Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard –H.L. Mencken
A crucial turning point in that earlier history (of the late Roman Empire) occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the continuation of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness…What matters at this stage is the construction of new forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us….This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of awareness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.
We are waiting, not for Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict. —Alasdair MacIntyre (Emphasis added)
When I first read After Virtue, I wondered what his road to the new dark ages would look like. What would be the point at which “men and women of good will…ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the imperium” (which in the modern age is likely this American Experiment?)
For me at least, we’ve reached that point (or at least are so close as to have effectively reached it). This brings us to question two: how do we set about creating new forms of community to sustain the moral life? Or differently: Where is our “very different St. Benedict.”
Some speak of the “Benedict Option” as a type of withdrawal from society at large. I confess, I am not entirely fond of this idea. I like aspects of society, perhaps at my own peril. The idea of moving to the middle of nowhere and tilling my own soil for the rest of my life really does not appeal to me.
This has caused me to despair in recent months about the possibility of making through the coming dark ages without either a) going (more) nuts or b) just surrendering to postmodernity and hedonism. However, while out to lunch with self-proclaimed “D-List Blogger,” @tmi3rd, who was passing through town, I realized something. Unlike those in the Benedictine era, we are blessed with incredible forms of communication. I mean, here I am at lunch, discussing politics with a person who, some 20 years ago I likely would have only been able to meet at a regional gathering of some sort (assuming I had time and money to go to one.) And even then, our communication would have been solely through letters, written and mailed, maybe the occasional phone call. Instead, we were introduced without either of us leaving our homes, and have been carrying on a long running conversation (of sorts) in our free time for several months. Beyond that, here I am with a blog, shouting out into the nothingness, hoping people will listen and gather to discuss what I have to say.
MacIntyre made explicit reference to A Canticle for Leibowitz at the start of After Virtue. In Leibowitz, knowledge is saved during the “great simplification” leading up to the new dark ages via “booklegging,” actual smuggling of books into hiding. I don’t mean to imply that we’re heading for our own “simplification,” but rather that knowledge that is not explicitly saved and passed on, will ultimately be forgotten and lost.
All of this leads to a point: what if the communities we define these days don’t look like the Benedictine communities some 1500 years ago? Our powers of communication and information sharing border on magical when compared to the world of St. Benedict. We can construct intellectual communities across great distances without the need to physically relocate ourselves and our lives, which are often intertwined with jobs, and family, and friends, who are all just as important to us as the need to keep the tradition of conservatism alive.
Conservatism, as I see it, is not just an idea, nor merely an intellectual philosophy. It is a part of a way of life. Life based on self-responsibility, morality, and caring for others without the coercion of government. We can, and should keep on living, keep talking, communicating and supporting each other. This way after we emerge from whatever comes next, we’re prepared to reeducate the world.