Pseudo-Dionysius and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing have much to offer this conversation on thought and prayer. In both cases, contemplation is positioned as a craft that can be taught—like woodworking or writing—and that the work of this craft is a practice of unknowing, a leaving behind of the senses, reasons, and thoughts of the intellect. And yet, in this via negativa tradition, the practitioner is also instructed in the ways of contemplative prayer, a method of using words and phrases to guide the development of the practitioner’s skill. The practitioner is instructed to choose a sacred word—something simple, such as God or Love—that stands as the symbol of intent for accepting God’s presence within the contemplative’s awareness.
I’m posting another draft excerpt of the book manuscript / dissertation here. As with the Modes of Askēsis literature review, this excerpt is a little too long for the blog post format, so I’m keeping it to a pdf download for now. These are work-in-progress drafts, and as you’ll see there’s a little bit of overlap between the end of this section and the end of the literature review. I’ll be continuing to work on the manuscript throughout the end of the year, but these pieces can effectively stand on their own. I’ve also included the essay below.
I noted earlier that Platonic askēsis, as seen in the beholding of the vision of beauty described in the Symposium, is a kind of aesthetic askēsis, which is also capable of transfiguring the self in unique ways. This kind of askēsis figures strongly in the work of Gabriel Trop. Trop positions art as a way of life, as an askēsis “that continually modifies, often imperceptibly, the manifold patterns of being—whether they are perceptual, behavioral, or affective of the person who undertakes it.” Art and aesthetics for Trop exist in a dual sense, both in the mode of existing art objects created and released into the world, and in the sense that the artistic act is about refiguring the perception of the artist, and the viewer of the work of art.
The notion that askēsis is as much additive as privative is central to Foucault’s larger discussion of the term. Readers will recognize a connection with Hadot when Foucault writes, “This is a work of the self on the self, an elaboration of the self by the self, a progressive transformation of the self by the self for which one takes responsibility in a long labor of ascesis (askēsis).” Foucault also speaks of askēsis as “converting to oneself” through abstinence, meditations on death, trials of endurance, and self-examination, and as a question that asks, “What working practice is entailed by conversion to the self?”
The definition Hadot gives of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, in addition to the links between Greek philosophy, Christian monastic practice, and aesthetics I’ve just highlighted, makes it clear that askēsis is not bounded by the categories of philosophy, spirituality, art, or religion. In fact, askēsis is in many ways an avenue by which one might unite them, their many possible differences notwithstanding. It’s no surprise, then, that debates over the role of askēsis in philosophical practice emerge in both philosophy and religion. I’m thinking here specifically of John Cottingham’s account of the philosophy of religion, and the important, if not defining, role that askēsis plays within it.