BMCR 2023.08.25

The care of the brain in early Christianity

, The care of the brain in early Christianity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. Pp. 310. ISBN 9780520387676.



This book is a significant contribution to the history of the brain, examining the concept of the human brain in a rather understudied historical period, early Christianity. Through a wide range of Greek and Latin literary sources, it is a well-researched and beautifully written study of the concept of the brain as a powerful and multi-functional tool, focusing on Christian authors’ explorations of self-governance, salvation, and human identity. It also provides us with fresh insights into how the introduction of Christian values into the concept of the brain may have contributed to studying the brain in relation to human subjectivity. To analyze this concept, the author of the book combines several approaches from the fields of ancient medicine, conceptual metaphor theory, and critical neuroscience.[1]

The book starts with an introduction that acquaints the reader with the main concepts and aims of the study. A brief analysis of the role of medicine in late antiquity follows, succeeded by an analysis of the critical role of metaphor in constructing the concept of the brain in Christian authors’ discourse. The author argues that it is necessary to study metaphors through the lens of modern cognitive science. The study is enriched by the modern concept of brainhood and principal notions of critical neuroscience, which are analyzed and linked to the fundamental questions of the study. The book’s main body consists of seven chapters, which are briefly sketched out in the final part of the introduction.

Chapter 1 offers an informative study of the socio-intellectual context within which Christian preachers and theologians developed their medical expertise in the human brain. As Wright shows, Christian intellectuals drew their knowledge about the brain from three sources: 1. learned conversations that took place at elite dinner parties, 2. public lectures given by the so-called ‘iatrosophists,’ namely rhetoricians who popularised medical knowledge without necessarily practicing medicine themselves, and 3. a flourishing market of medical handbooks and commentaries that reflects a new cultural interest in popularising technical knowledge. As the author convincingly argues, these resources functioned as the cultural capital that led Christian authors to pay attention to the brain in an attempt to gain authority for their rhetorical program.

In Chapter 2, the author outlines the most important ideas about the human brain, as they were developed from the Presocratic philosophers (600 B.C.E) to Galen of Pergamon (second century C.E.) and points out the transformations that they underwent across this span. This review aims to showcase the various ideas circulated and reused by Christian authors for their purposes. Her review revolves around the basic concepts of ‘phlegm,’ ‘nerves,’ and ‘pneuma.’ Phlegm was the fluid that kept the brain wet and cold and was considered to be its essential matter (Hippocratic corpus). Its balanced flow from the brain to the body and vice versa assured the normal operations of sensation, thought, and motor control. These operations were alternatively attributed to a network of channels/nerves and hollow spaces (ventricles) through which an unending supply of air (‘pneuma’) circulated. This view, rooted in the thought of the Presocratic Alcmaeon, developed into the nervous system theory propounded by Hellenistic medical writers. With the assignment of all psychic operations to the brain (‘encephalos’), an ‘encephalocentric’ theory developed, which viewed the brain as the organ of the soul. The Stoic ‘cardiocentric’ account of the body/soul relationship was opposed to this, with the heart deemed to be the soul’s governing part (‘hēgemonikon’).

The two following chapters are among the most important contributions of this book since they offer an alternative reading to the widely accepted scholarly view that Christian writers denied the implication of brain agency in their discussion of the body-soul relationship. Wright proves that medical ideas regarding the brain were reconciled with the concept of the immortal soul. She does so by analyzing two complementary conceptual metaphors for the brain that structured the thought of Christian authors: ‘brain is an instrument,’ and ‘brain governs.’

Specifically, in Chapter 3, Wright focuses on a significant development that appeared in late antiquity: the theory of ventricular localization and its appropriation by theologians for rhetorical purposes. The predominant view in late antiquity was the distinction among three ventricles (front, middle, and rear) and the distribution of the psychic faculties of imagination, memory, and thought (or motion in other versions) to these three ventricles, respectively. As Wright proves through the examination of the extant sources (Posidonius of Byzantium, Nemesius, Augustine, and Theophilus Protospatharius), the adoption of the theory was part of a broader project to reject the notion that the soul might be identified with or contained in the brain. This was achieved through the foundation of the theory on the conceptual metaphor of the brain as a tool/instrument rather than as a container of the psychic faculties. A characteristic manifestation of this metaphor was the image of the soul as a musician, as air moved into the instrument of the brain (either flute or lyre) from without and produced melodious tunes (rational thought).

The conceptualization of the brain as a governing agent is examined in Chapter 4. Wright offers a notable interpretation of representative passages that show how the Christian authors mined this metaphor –with deep philosophical and medical roots– to explore the nature of the body-soul relationship and to motivate appropriate behaviors by arguing that the neglect of the brain affects the health of the soul. As she demonstrates, Christian authors established the brain as a governing agent not only over the body but also over the individual, and explored how far the brain assures self-control or misgoverns due to its embodied nature. An interesting connection is made between the metaphor ‘brain governs’ with the Pauline metaphor of the body of the Church, a confluence which produced the metaphor ‘brain is Christ’ to illustrate the consequences of separation from the ecclesial body, equated with disconnection from God.

In the following Chapters (5 and 6), Wright studies the theological reasons behind the interest of Christian authors in the vulnerability and illness of the human brain. In Chapter 5, she examines a wide range of examples –drawn from Clement, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, and mainly John Chrysostom– about the vulnerability of the human brain, caused by temperamental imbalance, softness, and susceptibility to external and internal vapors, like smells and alcohol. She argues that Christian theologians employed a ‘rhetoric of cerebral vulnerability’ for three critical reasons. First, they showed how the brain’s impairment due to bad habits (such as drunkenness) could threaten the governing soul, impacting the individual’s reason and self-control and, consequently, their goodness and salvation. Therefore, these writers pointed to the importance of caring for the brain by adopting moderate ascetic practices. Second, they argued that the brain’s vulnerability is necessary for sensation and reason to function, and thus, Christians should admit divine providence and their dependency on God. Finally, they wanted to show how an individual’s habits could harm the brain and, at the same time, affect the whole community, and so they present themselves as physicians of the social body.

Chapter 6 focuses on the ancient disease of phrenitis, an illness of the brain that manifested as a strong but short-term fever accompanied by delirium. Examples from Augustine, Evagrius, and Palladius of Galatia show that phrenitis was thought to be a consequence of excessive ascetic practices. For that reason, a moderate ascetic life was suggested. This brain sickness paralleled the sin of vainglory, which could lead to delusions due to distortions of perception caused by a demon’s intervention in the brain. Thus, phrenitis became an attractive model for the investigation of the implication of the brain in salvation, sin, and self-responsibility. At the same time, phrenitis, with its symptom of feeling super-strong, was used as a metaphor to represent the delusive self-sufficiency and righteousness of the heretics and religious ‘others.’ Through this correlation, the Christian authors wanted to motivate and legalize coercive therapies within their religious and political communities.

In the final Chapter 7, Wright examines what she calls ‘the humanization of the brain’ in early Christianity. As she remarks, while early Christian writers borrowed medical and philosophical arguments about the comparative anatomy of humans and animals to support their view that human beings should govern the rest of creation, they did not refer to animals’ brains when examining the human brain. Wright attributes this omission to a critical innovation of Christian authors, that is, the idea of the brain as exemplary of what it means to be a human being: embodied but rational, vulnerable but suited to govern the rest of creation. As she finally argues, to this early Christian belief we can trace the roots of the modern concept of ‘cerebral subjectivity,’ namely identifying the individual self with the brain.

The book is an original piece of work and an important contribution to the history of the brain, which expands our knowledge of the early Christian concept of the brain and its appropriation for rhetorical-theological purposes. A notable feature of the book is the clearly written introductory and concluding parts of each chapter, which significantly facilitate the reading and provides smooth transitions and connections between the contents of the chapters. A concise conclusion follows, which summarises and comprehensibly unites the book’s main points together. Among the book’s virtues is the appropriation of the conceptual metaphor theory to investigate essential concepts of the brain found in metaphorical structures.

In a rather worthy book, though, the reader cannot but notice that the chosen title, The Care of the Brain, is too restrictive and does not reflect the breadth of its ideas. The necessity of caring for the human brain in order to promote the health of the soul through abstinence from perfumes and drunkenness and the adoption of a moderate ascetic life are topics covered only in chapters 5 and 6. The rest of the chapters deal with the history of ideas and their rhetorical appropriation for examining theological issues, such as self-control, human identity, Church cohesion, and heresy. In addition, this title makes the reader anticipate the coverage of other topics related to the care of the brain, such as Christian authors’ ideas about the role of prayer and divine grace. For these reasons, a more inclusive title, reflecting a variety of ideas, would have been more suitable. The bibliography is timely and extensive, although some references could be added.[2]

Overall, the book is a highly original piece of work, based on a great range of sources, that will find an audience among specialists in early Christianity, ancient medicine, historians of emotions and the body, theorists of critical neuroscience, and all those interested in intellectual history.



[1] J. Slaby & S. Choudhury (eds.) 2012. Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

[2] On the mind-soul-brain relation in Gregory of Nyssa and the ventricular theory in Augustine, see I. Ramelli (2018), ‘Gregory of Nyssa,’ in A. Marmodoro & S. Catwright (eds.), A History of Mind and Body in Late Antiquity, pp. 283-305, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and G. Catapano (2018), ‘Augustine’, in A. Marmodoro & S. Catwright, pp. 343-363. For the analysis of Evagrius’ passage on vainglory and demonic manipulation of the brain on pp. 23-24 (Or. 72-73, PG 79:1181.42-1184.4), add G. Tsakiridis (2018), Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts, Pickwick Publications andL. Misiarczyk (2021), Eight Logismoi in the Writings of Evagrius Ponticus, Brepols.