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In the footsteps of the historical Benedict

Rome fell, or so Edward Gibbon would have had us believe, because of Christianity — specifically, monastic Christianity. Monasticism enticed the greatest minds (of which generation?) away from bearing strong Roman children and into the pallid fervor of Christian celibacy. Into the void, and specifically into the Roman army, stepped the endlessly fecund Germanic tribes, resulting in barbarian invasions, the downfall of true learning, and the takeover of organized religion, the latter surely the most barbaric of all three.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published between 1776 and 1789, telling you almost everything you need to know about its intellectual biases. Gibbon, like Voltaire, was a gorgeous writer, and although almost every single fact collected within its covers has been disputed by modern historians, its narrative remains powerful to this day through sheer force of eloquence. In our hearts we are children; good stories, true or false, convince.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall laid down the solid plank of Enlightenment polemic that Christianity and learning were and are fundamentally opposed, forever and ever, amen. Dig a little deeper, however, to the medieval invention of the university and the sheer rationality of high medieval philosophy and theology — never mind the tangle of early modern science with the practice of magic — and those simple binaries start to look more complex. This is, very rightly, the central argument of a Christian apologist like David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions (2010). But long before Hart, there was Alisdair MacIntyre.

In a very famous passage in After Virtue (1981), McIntyre describes the narrow moral gate created by Benedict of Nursia as an alternative to the broad way of decadent Rome in the wake of the barbarian invasions. Whatever else this passage may do, it reverses Gibbon’s narrative of Decline and Fall almost point for point: monasticism — and specifically Benedict — is transformed into the hero of our story. It/he energizes rather than enervates, creates community rather than destroys it, instills moral fiber into society rather than sapping it, and carries the lighted torch of learning almost single-handed in the faces of those pesky illiterate Ostrogoths.

MacIntyre’s Benedict is the explicit inspiration behind Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, about which Covenant has already had much to say (here, here, and here, with perhaps more to come). I am already on record with some thoughts on the subject from when Dreher’s book was still in draft, and I don’t mean to repeat those here, nor am I well-versed enough in what Dreher is proposing now to engage with the technicalities. However, in all the reviews I have read — and the reviews are legion — no one, including Dreher, has rigorously questioned the Benedict behind the curtain of After Virtue, and this fact reveals much about the limited parameters of the debate.


We know virtually nothing of Benedict of Nursia except the Rule preserved and circulated by Gregory the Great. Gregory was also the author, in his Dialogues, of the only biography we have of Benedict, composed at least 50 years after his death. Although supposedly basing his work on direct testimonials, ultimately Gregory aimed to provide an edifying portrait of his ideal monk. Born noble — and therefore with something to lose — Benedict left his privileged home to wage the spiritual single combat of the isolated hermit for a number of years until he was drawn, like Gregory, from monastic solitude into the tensions of pastoral responsibility and community life. His rare interactions with the Ostrogoths appear to have been amicable.

There is nothing here that is dramatically different from the pattern of life of an Antony: it was not the decadence of Rome in particular that disgusted Benedict but city life. A striking number of Christian nobles exercised leadership in the Church, both as bishops and in the dizzying variety of monastic communities formed in the late antique period, but that option was not necessarily about raw moral disgust. It had as much or more to do with the professionalization of the Roman military and the closing of job opportunities to high-born amateurs.

In any case, monasticism was born not out of the moral or governmental failures of a late Roman state but, ironically, out of Christian political success nearly two centuries before Benedict: If the emperor is Christian and our bishops have become state functionaries, where will the Church find its martyrs and holy men? Out with the arenas, in with the caves in the desert. Benedict should be seen on a continuum with other Western popularizers of Eastern monasticism like Cassian and Gregory, a long historical arc stretching before and after him; Benedict was an innovator for his moderation, pragmatism, and emphasis on pride as the central enemy of monastic life, not for the novelty or stringency of his moral stance.

Dreher’s previous book was a personal meditation on Dante, and the theme of moral decadence, political exile, and religious consolation runs through much of his work. Dreher takes up MacIntyre’s artful reversal of Gibbon: monasticism as the cultural lifeboat amid the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The trouble with decline narratives, however, is that they suggest implicitly that disaster, when it comes, was inevitable and specifically the result of some identified moral failing. Your villain may be Christianity or moral decline — and “a contagion of homosexuality,” too, has been said before to have caused the fall of Rome — but the shape of the grand narrative remains the same.

But if MacIntyre’s Benedict was escaping from a decadent Italy c. 500, during which period precisely, then, could Rome’s moral fiber have been said to be at its stiffest? Under Nero? Similarly, I am deeply wary of any nostalgia for past eras of American life that dodges the brutality of segregation. How confident should we be in the moral fiber of any society in which slavery or any of its “way of life” second cousins was a recognized, legal, and protected institution? Systemic evils, as well as goods, are transmitted in, by, and through social community, and mere separation does not guarantee moral stainlessness. As Benedict would tell you, you take your devils with you.

I fear that the Benedict Option will devolve for many, in practice, merely into a choice for private education, and that means it is, in practice, a privilege and luxury exclusive to the white middle to upper-middle class (of course, it already is among the upper classes). Dreher would like to let the monks be monks, and of course he wants to use Benedict as inspiration for the formation of communities rather than the foundation of outright monasteries. Nevertheless, any attempt to use Benedict to justify separation from the corruptions of the world that targets only questions of sexuality and identity and does not confront race, class distinctions, or the truly sacred American right to money and private property, rather takes the Benedict out of the Benedict Option. One of the central pillars of Benedictine monasticism, the absolute power of the abbot — which exists in part so that power in the community may be located squarely in the abbot and not in distinctions of class, wealth, race, and so on — creates exactly the sort of all-powerful father figure that Dreher in the past has tried very hard to avoid.

I do not want to trivialize what many feel as an intensely earnest moral debate about human sexuality with repercussions for their jobs and careers and their denominational allegiance. I can’t help feeling at the same time, however, that a Sudanese, an Iraqi, a Palestinian, or an Egyptian Christian, never mind an African-American whose church has just been burned, would look today on American conservative Christians’ claims to persecution with some bemusement. At worst, this mentality can produce a refusal to engage with disagreeing points of view that many of us would be sharp to criticize in a debate, say, about university classrooms, curricula, and trigger warnings. Conservative Christians are not exempt any more than liberal ones from the cultural temptation of claiming special snowflake-dom and inhabiting the protected bubble of only those who agree with us.

All of which is an understandable response to the strains that society is legitimately under, affecting non-Christians as well as Christians. Where Benedictine monasticism provides both challenge and hope, however, is in what you might call its heroic, apocalyptic optimism: We try to live as if the kingdom were already come, as if we dwelled not in the earthly city but already in the new Jerusalem. This began for Benedict not immediately in community formation, which happened later in his career, but after prolonged solitude and then leadership in fractured communities that he did not found and could not control — in short, in failure. But the eventual fruit, surely, to have come out of Benedict’s time in isolation was a renewed sense of Christian identity, encapsulated in one of the most magnificent documents in the Christian tradition, which enabled him to face the evils and ills of the earthly city without fear.


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