Perhaps it’s a measure of the depths of my cultural pessimism, but when I take a sounding of the conservative predicament these days, I find myself not asking, “What would Reagan do?” but rather “What would Benedict do?” Benedict of Nursia, I mean, the 5th-century founder of Western monasticism, the man most responsible for preserving European Christian culture through the Dark Ages.
The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously ended his landmark 1982 book After Virtue with a gloomy meditation about the collapse of a common moral sense in the West. He suggested that we were too far gone into nihilism and relativism to save and that those devoted to the traditional virtues should consider hiving off, as Benedict and his followers did in Rome’s final days, to build communities that can withstand the incoming tide of chaos and despond. MacIntyre wrote that our unawareness of how lost we are “constitutes part of our predicament,” one that can only be adequately addressed by “another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
What could that mean for conservatives today? That we should consider what I’ve come to call the “Benedict Option”—that is, pioneering forms of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values. The case for traditional conservatives to make a strategic retreat to defensible perimeters, so to speak, has become even more appealing since 1999, when Paul Weyrich issued his famous fin de siècle call for conservatives to pull back radically from “a [cultural] collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.” [...]
Conservatives have worked so hard over the past few decades to fight for civilized standards against a short checklist of modern barbarisms—abortion, gay marriage, political correctness, and so forth. What we failed to consider was that we had become barbarians ourselves.
The barbarians of the Roman era wandered and marauded aimlessly. We accepted rootlessness as the modern condition. We defended our unrestrained consumer appetites by spiting those who would counsel limits as freedom’s enemies. Despisers of communism, we worshiped capitalism, naïve to its revolutionary power to dissolve bonds we ought to have cherished and things we ought to have conserved. Though we like to think of ourselves as apostles of excellence preaching against the depredations of Hollywood trash and academia’s political correctness, we have reduced ourselves to sneering at the concept of elitism and celebrating ignorance and vulgarity as signs of authenticity.
We cast aside the sense of temperamental modesty, of restraint and of fidelity to honorable traditions that have been conservatism’s philosophical patrimony, and exchanged it for a pot of ideological message. When MacIntyre wrote that the barbarians “have already been governing us for quite some time,” he didn’t mean the Democrats alone.
I've argued before against the "intentional community" solution myself, and if the Benedict Option were to be seen as a complete withdrawal from the world, a sort of Catholic (and other Christians, etc.) Amish movement, I couldn't be for it. (Not now, anyway; whether such a thing will arise sometime near the end of history, before the Second Coming, is something I'm afraid I'd rather not learn in my lifetime--though admitting that reveals my weakness as a Christian.) For one thing, I'd be helpless in an agrarian society. Not everybody's cut out to run a self-sufficient farm, raise livestock, etc., and I'm most assuredly not. :)
But I'll admit that my ideas about the Benedict Option have been evolving. I once saw it primarily as a desire to escape from the evils of the world to some Purely Pure place, and further saw how badly such notions usually turn out; now, though, I'm starting to think of it as a plan to find strength in numbers and thus to be able to resist the darker elements of our slowly decaying culture in order to stand firm against the immoral rot being peddled as goodness by our increasingly wicked nation.
What would that really look like?
To be honest, I think it's already started. Like-minded people are forming communities--there's just a preponderance of virtual communities so far, and not as many physical ones. There are some places, though, that are growing in size--and other communities slowly losing families with children, as people simply give up on the idea of trying to raise morally informed children in certain places which have been at the forefront of the destruction of morality and virtue in this country.
And I think these efforts will increase, as religious believers start to realize just how hostile this nation is to us and to our values. To use one obvious example: only a handful of religious believers actually think that chastity is a virtue and that virginity ought to be the default mode of life for the unmarried (and that anything else is a sin). Most Americans no longer believe this, seeing sex as mere recreation and a rite of passage for teens, and the only "virtue" involved being the use of prophylactic contraceptives to give the illusion of physical safety to the acts in question (mental or emotional safety is dismissed as unimportant, and moral safety as illusory and unreal). It is, to put this as clearly as possible, more culturally acceptable (and I speak of both males and females here) for an unmarried person to be a slut than to be a virgin.
It is also a cultural imperative to be a greedy consumer who hypocritically accepts various "green" initiatives to offset his guilt about purchasing boatloads of junk manufactured overseas by wage slaves; to act on every impulse; to disdain family in favor of more transient relationships; to demand a share of the federal pie as supplied by other people's tax revenues; to view child-rearing as a drudge job best outsourced to others; to keep one's head down and mouth shut at work in the name of diversity; to avoid sincere religious practices which make others "uncomfortable;" and to shun meaningful hobbies and activities in favor of increasingly vapid entertainment which sells even more consumer goods both for the purpose of viewing or accessing the entertainment and for the purpose of imitating those pretty puppets on the various screens with their shopping and clothing and homes and fashions and cosmetic surgeries.
Is this really what we want for ourselves and our families?
As I understand it, the whole idea of the Benedict Option was that people who positively reject these ideas, who put religious faith and teaching at the center of their lives, and who consciously (even if slowly) work to move away from the culture of consumption and entertainment (including the left-right political entertainment, which is often no more substantial than any other form) would find each other and somehow gain some proximity to each other--whether the physical proximity of living within a particular area, or the spiritual proximity of attending a particular parish or church, or even, if no other proximity were possible, the more tenuous connection that can be formed by virtual communities of people working for positive changes in their lives. And these changes would have as their goal not only the rejection of the ugly, immoral pseudo-culture of twenty-first century America, but the creation and preservation of real culture, informed by faith, lived by families, with those universal and redemptive aspects that real culture has for those immersed in it.
As Rod would say: discuss. Would you embrace this idea of the Benedict Option? What changes would you make, and why?