Ἀκηδία and the “Care of the Self”
In this paper the author discusses the meaning of akēdia in late antiquity. Although the term had a wide range of connotations, boredom with the ascetic life was one of its principal senses. The relevance this has for psychoanalysis lies in an understanding of the tradition of ‘spiritual exercises’ (askēsis), as a manifestation of the epimeleia heautou (care of oneself), as it was described, respectively, by Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault. In this context, psychoanalysis—particularly as it is expounded in the oeuvre of Lacan—is seen as a continuation of a certain intensity in the relationship one has with oneself, which first developed in antiquity in pagan philosophy, and later flourished among the desert fathers. Here, akēdia signifies boredom with the cultivation of subjectivity. This condition is situated at the milder end of the more generic spectrum of anxietas and led to an abandonment of concern for the self, and of the spiritual exercises (askēsis tēs psuchēs) that characterised it. Specifically, a neglect for attentiveness and vigilance over one’s thoughts and dreams (prosochē), an abandonment of reading, and a disregard for enunciating who one is, through the practice of saying everything about oneself to another (parrhēsia).
Not only an eminent classical scholar, but also a shrewd reader of Freud, the late E.R. Dodds famously characterised the period from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine, as an ‘age of anxiety’ (Dodds 1965). Had he been describing the late fourth to the early fifth century alone he might have called it an age of boredom, for outbreaks of ‘taedium sive anxietatem cordis’, to use Cassian’s phrase, seem to have reached nigh epidemic proportions in late antique society (Cass. inst. V: 1). At least among the many monks which inhabited the ‘deserts’ of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. John Chrysostom calls it an infection (loimos) and a virus (ios), and compares it to a fever (puretos) (cited by Toohey 1990: 346 n. 39). Moreover, as well as feeling bored, the monks went to great lengths to analyse the nature of their boredom, diagnose it, and formulate remedies to cure it. The Greek word they used to signify it was akēdia. Latinised as acedia it is sometimes rendered in English accidie.
The relationship between the techniques of self-examination found in early monastic culture and psychoanalysis, rests on the fact that asceticism presented itself as a form of the philosophical life. In so doing it continued a tradition of spiritual exercises inherited from pagan philosophy (Malingrey 1961). Because these forms of practice include a number of discourses of the body—in relation to spiritual exercises (askēsis), self-punishment (penance), and the care of the self—they hinge on the history of thinking about the nature of practice and its relationship to experience. It is a history which revolves around the development of the concept of phronēsis. This Greek word—together with sōphrosunē (discretion), katharsis (purification), erōs (desire) and others—is identified by Thome (1995) as one of the psychotherapeutic aspects of Plato’s philosophy. This links Freudian discourse in a chain of concern for the self that stretches back both to antiquity (Hadot 1987) and to late antiquity (Hausherr 1955), a continuity attested in the literature in the changing sense of the Greek word philosophia from Pythagoras to John Chrysostom. The Latin tradition of ‘exercitium spirituale’, which according to Hadot corresponds to the Greek term askēsis, is directed towards the transformation of the subject as a prerequisite for the disclosure of truth. While this refers to the acquisition of Symbolic knowledge (savoir), it also anticipates the Real (Lacan 1990).
…of the subject’s relationship to himself, understood not only as a relationship of self-knowledge, but as a relationship of self on self, elaboration of self by self, transformation of self by self, that is to say, the relations between the truth and what we call spirituality, or again: truth act and ascesis, truth act and experience in the full and strong sense of the term, that is to say, experience as that which qualifies the subject, enlightens it about itself and about the world and, at the same time, transforms it.
Foucault 2014: 115
This transformation is formed by an absence both in relation to consciousness (the un-conscious) and to desire. Thus it is inscribed within the apophatic tradition (Leclercq 1960).
Much as in Christian asceticism, Freud turned all attention to one’s inner self, what resided within to be discovered, worked over, and corrected. In psychoanalysis, the subject is formed through discourses that discover, identify, and label his inner substance, and subjectivities are, as in Christianity, at the mercy of those speaking such discourses…
Minihan 2012: 22-3
Beyond Greco-Roman antiquity and late antiquity, akēdia has a long history. In the middle ages it became the ‘sin’ of sloth (Wenzel 1967). And in the modern era, particularly following Kierkegaard, melancholy (Kristeva 1987). However, the points made in this paper are confined only to those which have a direct bearing on the meaning of akēdia in relation to the ‘care of the self’ and its expression in the early monastic period. As such, it is intended to contribute to the study of the rapport between the technē tou biou, the art of existence, which always implies an askēsis, and psychoanalysis (Allouch 2007).
The meaning of akēdia
A notoriously slippery term, akēdia encompasses a multitude of meanings in the literature, depending not only on the severity of the condition or its symptoms, but also on the context and the sense the author intends. Consequently, much of the discussion has centred on the overlapping connotations of the word, particularly in the medieval period (cf. Alphandery 1929; Snyder 1965). Toohey (1990) has usefully summarised some of the key studies, notably those by Arbesmann (1958) and Wenzel (1967). It is unnecessary to repeat here what may be found in that article. Surprisingly however, Toohey makes no reference to the scholarly papers by Bardy (1937), Guillaumont (1971), Bunge (1983) and Miquel (1986), all of which deal specifically with the sense of the word as we find it in the monastic period.
Akēdia is a privative formed on the abstract noun kēdia which is itself derived from the more concrete kēdos, one of an expansive lexicon of Greek words for care and concern. As the Latin cura it is polysemantic and can both signify negatively anxiety and positively attentiveness. Within this wide-ranging semantic field kēdia signifies the action of showing kēdos (Hamilton 2013). Frequently, at the physical level this was the care given to the deceased by washing the body, attending the funeral, and burying the remains. The noun kēdia is used twice in the Septuagint. In both cases in reference to funerals (2 Macc. 4:49 and 5:10). But significantly, as well as care for others, kēdos also meant care or concern for oneself. The connection between akēdia and kēdos has largely been overlooked by scholars but it has a particular bearing in relation to the care of the self where it is manifested in an abandonment of spiritual exercises. Examples of the use of akēdia indicating a ‘loss of care’ are found in the Hippocratic corpus, in Aeschylus, Hesiod, Homer and later in Cicero. In its verbal form it is used to signify neglect, in the passive voice ‘uncared for’ (Aesch. PB. 508), and in the active voice ‘without care’ or ‘careless’ (Hes.Th. 489; Hom. Od. 17.319), as well as ‘recklessness’ and ‘torpor from grief or exhaustion’ (Liddle and Scott 1863: 40). Cicero leaves the word in Greek. This is significant as he was renowned for his skill as a translator. And it gives some weight to the view that the full meaning of the term is untranslatable (Cic. Att. 12.45.1; Guillaumont 1971a). Writing at Tusculum on May 17th BC 45, he replies to Atticus, ‘I am worried about your akēdia, though you say it is nothing (nihil esse)’. Presumably, it was just a mild attack of boredom.
According to Bardy (1937) akēdia is used frequently in the Septuagint in the sense of negligence or indifference (e.g. Pss. 118/119: 28; Ecclus. 29:5; and Is. 61: 3). But in addition to the three references he gives, we have found only one further example of the use of the noun (Bar.3:1). However, in its verbal form there are a further five occasions where it is used to convey the meaning ‘to be exhausted’ or ‘weary’ (Pss. 60/61: 3; 101/102: 1; 142/143: 4; Dt. 7: 15; Ecclus. 22: 13); and two where the sense is ‘to be in anguish’ or ‘to grieve’ (Pss. 60/61: 3; Pss. 142/143: 4). But neither kēdia nor akēdia are found in the New Testament.
Lampe shows clearly the wide range of meanings the word akēdia had during the patristic period (Lampe 1961: 61-2). Here many of the general senses of the word intersect with one another. They include physical symptoms such as fatigue and exhaustion (Gr. Nyss. ep 1.10), weariness and inertia (Herm. Vis. 3.11.3; Gr. Naz. carm. 188.8.131.52), as well as anxiety and boredom (Ath. exp. Ps. 60.2f), despair, loss of hope, and sadness (Cyr.ep.76 cited in Lampe).
Rather curiously, Guillaumont (1971) maintains that the monastic sense of akēdia is quite distinct both from classical usage and that found in sacred scripture. The monastic use, he argues, is broader and more technical, and cannot really be translated into French. He considers that whereas classical texts intend carelessness (négligence), indifference, and a loss of interest in things, the Septuagint signifies depression (l’abattement), grief (chagrin) or discouragement. It is this latter sense that Guillaumont sees retained in the Coptic and Syriac where we habitually find, respectively, pehloplep (empehêt) (lassitude), qûṭâʻ and reʻyânâ (brisement; abattement de l’esprit). In his view, the monastic sense is to be identified with the usage employed by Evagrius Ponticus simpliciter.
Evagrius [AD 345-399] was a strikingly original thinker, steeped in the Platonic tradition, in Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and a good deal of his work, especially the Praktikos 12 (Guillaumont (1): 521-8), the Antirrhetikos 6 (Frankenberg: 521-31) and the De octo spiritibus malitiae (Sinkewicz: 83-5) are concerned with an analysis of those compulsive and obsessive thoughts (logismoi)—what in the earlier Vita Antonii are called ‘disordered thoughts’ (ataxia logismōn) (VG 36. 2)—to which ascetics were frequently subject. Evagrius’ teaching hinges on the complex relationship between logismoi and pathē (emotions), and their often unconscious source. As with his cosmological speculations Evagrius’ treatment of this relationship relies heavily on Neoplatonic and Stoic philosophy (Ramelli 2013) . The Greek word pathos, like its Latin equivalent passio, suggests something that happens to a person. That is to say, a person in an emotional state is literally passive or possessed. Evagrius drew up a list of eight thoughts or more precisely eight categories of disordered thought. Each having a number of varieties e.g. in the Antirrhetikos Evagrius lists almost eighty different kinds of sadness (Ant. 4). Here the eightfold list is made up of gluttony, fornication, avarice, sadness, anger, akēdia, vainglory and pride. The order in which he lists the logismoi is significant. Guilaumont concludes that it is, without doubt, based on psychological observation. For Evagrius, each thought is inspired by a specific demon. For example, sexual desire (porneia) is stirred up by the demon of fornication. Each thought also has a corresponding emotion which is stirred up either by the thought or directly by the demon. Evagrius considers that paying careful attention to each of these thoughts, noting when they occur and their associations, is important because spiritual advancement will depend on it. The connection between the emotions and demons reflects, not only the sophisticated psychology of Stoicism we find in authors such as Chrysippus (Graver 2007), but also Stoic cosmology.
In general in late antiquity, illness—including mental illness—was thought to be the result of the agency of malevolent pneumata (spirits) (Dodds 1965). But it would be short sighted to dismiss this as merely fictive. The author of the Vita Antonii calls the desert the natural home of demons which are often described in monastic literature as Ethiopians, women or pagan gods. Even for the non-analyst it would be difficult not to read this as a projection in which the subject’s anxieties are displaced and located outside himself. But Evagrius’ idea is that a person can be deceived not just by what is outside but also by what is within him. Even if it is something unknown to him, or only partially known, and not entirely within his control. The subject’s deepest fears are here transposed from the visible, geographical realm of the desert to the invisible, psychic domain. Thus the demonic stood ‘not just for all that was hostile to man, but what was hostile in man; the demons summed up all that was anomalous and incomplete in man’ (Brown 1978: 90). As such, the monk’s logismoi, his trains of thought and their associations, were understood to spring from what was unconscious, as well as from what was conscious (Brown 1988). Hence askēsis was aimed at acquiring Symbolic, rather than Imaginary knowledge. In fact, Evagrius’ approach to the mind, with its emphasis on what today would be called psychopathology, on dreams and the careful observation of thoughts, and of their associations, is surprisingly modern. Indeed, it has been likened to that of a ‘psychoanalyst’ and his work to ‘the work of Freud’ (Bamberger 1981: 9 and lxviii). In fact, as far back as 1955, Irénée Hausherr described Evagrius’ teaching as an analogue of psychoanalysis and this has been repeated consistently by other commentators ever since e.g. Grün (1990). Arguably, it is in his treatment of akēdia that we find Evagrius at his most original. It is Evagrius who gives us the seminal description of the disorder and, as Toohey (1990) rightly observes, Evagrius’ analysis remains canonical. For this reason it must needs be quoted in extenso.
The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon – is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out of the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instils in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labour. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.
Evag. Pr. 12
In his De octo spiritibus malitiae Evagrius defines akēdia as a relaxation or loss of the tension necessary for keeping to the ascetic life. While this may eventually result in the abandonment of askēsis altogether, in its earlier stages he describes the monk having fantasies about a taking a trip somewhere or moving to another location. And he paints a vivid picture of the ascetic being unable to apply himself to reading.
The eye of the person afflicted with acedia stares at the doors continuously, and his intellect imagines people coming to visit. The door creaks and he jumps up; he hears a sound, and he leans out the window and does not leave it until he gets stiff from sitting there.
When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for a while; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep, but not a very deep sleep, for hunger then rouses his soul and has him show concern for its needs.
Evag. spir. mal. 14, 15
The teaching of the desert fathers was transmitted to the West largely through the influence that Evagrius had on John Cassian, and Cassian’s influence on the Regula Benedicti. When Benedict refers to akēdia it is precisely in reference to a description of a monk too bored (acediosus) to concentrate on reading. Though Cassian slightly altered the order, he largely repeats Evagrius’ list of logismoi. Cassian calls most of the items in his list ‘sins’ rather than ‘thoughts’. But he uses the noun morbus (illness or disease) to describe tristitia (sadness) and acedia. Paraphrasing Evagrius, he glosses the word akēdia thus: ‘sextum nobis certamen est quod Graeci ἀκηδίαν vocant, quam nos taedium sive anxietatem cordis possumus nuncupare’ (Cass. inst. X.1). And he sometimes reverses the phrase. Thus, ‘sextum acediae, quod est anxietas sive taedium cordis’ (inst. 5.1.9-10). But he always links it to anxietas.
Although we find the word anxietas in antiquity (e.g. Cic. Tusc. 4.27 and Ov. Pont. 1.4.8) as well as in slightly later writers (e.g. Seneca, Tacitus, and Caelius Aurelianus), Cassian is probably the first author to use the word repeatedly to define a psychological state (Kinsman 1974). In the Vulgate it is found twice in the psalms: ‘a finibus terrae ad te clamavi dum anxiaretur cor meum in petra exaltasti me deduxisti me’ (Ps. 60.3), and ‘et anxiatus est super me spiritus meus in me turbatum est cor meum’ (Ps. 142.4). Cicero says that anxiety is a disease (id est morbum, quicumque est motus in animo turbidus), a disturbance of the soul (animi pertubationem) or pathos in Greek, because it resembles (similitudinem) the condition of the body when it lacks health on account of the analogy between a troubled mind and a diseased body. (Tusc. III, X. 24-9). He also makes a distinction between anxietas and angore (‘neque enim omnes anxii qui anguntur aliquando nec qui anxii semper anguntur’)  (Tusc. IV, XII. 23-4). It is a distinction that will be carried into all the romance languages. Recently, in an interesting paper, Marc-Antoine Crocq (2015) has argued that this distinction may anticipate that made in psychology by Cattell and Schleier (1960) between the state of anxiety and the trait of anxiety.
While anxietas signified a disorder that could range from minor to intermediate severity, or severe depression, in the monastic literature in late antiquity akēdia usually referred to a pathological form of boredom at the milder end of the spectrum of anxietas. Indeed, generally for the Egyptian hermits of the fourth century, boredom was ‘the primary sense’ of akēdia (Wenzel 1963: 173). We find it thus described by Palladius (h. Laus. V. 3; cf. Lowther Clarke 1918: 53 n. 4). But in some cases it did develop into a more severe form. John Chrysostom in his exhortation to the anchorite Stagirius gives us a description of Stagirius’ symptoms (Toohey 1990; Klibansky et al. 1964). They included physiological phenomena such as contorted hands, rolling eyes, a distorted voice and trembling, as well as disturbing dreams and an intense despair in which he became almost suicidal (Chrys. Stag.). Although he does not use the word acedia, writing to Rusticus in AD 411, Jerome with characteristic flourish described the condition vividly, as an instance of depression, using the Greek word melancholia. He was by no means the last to do so. Monks suffering from such a disorder, Jerome concludes, need to see a physician (Jer. ep. cxxv.6).
The care of the self and spiritual exercises
While in primitive societies life was led in public, so to speak, in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, particularly among the Cynics, Epicureans and Stoics, the importance gradually emerged of the individual in his singularity. As a consequence, the necessity of cultivating a private life came to the fore. Here the subject was able to focus on himself and take care of himself. In this context, Foucault describes the care of oneself (epimeleia heautou)—particularly as we find it in Plato (Ap. 29D-30B; Alc. 119A; 128A)—as the general form of spirituality in antiquity (Foucault 1990b). This self-conscious concern for one’s own subjectivity, if we may call it that, was focused not just on the body but also the soul (psuchē), and was made concrete in the form of spiritual exercises (askēsis). These, Foucault argues, were characterised by a particular kind of inwardness, in an attentiveness to the self (prosochē) and in the practice of telling the truth about oneself (parrhēsia). Foucault came to this view particularly through a close reading of Plato’s Alcibiades and of Seneca. In the former, particularly in Plato’s expression auto to auto (Alc. I. 130D), he sees ‘a crucial innovative move towards the idea of self-fashioning’ (Gill 2009: 349). In the History of Sexuality Volume 3—first published as Le Souci de soi by Gallimard, Paris in 1984—Foucault notices that Seneca cites the aphorism ‘spend your whole life learning how to live’. This, he says, was an invitation to transform one’s life into a permanent ‘exercise’ (Foucault 1990b: 48-9). In this context he also discussed the notion of vacare in Seneca.
[Through] the application of oneself to oneself… He will thus be able to make himself vacant for himself (sibi vacare). But this “vacation” takes the form of a varied activity which demands that one lose no time and spare no effort in order to “develop oneself”, “transform oneself,” “return to oneself”.
Foucault 1990b: 46
Foucault also notices that the trope of vacare continues to appear in the early monastic tradition.
In his treatment of subjectivity Foucault acknowledged his debt to Pierre Hadot who had demonstrated that the Stoics, among others, had insisted that philosophy was not a question of learning a set of abstract principles or even the exegesis of texts, but a therapeutic exercise that causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. This amounts to a transformation (epistrophē) which changes the life of those who go through it (Hadot 1987). It is a process and as such takes time. Indeed, a lifetime. Spiritual exercises amount to a regular daily programme that make possible a gradual transformation of the self. Foucault makes the point that the retreat within oneself that constitutes epimeleia is not a ‘rest cure’ but implies a labour, a set of activities, including conversations with a ‘guide or director’, and reading (Foucault 1990b: 50-51). While the former makes spiritual exercises a social practice, the latter recalls Evagrius’ description of the way akēdia impacts on the ascetic’s ability to sustain reading and the central place reading had within askēsis.
Although Hadot’s masterful study Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique had only been published in 1981 (second/revised edition 1987), the first chapter, which dealt with Epicureanism, Stoicism and the Cynics, had appeared in 1977 in the Annuaire for 1975-6 of the fifth section of the École pratique des hautes études (Hadot 1977). Here Hadot had already demonstrated that the Latin term exercitium spirituale corresponded to the Greek askēsis, and that the tradition was found not only in pagan philosophy but also in early Christian monasticism. ‘Exercice’, wrote Hadot, ‘correspond en Grec à askesis…dans la philosophie antique’ (Hadot 1987: 60-1). Askēsis, Hadot insists, is an activity directed towards the interior self and thought. The Latin term—exercitium, exercitia, exercitatio—has its own history and development from antiquity through medieval literature (Leclercq 1960; Rayez 1960). In the period we are considering it is significant that it was used to translate askēsis by Rufinus in his translation of the Historia Monachorum where we find the expressions ‘monachorum exercitia’, ‘exercitia spiritualia’, ‘spiritualis vitae exercitia’ and ‘pietatis exercitia’(HM 29; 7; 29; Prol). We also find the term ‘exercitatio virtutum’ in Cassian (Coll. 21; 15; 1); and ‘exercitatio’ in the Latin versions of the Vita Antonii (Lorié 1955).
The lists of exercises that have come down to us from antiquity include self-research, investigation (skepsis), reading, freedom of speech (parrhēsia), and attentiveness (prosochē). This latter refers to a kind of vigilance of mind and self-consciousness. It includes concentration on the present moment and the examination of dreams. Here we see an intimate connection between presence to others and presence to oneself. For every spiritual exercise is a dialogue and the interlocutor is extremely important, even if at times the dialogue becomes a combat. What counts is not the solution but the process. It is here that the subject forms her or his thought (Hadot 1987). Parrhēsia refers to the need to conceal nothing of what one thinks but rather to speak in complete openness to one’s ‘guide’ (Allouch 2014).
Telling the truth about oneself
In February and March 1980 Foucault lectured on the way in which power was exercised in early Christianity (lectures five to nine) and in monastic life in late antiquity (lectures ten to twelve). He referred specifically to the Vita Antonii, the conferences of Cassian, and the life of Dosithy as we find it in Dorotheos of Gaza, in relation to specific ways of ‘telling the truth about oneself’ (Foucault 2014). Later, in October that year at the University of California, Berkeley, he covered similar ground in English. These ideas were repeated yet again, with some minor changes, in a lecture he gave on the 24th November 1980 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire (Foucault 2016). Foucault had initially indicated his interest in this line of investigation in the first volume of his History of Sexuality published in 1976, where he had referred to the confessor in the 18th century having a hermeneutic function with regard to asceticism (Foucault 1990a). But it may not be entirely coincidental that this latter focus coincided almost exactly with his decision to abandon studying in the Bibliothèque Nationale, where he had worked almost daily for twenty years, and to move to the library of the Saulchoir—the Dominican house of studies, 43 rue de la Glacière, Paris – and his growing friendship with its librarian Père Albaric. The library at the Saulchoir which was mostly devoted to philosophy, the classics, and patristics, had been developed between 1943 and 1962 under the direction of a former librarian, Père Duval, and opened to readers from outside. Here, in the words of his biographer, Foucault ‘began to undertake a genealogy of desire and the desiring subject’ (Macey 1993: 416). He was to continue to work daily at the Bibliothèque du Saulchoir for the last twenty years of his life until he was hospitalised.
In his analysis of parrhēsia, which he continued subsequently in six further lectures at Berkeley in 1983, Foucault makes a number of key points (Foucault 1983; 2005). There is, he considers, a huge rift between the practice of the examination of conscience or spiritual direction—though there may be some problems with equating the latter expression with ‘examination de conscience’—in classical antiquity and in Christianity. However, in early Christian monasticism he sees a continuity that he thinks does not exist either in the early practice of sacramental confession and penance or in the later tradition of spiritual direction which only emerges around the time of the counter reformation. This monastic tradition can be characterised as a culture of parrhēsia in which all thoughts (logismoi) are disclosed to the spiritual father. Foucault makes great play on the distinction between exomologēsis and exagoreusis. Although both words refer to confession, Foucault argues that the former denotes the practice of sacramental confession, the latter—in the context of early Christian monasticism—to the manifestation or disclosure of the subject’s thoughts (logismoi) to a spiritual father. Thus, while he considers that exomologēsis has nothing in common with the practise of the examination of conscience in classical antiquity (Foucault 2016: 56), he thinks exagoreusis is a continuation of the earlier philosophical tradition and implies that psychoanalysis is a re-emergence of this tradition.
Similarly, quoting a passage from Lebeaux (1987) in relation to parrhēsia among the desert fathers, Miquel says that ‘on peut aussi parler d’une parrhesia psychanalytique par laquelle le patient dit tout haut, sans contrôle, ce qu’il pensait tout bas et censurait au niveau de la conscience ou du langage’ (1986: 204). This analytic space, argues Lebeaux, opens up a fundamental rapport between psychoanalysis and religion (Lebreaux 1987: I. 493). Or as David Brakke puts it, ‘the monastic subject [in late antiquity] represents an ancient ancestor of the modern subject, who discloses his or her self by speaking to the therapist…’ (Brakke 2005: 222). Commenting on Foucault’s discussion of parrhēsia, Jean Allouch notes perceptively that what happens in analysis is rare in a time that only values transparency and traceability. For here the subject speaks to someone who does not set up his own habits of thought over against what is addressed to him. Someone who is able to keep to himself, to the grave, what he has heard (Allouch 2014).
This short paper makes no pretention to completeness. However our consideration both of the primary sources and of the secondary literature does allow us to venture some preliminary conclusions which have relevance for the tradition of spiritual exercises into which psychoanalysis is inscribed.
While the word akēdia was known in antiquity, it does not seem to have been used to the same extent as it was in late antiquity. Akēdia needs to be understood in relation to care (kēdos) and specifically in relation to care for oneself. Fundamentally, akēdia signifies a kind of carelessness with regard to the self. Commentators have generally neglected this fact. Miquel alone refers to ‘le manqué de soin’ but he does so only in reference to the use of the word in classical Greek (Miquel 1986: 19). Yet one of the essential meanings of akēdia in monastic literature in late antiquity is an indifference in regard to the care of the self—represented as a loathing of the place (horror loci) (Cass. inst. 10. 2) and consequent wandering from the cell (e.g. Pall. h. Laus. XVI. 2; XXI. 1). As well as being listed as one of the disordered thoughts (VG 36.2), in the Vita of Antony akēdia retains this sense of carelessness (VG 17.4; 19.1). The impulse to leave the cell signifying a desire to be elsewhere (Apoph. Pat. Alph. Antony 1 = Syst. VII. 1; cf. Evag. Pr. 12); an inability, that is to say, to remain in the present moment. As such, it was both an anticipation and mirror image of the more total abandonment of the practice spiritual exercises (askēsis). This included neglecting attentiveness (prosochē) to one’s disordered and compulsive thoughts (logismoi) and dreams, an inability to concentrate or persevere with reading, and an abandonment of the practice of saying everything (parrhēsia) to one’s spiritual director. This latter, possibly the most decisive, was significant because it indicated the way in which the subject articulated and enunciated himself in his being. This dual characteristic of speech is indicative not only of free association but of an analysis itself.
Anxietas denotes a spectrum from minor or intermediate severity that could lead to severe depression, despair, and even suicide. In the monastic period akēdia more commonly signified a pathological form of boredom at the milder end of this spectrum. One that, nevertheless, was often accompanied by physical symptoms. The sharp distinction that Guillaumont (1971) makes between the monastic use of the word and the classical and scriptural usage is, surely, too rigid.
Foucault’s description of psychoanalysis as a spiritual exercise taken together with an apophatic reading of Freudian discourse mirrors Lacan’s description of psychoanalysis both as ‘[a form of] contemplation…the ideal and unique subject of theoria’ (Lacan 1991: 222-3) and as an askēsis. That is to say, psychoanalysis can be conceived as an ascetic practice, but which is, nevertheless, part of a contemplative engagement with the world. Bringing together the two characteristics of askēsis and theōria as a way of defining and pinning down the practice of psychoanalysis aligns it closely with philosophy, as it was understood in antiquity. That is, as a bios, a way of life. Thus, commenting on Aristotle, Hadot writes that ‘the life of theōria is thus not opposed to the practical, since it is a life of philosophy lived and practiced; it is precisely the “exercise of a life”’ (Hadot 2008: 29). From this perspective, we can understand akēdia as the specific form of boredom that leads to a lack of care for the self and an abandonment of those exercises, exemplified today in psychoanalysis, which are orientated towards the transformation of the subject. I conclude with a quotation from Michel Foucault who, at the end of his life, described Lacan as the liberator of psychoanalysis (Foucault 1981):
It seems to me that Lacan has been the only one since Freud who has sought to refocus the question of psychoanalysis on precisely this question of the relations between the subject and truth… By restoring this question I think Lacan actually reintroduced into psychoanalysis the oldest tradition, the oldest questioning, and the oldest disquiet of the epimeleia heautou, which was the most general form of spirituality.
Foucault 2005: 30