and particularly monastic theory of mind” (14-15) wherein: 1) the mind is permeable; 2) whatever their origin, thoughts are of fundamental moral significance; 3) learning to cope with “bad thoughts” requires careful implementation of visualization/audition practices; and 4) the mind is not only permeable but accessible—especially to God. To this end he expands on the existing body of scholarship on the emergence and development of cenobitic monasticism, while also drawing on the insights of cognitive science—described as “the interdisciplinary study of the human mind and its processes, including perception, attention, memory, emotion, imagination, consciousness, and reason” (10). The result is a study in what Dilley deems “cognitive historicism,” with “its emphasis on understanding texts in their historical and ideological context, as well as uncovering the mechanisms of power in cultural representations” (12). His analysis spans seven chapters, divided into three parts. Throughout, he draws on a familiar cast of characters: Anthony, Pachomius, Shenoute, Cassian, Jerome, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine. In terms of textual evidence, however, the focus rests mainly on the rules of Pachomius (assembled in various collections), as well as Shenoute’s extensive literary oeuvre.
Dilley’s approach is methodologically sophisticated, and he makes a convincing case for the applicability (and accessibility) of certain bedrock principles in the cognitive science in religion (CSR)—like “theory of mind”—to studies of early Christianity. In the “Introduction,” however, Dilley also assures readers that, unlike most CSR studies, “I do not seek to explain religious beliefs and practices by assuming and appealing to various evolutionarily adapted mental capacities; nor do I draw upon controversial ‘just-so’ stories of evolutionary psychology, which appeal to diachronic and reductionist explanations” (11). While such a disclaimer is likely meant to mitigate widely held reservations towards cognitive science by scholars of early Christianity (among other subfields), such a qualification might also advance certain misconceptions of CSR studies. Although reductionist models persist in certain sectors, such leanings are by no means dominant in the field—especially in its current iteration. That is, Dilley likely has more allies than he indicates, and hopefully this book will spur greater engagement and collaboration between scholars of late antiquity and CSR.
In “Part I: Evaluating Postulants,” Dilley offers a brief historical overview before turning to specific textual evidence for the care of souls and training of thoughts in early cenobitic monasticism (two enterprises which are, as he demonstrates, intimately related if not synonymous). Overall, Part I sets the scene for Dilley’s focus on cognitive processes, and he makes it clear that the purpose of the book is neither to study the historical figures nor to provide yet another summary of early Christian monasticism. In focusing on the issue of “motivation,” Dilley relies mainly on sources from the Pachomian Koinonia (the cenobitic establishments founded by Pachomius in fourth-century Egypt) —first analyzing how the impulse for joining and potential for commitment was assessed in monastic contexts (Chapter one — “Discerning Motivation I: Status and Vocation”), and then categorizing the extensive set of monastic entrance and initiation protocols (Chapter two — “Discerning Motivation II: Trials of Commitment”). The concise introduction to sources and clear organizational structure in Part I both allows it to stand on its own and provides a clear but nuanced synopsis for uninitiated audiences. To give one example, in attending to the liberal admission policies of early monasteries, Dilley offers a more comprehensive consideration of the varieties of early monasticism in noting that cenobitic groups would have included members from a full range of gender and status backgrounds, including young men and women, married couples, families, children, low-status laborers, slaves, and fugitive criminals (41)—details that are often neglected in other treatments.
If Part I is dedicated to the reconstruction of the social and demographic contours of the monastic environment, the three chapters in “Part II: Cognitive Disciplines” turn to the contours of the monastic “thought-world” (98). Here Dilley makes clear his indebtedness to Michel Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self,” and notes affinities between this concept and “technologies of the imagination” advanced by cognitive scientists and anthropologists to describe the means by which individuals “bring to mind that which is not entirely present to the senses” (108). Focusing on the monastic enterprise of identifying and combatting “bad thoughts,” Dilley devotes each of the three chapters to one tactic, or “cognitive discipline:” 1) scripture, 2) fear of God, and 3) prayer. Rather than treating each in isolation, however, Dilley explores each of these cognitive disciplines “at work”—that is, as contextualized and embodied practices.
In Chapter three, “Scriptural Exercises and the Monastic Soundscape: Writing on the Heart,” Dilley considers literacy rates, instructional models, and the importance of “attentive listening” for self-formation (122). Drawing on a rhetorical analysis of the oratory performances of Theodore (as leader of the Pachomian Koinonia) and Shenoute, Dilley suggests that biblical or biblically-inflected speech was both utilitarian (i.e., it could frighten demons and protect against unwanted or detrimental thoughts), but also profoundly, and positively, affective—whether spoken, heard, written, or merely recalled. In Chapter four, “Learning the Fear of God,” Dilley identifies a scholarly lacuna—noting that despite the pervasive awareness of the importance of “the fear of God” in the monastic life, no one has yet undertaken a systematic effort to describe it (149). He focuses on the means by which an internalized “fear of God” was cultivated and deployed through three interrelated strategies—images, disciplines, and exercises— “to encourage conformity to monastic norms, by evoking shame, guilt, and the threat of pain” (152). Such strategies were amplified by themes of divine omnipotence and practices of social surveillance, and in this sense, Dilley attends not just to the mental processes by which a fear of God and habits of self-scrutiny were imprinted, but also the ways in which a fear of God was incorporated into bodies — through corporal punishment, for example. Finally, Chapter five, “Prayer and Monastic Progress: From Demonic Temptation to Divine Revelation,” explores the “progressive implementation of prayer” (186) and its capacity for both warding off bad thoughts and generating revelatory or “rapture” experiences (213).
“Part III: Collective Heart-Work” brings together the concerns of Part I (social patterns and group impulses) and Part II (technologies of the self) to consider the constitutive relationship between the individual and the collective within the monastic “thought-world.” Over two chapters, Dilley focuses on two major ritual activities of cenobitic monasticism: commemorative ceremonies in honor of monastic founders (Chapter six), and rituals of collective repentance (Chapter seven). He suggests that by arousing the emotions and training one’s attention, these collective rituals facilitated the formation of the monastery as a “cognitive and emotional community” with the goal of sharing “a single heart” (222). He notes that both Theodore and Shenoute developed the rituals in response to disciplinary issues and pastoral responsibilities, but also as a means of pursuing a particular vision of collective cognition. In this way, through vacillations between praise and rebuke, and emulation and rejection, monastic selves might come to operate collectively as a “purified monastic body” (290) sharing, literally, in a single-mindedness of purpose.
It is in this final section that Dilley best delineates the far-reaching implications of the emphasis on permeability and surveillance in the development of the monastic theory of mind. Particularly insightful is his consideration of Pachomian expulsion rituals, in which the social purge is complemented by an orchestrated, personalized purge—wherein all members are tasked with removing temptations from their own hearts (289). Here the lines between sinful thoughts and sinful behavior are as blurry as the lines between the individual body and the body collective. Although practices of discernment and thought training are certainly intimate, as Dilley shows, they are no more strictly individualized than they are strictly “mental.”
Overall, Dilley makes a very persuasive case for taking seriously (and treating systematically) the “frequent monastic exhortations to master, understand and discipline the mind” (293). The book is thoughtfully constructed, and Dilley is well-versed in existing scholarship and meticulous in crediting past and present interlocuters. In terms of future directions, although Dilley cites ancient sources and figures liberally, his focus on Pachomian monasteries and Shenoute’s works leaves open the possibility of exploring these ideas in other late antique contexts—particularly in other regions and among different populations. That is, how can the connections between Dilley’s overarching insights and specific examples be reinforced or complicated? How precisely might the practices related to the “training of the mind” play out in different environments? Such questions are indicative of the generative, and generous, nature of Dilley’s work.
 Emphasis mine.
 For example, see the work of Chris Frith and Cecilia Heyes, who have contributed to more nuanced “theory of mind,” in "The Cultural Evolution of Mind Reading." Science (New York, N.Y.)344, no. 6190 (2014): 1243091. Also relevant is the work of cognitive anthropologist Eve Danziger on intersubjectivity and the opacity of others’ minds. See Eve Danziger and Alan Rumsey. "Introduction: From Opacity to Intersubjectivity across Languages and Cultures." Language and Communication 33, no. 3 (2013): 247-50.
Jordan Conley is a PhD Candidate in Ancient Christianity at Boston University.