Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

Over the past few days I finished reading Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option. The rough argument of this book is that in order to live a life ordered by God, Christians cannot continue to unreflectively participate in the social, cultural, political and economic institutions of modern society as these are contrary to Christianity. As a result it is the task of Christians to create parallel institutions and forms of communal life that allow them to sustain the Christian way of life as society moves in a post-Christian direction dominated by nihilistic individual freedom, consumerism, avarice and hedonism. Dreher calls this approach “the Benedict Option” and rightly points out that this shift would require Christians to sacrifice worldly success in favour of preserving their faith in many cases. The title is reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing comment in After Virtue that like St. Benedict who created a form of monastic life in the late Roman Empire to preserve virtue and learning amidst its collapse, those who are concerned to live a life of virtue will have to create new forms of communal life to foster virtue amidst the new dark ages of bureaucratic state capitalism. Dreher is not suggesting that Christians cut themselves off from modern society, but that they have to intentionally create alternative forms of life that do not fit with the ethos of our age.

Now, given that I am not a Christian this book was not written for me. Much of it is an exhortation to Christians to see the way in which modern society corrodes the virtues of charity, hope and agape that the Gospel makes primary. So why did I read it?

I read it for two related reasons. For one I spent a significant part of my undergraduate and graduate study on the works of Aristotle, and consider myself to be something of an Aristotleian, although a relatively unorthodox one. Furthermore, for me, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a powerful critique of modernity that any Aristotleian who seeks to reform modernity needs to address. In light of that I was interested in reading Dreher’s book because of the fact that it was inspired by MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and could be arguably said to reflect MacIntyre’s exhortation that modernity cannot be reformed to be made consonant with the life of virtue.

Secondly, over the past couple of years I have begun reading articles on The American Conservative, an online journal that Rod Dreher edits. I was drawn to this journal because it presents a sophisticated conservative Christian perspective of the world that is critical of many aspects of modernity that are concerning to me such as consumerism, instrumentalism and historical/cultural illiteracy, but at the same time stands opposed to my left-liberal political positions in its endorsement of a conservative Christian approach to ethics and politics.

I will give Dreher credit as his book is clearly written, and avoids being overly academic while retaining a significant degree of sophistication. Furthermore, those who already agree with Dreher about the nature of modernity and its opposition to Christian life, will find useful suggestions for how they can preserve their way of life. However, my issue with this book is that it does very little to convince those who are not already convinced of Dreher’s diagnosis of modernity and understanding of the Christian faith. This may be by design but if so, this was a mistake within the design of the work, as Dreher is very clear that he wants to bring people to an authentic Christian way of life, which means one of his goals is not merely to show Benedictines how to proceed, but to convince those who see the Benedict Option as an error and misunderstanding of modernity. Dreher has no expectation that he will change the culture at large, but he wants to help people see the light even if they are not already convinced.

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

In The Benedict Option, Dreher asserts as opposed to argues that the modern account of freedom and authenticity are inherently nihilistic and self-centered with their focus on the satisfaction of all desires and cannot be reconciled with the notion that the Christian God sets proper limits on man’s freedom. While this is a typical cultural conservative reading of modern individualism it is peculiar that while Dreher invokes Charles Taylor’s account of the change from premodern to modern attitudes in Latin Christendom he does not make much of an effort to engage with Taylor’s defense of freedom and authenticity. For Taylor, the conservative reading of the demand for individual authenticity as nihilistic and self centered is inaccurate and problematic because it covers over the sense in which individual authenticity is about growth towards a more fully developed self. The notion of individualism and authenticity may tend to be used as a justification for satisfaction of all base desires, but the thought undergirding this notion imply a notion of particularized teleology in which each agent has the responsibility to develop to the fullest according to their unique nature. This of course removes the idea that there could be a single standard for human excellence, but it is more complex than a simple sensuous hedonism, as your life can be a failure if you just pursue your basest desires and conform rather than developing your unique essence.

Now, given that I am not a Christian I do not want to get into the debate of whether Christian faith can be reconciled with the modern conception of authenticity as I am simply not learned enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion. But given that Taylor, is a practicing Roman Catholic who identifies himself strongly with the Christian faith and with the post romantic expressivist concept of authenticity it is not simply obvious that Dreher is warranted in asserting the irreconcilability of authenticity and Christianity. Furthermore, many of the sources of post romantic expressivist tradition which gives birth to the idea of authenticity emerge from the tradition of Christianity. In particular, Herder and Hegel come to mind as thinkers who tried to reconcile both the demand for authenticity and Christian faith. There is a debate here and one that requires those who see these poles as irreconcilable to address them.

Relatedly, Dreher draws on Phillip Rieff to argue that the culture of modernity is an anti-culture, rather than a true culture as it places no prohibitions on desire and does not have a sense of what it is good to be, that informs and drives its practises and norms. For the reasons pointed out above this seems to be an intellectually uncharitable account of modern culture that focuses on the fact that liberation from previous forms of tradition is built into the notion of authenticity, without realizing that the demand for authenticity is a standard, and one that is broadly shared. The demand that we develop ourselves by looking inside at what we really want to be and truly admire is as much a standard as the requirement of following an orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Now, Dreher does gesture towards the fact that there are other standards as he notes that many Christians in the USA are not in fact Christians, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there may be some resonance between point 3 and the demand for authenticity and individuality, the way that point 3 is formulated purposefully emphasizes the hedonistic aspect of the demand for being self-directed, rather than the fact that the pursuit of authenticity is not simply about feeling good about oneself but of achieving one’s particular excellence. The authentic life may involve feeling good about oneself, but feeling good about oneself is not enough for authenticity. We might say that in terms of authenticity original sin involves not listening to the voice of God in our hearts, but obeying the voice of worldly pleasure or acclaim. Authenticity in this regard has no necessary place for Grace in that the voice within does not necessary require God’s Grace to be heard, but still the demand for authenticity is related to Augustine spirituality and not necessarily opposed to it. It is perfectly plausible to argue that finding one’s authentic way of life requires God’s Grace even if it is possible to formulate authenticity without allusion to Grace. As a result, Dreher’s reading of modern notions of fulfillment are particularly uncharitable, and do not engage with the richness involved in these ideas as we can see by the way in which he tries to frame the demand for authenticity either as nihilistic self-seeking or the pursuit of feeling good about oneself.

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

Throughout his book Dreher discusses people who are pursuing the Benedict Option in their own lives and exhorts others to follow in their footsteps. This often involves raising children according to a specifically Classical-Christian education with the church and the faith as the centre of their lives. Now, it is certainly true that every culture inculcates their children with a specific sense of the good , and modernity is no more free of inculcating a specific set of cultural mores than Benedictine communities are. So, from this narrow perspective it is a merely a matter of which form of education and acculturation is superior. However, there are two other aspects of this issue which Dreher does not touch on in any significant depth that need to be discerned. The first pertains to the right to exit a community and the second pertains to the fact that people drawn to the Benedict Option in Dreher’s work, including Dreher himself, tend to be converts who have seen the light as opposed to people raised in Benedictine style communities. In both cases, while I would absolutely defend Dreher’s right to withdraw and live in a Benedictine community I am not sure if the good of children is being fully considered in the construction of Benedictine communities. This perspective reflects my unapologetic liberalism and I am sure Dreher would disagree, but again I think that Dreher needs to confront these objections head on, which he does not do within his book.

With regard to the right to exit, in Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality Barry makes the apt point that communities have the right to raise their children according to their own values and norms within the bounds of the law. Furthermore, while it is true that this means many children will stay in cultural communities that they disagree with and find stifling, because they do not want to sever ties with their families, the state should not try to use state coercion to ensure that these communities have more “inclusive” values. Here, Barry makes a distinction between internal costs of exiting a community, and external costs of exiting a community. Internal costs are those associated with losing contact with friends and family, excommunication; these internal costs are costs that those who leave must bare because while they are significant they are internally related to the goods and practises of the community in question.

Religious communities, as associations, have every right to excommunicate someone who fails to obey the rules of the community, and there is no requirement that they adopt the rules of behaviour to the wisdom of mainstream society. They cannot coerce the person, but they can ban them from the association. However, the challenge occurs when a community is structured in a way that leaving it does not merely mean leaving familial ties and affective ties, but in which leaving the community will deprive you of what you are entitled to as a citizen of the state. The example that Barry gives is of the Amish in Pennsylvania who have right to opt out of paying social security as employer and employees. As a result, if an Amish person decides to leave they are not entitled to social security commensurate with the time they have worked. This places an unfair burden and an external cost on exiting the community, and one that disadvantages those who have a desire to leave the community, including the young.

Now, it is not clear if Dreher would see it as legitimate to opt out of social security or other forms of government entitlements that bestow benefits on all individual citizens of a particular state. But the demand to develop parallel institutions creates the risk of depriving children of what they are entitled to as citizens. So, Dreher needs to address this concern as it could form a significant objection to his project.

Secondarily, the fact that many members of Benedictine Communities come to these communities later in life after seeing that the life of consumerism, career ambition and modernity are unsatisfying, raises the question of whether their commitment to their faith is so strong because they have made the choice to reject modern idols and live an orthodox Christian life. If children are raised within Benedictine Communities that focus on a particular interpretation of the gospels rather than the free wheeling notion of freedom and authenticity, will they be given an equivalent opportunity to explore and come to understand what they think makes life significant as those who have joined these communities after living in the mainstream of society and finding it wanting. Again, the answer to this question are not clearly answered in The Benedict Option, but some of the language of shaping children seems to me to echo the Platonic mistake of trying not merely to portray the beauty of their communities’ way of life, but of ensuring that the community continues indefinitely without change. If Benedictine Communities go down this path and deny children the opportunity to explore other modes of thought and life in a charitable manner, but simply try to ensure that their account of Christian life continues they will be denying children the ability to take full responsibility for their lives. This reduces children to means to continuance of a way of life, and disrespects their fundamental dignity. Furthermore, this dignity is reflected in the Gospel by the notion of freewill. All need to come to God willingly, not because their pastor, father, husband or wife wants them to.

Altogether, I encourage other non-Christians to read The Benedict Option because of the honesty of its perspective and the challenge that it poses. While this book is not for us, there are valuable insights in it about the corrosive effects of modernity that any person looking for significance in their life can appreciate. However, it does leave much to be desired in its failure to charitably engage with modernity and I hope that defenders of the book and Dreher rise to the occasion to charitably engage with modernity.

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Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

The philosophy of Stoicism argues that humans ought to only concern themselves with things that are under their control. In the Stoic tradition the things that are considered to be under our control are actions, dispositions, and feelings. Similarly, for the Stoic, what makes human beings distinct from other animals, and somewhat like God is their ability to control their actions, dispositions and feelings. Consequently, for the Stoic , the good life is not one that is comfortable or pleasant, but one in which the agent takes care to properly order his feelings, dispositions and actions.

While Stoicism can seem rather antiquated as its greatest defenders were either Ancient Greeks or Romans (ie Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Stoicism remains attractive to many inhabitants of modernity; in fact I find myself attracted to Stoicism.  Similarly, Stoicism has been deeply influential on Kant and Descartes, has had a significant influence on modern psychological therapeutic techniques.

Part of the attraction of Stoicism seems to at least partially lie in the fact that it enables us to insulate our lives from the terrible things that happen that are outside of our control. Reading the Stoics can help us to recognize that worrying about what others think about us or other things that are outside of our control is pointless as it is not in our power to control these sorts of things.

While Stoicism remains attractive in many ways in the modern era there is at least one set of issues that make it difficult for modern nonbelievers, in particular, to buy into this philosophy.  This set of issues is our fundamental attitude towards the events that occur in the universe. The Stoics believed in a providential God that ensured that events unfolded as they ought to. This belief in providence is deeply related to their ability to be indifferent towards things not under their control, whereas the tendency of modern unbelievers to see events as the result of mere mechanical causation makes it far more difficult to just accept the flows of events, especially as humanity seems to possess more and more technological power over nature. Consequently, while Stoicism may remain attractive to modern unbelievers a different reason other than providence will have to be found to show why we ought to accept the flow of events rather than trying to conquer or control them. I will examine the human relationship to death and aging to highlight the difference in outlook between the Stoics and modern unbelievers and suggest that while we can learn from the Stoics the Stoics seem simply wrong to suggest that the only good worth pursuing is the good of proper self-control.

From the Stoic perspective aging and death are just natural elements of life that need not be resisted. The key is to respond to aging and death not by being distraught by the inevitability of death and aging, but by accepting that these are two elements of life that we cannot escape and must just accept. For example in discussing his process of aging Seneca notes that

“Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life and delighted to only having limited dealings with the body. It has thrown off a great part of its burden. It’s full of vigour and carrying on an argument with me on the subject of old age, maintaining that these are its finest years. Let’s accept what it says and make the most of its blessings…Moving to one’s end through nature’s own gentle process of dissolution—is there a better way of leaving life than that? Not because there is anything wrong with a sudden, violent departure but because this gradual withdrawal is an easy route.” (Letter XXVI)

Here Seneca notes the inevitability of aging and death and the fact that it must be accepted, rather than something that we ought to try to escape.

On the contrary within the world of modern unbelief it seems as though we are attempting to at least prolong the inevitability of death and aging, if not trying to escape from these seeming inevitabilities entirely. This is made evident by the amount of energy and resources that are allocated to prevent death and disease and to ensure that people are able to look and “feel” younger for longer.  A large part of this resistance to aging and death lies in the fact that we have uncovered that we have the ability to prolong life and delay aging, in conjunction with the fact that we fetishize youth, and bodily goods, but it is beyond the scope of this entry to fully uncover all that underlies the modern tendency to see aging and death as a mere curse.

To return to the topic at hand, if, as modern unbelievers, we do not believe in providence why would we believe that we ought to accept death and aging and not to try to resist them with all of our might? One possible reason why we might think that there is something contemptible about the person who tries to transcend their biological limits. In relation to this we might say that part of what being a good human being means is that one recognizes that one is not a God, and as a result one should accept one’s impermanence with quiet dignity.

This picture of the good is perfectly coherent, but it is not clear why modern unbelievers ought to accept it. Given that we praise people who have overcome their limitations to do great things it seems odd to say that good human beings ought to not transcend their biological limits.  Furthermore, if we accept that our biological constitution is just a brute fact, rather than something that sets out limits for our action it seems that there is little reason to see our constitution as something that sets normative limits for us in general.

Consequently, it seems that while modern unbelievers can learn from the Stoic tradition there is a large, and perhaps, unbridgeable gap between the outlook of the Stoics and between modern unbelievers. When providence is dropped from the picture and the development of technology and science has allowed us to more adeptly conquer nature it is hard to see why we ought to see goodness as lying in only properly ordering one’s feelings, dispositions and actions, rather than trying to control nature to ensure that more people encounter more goods.

Of course a defender of Stoicism might say that appeals to providence are not necessary to justify as Stoicism as external goods like wealth, health and prosperity are not really goods and thus we should only focus on ordering our feelings, dispositions, and actions, rather than trying to pursue external goods. But the Stoic reasoning behind this has never been convincing to me. While wealth, health and prosperity may be less important goods than character or integrity it seems odd to say that a life of a fortunate affluent citizen of good character is no better than the life of an impoverished slave with equally good character.  External goods cannot be the foundation of a good life, but they can augment it, and it seems downright bizarre to say that a life of good character that involves luxurious aesthetic appreciation is no better than a life with equally good character that is barred from all aesthetic appreciation. The fallout of taking this position is that fortune will play a role in determining the goodness of lives, such that goodness is not simply the responsibility of the agent, but this seems to be a worthwhile cost to pay for a clearer picture of the nature of goodness.

Works Cited

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Reason, providence, inspiration and value conflict: Is reason able to reconcile value conflict?

Many people within developed western nations believe that if reason is applied consistently we will be able to create the most perfect society imaginable. I call this idea providential rationalism. From the standpoint of providential rationalism it is through rational speech that we are able to overcome conflict between seemingly opposed values and it is through the application of reason that we will be able develop technology that will enable us to truly be masters of our destiny. For the purposes of this entry I will examine the former facet of providential rationalism, while not considering the latter in detail. In particular, I will show that this facet of providential rationalism, let us call it dialogical providential rationalism, is implausible unless one assumes some form of providence. Furthermore, I will argue that that the alternative view that reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the overcoming of value conflict is more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Dialogical providential rationalism rightly points out that when conflicts between seemingly opposed values are overcome, this occurs through the medium of rational speech. Through an exchange of arguments , we come to either see that the conflict between values was really illusory, or that one value is more important on reflection and consequently should take precedence when the two conflict. For example, it might seem that the value of the family is threatened by having the state intervene in family life where this is necessary to ensure a decent level of well-being for the child, as the family is necessarily based on paternal authority, rather than state authority. But on reflection this conflict is only illusory as it seems more plausible to think that the people, through the state, entrust parents with authority over their children on the conditions that the parents adequately provide for their children. However, if the parents break the element of the social contract that requires parents to adequately provide for their children, then the state may intervene because the entire point of parental authority is to secure the proper development of children. Consequently, while there seemed to be a conflict between the family and the rights of children, this conflict is not really a conflict at all. I am not expecting everyone to buy into this particular interpretation of the conflict between the family and the rights of children, rather it is just an example to show how seeming value conflict can be overcome.

However, the problem with dialogical providential rationalism is that it suggests that reason is sufficient to overcome all conflict between values. This seems implausible as there are many conflicts that do not seem to be reconcilable no matter how much we argue about these values. It seems plausible to think that if some reasonable person committed to the belief that equal freedom is the fundamental end of the state, and a reasonable person who believes that happiness is the ultimate end of the state would never come to an agreement about the ultimate end of the state. It is possible that they will be able to convince one another, or come up with an imaginative solution to reconcile their conflict, but it does not seem to be true that if they spoke for long enough they would overcome this conflict. What makes conflict between values so difficult to overcome is that the only way the conflict can be overcome is if the subjects to the disagreement are persuaded by some solution to the conflict. If one party provides a solution to the value conflict, but the other is not persuaded by the solution, then the conflict has not been overcome.

In consideration of the preceding, it seems to only make sense to think that if two reasonable agents reason for long enough about a value conflict, they will be able to overcome the conflict, if we assume that nature or God has structured reason and humanity in such a way that all conflicts can be reconciled with the application of enough rational speech. Furthermore, what is the belief that God or nature has made it so that reason can overcome all value conflicts, but a belief in a providential universe? Consequently, it seems that dialogical providential rationalism depends on the assumption of providence. Of course it is true that when we look back at history we see that seemingly opposed conflicts between values have been overcome, but this only suggests that reason has overcome some value conflicts, not that reason can overcome all value conflicts. Thus, this fact does nothing to damage the argument I have put forth. It should be noted that I am not arguing that providence is an implausible belief, but that dialogical providential rationalism assumes that we live in a providential universe.

The alternative that I would put forth to dialogical providential rationalism is that reason aids humans in overcome conflict between values, but that reason is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for the overcoming of such conflict. But if reason is only a necessary condition for the overcoming of conflict between values, then some other element is necessary to overcome conflict between values. The other element is inspiration or imagination. This is made clear because in order to overcome conflict one must be possessed by something like, artistic inspiration, or imagination, in that the agents engaged in dialogue must imaginatively go beyond their current understanding of the values to reconcile the conflict. If the agents just reiterate arguments in favour of one value within the conflict, it is highly unlikely that the conflict will be overcome. But, if they are inspired and imaginatively reconcile the insights behind the conflicting values, then the value conflict may be overcome.

In many ways the overcoming of value conflict is like the creation of music, rather than the building of a house according to a blueprint. In creating music one cannot just decide that at 3:00PM one will write a piece of music, rather inspiration strikes and you are able to create something beautiful and unique. And when inspiration strikes is a matter of fortune rather than human control. Likewise, with value conflict simple rational argument is not sufficient to overcome the conflict, rather the agents must be struck by some kind of inspiration that enables them to see beyond their current understanding of the values to an understanding that is deeply convincing to all subjects of the disagreement, but yet overcomes the conflict. Furthermore, like with musical inspiration the imagination required to overcome value conflict is something that one is struck by, rather than something that one controls. Consequently, reason is a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition for the reconciliation of value conflict, and over and above reason what enables value conflict to be reconciled is being struck by inspiration. The alternative that I have put forth seems plausible as it recognizes that reason is the only tool that humans are in control of that can assist them in overcoming value conflict, but it also recognizes the limits of reason in facilitating the reconciliation of value conflict. Therefore, the alternative I have put forth seems to be more plausible than dialogical providential rationalism.

Reason is an amazing capacity of human beings, and it has great value. For example, it can help us to better understand others and learn from them. But we need to clearly understand its limits so that we do not turn reason into an idol that can solve all of our problems. Reason may be a less dangerous idol, than others, but when it is transformed into an idol, it still poses great dangers.