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Becoming a New Self

Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism

In Becoming a New Self, Moshe Sluhovsky examines the diffusion of spiritual practices among lay Catholics in early modern Europe. By offering a close examination of early modern Catholic penitential and meditative techniques, Sluhovsky makes the case that these practices promoted the idea of achieving a new self through the knowing of oneself.

Practices such as the examination of conscience, general confession, and spiritual exercises, which until the 1400s had been restricted to monastic elites, breached the walls of monasteries in the period that followed. Thanks in large part to Franciscans and Jesuits, lay urban elites—both men and women—gained access to spiritual practices whose goal was to enhance belief and create new selves. Using Michel Foucault’s writing on the hermeneutics of the self, and the French philosopher’s intuition that the early modern period was a moment of transition in the configurations of the self, Sluhovsky offers a broad panorama of spiritual and devotional techniques of self-formation and subjectivation.

232 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: European History, History of Ideas

Religion: Christianity


“In the wake of Marcel Mauss and Charles Taylor, Sluhovsky tackles in his elegant and learned book the problem of the birth of the modern self, and makes a major contribution to our understanding of this problem. In his clear and erudite demonstration, he convincingly insists, against Foucault, that the answer lies in the joint study of beliefs and embodied practices. He makes it plain how Catholic elites of early modernity, such as the Jesuits, permitted the birth of a new subjectivity, and insists on the revolutionary potential of the new introspective techniques. Future studies of the early modern devotional techniques of self-analysis and their historical impact will now start from Sluhovsky’s book.”

Guy G. Stroumsa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Oxford University

“Sluhovsky describes a revolution to which we have paid little or no attention—the refinement and proliferation of traditions of spiritual guidance in Catholic Europe in the early modern period.  Meticulously researched and studiously impartial, this book  delivers a salutary jolt to dominant narratives of  the emergence of the self in modern times from Max Weber to Michel Foucault. It adds an unexpectedly rich new strand to our understanding of the culture of the West.”

Peter Brown, Princeton University

Table of Contents


1. Introduction
2. Directing Souls
3. Spiritual Exercises
4. General Confession
5. Examination of Conscience


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