A Secularist Sees The Benedict Option
I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but a few years ago, in my book “Crunchy Cons,” I suggested that traditionalists should consider what I called “the Benedict Option” — living in variations of monastic communities for the sake of preserving certain countercultural values in an increasingly dark age. The name comes from the Benedictine monks of Western Europe, whose monasteries were oases of faith, order, and light during the Dark Ages, and eventually helped midwife the rebirth of civilization.
Cultural historian Morris Berman thinks this might be necessary. From a review of his new book “Why America Failed”; the reviewer is George Scialabba:
As a former medievalist, Berman finds contemporary parallels to the fall of Rome compelling. By the end of the empire, he points out, economic inequality was drastic and increasing, the legitimacy and efficacy of the state was waning, popular culture was debased, civic virtue among elites was practically nonexistent, and imperial military commitments were hopelessly unsustainable. As these volumes abundantly illustrate, this is 21st century America in a nutshell. The capstone of Berman’s demonstration is a sequence of three long, brilliant chapters in Dark Ages America on the Cold War, the Pax Americana, CIA and military interventions in the Third World, and in particular U.S. policy in the Middle East, where racism and rapacity have combined to produce a stunning debacle. Our hysterical national response to 9/11 — our inability even to make an effort to comprehend the long-festering consequences of our imperial predations — portended, as clearly as anything could, the demise of American global supremacy.
What will become of us? After Rome’s fall, wolves wandered through the cities and Europe largely went to sleep for six centuries. That will not happen again; too many transitions — demographic, ecological, technological, cybernetic — have intervened. The planet’s metabolism has altered. The new Dark Ages will be socially, politically, and spiritually dark, but the economic Moloch — mass production and consumption, destructive growth, instrumental rationality — will not disappear. Few Americans want it to. We are hollow, Berman concludes. It is a devastatingly plausible conclusion.
An interval — long or short, only the gods can say — of oligarchic, intensely surveilled, bread-and-circuses authoritarianism, Blade Runner- or Fahrenheit 451-style, seems the most likely outlook for the 21st and 22nd centuries. Still, if most humans are shallow and conformist, some are not. There is reason to hope that the ever fragile but somehow perennial traditions and virtues of solidarity, curiosity, self-reliance, courtesy, voluntary simplicity, and an instinct for beauty will survive, even if underground for long periods. And cultural rebirths do occur, or at any rate have occurred.
Berman offers little comfort, but he does note a possible role for those who perceive the inevitability of our civilization’s decline. He calls it the “monastic option.” Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by “creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye.” Even if one’s ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.
On his blog, Berman discusses Pitirim Sorokin, the Harvard sociologist who, 75 years ago, predicted the crisis of culture that has only deepened in our own time. Longtime readers will remember that we talked a lot about Sorokin in this space a few years ago. It might be worth revisiting Sorokin’s work, which is stunning in its prescience.
Before you go out and buy the Berman book, be aware that Michiko Kakutani, reviewing it in the NYTimes, denounced his previous volume thus: “This is the sort of book that gives the Left a bad name.”