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Arguments About How To Participate In Our Broken World Are As Old As Humanity


Writing about the decline of community life in the United States, Aaron Renn notes that much of the commentary about what to do has been predominantly economic. He doesn’t mean to critique the need for capital or the economic foundations necessary for a healthy civilization. Rather, he says the breakdown and destruction of “social capital” cannot be adequately assessed, nor fully dealt with, within only a predominantly economic lens.

In Renn’s judgment, “There are economic challenges that do need to be addressed. But in many cases the real problems are more than economic. They are social and perhaps even spiritual in a broad sense, a despair that has destroyed so many lives.”

Renn’s accurate assessment can be attributed, in one respect, to the findings of Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s “Social Capital Project.” In “What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America,” the executive summary reports that global connectedness has increased with an ironic decreased participation in domestic, civic, and religious communities.

As Robert Nisbet wrote in his classic work, “The Quest for Community,” as these intermediate associations decline, people will begin to seek community in the only one remaining, namely, the state. Thus, our present dislocation and cultural fragmentation are, at root, social and spiritual problems.

‘Withdrawal’ As a Caricature of a Substantive Argument

The most recent attempt to face these very problems and cultural issues is Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” A plethora of reviews have popped into online forums and journals, as well as print publications. A significant number have been illuminating, providing Dreher criticisms that have helped to clarify his position, and thus more fully explicate what he means about the “Benedict Option.”

Dreher, like any author worth his salt, has humbly and gratefully welcomed such insights. At the same time, the notion of the “Benedict Option” has, in a number of respects, been simply reduced to a caricature of the actual positions Dreher articulates in the book. The caricature has led to a sort of anti-intellectual approach that reduces Dreher’s perspective to that of simple “withdrawal.”

We certainly live in an age where many believe one can give a proper judgment about an essay, idea, or book without being well-informed. While this could be lamented and analyzed, that will not be the primary focus here. Instead, what is worth considering with further detail is this specific critique against Dreher’s account of the Benedict Option. In other words, is it the case that Dreher defends indeed a societal and political withdrawing, a sort of retreat?

Before we can quickly jump to saying “Yes, this is exactly what Dreher argues,” it seems more prudent to reflect upon a trend within the history of political thought and philosophy that does argue for a real kind of “removal” from social and political life. The aim is to provide a more nuanced understanding of Dreher’s position, then consider whether he advocates a similar type of withdrawal that is often considered indicative of the “Benedict Option.”

The Fundamental Human Questions

A little-known American political theorist and Catholic priest has drawn attention to these points. In his magisterial work, “The Structure of Political Thought,” Charles N.R. McCoy argued that studying the history of political thought contained a variety of fundamental questions and inquiries about human existence that continually re-emerge in every epoch. While each historical age is vastly different, McCoy (and a later disciple, James V. Schall) has perceptively detected that within each historical age, certain basic questions and problems arise whose answers are essential for living in and making sense of this world.

In particular, McCoy notes that a recurring theme in political theory is grappling with Aristotle’s doctrine that argues for the primacy of the contemplative life over the political and practical. In assessing the era of what he considers post-Aristotelian political thought, McCoy provides the following insightful assessment:

For the post-Aristotelian philosophies of conduct, there is, on the contrary, nothing better in the universe than man himself, and so the ‘higher values’ prized by these philosophies are in an order that is the reverse of Aristotle’s. If for Aristotle the contemplative life is greater than the political, and the political life better than the life that perfects one in the line of private satisfaction, the philosophies of conduct taught that the life of personal, private satisfaction, of individual self-sufficiency, is better than any other. These philosophies are aptly called philosophies of ‘withdrawal’ and ‘protest’—withdrawal     from the political life as well as from the contemplative. They protest against the order of     the common good which is implied by both kinds of life

The post-Aristotelian philosophies of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Cynics had two distinct, yet interrelated architectonic perspectives in this regard. First, in contrast to Aristotle’s position that the contemplative order and way of life were higher than the practical, the post-Aristotelian worldview argued that it was action, or praxis, that defined the human being.

For Aristotle, and later Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as well, political life was not considered the highest good for human beings because it did not exhaust the fullness of human nature. Social and political life were necessary for human beings to achieve a real kind of happiness, but this sort was limited. There is, within our political life and politics itself, a sort of “incompleteness,” which entails a need for some higher order to provide what politics lacks. Metaphysics and the philosophy of nature were the foundational grounds for recognizing an order that has been given to man, but of which he is not the author.

Following from this is an additional claim which, at first glance, seems to oppose the first point already delineated. Since politics and action replace the theoretical order, its ontological structure and givenness, what results in the post-Aristotelian thought is the loss of both God and man. Early post-Aristotelian thinking no longer considered man to be a social and political animal by nature, who needs communal life for his good. This kind of political thought argued for the autonomy and self-sufficiency of human nature. What it meant to be human was completed within and his own self-constructed making.

In other words, prefiguring Descartes’ Cogito, this was a move into the “self” that could be accurately described as “withdrawal” and “separation.” Seeking happiness in social communion with others meant there were norms and principles of human nature and existence that were already “there.” It was this notion of a human telos, rooted in nature and ultimately God himself, that the post-Aristotelians denounced in favor of human autonomy that, as just mentioned, certainly foreshadows the same understanding which begat the modern age.

All or None Politics

Features of later Stoicism (particularly in Cicero) attempted to recover certain elements of a more Aristotelian understanding of political life. However, the tendency still remains to view man as the highest being in the universe. So the deepest concerns with the post-Aristotelian political philosophies is their reductive anthropology that either conceives human beings as no longer in need of the polity, or elevates the political life of man to be the supreme good. Both perspectives are undergirded by a neglect of a theoretical or contemplative order that places it in a proper relationship with man’s political life, retaining the distinctions and common goods of each without collapsing them.

So, is Dreher’s “Benedict Option” an argument for “withdrawal,” one whereby Christians are persuaded to cut themselves off from society? Two initial responses could provide a suitable ground to answer. First, consider Dreher’s recent observations regarding the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR, and his deep concern with its implications for how we understand ourselves and thus our place in this world:

…in addition to the socially engineered demise of the traditional family, we are embracing the elimination of the natural connection between biology and gender, the collapsing natural fertility, the advent of the ability to control the human genome… It’s almost like a curse, isn’t it?

The foundation for the post-Aristotelians was rejecting nature, and the teleology of human nature and communities more specifically. With such a rejection comes, eventually, the desire to re-create what it means to be human in an image of our own doing and likeness. This view of a “formless” nature resembles that of Francis Bacon, who argued that the aim of science is not knowledge of nature and essences, but action.

Dreher argues here and in “The Benedict Option” that humans are not the authors of what it means to be human, and that our happiness can only be achieved by living in communion with others, as ordained by both nature and God. So, in a real way, we can at least initially highlight that Dreher is arguing for the primacy of the contemplative and theoretical order as needing defense and protection against the “curse” of social engineering and human praxis as supreme.

Dreher’s insights certainly echo McCoy, who argued that the theoretical virtues are highest “by appointing the ends of human life.” Such a position is needed, as a sort of prelude, to see where politics and political life fits into the order of things.

The possibility of political and social life is protected, and properly articulated, when the primacy of the theoretical order is upheld. Otherwise, there will be a tendency towards either a rejection of political life as no longer necessary for human beings, or a distorted elevation of it as the fundamental task of our existence. This is why Dreher states in the book that his vision is to encourage “the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life.”

We Need to Be Grounded Before We Can Reach Out

The second conclusion worth mentioning here concerns something Dreher argued in response to Rabbi Johnathan Sacks equating the “Benedict Option” to “withdrawal” from society. Dreher said:

The argument I make in my book is that in order for us Christians to be the blessing God   calls us to be for the world (to ‘bring the light that can vanquish the darkness’), we need to withdraw substantially more from that world than we are doing now, for the sake of building ourselves up in prayer, contemplation, and community. This, so we can go out into that same world living as actual Christians, no matter how great the sacrifice.

The key phrase here is Dreher arguing to withdraw substantially more from that world than we are doing right now. The “world” he is calling to mind here is that of “artifice, alienation, and atomization.” It is worth noting that McCoy often reminded people that Karl Marx wrote his dissertation on Democritus and Epicurean philosophy, and thus considered himself to be a defender of post-Aristotelian political thought mentioned here.

The post-Aristotelian and modern world of autonomous man, the individual who is, ironically, more apolitical, asocial, and areligious, liberated from nature, truth, and Being, is the very world Dreher claims we ought to “withdraw” from. Yet this is not the end game. Grounding ourselves in “prayer, contemplation, and community” is for the purpose of going out as actual Christians.

The arguments offered here are certainly not meant to say that critiques against Dreher’s “Benedict Option” are invalid, and thus no longer stand. Rather, the goal was to shed some further light on a much more nuanced account of “withdrawal,” if we can call it that, especially in light of the history of political thought and the post-Aristotelian worldview in particular.

Additionally, Dreher’s account of the Benedict Option should be seen in light of Renn’s assessment provided in the beginning. Renn concludes his essay arguing: “The America of the 1970s and 1980s is dead and gone. It can’t be recreated. But America must find a way to rebuild its social capital if it hopes to change the trajectory of so many struggling people and places. Economic development is not enough.”

Dreher wants to articulate this “rebuilding” of social capital, especially within the framework of the Christian faith. This also reflects an argument Pope John Paul II made in his encyclical letter, Centissimus Annus, namely, “that there can be no genuine solution of the “social question” apart from the Gospel” (#5). For this reason, at the very least, we should be grateful for Dreher’s work.