Conservatism

The Practical and the Watered-down

September 27, 2008

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Before the site is glutted with debate commentary, a word on Rod Dreher’s latest C11 column. Its title, and much of its substance, is taken from the last page of After Virtue, but a couple of Dreher’s comments on Benedictine monasticism are misleading.

The paragraphs I’m talking about (all emphases mine):

For some time now, Julie and I have been talking with our friends — other couples with young kids, mostly — about how our lives need to change, and change radically. We talk about what I call the “Benedict Option,” after the famous final paragraph of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1982 book After Virtue. MacIntyre wrote about how Western civilization is largely played out, and how the future will bring young people who have no longer vested themselves in the continuation of a bankrupt imperial order, as in the last days of Ancient Rome. “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. We are waiting…for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”

Benedict of Nursia was a well-off young man who saw that the Roman world was falling to pieces, and lit out for the forest to pray and seek God. Eventually he gathered communities around him, and in time these would become monasteries. Throughout the dark ages, the monasteries were repositories of faith, learning and light.

. . . [SrdjaTrifkovic] is right to point out that material comfort has despoiled us spiritually and morally in many ways. But there’s not a lot to be said for poor, nasty, brutish and short, if you ask me, and we who despair of modernity must be careful not to overly romanticize the past, nor long for another Depression, however much our profligate, spendthrift living has set us up for a painful fall.

From phrases like “lit out for the forest to pray and seek God” and “gathered communities around him [that] would become monasteries,” the reader gets the impression that Benedict was Western monasticism’s unselfconscious prophet around whom structured communities grew organically; that Benedictine monasticism was radical but not intentionally so; that, mostly, it was the natural consequence of a sincere desire to know God.*

It’s important to acknowledge the extent to which Benedict developed his rule deliberately. It isn’t that he started gaining followers, built a house for everybody, and then wrote down how their community worked. He’d seen the rule of Pachomius and the rule of the Master, and designed his own variation. It isn’t that he went looking for God and happened to find him in the ascetic life. He set out to be a monk, because monasticism was something he’d heard of and he thought radical action was called for.

Dreher likes radical action, too, but is careful to clarify that “there’s not a lot to be said for poor, nasty, brutish and short.” (Those adjectives describe the ascetic life pretty neatly, I think.) The real revolution will take place in our hearts and mind, he seems to be saying, and whatever material changes follow from that will follow in due course. However, in describing Benedict as a man whose radical lifestyle proceeded from his heroic piety, he gets the monastic prescription backwards.

As for romanticizing the past, the Christian monastic ideal was built on a lot of self-mythology. Even leaving aside the influential and inaccurate** Life of Anthony—you know how hagiographers are—there is still the generation of monks that wrote down the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: they regarded the monks of fifty years prior as legends and believed that the current generation would “struggle to achieve half their works.” Similarly, Western monks took very seriously the exaggerated stories of Egyptian piety that reached them through men like Athanasius and John Cassian.

Each new generation of monasticism expressed a desire (real or rhetorical, it doesn’t really matter which) to recapture a romanticized past—this is even true of generations that went on to be romanticized in turn—and then made real, concrete decisions about how to run their own communities based on these false-but-inspiring pictures. Such willingness to mythologize the past would be embarrassing if it hadn’t worked so well for them.

If Dreher is simply saying that not everyone needs to be a Benedictine monk he’ll get no argument from me, but he seems to be making the stronger claim that McIntyre’s new monasticism can be as easy as living in suburbia with the right attitudes and values, and, moreover, that romanticizing the past and being self-consciously radical are things to be avoided. Those claims would make sense if history bore out the idea that Benedict had and pure and searching heart and rest followed naturally, but that wasn’t the case. Changes in material circumstances are necessary, even if they seem affected. (This, incidentally, is why I won’t be surprised if we find our new Benedict among the deliberately under-achieving hipsters.) I hope Dreher’s right that the change in circumstances shouldn’t have to look like another Great Depression. I have equal hope for the “laymen” of crunchy conservatism who can only express solidarity with the lifestyles of its more decisively radical leaders. Still, I would caution Dreher against going to the opposite extreme and making the whole thing too easy.

*I don’t necessarily mean that this is the picture of monasticism Dreher has in his mind, only that his description—and the conclusion he draws from it at the end of the column—make it read that way.

**I say inaccurate based on what we know about the real St. Anthony from the historical record, which includes some of Anthony’s letters. He was as holy a man as Athanasius describes, but far more in touch with the real world and far less a hermit. The accuracy of flying demons I will not dispute.

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