I’m finishing up both the politics chapter of the Benedict Option book and the speech I’m going to deliver at the Academy of Philosophy and Letters conference in suburban Baltimore this weekend. I think it’s still possible to do a late registration online. The whole conference is going to be about the Benedict Option, and there will be some pretty high-level conservative theorists present. Check out the link, and if you’re in the area, please come.
I’m going to give the keynote address Friday night, on the theme, “What Is The Benedict Option?” Because this is a political audience, I’m going to talk a lot about how much Benedict Option politics has to learn from the way Vaclav Havel and Czech dissidents resisted communism. Benedict Option politics are antipolitical politics, as Havel conceived them, though in a more explicitly Christian mode. I won’t go into details here. Come to the conference if you want to hear them, or wait for the Ben Op book to come out in the spring.
As part of my research, I read an essay by Rudolf Battek, a Czech sociologist and dissident. Here is an excerpt:
How much scope does an individual have in living his or her life? What choices does he or she have? When and how can he or she decide how far his or her own decisions, actions, and efforts to determine direction and meaning will reach, and what effect they will have?
In principle, there are two alternatives. The first is spiritual, which includes ethical postulates, sensitive creation, analytical and synthetic processes of learning and self-discovery in openness and progress, and the relevant concepts are: feeling, knowing, giving, learning, loving, believing. Second, by contrast, the consumer values (those having to do with consuming and maintaining one’s physical existence) include a preference for comfort, surplus, material wealth, and the relevant concepts are: having, getting, receiving, and using.
To build and direct one’s life exclusively in terms of consumer values leads to “microcosmic tragedy,” to “a loss of humanity.” Spiritual orientation is the only possible goal that satisfies the meaning of humanity in ways that are accessible to human beings. The defining forms of spiritual self-realization can be perceived in philosophy, culture or religion. Their basic presupposition is an immanent welling forth of truthfulness, ethical clarity, a widely conceived humanitas (the postulate of a genuine humanity) and, above all, a predisposition to truth and resistance to evil and lies. The combination of both (active and passive) leads to freedom.
Ben Op politics are a politics that rejects “consumer values” in favor of spiritual values, and creating a space for those spiritual values to flourish. Havel held that conventional politics in his society (he called it “post-totalitarian,” for reasons too complicated to explain here) wouldn’t work because the system had lost all basis in spiritual values.
The post-totalitarian system, after all, is not the manifestation of a particular political line followed by a particular government. It is something radically different: it is a complex, profound and long-term violation of society, or rather the self-violation of society. To oppose it merely by establishing a different political line and then striving for a change in government would not only be unrealistic, it would be utterly inadequate, for it would never come near to touching the root of the matter. For some time now, the problem has no longer resided in a political line or program: it is a problem of life itself.
Havel’s “antipolitical politics” is a response that acknowledges the primary need to rebuild the pre-political basis for a decent life in the ruins left by modernity. Though he was not a religious believer, Havel warned in 1978 that the West and the Eastern bloc were captive to the same atheistic, materialistic spiritual malaise, and that we in the West were simply at another stage on the spectrum.
We Benedict Option Christian conservatives have a lot to learn from the Czech dissidents on how to “live in truth” (Havel) in a society and culture that demands that we lie. If you want to buy a used copy of the out-of-print book of Czech dissident essays I’ve been reading, go here.