Concerning a proposal (not by me) to make a “strategic withdrawal” from public life in order to restore the imagined virtues of the Middle Ages.

What in the 1960s was a commune is now an intentional community. I lived in one in the mid-1990s, when I was in graduate school.

We were six persons, and when one of us needed to be replaced, we advertised ourselves as a cooperative vegetarian group-house. Five nights a week, one of us cooked a common dinner from the common supplies of the pantry. Our vegetables came from farmers’ markets, a CSA, or a neighbor­hood food cooperative, through which we also obtained great sacks of flours, grains, and beans. Only one of us owned a car, and she wished it would be stolen; normally we bicycled everywhere. Most importantly, we got along with one another, not least because we all believed in the ideal of the house. The total experience was one of the best of my life: it was second only to being married to my spouse. If one can share everything with one other person, this is better than sharing a lot of things with five other persons; still, it might be good to be able to do both.

I had lived in a group-house before, but perhaps it did not rise to the level of an intentional community. We were students needing cheap rooms. After several changes of personnel, we broke up because of a conflict. This had escalated to the point where the white American male in the basement was smashing things one night, shouting “Fuckin’ foreigners, send ’em to the ovens!” Addressing his girlfriend Nancy, Bill yelled, “You’re gonna be havin’ your fuckin’ baby, and I’m gonna be in fuckin’ court!” The baby belonged to Bill too, although he was still married to somebody else. Meanwhile, he had received a summons to court: he had vandalized the car of our Vietnamese roommate Mike, who was now suing him. The two had originally argued over Mike’s being too loud at night, or something like that; Bill had retaliated by turning off the water while Mike was in the shower.

This was in late 1992, after Bill Clinton had been elected President. During the primary election campaign, the Bill of our house had told me that he liked Pat Buchanan. This was the Pat Buchanan who said at the Republican convention,

we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.

The Bill in our house just told me, “The money should stay here.

I am interested now to read of a new recommendation for forming intentional communities. However, it is rather exclusive. It is for conservative Christians, and it will be made in detail in a forthcoming book called The Benedict Option. I do not know whether, or in what way, author Rod Dreher thinks all Christians should be conservative, and all persons should be Christian. However, he has written a number of articles about his idea in The American Conservative, a magazine for which Pat Buchanan also writes.

I alluded to rules whereby my old cooperative house lived:

  • do your share of chores,

  • eat low on the food chain,

  • buy low on the processing chain.

We did not write these down; they were understood. For breakfast, most of us ate the granola that we baked in large batches; but when one of us had a taste for Grape-Nuts, she bought these at her own expense. Most of us attended no religious services, unless for somebody else’s wedding or funeral. One of us went to synagogue though, and she was planning to become a rabbi.

Rod Dreher proposes to live by something like the Rule of St Benedict. He is following up on a recommendation of Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in Dreher’s words,

says 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 that have as their ends a life of virtue.

I somehow became aware of MacIntyre as having been influenced by R. G. Collingwood. I am not prepared to examine the Enlightenment in detail; I shall only suggest that reason cannot produce morality or anything else. Reason is not productive, it is explanatory. As mathematicians, my collaborators and I may produce a theorem; but the means whereby we do this are mysterious. Reason is only what we use to convince ourselves and others that the theorem is true. Reason allows you to follow a proof, step by step; it does not give you the proof itself. Reason will not give you morality either; but it may ask a moral tradition to explain itself.

In various articles, Dreher reports on and responds to the criticism of his “Benedict Option” that is offered by fellow Christians. I have no such criticism to make. I hope Dreher will be able to form a community that meets his needs. I only wonder whether he is already trying to do this, rather than just exhorting others to do it or lamenting the difficulty of doing it under conditions produced by the Enlightenment.

I am provoked to write by Dreher’s article of March 1 of this year (2017) called “The Liturgies Of Secular Democracy.” This consists mostly of quotations from “a terrific, provocative, and intelligent e-mail from an Australian reader.” According to the nameless reader,

The liberal-democratic order is founded on suspending the question of whether God exists or not (and has authority over human life) and relegating that to the level of personal opinion. This means that democracy itself functions as though atheism is metaphysically true—there is no God whose demands on people must be embraced—but gives people the freedom to shape their own lives around theism (or deism, or polytheism etc). In the short term this is a great solution to the problem of religious wars, by simply punting ultimate questions of morality and metaphysics and seeking to create a society where people can live together despite deep differences.

The problem is that this arrangement is unstable for two reasons. First, living in a western democracy catechizes people into practical atheism …

Second, as democracy goes on its horizons are increasingly limited to the individual and the state …

Every social arrangement is unstable: it requires work to maintain. Far from being atheist, democracy allows deity or Godhead to do its own work, unhindered by civil authority. But the unnamed writer seems not to trust deity to be able to do this work. He says democracy gives people the freedom to shape their lives. Does not democracy give Godhead the freedom to shape lives?

In the Sermon on the Mount (in the account of Matthew, Chapter 5), the deity of Christians told his followers how to live:

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

The American democracy may tell you to put up with immigrants, or gay people; at least it may have started to do this in the past; but whether you were going to love those people, as Jesus urged, was always up to you—or to the spirit in you. The Athenian democracy was different, and in particular not liberal: by Plato’s account, for not respecting the gods of Athens, the democracy put Socrates to death.

America was settled by people who sought Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” but could not realize it elsewhere. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are considered in “The Benedict Option, New England Edition” (by one Agnes R. Howard, in Patheos). How many other American colonies were formed by religious groups, to whose ideas European authorities were hostile? Maryland was intended for Catholics; the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina gave liberty to “Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion” (though not to slaves); Lutheran Pietists formed the Amana colonies.

The freedom to form theocracies within the United States is not absolute. The Mormons had to give up on polygamy, at least officially. I don’t know if this is a problem for Dreher. In his FAQ, as Hillary Clinton does, he recognizes:

It really does take a village to raise a child. That is, we learn who we are and who we are called to be in large part through our communities and their institutions.

Does Dreher want the freedom to choose his community and to work for the institutions he believes in? Such freedom will never be absolute; but it is a freedom that liberal democracy is founded on.

The reader and writer whom Dreher quotes in “The Liturgies Of Secular Democracy” is responding to a review of Dreher’s book by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig. Bruenig is confused by Dreher’s specific choice of Benedict as the source of his proposed rule,

given that Dreher quit the Roman Catholic Church in the early 2000s amidst the unfolding of the sex abuse crisis to join the Orthodox Church.

Bruenig does not make the following observation, though perhaps it is implicit: If Dreher were not living in a liberal democracy, he might have had more difficulty in changing his church than he did in the moral struggle he describes in his own account.

In Alaska, the St. John Orthodox Cathedral is the center of a community that Dreher offers as one example of the implementation of his Benedict Option. According to an article on the Cathedral’s website called “A History of the Orthodox Church”:

In 1453, a crucial event occurred in world Orthodoxy, with the Fall of Constantinople to the Turkish Sultan, Mohammed II. The Greek-speaking Churches fell under the heavy yoke of Islam, and for nearly 500 years labored in servitude, only emerging again with the Balkan Revolutions of the 19th Century and World War I. In the meantime, the focus of Orthodoxy shifted to the North, to the domains of the Most Pious Tsars of Russia.

This may be correct as far as it goes; but until the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the Armenian Christian inhabitants of the city fell under the heavy yoke of Greek Orthodoxy. The Greek Christians did not allow the Armenian Christians to have their own patriarchate. This was pointed out to me by a fellow on the street in Samatya, where “Mohammed II” (Fatih [“Conquering”] Sultan Mehmet) allowed or even encouraged the Armenians to found a patriarchate.

Dreher’s critic Bruenig observes:

Withdrawal may have been a permissible option when citizens had little to no say in the laws of their governments, but we do, and a pretense of powerlessness registers as a flimsy excuse not to exercise it.

Dreher says his Benedict Option is not one of total withdrawal from society. I am sure he is right, but this is not my business. Bruenig seems right to continue:

There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option.

Dreher is quite explicit about wanting to restore something of Medieval times. The very title of a 2015 article calls out “For a New Middle Age”:

The Benedict Option is the term I use to describe this rising movement for a new Middle Age, a spiritual revolution in a time of spiritual and cultural darkness. The monk was the ideal personality type of the Middle Ages. Few of us will be called to the monastery, but all of us who profess orthodox Christianity are called to rediscover a monastic temperament, putting the service of God before all things, and ordering our lives—our prayer and our work, and our communal existence—to that end. We are going to have to recover a sense of monastic asceticism, and do so in hope and joy, together.

When you observe the art and architecture of the Middle Ages—Mont Saint-Michel, say, called “the Wonder” by the French—you behold what spiritual profundity and grandeur informed that era. We need to find our way back to the Wonder, to the source, and pioneer ways to receive and to bound that spiritual vitality in our own very different age.

“We need to find our way back” says Dreher; but one cannot need to do what is impossible.

Dreher is inspired by a 1924 book called The End of Our Time, a.k.a. The New Middle Ages, by Nikolai Berdyaev. I am inspired by another 1924 book, Speculum Mentis, by Collingwood, who also praises the Middle Ages. He laments that philosophers, preachers, and artists today find few takers for what they have to offer. This is from his Prologue:

Now there is no truer and more abiding happiness than the knowledge that one is free to go on doing, day by day, the best work one can do, in the kind one likes best, and that this work is absorbed by a steady market and thus supports one’s own life. The man who is rich enough to work unnoticed and unrewarded is by comparison a savage; the man who can only do his own work by stealth when he has won his daily bread elsewhere is a slave. Perfect freedom is reserved for the man who lives by his own work and in that work does what he wants to do. But this freedom and happiness were in principle at least the lot of every one in the middle ages; and to what extent they were actually achieved by no small number of workers we can see when we look at the work they have left behind them. For these works breathe visibly the air of a perfect freedom and a perfect happiness. Chaucer and Dante are no shallow optimists, but their tragedies are discords perpetually resolved in the harmony of a celestial music. The fundamental thing in Chaucer is the ‘mery tale’ of human life as a heartening and lovely pageant, diversified with all the adventures that befall upon the course

That highte Jerusalem celestial;

the fundamental thing in Dante is not mere human fortitude, the ‘gran dispitto’ of Farinata, but

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

The medieval mind feels itself surrounded, beyond the sphere of trial and danger, by a great peace, an infinite happiness. This feeling, so clear in the poets, is equally clear, to those who have eyes to see, in the illuminations of a missal and the detail of stonework, in the towers of Durham and the Vine window at Wells.

Citing Berdyaev, Dreher notes that “we must not lie to ourselves about the brutality and violence of that [Medieval] era.” Collingwood too has a disclaimer about those times:

we do not idealize medieval life or hold it free from defect. We do not forget either the corruptions to which these institutions too often succumbed, their tendency to level downwards, or the hideous fate of those adventurous souls who found their limits too narrow. But the very tendency to level downwards, the very narrowness of medieval institutionalism, secured one great benefit, namely the happiness of those humble ordinary men and women who ask not for adventure or excitement, but for a place in the world where they shall feel themselves usefully and congenially employed.

I think this passage helps describe the appeal of Donald Trump. Many of his voters are said to be unadventurous folks who never left their home towns, but who saw those towns collapse around them as industry left. (But then those voters are also disproportionately white.)

As Collingwood and now Bruenig observe, there is no turning back the clock. Humanity outgrew the Middle Ages. In the words of Collingwood,

some of our social physicians are all for reverting to a medieval institutionalism and entrusting our welfare to a system of guilds or a great international Catholic church or the like, thinking our individualism is the root of our troubles. This is an error. Individualism is a symptom, not a cause, and the middle ages enjoyed that degree of happiness and success that was theirs, not because of their institutionalism, but because of something they possessed that made institutionalism workable. And it is not difficult to see that medieval man could only obey his institution because of the childishness that was in his disposition; that it would be useless the reimpose the medieval institutionalism on the modern world, because the modern man would always be wanting to go his own way in spite of his station and his duties.

As Jesus said in Matthew 18:3, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” By Collingwood’s account, the kingdom of heaven that was the middle ages is now denied us.

I think Collingwood embraces rather the Nazarene injunction of Matthew 5:48, quoted earlier, at the end of the Antitheses: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” I wonder if Dreher wants to be perfected, by some external power. He may want to be the external power that helps to perfect others, such as his own children. He suggests this in another article, “Missing The Point Of The Benedict Option,” when he laments over one particular contemporary problem, which is pornography:

I recently spoke with an Evangelical pastor who works with young men preparing for seminary. Keep in mind these are men who love Christ so much that they are planning to spend their entire lives serving Him and His people in ministry. And yet, said the pastor, every single one of them has an addiction to pornography. The pastor has concluded that the church is terribly naive about the relationship between its people and technology. He’s right. So many conservative Christians hand their pre-teen kids, or young teenagers, smartphones, and hope for the best. This is crazy! It is unreasonable to expect pubescent boys in particular to be able to control their desire for sexual images. They need help from parents and from their Christian community. They need for us to shield them while we build within them the capacity of character that will allow them to say no to it when they are older. And not only boys: one college professor told me that he’s observed the male students in his classes struggling against porn, but recently, for the first time ever, he’s starting to see his female students doing the same.

Apparently boys and even girls do not have the power to resist the seduction of pornography. They need help. If such help is indeed needed, and can be given, it would seem to me best given in a liberal democracy. Here, citizens are mostly likely to understand that they themselves must figure out how to solve problems that state authority cannot. Countries like China or Iran or Saudi Arabia may indeed use their authority to suppress pornography, with some degree of success. Success will never be 100%, though if availability of nude photos were brought down to pre-internet levels, this might be counted as good enough. Still, the genie is out of the bottle; the state that tries to put it back is not, I think, a state where Dreher would wish to live.

Edited November 3, 2019. I was brought back to this by a Twitter thread by Andrew Reeves beginning, “Medievalist Trad is a very modern ideology.” I had not remembered quoting some of the Antitheses here when I wrote about all of them in “Antitheses,” almost two years later.

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