Monday, July 11, 2016

Benedictine Options

Way back when, during my fairly brief sojourn as an academic, I once wrote a paper for presentation at a conference, in which I looked at how Saint Thomas More's Utopia transformed classical political philosophy by incorporating the very unclassical ideal of monastic poverty. That enabled More to oppose the modern emancipation of acquisitive economic impulses and reaffirm traditional political theory's subordination of economics to politics, but to do so in a way which avoided classical culture's problematic exclusion of working people and their labor from political participation. 

I was reminded of that long ago and far away academic exercise today on this feast of Saint Benedict (480-547), the author of the monastic rule that bears his name, the Patriarch of Western Monasticism, and (since 1964) patron saint of Europe. At a time of virtually complete political and social collapse, Saint Benedict left the ancient imperial capital (by then reduced to a mere shell of its ancient glory and grandeur) and founded an alternative community of committed people devoted to pray and work together. It was these communities of "Benedictine" monks who largely kept Christian faith and humane culture going in the West, eventually laying the groundwork for their flourishing in a revitalized Catholic Europe. Roman Catholic religious life in a particular way and Western civilization in general owe so much to Saint Benedict's legacy.

In recent decades, that legacy has acquired a new currency and renewed appreciation in certain circles of conservatively oriented thinking. A major spur for that was the famous conclusion of Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's 1981 book After Virtue. MacIntyre saw Saint Benedict as emblematic of a crucial turning point in European history,

when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. 

In contemporary "conservative" circles, this is often popularly referred to as the "Benedict Option," which is especially associated with The American Conservative's Ron Dreher. This "Benedict Option" may be interpreted in many ways, but it is most coherently and plausibly, I believe, understood less as a literal "flight from the world" and more as a recalibration of one's relationships with worldly institutions - less a political struggle ("culture war") to enforce the now-lost norms of Christendom in a contemporary political culture where the older moral consensus has been destroyed, and more as an in-depth renewal of faith and culture on a community level.

The historical association with the fall of Rome easily lends itself to overly apocalyptic interpretations of our current cultural malaise. But even the 5th century, for all its travails, was not the apocalypse. And we are not in the 5th century. We are not (perhaps more relevantly) even back in 1968, when things not only seemed to be falling apart but really were in so many ways. An accordingly less apocalyptic approach (and thus both more in keeping with Christian hope and less wedded to unwinable "culture wars") is Yuval Levin's take on this in his recent book The Fractured Republic:

The center has not held in American life, so we must instead find our centers for ourselves as communities of like-minded citizens, and then build out the American ethic from there….Those seeking to reach Americans with an unfamiliar moral message must find them where they are, and … must make their case not by placing themselves at the center of society, as large institutions, but by dispersing themselves to the peripheries as small outposts.

(For my fuller consideration of Levin's book, one can refer back to my post on June 6 of this year.) 

Far from being an historical curiosity, the accomplishments and legacy of the real Saint Benedict remain a promising avenue for further reflection on how to retrieve the best of what so much of our secular culture is in such a headlong rush to abandon.

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