The Autism of Asceticism and the Genius of the Monasteries

A new study argues that asceticism has its origins in autism.

Posted Apr 04, 2018

As Amar Annus points out in a paper just posted on ResearchGate, “The rigorous behaviours associated with asceticism can be compared with a set of traits characteristic to the population group belonging to the autistic spectrum conditions (henceforth ASC). The most general autistic behaviours, which occur in ascetic monasticism, are the preference for solitude as well as the love of repetition, routines and rituals…”

Prof Annus is an authority on ancient middle eastern religions, and I quoted him in a previous post about the dark side of oxytocin. In this new paper, Annus compares asceticism in the ancient world with high functioning autism, and in particular with the North Pond Hermit, Christopher Knight, (below, born 1965) who hid in the Maine woods for 27 years from 1986 to 2013:

Amar Annus
Christopher Knight in 1984 and 2013, before and after his life in the forest, on bothphotos he wears the same eyeglasses.
Source: Amar Annus

While Knight strived to avoid human contact, he depended on his neighbours in rural areas, breaking into seasonal camps and cottages to steal food, batteries and other supplies that kept him alive. Police say that Knight was a hermit who committed more than 1,000 burglaries before finally being caught in the act on April 4, 2013. Knight offered few clues to why he left society. He told police that he had a good childhood in Albion and that he has always been interested in hermits.

As Annus argues:

In the case of Christopher Knight, it is not possible to detect any kind of philosophical or religious motivation for his seclusion. Knight insisted that his escape from the society should not be interpreted as a critique of modern life – he just chose a different path (…). His autistic spectrum condition best explains his low levels of self-awareness and the strong preference for solitude (…) In other words, his neurological condition is sufficient for the explanation of his behaviour. Such stories like his must have happened countless times in history. The neurology of ASC should be considered as a natural factor contributing to the emergence of cultural phenomena like monasticism and asceticism.

Annus goes on to illustrate his thesis with material from late antique Syria, and concludes that

The comparisons of ascetic activities to behaviours observed among the population segment on the autistic spectrum suggest that the cultural institution of ascetic monasticism did not emerge without an impulse from nature. Gradually, the high monastic culture and the neurological condition of autism became completely intertwined. The debate about the powers of nature and nurture should learn from the example of ancient asceticism. The primary urge for the emergence of ascetic behaviours can be plausibly explained to come from higher than usual prevalence of autistic traits in the population. Autistic traits can coexist with consistently high accomplishment in the creative arts and engineering…

Indeed, reading Annus’ inspiring paper suggested to me that here in fact may lie the secret of the success of the great monasteries in the West. Perhaps nowhere more than here in England was this apparent when Henry VIII set about dissolving them, so great was their wealth, power, and social importance that this megalomanic monarch found their success as intolerable as he did the authority of the Pope where his marriage plans were concerned.

According to the diametric model of mental illness, autism represents a hypo-mentalistic extreme opposite to hyper-mentalistic psychosis, while genius could be seen as a creative synthesis of the two. Could it be that the genius of the monasteries was to combine within one institution both the autistic ascetics and the hyper-mentalizing religious fanatics?

One feature of high-functioning borderline psychotics is their excellent social and political skills, epitomized in what I have called psychotic savantism. With such psychotic talents to deal with the social, political, and financial side of monastic affairs and autistic gifts to provide the architectural, technological, and scientific expertise which was also concentrated in the monasteries, perhaps it is no wonder that they were so stunningly successful.

Today multinational companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook enjoy something of the same kind of success as the monasteries, and are even seen by some to be affronts to national soveriegnty. Certainly, in the way in which they have fused the mechanistic basis of computer technology with the social and interpersonal mentalism of what we now call "social media", they have a genius of their own which also may be comparable to that of monasticism—and may turn out to be just as flawed in the long run.

(With thanks and acknowledgement to Amar Annus.)