Saturday, March 24, 2007

Waiting for a New Benedict

An interesting discussion came up over my recent linking to Alasdair MacIntyre's argument for not voting. I suggested in the comments that at the back of MacIntyre's mind was something more or less like the famous passage with which he closes out After Virtue:

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 the 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 ground 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.


Now, MacIntyre's not committed here to complete withdrawal from the 'imperium'; but he's not too far from suggesting it, either. It's a very strong position. In reply to it, Jack Perry said:

If that's what McIntyre's getting at, then I'm even more appalled by his ideas. The ancient world he speaks of was one where government was essentially organized thuggery—doesn't St. Augustine have some famous quote that implies that?—and people of all stripes of virtue had no real way to affect the course of events, short of trying to convince the emperor (or the tribal leader, or whatever) that he should become a Christian (or a Zoroastrian, or a Moslem, or whatever) and then hope that his enlightenment would civilize him somewhat. It seems to me that the isolation of Christians into communities only compounded the problems McIntyre bewails, because you then had Arian Germanic tribes who felt no compunction about invading the Catholic/Orthodox Roman Empire. One way Byzantium survived the short term was by converting the Slavs, and I suspect that one reason it didn't survive the (very, very) long term was that it failed to convert the Arabs, in part because the Patriarch and the Emperor together aggravated differences with the Copts, the Syriacs, the Latins, and so forth.

We live in an age where we can affect the course of events by organizing and voting. The solution to our difficulties at affecting the course of events is, I think, to organize and to stand fast to principles. As distasteful as Political Action Committees may seem, they give people a voice in government that we would not otherwise have in such an unimaginably large nation as ours. So I side with Cicero on this, and say that participation in politics is a virtue, so long as it is done virtuously, and abstaining from politics is a vice.


I confess to being torn. I am tempted to the view that, in fact, we should see ourselves as living through (having lived through?) a collapse of the basic structures of moral community, and that we need some rebuilding. I am also naturally skeptical of government, being also tempted to the view that the only difference between our governors and theirs is that ours are (to use a phrase I think someone has used somewhere) 'thugs with high pretensions'. I think, in fact, that one of the problems of our modern forms of government is that it encourages thuggery among otherwise decent people, and encourages them to cover it with high-sounding phrases. And what is worse, we all become accustomed to it. We should not kid ourselves; we are not Nehemiahs rebuilding Jerusalem, every man contributing to building the wall that protects the area where he lives. We are condoning all sorts of thuggery as the natural concomitants of living in a fortress; and not merely condoning, but often actively supporting it as long as it runs smoothly enough not to disturb us and our consciences.

On the other hand, things are not so simple; because Jack is quite right that, however far gone things may be, our society is indeed structured so that organizing and voting makes some difference. It's a very slow sort of difference-making, but it has not lost its power; if we do not use it as we should, that is because we have forgotten what little we ever knew about using it as we should, and this is only remedied if we learn it again by doing it again. But I think it's a mistake to think of politics as chiefly a matter of government; participating in the polis is much more than that, and it is this that is the virtue. And that is really where the matter starts, with like-minded people joining together to improve themselves and contribute to the improvement of life around them. So to that extent, the way forward is through participating in society, not withdrawing from it.

But we are stilling waiting for a new Benedict.

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