30 July 2009

Waiting for St Benedict—MacIntyre, Monasticism, & the New Dark Ages

Judging by the fruits of a Google search, the last sentence of Alisdair MacIntyre’s already classic work on moral philosophy, After Virtue, is extremely well known and often quoted. In fact, I may be wrong about this, but I would venture to say it is the most famous part of the book. For those who don’t know, MacIntyre writes, ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’ (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. [Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984], p. 263).

Now, two thoughts frequently pop into my mind, unbidden, whenever I think about this statement, one having more to do with wording of the statement itself, and the other having more to do with its context. First of all, whenever I stop to think about this, without fail the idea occurs to me, ‘Why would our new St Benedict have to be “very different” from the first one?’ I’ve never come to a conclusion about this, but I do have a thought that first reared its head today which I will share a bit further down, after I have offered a bit more of the context of MacIntyre’s statement.

Because in order properly to convey the second thought, it strikes me as best to quote the entire final paragraph of the book. It’s a long one, but this is something that I think bears doing anyway, just because that last line, or at least the last couple of sentences, are so often quoted by themselves. So here goes:

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 eclined into the Dark Ages [incidentally, I vividly recall this parallel being drawn by Jello Biafra in a bit-too-clever take on the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ during a live performance with Ministry about 20 years ago]. 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. (p. 263)

The funny thing is, whenever I read this, and especially when I read the last line or two in isolation, I have to remind myself that in context MacIntyre is speaking first and foremost of the decline of the virtues and the rôle of Benedictine monasticism precisely in preventing that decline. At some point, although I’ve long known better, I had gotten used to thinking of Benedictine monasteries as engaged primarily in the business of preserving the ancient culture of the arts and sciences, the learning and literature of the ancient world, in the face of their decline in the cities. In his fascinating published Gifford Lectures (typeset by Edward Gorey!), Christopher Dawson even quotes a passage from Newman that might give one this impression, but for a slight caveat. First, Dawson himself writes, ‘It was the disciplined and tireless labour of the monks which turned the tide of barbarism in Western Europe and brought back into cultivation the lands which had been deserted and depopulated in the age of the invasions’ (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture: Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh 1948-1949 [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], p. 53). Then the Newman quote:

St Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it [the caveat], not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city. (pp. 53-4)

I do not say that there is anything wrong with this. Indeed, in my more apocalyptic moments (to which, as a ‘Romantic Orthodox’, I am terribly prone), I am sometimes overcome by a temptation toward hubristic self-justification in which I see my own ongoing acquisition of books and the learning that goes with them, as playing a somewhat analogous rôle to that of the Benedictines, as the night of traditional Western culture falls and barbarism—in the form of fashion magazines and video games—begins to claim all.

Furthermore, while Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern) laments the stress on agriculture in the Orthodox monasteries he knew, and the apparent absence of ‘a quiet monastery environment of a Benedictine monastery, with its library, with its scholars and intelligent priors, and with its own journal, a seminary within the same monastery, visits by intelligent and scholarly prelates, abbots, and so on’ (‘On Metropolitan Anthony [Khrapovitsky]’, trans. Fr Alexander Lisenko, Divine Ascent [No. 9, 2004], p. 152), historically speaking there is actually a great analogy here between Russian monasticism and Benedictinism as described by Newman. Thus, James Billington, while acknowledging that most of the Russian monastic founders of the 15th c. ‘were strongly influenced by Hesychasm’,—Billington’s description of which I thought quite poor—adds, ‘they were also, like the Cistercians [strict Benedictines, after all] of the medieval West, hard-working pioneers opening up new and forbidding lands for cultivation and colonization’ (The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [NY: Vintage, 1970], p. 52). Of course, Billington goes on to note the stimulus provided by monasticism in the visual arts and literary culture, and in this way the picture of the monastery as a preserver of ‘culture’ in the midst of barbarism is rounded out a bit.

So what is the difference? Why did Fr Cyprian not find the sort of monastery in Orthodoxy that would appeal to him? Surely today, especially, our Orthodox monasteries are not filled exclusively with rude peasants who know more about shoeing a horse than using a lexicon? I would venture to suggest that Orthodox monasteries, more than Benedictine ones as they developed later in the West, have preserved the emphasis on hesychasm that was originally the raison d’être of both. Although the Benedictines have preserved their founder’s well-known saying in RB 43, Ergo nihil operi Dei praeponatur, ‘Let nothing, therefore, be put before the Work of God’ (The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, trans. Justin McCann, OSB [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.], pp. 102, 103), they seem largely to have forgotten that, as the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé points out, the purpose of the ‘Work of God’, i.e., the Prayer of the Hours, was to ‘encourage and entertain’ ‘the personal striving to pray without ceasing’: ‘Like the piles of a brige, the hours of common prayer punctuate the course of time. It is up to each monk to connect them by the causeway of his unceasing prayer, so as to answer the Lord’s call’ (Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander, OCSO [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], pp. 127-8).

I think all of this is to say that it seems a step in the right direction, a good thing, that MacIntyre reminds us that at their inception, it was the practice of the virtues (of which prayer without ceasing is surely one of the greatest) in community that Benedictine monasteries sought to preserve, and not the outward trappings of culture, whether ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘secular’, whether agricultural or intellectual.

But this brings me back to my first point, the question which I’ve delayed answering. If what we are really hoping to preserve in the coming of barbarism is virtues like unceasing prayer, why must our new St Benedict by ‘very different’? In fact, it seems to me that another St Benedict very much like the old one would be the perfect project coordinator for such a thing.

While I may be giving him too much credit, here I think MacIntyre is thinking primarily in terms of his own call for all of those who value the old virtue morality to turn ‘aside from the task of shoring up the [modern] imperium’ and cease ‘to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium’, whereas St Benedict, and monasticism in general, is traditionally perceived as a special calling to certain persons within the Church. One wonders if he is not looking for a non-‘monastic’ St Benedict who does not require celibacy and absolute obedience, perhaps something like the ‘new monasticism’ (on which see this great triple review by Alan Jacobs). But again, while there is certainly a delicate balance that must be maintained in the Church between the very real obligation of all Christians to carry out the Gospel, including St Paul’s command to ‘pray without ceasing’, and the special calling of traditional monasticism, a balance that Orthodoxy has never perfectly encapsulated in an institution or formula, I can’t help but think that ‘new monasticism’, and insofar as he is advocating something like it, MacIntyre, are reinventing the wheel. Even if authentic Church life might have to take on slightly new forms—as evidenced by Fr Vladimir Vorobeyov’s fascinating article, ‘Russian Orthodox Pastoral Ministry in the 20th Century’ (Divine Ascent [No. 7, Presentation of the Theotokos, November 2001], pp. 15-40)—in our ever more anti-Christian milieu, it seems to me that our Saints have remained almost exactly the same for the last two thousand years, and will likely continue to do so.


River Cocytus said...

I would think he would have to be very different, and yet very similar. Is this perhaps his way of saying - being a modern and bereft of the real music of the tongues - 'one who comes in the spirit of St. Benedict' as was said of St. John the Forerunner, 'coming in the spirit of Elijah'?

For John himself was a 'very different' Elijah; he did not battle the Baalists by calling down heavenly fire, he instead burned them with the words of repentance, nor did he cause the rain to cease and then return by his prayers, but instead gathered that same water from the ground to wash not the fields, but the workers of the fields... etc.

As for your mention of 'video games and fashion magazines' - perhaps it is this offhand comment alone that truly makes you 'Romantic Orthodox'!

Not forgetting, of course, that 'the medium is the message', what is then the difference between the journal of a monastery, this periodical, and a fashion magazine? Or, what is the difference between a game of solitaire with real cards, and a video game? I have to go with St. Maximus Confessor and say that it is the manner in which these things are used which makes them ill or good.

I would argue that as we know there is tremendous benefit possible from the periodical, there is also tremendous benefit possible from the game. The word 'video games' is simply a generic term, which in this case I think conceals more than it reveals.

For each game we must ask how it is received: as entertainment? training? socialization? (Keep in mind that many video games are social, and not just - as the Ochlophobist suggested - 'self-play'.) And what then is it in this combination of mediums, teaching? Greed, or thrift? Lust, or temperance? Duty, liberty, license? To kill other people, or to slay the passions?

If you can answer some of those questions for me, I'll take more seriously your condemnation of the whole medium.

Not to be too combative! But someone around here has to stir up the pot - I know Owen spends time stirring up our tendency (among some converts) to accept our culture's approach to Orthodoxy; but I'd like to stir the pot of the older set's contention (and those who are gaining entry each year) about things such as video games. Our kids will play video games; if they are a kind of whoredom, what can stop us from keeping them from real whoredom? Nothing, then? Well certainly, there is no hope at all for the preservation of virtues.

I'm working on a book, by the way, about the symbolism within the game itself (this includes of course, table top games, board and card games, computer and video games, and other kinds) which defines what the medium is and what it can do.

As an aside, I think that we can indeed condemn a large number of games as being not worth our time and at worst, teachers of evil, but then again, we have to know the medium and the games to enough extent to be able to say these things. I would say that it is clear that a man does not need to play 'Postal' to condemn it as pornographic (violence in this case) just as a man does not need to visit a brothel and be involved before he can say that prostitution is wrong.

What is telling of course, is that video games are often justified as 'cathartic' - hah! We know better than that.

Thanks always, Aaron, for your posts and thoughts! I loved the series on St. George. Will you do anything for St. John the Warrior (whom we remember today - us NC's - and you will remember in ~13 days?)

aaronandbrighid said...

River> Nice thoughts on MacIntyre’s meaning. Generally, I am quite well disposed toward MacIntyre, and welcome any opportunity to understand him in a more Orthodox light. You are right that it seems likely that a modern St Benedict will have to be different in certain ways (I can hardly see him prescribing, for instance, corporal punishment, even for ‘the simple-minded’). I think what I bristle at is the ‘doubtless very different’, which sounds to me like a concession to the prevalent view that any sort of traditional spiritual life cannot possibly be sufficient for the postmodern West.

Regarding video games and such, thanks for stirring up the pot! But I don’t recall St Maximus the Confessor saying that the only difference between a game of solitaire with real cards and a video game is the way that they’re used! ;-) I hope I don’t come across as condescending, but it’s always seemed to me that the least bit of phenomenological reflection reveals enormous differences (all with ethical implications) between the mani-pulation (i.e., with ‘the hands’) of physical objects and the moving of pixels on a screen, not to mention the typical structure of video games which virtually precludes the moderate use of them; or differences between a monochrome journal of spirituality on pulpy paper featuring substantive articles and minimal advertisements for small businesses and a glossy full-colour mag devoted to high-dollar clothing made up almost entirely of ads and featuring shallow articles which are often little more than further ads (yes, I’ve actually read a fashion magazine or two, believe it or not!). But if you can show me video games and fashion magazines that teach us, directly or indirectly, but unambiguously, to ‘slay the passions’, after I recover from my shock I shall gladly rethink my position!

By the way, the ‘catharsis defence’ is one that I’m quite familiar with from my teenage battles in defence of loud, aggressive, heavy forms of music. My reading of Allan Bloom eventually put this into perspective for me, and I now think of such ‘catharsis’ as in fact a sort of mini-spiritual delusion (not that I never listen to such music anymore!). I’m glad to see you don’t buy it.

Finally, I would point out that my main problem with video games is not based on a failure to distinguish between good and bad games, but the perception, based on my own experiences with them, that they are all of them so addictive. Indeed, it would hardly be in the interests of a video game company to design a game that people did not feel compelled to play repeatedly.

Regarding St John the Warrior, ever since I stopped posting on at least one Saint without fail every day, my criterion in choosing whom to write about has been the availability to me of material, preferably primary sources and preferably in print form. In St George’s case, the frequent appearance of the Saint in art and literature more than made up for an absence of primary sources. I don’t know of anything like this in St John’s case, but if you can point something out to me (even a good online source or something), I’d be happy to consider him.

aaronandbrighid said...

By the way, add to Allan Bloom the Platonic texts upon which he was drawing...

River Cocytus said...

Ah, yeah. Well, books can be addictive, too. You know, 'page turners.' And too much *can* be said of the 'corporality' of things (like books for instance.) - sensuality and all of that.

By the way, you should be aware of how tactile most games are (ever played an arcade game? The feel of the stick and buttons, etc.) and so forth.

I think we really have to ask if the game is designed to be addictive (World of Warcraft *is* for example) or the addictiveness is simply a statement of low virtue on our part.

When I was younger I might have agreed about the general addictiveness, but I'm beginning to think that there are critical differences between different games 'just below the surface' that affect what we are getting out of them, and whether the addiction we may experience is our own idleness or the design of the game trying to 'lock us in'.

We have to ask questions like, what role does the player-avatar play? Is the structure using cathartic release to lock the player into playing for unreasonable amounts of time? Does the mechanic or visual style hypnotize? Does it prevent concentration? etc.

Some games will (I think) fall off the 'edge' immediately simply because content clearly cannot be spiritualized, they clearly are encouraging vice, etc.

I can't help but think about 'The Life of Moses' and how Gregory of Nyssa's reading of Exodus is a model for our reading of the 'text' of various games. There is, for instance, a clear parallel in the game Galaga with nepsis and clearing out all of the swarm of the passions.

It seems horribly silly (yes, I know) but I think it is in many ways a matter of seeing games in this fashion which gives us a better clue as to what, for instance, violence in them is really about. Viewed in this manner, it is less likely (though some games, like I noted may preclude this by their manner of presentation) that the violence will blur the lines between reality and fantasy and act as a catharsis for physical, passionate hatred, but instead be seen as an analogy or 'icon' of spiritual warfare.

This doesn't mean that we ought to be playing them, but it certainly creates a bridge (a la Death to the World) for our video-game soaked world.

Fashion magazines? Yeah... I just used that for rhetorical fairness. I actually agree with you on that one ;)


River Cocytus said...

As for our beloved St. John the Warrior, I have nothing special to recommend me as a source of anything but curiosity.

He appeared in my Synaxis today, as a man who pretended to be a persecutor in order to assist Christians in escaping the tyrants.

As always, I find myself hoping you know all kinds of esoteric things... Anyway, consider it a request, if you can remember, if you run across St. John the Warrior or St. Judith the Righteous in your reading, and it is not a matter of difficulty for you, to post something about them.

(The second is for my Mom, Judy, who is looking for a prayer of or about St. Judith.)

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Who has time for games?

I'm sure the Saints would tell you to drop them all, video or otherwise, and this foolish pretense that one might strain out with some great effort a gnat's worth of spiritual value while swallowing a camel's worth of distraction and worse.

We need to address this need for entertainment, this need in which we convince ourselves that, when we most need prayer, those are the times we look for a "break" from it in such things as movies, television, games, and "fashion magazines" (a fine monicker for all frivolous reading). Are those anything other than distraction from a life of prayer? From the Christian life? Treat these things as the contemptible frivolities that they are, and explain to your children why they are so, and they'll understand. Raise them up to think, not to simply react, and instill in them the care for their minds and souls that they're going to need throughout their lives. Aim for discernment through discretion.

Otherwise, I think this MacIntyre's call for "another—doubtless very different—St Benedict" is well-described, Aaron, in your perception that he's looking for someone acceptable to "a modern person". The modern hemi-Christian wants some neo-Benedict as a guru who's not burdened by all that dogma and outmoded religious stuff, who'll instill that insipid Smile of Spirituality and Head-tilt of Compassion in the masses. Someone Anglican preferably, who doesn't believe all that Christianity stuff. I think that's very likely where he's coming from.

MacIntyre is completely wrong on the relation of the Roman imperium and the United States, which is certainly not an empire. (Where are our colonies, our taxation flowing in from abroad, our imposition of civilization upon the backwards natives?) The majority of our people have embraced cultural decadence and personal degradation as freedom, while most of the Christian-themed social clubs (some still call themselves churches) have followed in lock-step.

In wating for a Godot, one waits for a savior who never comes. In waiting for MacIntyre's new-style Benedict, one awaits a savior to arrive who not only won't save, but will further destroy.

aaronandbrighid said...

More on games & MacIntyre later, guys, but for now I just wanted to say how flattered I am, River, that you expect me to 'know all kinds of esoteric things'! It's a lot to live up to! I'll keep my eyes peeled for stuff on your Saints.

aaronandbrighid said...

River> Okay, concerning the video games, I’m afraid I have to agree with Kevin. No amount of quibbling can get around the fact that it seems overwhelmingly clear that neither St Maximus nor any of the other Fathers would ever have given such things their blessing. Their addictive quality, whether built in by the manufacturers or supplied by our own lack of virtue, does not bear comparison with that of some books (ask the average teenager whether they’d rather play a video game or read a book, any book). And if we so lack virtue and abound in idleness as to become addicted to something not designed to be such, then we are fools to expose ourselves to it. The tactile quality of playing a video game does not negate the fact that there is a very thick technological mediation between the touch and movement of the controls and the movements on the screen—the connection between the two, physically speaking, is an illusion. And finally, what concord hath Exodus with Galaga?

All of this is a little ironic, however, since video games were far from the main concern of this post. In fact, I chose video games and fashion magazines as examples of cultural barbarity that I assumed almost no one that cared to read a blog like Logismoi would dispute! After the debate over my ‘theology of play’ post, and again over this one, I’m tempted to say let’s just generally leave off this debate. As the blog-master around here, I prefer to be able to go on just assuming video games and fashion magazines are a waste of time and not having constantly to defend this opinion here.

I do thank you for your kind words about my posts though!

Kevin> On the subject of MacIntyre, I don’t think he’s quite as bad as all that. He’s a convert to Catholicism, so it doesn’t seem quite as likely that he’s a hemi-Christian of the liberal Anglican type. Furthermore, MacIntyre strikes me as too strong an advocate for the traditional virtues to be quite taken in by what you eloquently describe as ‘that insipid Smile of Spirituality and Head-tilt of Compassion’ (at least he wasn't taken in by the smiles and head-tilts of our current President!). Also, noting his caveat about the dangers of drawing ‘too precise parallels between one historical period and another’, I took his comparison of Rome and the US as an intentionally superficial one. I read MacIntyre as merely wanting to say that both showed symptoms of some kind of cultural decline (a comparison that I’ve seen made frequently in the context of discussions of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages).

That said, it may be the case that you are more right than I, and that I’m being too charitable in my reading of him! Maybe I’m suckered in by MacIntyre merely because he attacks moral relativism and actually gives serious thought to and defence of the virtues. And maybe the comparison of Rome and the US is just too imprecise to be even a little bit fruitful.

Steve Hayes said...

Someone referred me to your blog post after reading something I posted after discovering the "Benedict Option, something apparently advocated by an Orthodox blogger that has become something of a fad among Evangelicals (according to0 one eminent scholar of religion. My post is here The Benedict Option? | Khanya.

I see you don't mention this movement (if it is a movement) but I found your comments about MacIntyre and his call for a new Benedict useful. One woman in our parish once commented that "The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preseve Greek culture." Perhaps MacIntyre's point is similar -- that Benedict's purpose was to preserve Roman morality, but I would say just as wrong.

Anyway, thanks for this post.