Nervous Energies

Christopher G. White

in Unsettled Minds

Published by University of California Press

Published in print November 2008 | ISBN: 9780520256798
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520942721 | DOI:
Nervous Energies

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This chapter begins by considering a mediating category that reduced tensions between mechanistic and spiritual models of the self, the category nervous energies. Was nervous energy an electrical charge, a subtle fluid, or a pervasive, ethereal substance? Was it material or spiritual? Because it was never precisely defined, the category served believers and unbelievers, professional scientists, and cultural critics, equally well, anchoring a pervasive discourse about the self and how to expend and conserve its vital forces. This discourse, in many ways a carryover from earlier vitalist discourses, was skillfully put to use by purveyors of moral and spiritual advice willing to satisfy the public's need for information about the body and its relation to spiritual health. The chapter examines liberal religious advice literature that incorporated ideas about nervous energies and how to manage them. It considers how believers used discourses of nervousness and nervous depletion to flag the moral and spiritual dangers of alcohol, tobacco, sexuality, intemperate evangelical “enthusiasms,” and other modern temptations. It identifies the ways that liberal Christians and other religious liberals used scientific psychologies to find new ways to cultivate belief and faithfully navigate modern temptations and the particularly unholy diversions of the city.

Keywords: mechanistic model; spiritual model; self; nervous energy; Christians; religious liberals

Chapter.  11257 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Religious Studies

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