29 January 2009

Plato, St Benedict, & Student 'Protest'


In Book I.634 of Plato’s Laws, the Athenian at one point says to Cleinias and Megillus (I quote the Penguin Classics translation by Trevor J. Saunders [1975], p. 59:

However, granted that your codes of law have been composed with reasonable success, as indeed they have been, one of the best regulations you have is the one which forbids any young man to inquire into the relative merits of the laws; everyone has to agree, with one heart and voice, that they are all excellent and exist by divine fiat; if anyone says differently, the citizens must absolutely refuse to listen to him. If an old man has some point to make about your institutions, he must make such remarks to an official, or someone of his own age when no young man is present.

Taking the comment in the context of such a long discourse about the State, my own, enthusiastic marginal note here reads, ‘No student activism, eh?’ I could not help but think that the whole brouhaha of the ‘Sixties’, about which American baby-boomers often wax so nostalgic, would have been totally anathema in the ancients’ ideal society. Fine by me, said I. I would have been one of those people who just wanted to go to class (most of the time), and who saw no point in ‘occupying’ university buildings. I found myself exceedingly frustrated by Wayne Booth’s account in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1974), pp. 7-11, of a 1969 sit-in at the University of Chicago—in the aftermath of which, among other absurdities, one graffito read ‘F*** the life of the mind’. I felt like the words of Ignatius Reilly applied: ‘The children on that program should all be gassed’ (John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces [NY: Grove, 1980], p. 41)! I was further supported, too, by another wonderful pronouncement of Plato’s Athenian, this one in Laws III.701, ‘You see, reckless lack of respect for one’s betters is effrontery of peculiar viciousness, which springs from a freedom from inhibitions that has gone much too far’ (Plato, p. 154).

Now, much of St Benedict’s Rule seems to support Plato in this respect, and my zealous reading of him (though without, perhaps, the gassing). In RB 6:6 (I quote from St Benedict, The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English, trans. Justin McCann, OSB [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholics, n.d.], p. 37), the Father of Western monasticism writes: ‘For it becometh the master to speak and to teach; but it befits the disciple to be silent and to listen.’ Further on, in RB 63:10-17, St Benedict tells us:

Wherever the brethren meet one another, let the junior ask the senior for his blessing. When a senior passes by, let a junior rise and make room for him to seat himself; nor let the junior presume to sit down, unless his senior bid him, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled: Be eager to give one another precedence. (St Benedict, p. 145)

The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé points out here that although this chapter also has certain reciprocal prescriptions for the seniors, ‘In spite of these elements of reciprocity, which to some extent justify the expression “honor one another”, the Rule lays the emphasis on the respect which subordinates owe their superiors’ (Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], p. 297-8).

Thus, the University of Chicago’s class of ’69 would have been just as out of place, if not more so, in a Benedictine cœnobium as in the ideal society of the Laws, one feels. Furthermore, while Plato, in the Laws I.634 passage (as well as one or two others, if memory serves me), almost seems to be suggesting that the human lawmakers simply use the idea of the divine origin of the laws as a tool of control, if one accepts the sanctity of St Benedict, one is bound to confess that his Rule really does ‘exist by divine fiat’. He himself refers to it as ‘the holy Rule’, and if any monk be found guilty of ‘despising and contravening’ it, after two rebukes he is subject to the excommunication prescribed by the Gospel (Mat. 18:15-7) for unrepented sin (RB 23:1-4; St Benedict, p. 73)

But I was somewhat surprised when the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé called to my attention RB 3, a chapter wherein St Benedict tells the abbot to convene a council of the whole brotherhood in order to make important decisions. This, in and of itself, did not seem like such a big deal, but RB 3:3 in particular seemed somewhat striking: ‘Now the reason why we have said that all should be called to council, is that God often reveals what is better to the younger’ (St Benedict, p. 25). ‘God often reveals what is better to the younger’? Such a thing had never occurred to me! Although not quite as shocking, St Benedict says a similar thing about visiting monks in RB 61:4—‘Should he [the pilgrim monk] reasonably, modestly, and charitably censure or remark upon any defect, let the abbot consider the matter prudently, lest perchance the Lord have sent him for this very end’ (St Benedict, p. 139).

De Vogüé connects these two passages (RB 3:3 and 61:4), and points out that they reveal ‘[the] spirit of a faith which is able to recognize in every human being, whatever his status, a potential messenger from God’ (p. 289). But the Class of ’69 ought not to get too excited about this, for, in his infallibility, de Vogüé also reminds us of the other side of the coin. In RB 61:4:

[St] Benedict notes the sign which indicates the possibility of divine intervention: the reasonable, humble, and charitable way in which the guest offers his suggestions. We are again reminded of the chapter on counsel, where the brothers were asked to give their opinion humbly. Humility is the mark of God. (p. 289)

Yes indeed. We have neglected to mention the sentence that immediately follows the line about God revealing ‘what is better to the younger’ (RB 3:3; St Benedict, p. 25): ‘Let the brethren give their advice with all deference and humility, nor venture to defend their opinions obstinately; but let the decision depend rather on the abbot’s judgement, so that when he has decided what is the better course, all may obey.’

If we want to know what humility entails, we can find this in the Rule as well. There is a long chapter, Chapter 7, ‘Of Humility’, ‘longer and more important than any other’, as de Vogüé tells us (p. 75), which is drawn largely from and expands upon St Cassian’s Institutes 4.39 (St John Cassian, The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 2000], p. 99-100). In the latter, we find that ‘Humility, in turn, is verified by the following indications: . . . ninth, if he [a person] holds his tongue and is not loudmouthed . . .’ (p. 100)—admittedly, a bit harsh. But St Benedict turns this into—‘The ninth degree of humility is that a monk restrain his tongue and keep silence, not speaking until he is questioned’ (RB 7:56; St Benedict, p. 47).

So, it’s difficult for me to draw a conclusion here. Granted, perhaps the Class of ’69 should not be gassed. Granted, on the other hand, they went too far. But there is an imperfect analogy here between American society, or even the political unit Plato is trying to design on the one hand, and an Orthodox cœnobium on the other. It seems to me that our country is sort of built on the concept that it is the folks in charge who are supposed to be humble, though they never are and we don't really expect them to be, while the governed, the voters, are supposed to believe that they are capable of making all of the decisions themselves and only need to find the candidates that have the same answers to the questions that we do. But far be it from me to get political. I’ll leave it to the reader to work out what is to be done.

2 comments:

Esteban Vázquez said...

With apologies to Plato, St Benedict, and Fr de Vogüé, I protest, and if I had the opportunity, as I did during the Strike of '05, to be an active participant in closing down my University for a month because the administration was going to raise tuition unilaterally (against established procedure) to offset some dubious deficit while the President built a multi-million dollar wine cellar on University property with University funds, I would do it again in a heartbeat!

Let the gassing begin. ;-)

aaronandbrighid said...

Don't forget to apologise to Ignatius Reilly!

Well, okay, that sounds like a reasonable protest, but of course, you weren't protesting the whole idea of the 'life of the mind'.