To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767

To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767

To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767

To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767


To Overcome Oneself offers a novel retelling of the emergence of the Western concept of "modern self," demonstrating how the struggle to forge a self was enmeshed in early modern Catholic missionary expansion. Examining the practices of Catholics in Europe and New Spain from the 1520s through the 1760s, the book treats Jesuit techniques of self-formation, namely spiritual exercises and confessional practices, and the relationships between spiritual directors and their subjects. Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic were folded into a dynamic that shaped new concepts of self and, in the process, fueled the global Catholic missionary movement. Molina historicizes Jesuit meditation and narrative self-reflection as modes of self-formation that would ultimately contribute to a new understanding of religion as something private and personal, thereby overturning long-held concepts of personhood, time, space, and social reality. To Overcome Oneself demonstrates that it was through embodied processes that humans have come to experience themselves as split into mind and body. Notwithstanding the self-congratulatory role assigned to "consciousness" in the Western intellectual tradition, early moderns did not think themselves into thinking selves. Rather, "the self" was forged from embodied efforts to transcend self. Yet despite a discourse that situates self as interior, the actual fuel for continued self-transformation required an object-cum-subject--someone else to transform. Two constant questions throughout the book are: Why does the effort to know and transcend self require so many others? And what can we learn about the inherent intersubjectivity of missionary colonialism?


spiritual exercises
To Overcome Oneself,
And to Order One’s Life,
Without Reaching a Decision
Through Some Disordered Affection

— spiritual exercises of st. ignatius of loyola

Alone. Ignatius of Loyola was alone in Manresa, Spain, in 1522. From this solitary period of meditative introspection, the sixteenth-century Spaniard wrote the Spiritual Exercises to share with others a method of self-evaluation that could lead to personal and spiritual transformation. But what was it about interior movement of the soul that set in motion prayers and persons around the expanse of the globe? Why didn’t Ignatius join a monastery, become a hermit, and inspire others to a life of prayerful contemplation? Instead, by the time of Ignatius’s death in 1556, there were thirty-five Jesuit colleges in Europe alone and, by the close of the sixteenth century Jesuits had established mission stations in the Americas, China, Japan, and India. How did a focus on the self become a will to transform others?

Ignatius of Loyola wrote and revised the Spiritual Exercises over a period of approximately twenty years, dating from his “second conversion” at Manresa in 1522. Circulating in manuscript from 1541 and published in 1548, the Exercises were written in a very functional manner, as a series of instructions, details, and suggestions for the Jesuit director who assisted another person through the course. Commenting upon the melange of literary genres comprising the Spiritual Exercises, John O’Malley has observed: “[Containing] directives, meditations, prayers, declarations, procedures, sage observations and rules … the very diversity of genres at first glance suggests a scissors-and-paste composition.” Offering a condensed, simplified, and adaptable format, the Exercises offered neither a philosophical exposition on spiritual life nor a series of prayers. Rather, the book is . . .

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