‘The Wandering Mind’ Review: The Demon of Distraction

‘The Wandering Mind’ Review: The Demon of Distraction

Even without phones or screens, medieval monks found it hard to stay focused on the divine.

The Wandering Mind’ Review: The Demon of Distraction

Even without phones or screens, medieval monks found it hard to stay focused on the divine.

The devil attacks monk from behind in a detail from ‘De Similitudinibus,’ ca. 13th century. PHOTO: BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

By Dominic Green

Jan. 20, 2023 11:40 am ET

We are distracted. When we look back from our frantic present, the past seems like a place where we could hear ourselves think. In “The Wandering Mind,” Jamie Kreiner observes that the modern-day distraction epidemic has revived our interest in medieval monks, “those supposed paragons of concentration,” as masters of self-control and calm.

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Their time, Late Antiquity (roughly A.D. 300 to 900), resembles ours: Society is in a state of flux and “it feels like things are declining rapidly.” Our ethical qualms about distraction, Ms. Kreiner argues, are a monastic legacy, because it was the monks who cast distraction as a “moral crisis” in the first place. The ostensibly secular West, she writes, carries “a set of cultural values surrounding cognition that are very specifically monastic and, to an extent, specifically Christian.”

In Hellenistic and Stoic thought, “attentiveness” to mental processes leads to self-control. Distraction (perispasmos) is external and keeps us from doing philosophy. For the early monks who inherited this legacy, distraction was an original sin of the mind, and the war to concentrate was a “primordial struggle” against “demonic antagonism.” The divided attention reflected a divided self, cut off from God. Gossip and concern with other people’s business led the mind astray. For Plutarch, writing in the first century A.D., “nosiness” harms society by making us rude and unproductive. The 4th-century monk John Cassian held that curiositas is immoral because it makes us inwardly “dissatisfied and incapacitated.” The modern morality of attention, Ms. Kreiner suggests, fluctuates between these views.

The monastic ideal was to “unplug” completely and permanently, to renounce the body and become pure spirit. The monks’ “cosmic contemplations” were “the centerpiece of a cognitive program aimed at total concentration on the divine.” Early Christian desert fathers like St. Simeon Stylites sought this in solitude, only to become “tourist attractions” harassed by visitors, and so the solitary ideal retreated behind the walls of the monastery.

Peter Brown, the godfather of studies in Late Antiquity, has shown that while the monastery was a laboratory for prayer, prayer was not the monks’ only labor. The praying individual sought to ascend the vertical axis to the heavens, and escape the horizontal axis of material life. But this withdrawal generated insights that society needed and intercessory prayers that it valued. It endowed monks, as Ms. Kreiner writes, with “neutrality as negotiators and advisers.” This mixture of worldly and spiritual services encouraged rich patrons to support the monks in return. Between the 4th and 8th centuries, Christians donated “about one-third of the real estate within the current and former Roman Empire” to monasteries and churches.

Beset by temptation within and business without, the monks developed strategies for creating the mens intenta, or “purposeful mind.” The modern pursuit of “wellness” through “self-care” and exotic pampering was not what they had in mind. They were consciously “counter-cultural,” and the culture they countered was late Roman: orgiastic dining; frequent exercise and bathing; and the latest male styles, long hair with pants, tunic and cloak.

Instead of cultivating the body as “an instrument of spiritual health,” the monks punished it, quieting its impulses to clear their minds. In washing the body, Ephrem the Syrian declared, “the soul becomes polluted.” Rather than following the barbarian-influenced fashion for long hair, monks tonsured their hair to look “manly” in their own way. Wandering minds could lead to wandering hands, and the wrong kind of horizontal activities. The goal was to become a spiritual “eunuch,” but the biggest challenge to self-control, Ms. Kreiner writes, was not desire, but hunger.

John Cassian called eating “the first in a series of Olympic events” in which the monks competed against themselves. The heroes of competitive fasting included Rusticula, who ate only every third day, and Portianus, who “purposefully made himself thirsty by chewing on salt in summertime.” There was also the nameless elder who, when he craved a small cucumber, chastened himself by hanging it on the wall as an object of contemplation.

With the body silenced, the mind was free to meditate, but also to digress in mysterious ways. Unlike today’s cognitive elite, the monks were not “technological optimists.” Books were a necessary evil, error-prone substitutions for memory and the “pedagogical gold standard of the ancient world,” face-to-face learning. The “confessional competition” to amass copies and translations helped to preserve pagan texts, often in Christianized form, but it also led to a low-tech “information overload.”

The monks navigated the textual seas with mnemonic devices and other visual cues. Eusebius, whose “universal history” was both part of the overload and an attempt to synthesize ancient accounts into manageable form, devised canon tables, illustrated grids comparing the Gospels. If the wandering eye looked up, the beauties of church art directed it back to its studies.

As the monk’s mind edged closer to God, even the protective routines of the monastic life could become distracting. Intense focus could itself resemble its enemy: “one form of mental drunkenness . . . mistaken for the other.” The monks’ mental architecture was continually “tottering, falling, slipping, collapsing,” the “demon of distraction” always waiting.

We can recognize the wages of contemporary distraction in the monks’ struggle; the “handicap of being human” is perennial. The monks might also recognize their time in ours. On the horizontal axis, society fulfills Marshall McLuhan’s grim predictions: growing illiteracy and entertainment by bright images. On the vertical axis, a small elite of “knowledge workers” aspires to overcome human physicality through transhumanism, rather than spiritual transcendence. “The Wandering Mind” focuses on more than the past, and its implications demand our attention.

Mr. Green is a Journal contributor. His latest book is “The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-1898.”

Appeared in the January 21, 2023, print edition as ‘The Demon of Distraction’.