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.”
The barbarians are upon us! That’s what I told an audience not long ago in a speech in Austin, Texas. The next day, I drove home to Dallas, went to bed, and had a dream that has haunted me since.
In the dream, I was covering an international economic crisis summit in Belgium. I spied, walking through a town square at sundown, the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. I knew somehow that it was he, though I’d never read his work, nor seen his photograph. All I knew of Cavafy, who died in 1933, was that he had once written a poem about barbarians. I rushed to his side, notepad in hand, seeking his advice about how to deal with the new Dark Age.
He smiled and gestured kindly to me to pay attention to the bells ringing inside the tower of the large church in front of us. The sound of the bells calling worshipers to vespers turned into the harmonious lowing of cattle. (It was, recall, a dream). I told the poet that was interesting, but I wanted him to tell my readers what we should do about the barbarians.
Again he smiled and walked me to an open window in a nearby building. On the sill was a bottle of locally brewed beer. The poet took it in his hands, caressed it, and patiently explained the particular qualities of this beer, its label and its bottle and how it was actually a marvelous artifact of this particular place. That’s nice, I told him, but what should we do about the barbarians?
Then several admirers recognized Cavafy, running to him for autographs. Frustrated, I stepped back and waited for them to go away. Then my alarm clock rang.
Before I poured my morning coffee, I logged onto the Internet, typed in “Cavafy” and “barbarians.” There appeared a 1904 poem titled “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in Edmund Keeley’s translation. The poem describes an imperial city making preparation for the arrival of barbarians. The atmosphere is one of relief from boredom and meaninglessness. When evening comes and word reaches the city that perhaps there are no barbarians, the people disperse anxiously. The poem’s final lines:
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
I must confess, upon first reading, the poem struck me as a rebuke. Do I have a need to believe in the imminent arrival of the barbarians to avoid the hard, tedious, and not especially rewarding work of trying to come up with a livable conservatism in the present uncongenial age? If so, the Benedict Option is really the Benedict Temptation— Romantic escapism masquerading as monastic-tinged cultural survivalism.
Trouble is, MacIntyre really is right, and so was Weyrich. From a traditionalist perspective, we truly are living through an astonishing, and astonishingly rapid, cultural collapse, living as free riders on the residual vestiges of Christianity. How do you argue persuasively for a politics based on traditional virtue in a therapeutic postmodern capitalist culture where individual autonomy—especially in matters sexual and economic—is widely considered the highest good?
Besides, the Cavafy dream had particularly interesting details. Twice I had asked the poet for a political program, and twice he had drawn my attention instead to the contemplation of ordinary things in front of us. He directed me to listen to the church bells and to observe how they sounded like the lowing of cattle. Then when I persisted, he forced me to be still and contemplate how a simple bottle of beer was an icon through which one could understand the agrarian roots of this place where we stood. I still did not understand and remained frustrated at the poet’s refusal to play my right-wing pundit’s game.
What was wrong with me in that dream? I was behaving like the kind of conservative Claes G. Ryn once condemned in a TAC essay, disdaining poets and artists as “flaky” because they are unconcerned with politics and economics. Ryn criticized the failure of contemporary conservatives to grasp that
Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.
Ryn goes on:
What is most needed is a reorientation of mind and imagination. The great illusions of our age must be exposed for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal. This can be done only through art and thought of a different quality.
Was that not what the poet in the dream was trying to show me? That my frantic concern about the barbarians, and what was to be done about the catastrophe we were living through, was distracting me from the kind of thought that could truly renew and restore a culture lost to itself?
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.
Walker Percy once wrote of the modern novelist’s sense that “the happy exurb stands both in danger of catastrophe and somehow in need of it.” Sometimes, it takes a catastrophe to make us come to ourselves, to see the world in a new and more truthful way. The political catastrophe the Republicans are living through, and the far more consequential cultural catastrophe we’re all enduring, obviously call for fresh political and economic thinking. But even more, they call for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision. We have to learn to retreat from the passions of the moment, making use of this gift of catastrophe to enter into contemplation and draw once again “from the moral and spiritual depths” (Ryn) of the sound of church bells calling the faithful to evening prayer, the cattle lowing in the fields, the cold beer on the village square in the twilight of a world that, as Russell Kirk said, “remains sunlit despite its vices.”
What else is there? Another gathering of the CPAC tribe? Fox News every night? More Vandals vs. Visigoths derring-do on Capitol Hill?
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News columnist and author of the Crunchy Con blog on Beliefnet.com. He is a 2009 Templeton Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.
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