In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre published his book, After Virtue. He offered a historical analysis of the breakdown of moral conversation, essentially noting that a once classical agreement about the grounds of moral thought and action had been shattered into many conversations, most of which were incompatible and mutually contradictory. To make matters worse, he noted that a single speaker was likely to change moral horses in mid-stream. His conclusion was that our society had lost its ability to hold a meaningful conversation about the nature of the good or even how such a thing could be known. We are now a culture in which virtue has become a near impossible reality.
Today, his book is gaining a new fame based on its final paragraph. It is the basis of the present conversations regarding the “Benedict Option.” The paragraph is worth quoting in full:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history 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 construction 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. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local 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. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. 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 consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another— doubtless very different— St. Benedict.
His book can be read on a popular level, if you are serious about the subject and willing to work hard. For anyone thinking about current issues in our culture, it is essential reading. My own instinct, if I am in a serious conversation with someone who has not read it, is to suggest we stop until they have. It’s that central.
A primary value of MacIntyre’s work is to bring the topic of virtue into focus. His thought is grounded in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas who are the giants in this realm. Orthodox teaching, itself rooted in a classical understanding, is very much at home in this conversation. Here is a brief overview:
Morality asks questions of right and wrong. What constitutes right action and why? Virtue asks an even deeper question. What kind of person is able to think and act in a right way? In terms of the gospel, we can see virtue as lying at the heart of Christ’s statement, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” For someone who lacks virtue (is not “pure in heart”) even their reason and perception will be distorted. They will not only fail at doing the good, they will not even be able to see what the good is.
To suggest that we live in a culture in which virtue is absent is thus a very serious charge. It means that we are unable to agree on even the most mundane matters about what is right and wrong. Worse still, we have become the kind of people who are unable to even know the answer to such questions. MacIntyre’s next book, Whose Justice, Which Rationality, pushed his analysis even further. His work sits like a prophetic word over the modern landscape of moral discourse.
But After Virtue’s last paragraph remains. The Benedict Option has passed into current religious conversation, at least among those who think his analysis is correct. If virtue itself has collapsed, and our ability as a culture to understand and agree about the moral project has disappeared, how do we even begin to recover? Or, more poignant still, how do we even survive such a disaster?
The problem can be stated in terms of a circle. Virtue itself is a requirement for right action. How can people who lack virtue ever come to know what virtue itself is, much less go about creating a community of virtue? I’ve always thought of this under the guise of “take’s one to know one.” Obviously, something from outside is required in order for virtue to be nurtured.
This, actually, is one way of understanding the gospel itself. If no one is pure in heart, then who can teach us about God? The answer is, Christ Himself. Christ is the one who is pure in heart. He Himself is the man of virtue. And so it is that Christ establishes the Church. Human beings do not actually live as individuals (despite all the modern rhetoric to the contrary). We belong to communities. If the communities to which we belong no longer know or are capable of virtue, then we ourselves cannot become virtuous.
The Church, however, is the living and abiding remembrance of virtue – the character of Christ Himself. The Church is the birth, in the world, of the living presence of the character of Christ. This is the heart of the “Benedict Option.” The monastic communities of Late Antiquity (the “Dark Ages”) were formed and shaped according to the character of Christ. “Character formation” was at the very heart of their life. In broader terms, we describe that formation as salvation itself.
It is worth noting, however, that these communities were not the result of people looking around and saying, “Gee, the Empire has fallen and the process of forming virtue has collapsed. Let’s start some monasteries and survive this thing.” The Benedict Option, in its original form, was God’s work, not man’s. This is necessarily the case.
American culture is enamored of the great “can do.” If there is a problem, we want to fix it. Indeed, part of our culture’s problem includes this notion of the ability to “fix.” A people who are clueless about virtue cannot create a virtuous fix. But we desperately want to! This includes well-intentioned Orthodox thinkers. The Church itself already is, and always has been, the “Benedict Option.” It is the means by which God is saving the world and the people within it. Sometimes, as in the case of the Benedictine Monasteries of Late Antiquity, that option has a profound and long-lasting effect on its surrounding culture. Of course, the result of those first monasteries across Europe gave rise to Medieval Latin Europe. A form of virtue was better understood, but did not prevent the rise of the Borgias or any number of corrupt Churchmen and rulers.
Today, the parishes of Orthodoxy remain as treasure houses of virtue. There is within them the remembrance of virtue and the fullness of the Divine, life-giving energies. But they are also a mixed-bag. For though all of the treasure remains present, the culture has very deep roots in the lives of many of its members. Their formation is far more driven by the moral confusion and consumerism of the mainstream than it is by the liturgical and dogmatic life of the Church.
I remain convinced that only a major increase in the level and quality of the monastic presence in Western culture will make much of a difference. But, “making a difference,” is God’s business. We ourselves can never really measure such a thing.
The Benedictines of the 7th and 8th centuries were not terribly aware that the culture had collapsed and that virtue had gone with it. They were aware of their Rule of Life and that is what occupied their days. They had no conscious plan to rescue civilization. Rather, they sought to rescue their souls from the fires of hell.
The true and ever-present Benedict Option remains whether anyone thinks about it as such or not. It is the long, slow, patient work of acquiring the virtues (theosis) by actually living the fullness of the Tradition as we have received it. It’s success is not for us to know or to foresee.
Go to Church. Say your prayers. Teach your children. Shop less. Share your stuff. Keep the commandments as we have received them. Pray for the grace to suffer well. Help those around you who are suffering. There is no need to wait for someone else to do it.
Those who plant olive trees know that they will not yield a crop for at least 25 years.
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)