I strongly commend to your attention Marc Fisher’s interview with David Brooks. There’s so much in it that I find consonant. After I cut-and-pasted all the passages I wanted to talk about, I found that I had swiped about half the interview. That’s not fair. So let me sum up what I liked, then quote a bit.
The interview focuses in large part on the evolution of Brooks’s thinking and writing from politics to science, then morality and spirituality. When Brooks lists the reasons for this, he says that first, he’s achieved great worldly success, and isn’t satisfied. He also has been troubled by what he’s seen teaching at Yale, “where everything’s so achievement- and résumé-oriented.” He adds:
Fourth, I just read a book from Carl Jung, of all people, who said that every single one of his middle-aged clients was mourning the loss of a religious sense and was searching for that religious sense. And there’s some element of that in me.
That’s really interesting. I came across that same bit from Jung just the other night. Anyway, Brooks goes on to say that when he writes about religious and spiritual themes, “the reader interest is just off the charts.” Similarly, when he does public speaking, he only talks about this stuff, not politics, and finds that “there’s an intensity of listening that’s greater than anything I’ve ever experienced. There’s a hunger across all ages.”
Did you need to reach a certain age or maturity to shift into this focus on morals?
No, I don’t think so. At 14 or 15, you discover profundity. And from then on, you’re hungry. I was having coffee with one of my students at Yale and he said, “We’re so hungry.” Because they’ve been raised with so little moral vocabulary and so much achievement orientation. They feel they’re humans, they have souls. I don’t have to tell them how to be good. I just have to name the categories. If we use a word like “grace,” what does that mean? Or “sin,” what does that mean? I don’t have to say, “Don’t be sinful.”
Did you become frustrated by our culture’s inability to focus on bigger questions?
Universities and a lot of institutions became very amoral because they didn’t know what to say. We became such a diverse society that it became hard to know what to say without insulting somebody. And then we became a very individualistic society. If there’s something I’ve been frustrated with, it’s our excessively individualistic society. That’s led to a belief that everyone should come up with their own values and no one should judge each other. That destroys moral conversation and becomes just a question of feelings. That, to me, was the big wrong turn.
He says this is equally true of the left and the right, and it has destroyed the commons. Brooks adds that we all need to find community again (and he includes himself in that number):
I think our problem is too much freedom. The great challenge for me is tying myself down, and that involves maritally, that involves defining what I’m doing with the column. The thing I have not done is tie myself to a community.
Have you found examples in history of societies that have rediscovered or rekindled community?
Totally. In Ephesus, when the Roman Empire was at a stage of late, high decadence, there was a little guy in the market, who everyone probably considered a weirdo, named St. Paul, and he was preaching. Within 300 years, Ephesus was a ruin and Paul’s religion had taken over the world. There are other cases, closer to home. In 1830, in this country, it was totally acceptable to go to work, drink all day, drink afterwards, go home and beat your wife. By 1840, that was completely unacceptable. There was an awakening, and people said no, we don’t tolerate that. The year Judaism was most unpopular in America was probably 1913—all these immigrants’ kids wanted to renounce their parents’ culture, their parents’ religion, so they went totally secular. And then they snapped back, because human nature doesn’t change. These are all cases where what we thought was the modern trend has been reversed. People want community. They want their traditions.
Read the whole thing. You won’t regret it.
Boy, this interview speaks to me deeply. I find so often that David Brooks and I are going on similar tracks. Our last books — The Road To Character and How Dante Can Save Your Life — were published on the same day last year, and were eerily similar in theme (though not, alas for Your Working Boy, in sales). Reading this interview late this morning made me reflect on how much my own interests have moved over the years from politics to deeper religious and cultural matters.
In my case, it was always there, but what burned away from the years 2004 until about 2010 was the sense that politics as we practice it — and for that matter, religion as we are accustomed to observing it — could do anything meaningful to solve our problems, or even to help us bear them. This is not to say that politics (or economics) are unimportant. Not at all. It is only to say they are of relative importance.
The central insight of traditionalist conservatism was articulated by Russell Kirk: “At heart, all political problems are moral and religious problems.” They are this because they are about how we live together in peace and justice, and the transcendent vision that sustains our lives together, and across the generations.
In his interview, Brooks says when he talks about things like this in places like suburban Connecticut, the women in the audience love it, but the men get antsy, tell him that he’s making them uncomfortable, and that they would rather talk about Chris Christie’s prospects. There’s something important in that response. We are a people, broadly speaking, aware of our deep lack, but we are also unwilling to sacrifice the time and the liberty to invest in the ways of thinking and living that could deliver us from our decadence. Walker Percy, in 1987, said that his greatest concern was:
Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom—“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.,” and so on—gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement, demonstrably a bankrupt system, but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems.
We are helpless in part because there are great forces at work on us and on our communities that make us feel helpless. And yet, the answer for us is the same as the answer Marco the Lombard gave to the pilgrim Dante in Purgatorio XVI. I wrote about it like this in How Dante Can Save Your Life:
In the heart of that darkness, at the midpoint of the entire Commedia, Dante meets a man who gives him the secret of deliverance. He is Marco the Lombard, a nobleman who agrees with the pilgrim that the world is in a terrible state. Dante begs Marco to tell him why this is so, so that he can return to earth and tell all the others.
Here is Marco’s reply. For me, this discourse is the crown jewel in a poem heavy laden with treasure:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung To a groan, and then began: “Brother,
The world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause only to the heavens, as though they drew all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you, and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.
“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations. I don’t say all of them, but, even if I did,
You still possess a light to winnow good from evil,
“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain in its first struggles with the heavens,
then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.
“To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.”
Marco’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning. The Lombard whose wrath had blinded him in the mortal life delivered the same message that Mike Holmes had on the first day of my therapy: You can’t change the world, but you can change the way you react to it.
I had understood Mike’s words, but their meaning had not sunk in. Now, standing within a black cloud of wrath, spite stinging my eyes, I heard the same message from the penitent Marco—and I got it.
That cloud had descended upon me the moment Hannah told me the ugly truth about our family on the Boulevard St-Germain, and it had never left. It was as hot as the fires of Dis. It was as heavy as the boulder of pride. It was as tormenting as the swarm of stinging wasps leaving the faces of the sinners in hell’s vestibule dripping with blood.
Marco helped me feel its malignant power. And he told me how to dispel it: stop blaming my family, my dead sister, my nature, or anything else for my sickness and depression. In me is the cause, and in me let it be sought.
My wrath at my family was keeping me from seeing the love that is truly there, however bent and tangled by our fallen human nature. My sin of wrath would only let me see their sins against me. I could not open their eyes—but I could open my own.
It was a matter of deciding to do it. It was a matter of will. All these things I had seen on the journey, all I had learned about myself and others—it was all useless unless I did something with these insights.
That was the answer for me in my specific personal crisis. In our cultural crisis, the answer is the same: yes, there are forces that drive us, but in the end, we all have free will, and we can choose to resist these forces. If we keep resisting, and do so intelligently, with the strength of others, who knows, we may prevail. Nothing is fated. In Laurus, an abbess says that after all, a miracle may be just effort multiplied by faith.
What I want to do with this Benedict Option idea is explore what our rediscovering our traditions and practicing them in community can do to midwife a spiritual rebirth. Remember David Brooks’s words: “These are all cases where what we thought was the modern trend has been reversed. People want community. They want their traditions.” They do! We do! I am convinced of it. Not everybody does, but most of us do, I believe — though many of us don’t yet know it. We are like the Rich Young Ruler of the Gospel, or the hedge fund managers in Connecticut: this makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t like it.
We can have it, but it’s going to cost us something. It may cost us nothing less than everything.
The surprising joy I felt when my father died, his hand in mine, and the harmony between us as we lived that last week of his life on earth together, came only through the grace of God. I was able to receive the blessing of his life and death because I finally got tired of running away, and walked a harrowing pilgrimage with Dante. That made me strong enough to bear his passing, and to receive it as a mercy.
There is a great mystery here, one that I can intuit, but don’t well understand. I can say this: if we religious believers are going to make it through what’s here and what’s to come, we are all going to have to go on a pilgrimage back to our roots. If we want to have a future, we are going to have to reclaim the past, and make these bones live again. Our anxiety and our lack of faith prevents us from seeing what is really there, always has been, and always will be.
But how do we get there, to the living past, from here, and come back again? That is what I will be spending the next six months exploring in depth. And you will have my answer in a book, a book that will be for people who do not wish to surrender to the darkness, to the fragmentation, to the chaos, to the meaninglessness, to the forgetting.