Between these poles of training in thought and training in reality, melete and gymnasia, there are a whole series of intermediate possibilities. Epictetus provides the best example of the middle ground between these poles. He wants to watch perpetually over representations, a technique which culminates in Freud. There are two metaphors important from his point of view: the night watchman, who doesn’t admit anyone into town if that person can’t prove who he is (we must be “watchman” over the flux of thought), and the money changer, who verifies the authenticity of currency, looks at it, weighs and verifies it. We have to be money changers of our own representations of our thoughts, vigilantly testing them, verifying them, their metal, weight, effigy.
The same metaphor of the money changer is found in the Stoics and in early Christian literature but with different meanings. When Epictetus says you have to be a money changer, he means as soon as an idea comes to mind you have to think of the rules you must apply to evaluate. For John Cassian, being a money changer and looking at your thoughts means something very different: It means you must try to decipher it, at the root of the movement which brings you the representations, there is or is not concupiscence or desire – if your innocent thought has evil origins; if you have something underlying which is the great seducer, which is perhaps hidden, the money of your thought. […]
In order to make this kind of scrutiny, Cassian says we have to care for ourselves, to attest our thoughts directly. He gives three analogies. First is the analogy of the mill (First Conference of Abbot Moses 18). Thoughts are like grains, and consciousness is the mill store. It is our role as the miller to sort out amongst the grains those which are bad and those which can be admitted to the mill store to give the good flour and good bread of our salvation.
Second, Cassian makes military analogies (First Conference of Abbot Serenus 5). He uses the analogy of the officer who orders the good soldiers to march to the right, the bad to the left. We must act like officers who divide soldiers into two files, the good and the bad.
Third, he uses the analogy of a money changer (First Conference of Abbot Moses 20 – 22). Conscience is the money changer of the self. It must examine coins, their effigy, their metal, where they came from. It must weigh them to see if they have been ill used. As there is the image of the emperor on money, so must the image of God be on our thoughts. We must verify the quality of the thought: This effigy of God, is it real? What is its degree of purity? Is it mixed with desire or concupiscence? Thus, we find the same image as in Seneca, but with a different meaning.
Foucault, Michel. ‘Technologies of the Self’. In Technologies of the Self. A seminar with Michel Foucault. Edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H. Hutton,. Univ. of Massachusets Press, 1988, pp. 16-49.
Random thoughts in response
Since first coming across it, I have remained fascinated by Foucault’s discussion of Cassian’s metaphor of the money changer. It is such a strong and evocative image in terms of the work that can be done in relation to one’s own thinking and the careful work of sifting thoughts and ideas and verifying their applicability to various levels of existence.
Cassian argues that this work needs to be done and legitimated within a monastic framework of obedience and continual confession, but in a contemporary era, one could perhaps extract this technique from this restricted context and combine it with Epictetus’ notions of applying rules to these continually arising mental representations. One might also give some thought as to what system of rules one might most usefully apply.
At present, training is applied to a whole range of areas of existence, including mental activity. The kind of work proposed by Epictetus and Cassian might be more socially and personally productive than the useless ‘brain training‘ schemes one sees recommended at present to prevent decay in aging populations. As though humans were simply machines on a neo-liberal factory floor, to be maintained by mechanical means with no reference to general individual or social development, other than not imposing an intolerable burden on the coffers of the State.