Reconsidering the Sources of the Self in the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Periods

The Suffering Brain in Early Christianity
Jessica Wright, University of Texas – San Antonio

Across a range of disciplines, scholars examining brain disease and selfhood have emphasized the power, utility, and malleability of brain diseases, and the brain itself, in “self-making” narrative projects. This paper explores the role of brain disease in early Christian concerns about the brain as a locus of selfhood. The argument focuses on two sets of contradictions between metaphors and explicit discussion. First, early Christian metaphors of the brain are distinctive in their tendency to anthropomorphize it as a governing agent. In their theoretical discussions of the brain, however, Christian intellectuals are insistent that the brain cannot be confused with the human agent, or with the soul. Second, Christian authors insist that brain disease does not affect the soul, but at the same time use brain injury and disease as a metaphorical tool for explaining how human agency might be compromised through psychic sickness. These metaphors suggest a messier relationship between brain and rational subject than we find in explicit discussion. Why are Christian metaphors of brain disease and the brain so wrapped up in questions of self-governance, agency, and the soul? How useful are these metaphors as indicators of genuine pluralism in late antique understandings of how brain disease might compromise self-governance? I suggest that the contemporary identification of the brain as the site or embodiment of the self has under-explored roots in late antique negotiations of this concern.

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