Are we ‘Rome’? The question has weighed heavily on the minds of American conservatives, libertarians and Catholics at their various conferences. Is America headed the way of the Roman empire? Bureaucratic decay, massive public debt, an overstretched military, a political system seemingly incapable of responding to challenges – “the late Roman empire suffered these maladies, and so, some fear, does contemporary America”, notes The American Conservative, a journal which has been pursuing this ‘line’ diligently, and with a growing constituency, over a number of years. (Note that this is not the constituency of Vice-President Pence who represents an Evangelical, fundamentalist, literal insistence on imminent Redemption, with its ‘Rapture’ politics).
The American Conservative rather warns:
“If libertarians on the Right worry about structural collapse – cultural and religious conservatives add a moral and spiritual dimension to the debate. Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence — to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead”.
And this is their narrative in response to these fears: Around the year 500 (CE), a generation after the Franks deposed the last Roman Emperor, a young Umbrian man (i.e. hailing from a rural province in Italy), was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. However, disgusted at ‘Rome’s decadence, he fled to the forest, to pray as a hermit.
His name was Benedict. And he went on to found a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous ‘rules’ which are credited with having helped an earlier culture and its values survive in needy times. Professor Russell Hittinger summed up Benedict’s lesson to the Dark Ages like this: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success, so much as one of human success”.
And just how might a medieval monk be somehow relevant to our secular époque? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” during a Dark Age – including perhaps, an age like our own.
MacIntyre offers the "disquieting suggestion" that the tenor of today’s moral debate (its shrillness and its interminability) is the direct outcome of a catastrophe in our past: a catastrophe so great, that moral inquiry was very nearly obliterated from our culture and its vocabulary exorcised from our language. He refers to the European ‘Enlightenment’. What we possess today, he argues, are nothing more than fragments of an older tradition. And as a result, our moral discourse, which uses terms like good, and justice, and duty, has been robbed of the context that makes it intelligible.
“For MacIntyre”, Rod Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option writes: “we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperit”. Dreher continues, “In his influential 1981 book, After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment project cut Western man off from his roots in tradition, but failed to produce a binding morality based on Reason alone. Plus, the Enlightenment extolled the autonomous individual. Consequently, we live in a culture of moral chaos and fragmentation in which many questions are simply impossible to settle. MacIntyre says that our contemporary world is a dark wood, and that finding our way back to the straight path will require establishing new forms of community”.
“The “Benedict Option” thus refers to [those] in contemporary America who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American Empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the Empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or ‘Ben Op’ — is an umbrella term for Christians [and American conservatives], who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity”.
The Ben Op is no call to monasticism. It is envisaged, as it were, as a more practical way for this American constituency to manage being ‘in’, but not ‘of’, today’s modernity. And… where have we heard something like this before? Well – in Italian political philosopher, Julius Evola’s post-war, reflections of a radical traditionalist – Men Among the Ruins – in which he argues for a defence and a resistance against the disorder of our age. It was the writings of Evola, and others of a similar ilk, who sustained Russian intellectuals through their ‘dark ages’ of late communism and then, of full-blown neo-liberalism. Similar broad impulses helped impel the concept of Eurasianism (though its roots extend back to the 1920s in Russia).
The latter reflects the contemporary trend, manifested most particularly by Russia, but which reaches well beyond Russia, towards the endorsement of pluralism (the main plank in contemporary ‘populism’); or in other words, the ‘diversity’ that precisely privileges one’s culture, narratives, religiosity, and ties of blood, land and language. This notion comports exactly with MacIntyre's point that it is cultural tradition alone which provides sense to terms such as good, justice and telos. “In the absence of traditions, moral debate is out of joint and becomes a theatre of illusions in which simple indignation and mere protest occupy centre stage”.
The idea here, rather, is of a grouping of ‘nations’ and ‘communities’, each reaching back to its primordial cultures and identities – i.e. America being ‘American’ in its own ‘American (or Russian, in its own) cultural way’ – and not permitting itself to be coerced into succumbing to the coercion of a diversity-shorn, cosmopolitan empire.
Clearly this sits ill at ease with the mainstream Americannotion of a compliant, rules-based globalist ‘order’. It is a clear rejection too, of the idea that ‘melting pot’ cosmopolitanism can procreate any true identity, or any moral grounding. For, “without the notion of telos (directionality, and purposiveness to human life) serving as a means for moral triangulation, moral value judgments lost their factual character. And, of course, if values become ‘factless’, then no appeal to facts can ever settle disagreements over values”.
Dreher is explicit about this radical opposition. He says of Ben Op, “you might even say that it’s a story about the progressive possibilities of tradition, and a return to roots – in defiance of a rootless age”.
And just to be clear, US conservatives who think they have found an ‘easy’ ally in MacIntyre, “fail to attend to his understanding of the kind of politics necessary to sustain the virtues [any quality that is required for discharging one's path in life].
MacIntyre makes clear that his problem with most forms of contemporary conservatism is that conservatives mirror the fundamental characteristics of liberalism. The conservative commitment to a way of life structured by a free market results in an individualism, and in particular a moral psychology, that is as antithetical to the tradition of the virtues as is liberalism. Conservatives and liberals, moreover, both try to employ the power of the modern state to support their positions in a manner alien to MacIntyre’s understanding of the social practices necessary for the common good”.
What is so interesting to an outsider, is how the Ben Op’s author, Dreher, situates it within the US political context:
“Many of us on the Right who have been dismayed by the Trumpening (sic), and have been hard hit by the Kavanaugh debacle, have concluded that [nonetheless], we have no choice but to vote Republican this November – if only out of self-defense. (He refers to November 2018)
“But let me quote two passages from The Benedict Option:
“The cultural Left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in post-war peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians [i.e. those mirroring liberalism], who don’t understand what’s happening. Don’t be fooled: the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable (emphasis added).
[Those] who believe that politics alone will be sufficient – are not going to be prepared for what’s going to come when the Republicans lose the White House and/or Congress, which is inevitable. Our politics have become so sulfurous that there will be a vicious backlash, and that backlash will fall primarily on social and religious conservatives. When the Democrats regain power, conservative Christians are going to be in very bad shape”.
The Ben Op, in other words, is another important window into what Professor Mike Vlahos has described as the gathering, next chapter to America’s unresolved ‘civil war’: “America today fissuring into two visions of the nation’s future way of life: “Red” virtue imagines a continuity of family and community within a publicly affirmed national community. “Blue” virtue imagines personally chosen communities mediated through the individual’s relationship with the state. So, even though these two divided visions of America have been opposed for decades, and so far have controlled the urge to violence, there is in their bitter contest [of today] a sense of gathering movement toward an ultimate decision”.
“Today, two righteous paths are gridlocked in opposition … Red and Blue already represent an irreparable religious schism, deeper in doctrinal terms even than the 16th-century Catholic-Protestant schism. The war here, is over which faction successfully captures the (social media) flag, as true inheritor of American virtue. Both perceive themselves as champions of national renewal, of cleansing corrupted ideals, and of truly fulfilling America’s promise. Both fervently believe that they alone – own virtue.”
We might conclude that this Ben Op is just a uniquely American manifestation, of little wider import to the world at large. But if we did, we would wrong. Firstly, Macintyre traces the moral tradition from its origin in Traditionalist Homeric literature (i.e. to its Pre-socratic roots) and to this ‘heroic society’ becoming the repository for moral stories about eternal values: Narratives that have the peculiar ability of becoming embodied in the life of the community that cherishes them. And seeing community per seas ‘a character’ of sorts, in an historically-extended, moral narrative.
In other words, Ben Op is not founded exclusively in Christianity at all. Rather, MacIntyre suggests that narrative provides a better explanation for the unity of a particular human life. The self has continuity because it has played the single and central character in a particular story: the narrative of a person's life. He puts it this way: "In occupying these roles we simultaneously become subplots in the stories of others' lives, just as they have become subplots in ours. In this way, the life stories of members of a community are enmeshed and intertwined. This entanglement of our stories is the fabric of communal life … For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity". Here, we are being directly returned to Homer.
But secondly, we would be missing something essential which links the Ben Op impulse to the wider push-back against today’s millenarian globalists who root their ‘redemption’ in a teleological process of ‘melting’ away cultural identity, of making ethnicity and gender matters of personal choice (and therefore never definitive).
This critique, coming from an important American conservative constituency which votes Trump yet is aware of his drawbacks, is one that may resonate more widely with other non-American constituencies. But as Rod Dreher, who initiated this campaign as far back as 2006 notes, its members in fact already comprehend its wider import. Dreher says:
“Hey, I’m not Catholic either. So what? We Orthodox claim him [Benedict] as one of our own, as all the pre-schism saints are. But never mind. [Christians] need to look deeply into Church history to find the resources to withstand the pressures of modernity. St. Benedict is one of them. Because of our varying ecclesiologies, a Catholic Ben Op is going to look different from a Protestant one, and an Orthodox one will look different too. That’s okay. Depending on the telos of the Ben Op institution, we may be able to work together ecumenically”.