MacIntyre, Godot, And The Benedict Option


VLADIMIR: You have a message from Mr. Godot.
BOY: Yes Sir.
VLADIMIR: He won’t come this evening.
BOY: No Sir.
VLADIMIR: But he’ll come tomorrow.
BOY: Yes Sir.
VLADIMIR: Without fail.
BOY: Yes Sir.

— Samuel Becket, “Waiting For Godot” (1953)

This is my problem with the Benedict Option in a nutshell:

The Benedict Option is about forming communities that teach us and help us to live in such a way that our entire lives are witnesses to the transforming power of the Gospel.

This statement is totally meaningless.  The Church does this.  Why do we need a Benedict Option?

There’s also another problem between the Great Commission and “create a space within which [Benedict] could pray and worship God away from the chaos and decadence of the city.”  That is simply not what Christians are called to do.

For those not familiar with the Benedict Option, it is a call to arms issued by the former Marxist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in the very last paragraph of his best-known work After Virtue, where MacIntyre laments the collapse of tradition, culture, and the Western virtues that maintained it, waiting not for Godot for for “another Benedict” to rescue the West.

MacIntyre’s reflection upon the play Waiting for Godot is a telling one.  Brooks Atkinson, writing his review of Waiting for Godot in the New York Times, called the play “a mystery wrapped in an enigma” — a critique mirroring Winston Churchill’s now famous critique of Soviet Russia.

For our purposes here, we are content enough to understand that for MacIntyre in After Virtue, “another — doubtless very different — Benedict” must arrive at the train station to rescue Vladimir and Estragon from their banal existence.  Godot, of course, never arrives; hence the substance of MacIntyre’s observation.

Those unfamiliar with the two act play should avail themselves of the opportunity to do so, whether in person or video, because it is against this backdrop that MacIntyre and the “revolutionary Aristotelians” make their argument for retraction.  Doubtless the proponents of the Benedict Option would not cage their retreat as such, but this self-imposed division from the polis is precisely this: not living apart, but a self-imposed apartheid.

Herein lies the crux of the Benedict Option and what it offers to the debate among those who stand contra mundi.  If proponents simply desired a rubric or regimentation of family life, there would be no conflict — those options are readily available to anyone, laudable in practice and honorable in intent.

…it is the spirit of living apart — a surrender, not to God, but from the world — that makes the Benedict Option so unappealing.  Indeed, rather than answering MacIntyre’s question “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” the proponents of the Benedict Option simply surrender the podium and walk out of the room, as if the question does not merit an answer.

The question is ultimately one of reason vs. tradition, and it is worth recounting briefly.  For Nietzsche, the Enlightenment fails because of its reliance upon pure reason, from David Toole’s Waiting for Godot In Sarajevo:

Here reason emerges not as an abstract universal but as a dialectical enterprise always already underway — as individuals and communities engage with one another, with texts, and with the world.  Dialectical reason emerges concretely, in the midst of historically contingent events, and is from the beginning not a blanket assertion of universal truth but an argument.  As this argument is extended in time it becomes what MacIntyre calls a tradition, and the reason it embodies is thus tradition-constructive and tradition-constituted: No tradition existed before the argument began, nor was there reason, until parts of the argument were settled.  As long as argument continues, reason will never become universal because it will always find itself challenged.  Were it not to find itself challenged, then the argument would be over, and the tradition would, by definition, cease to be reasonable: Most likely it would have become fascist.

Of course, in Three Rival Versions (which would be MacIntyre’s last work), the grand solution for the modern era was not the monastery in MacIntyre’s opinion, but the university.  At the university was the realm where tradition would thrive, where “constrained disagreement” would emerge and become the bastions of what remained of the West.  Such institutions are far different from the Benedictine monastery, most notably from the perspective of time: monasteries burn away the past, universities equip for the future.

It is worth noting that MacIntyre had not totally given up on the West — were there even a few holdouts, MacIntyre believed that the fight would be worth continuing.  Another consideration is our own American proclivities for hyperbole.  Twenty years ago, would the Benedict Option and the idea of mass reclusion captured the imaginations of so many?

Proponents of the Benedict Option would perhaps offer us the solutions of “hard” and “soft” options, contrasting a series of crunchy Christians scratching out a living on a distributist co-op with a much more charitable and accurate view of a parish emphasizing the Liturgy of the Hours and a more Benedictine charism.  Yet that softer variant exists today within many families; it is how our grandparents worshiped and prayed.  Do such mores really require the communitarianism more familiar to “revolutionary Aristotelians” whose ears are attuned to the irresistible siren song of conflict as an inevitable feature of history?  Again, we come back to the core problem of the Benedict Option in esse: either it is a vertical and closed call to retreat, or it is a horizontal and open call back to the prayer life of the Church.  The latter seems reasonable, the former much more in line with tradition.

Indeed, there is much to be said about ora et labora and lex orandi, lex credendi that we have lost in the wake of the counterculture.  Such are the habits that inculcate virtues and vices, and for the Thomist there is but one solution: foster good habits.  A personal commitment, not a communitarian one.  Deeper conversations about the forms of worship and the liturgy I will leave for others to determine, but the correlation between what has been lost in our Western sic Catholic rubric and what we have lost culturally is distinct, sharp, and apparent — and in many circles, can no longer be denied.  Yet the decision to recommit is not something we can fob off on a government, society, parish, or community.

The interior life demands an interior assent — a personal interior assent — and whether that is in a grand university of brick and stone or a personal university of prayer and work, such an understanding resolves MacIntyre’s call for tradition while confounding the reasonable-yet-misplaced calls for Benedictine monasticism of a novel sort.  Romano Guardini’s observations in The Church and the Catholic are instructive here:

The church, then, is a society essentially bound up with individual personality, and the individual life of the Christian is of its very nature related to the community.   Both together are required for the perfect realization of the kingdom of God.  An electric current is impossible without its two poles; the one pole cannot exist, or even be conceived, without the other.  In the same way the great fundamental Christian reality, the kingdom of God, is impossible, except as comprising both church and individual personality, each with its well-defined and distinctive nature, but essentially related to the other.  There would be no church if its members were not at the same time mental microcosms, each self-subsistent and alone with God.  There would be no Christian personality if it did not at the same time form part of the community as a living member.  The soul elevated by grace is not something anterior to the church, as individuals originally isolated formed an alliance.  Those who hold this view have failed completely to grasp the essence of Catholic personality.  Nor does the church absorb the individual so that a man’s or woman’s personality can be realized only when they wrench themselves free from it.  Those who think this do not know what the church is.  When I affirm the church I am at the same time affirming individual responsibility, and when I speak of the interior life of the Christian, I imply the life of the Christian community.

My concern — and perhaps my principle objection — to the Benedict Option lies here.  If it is a call for retreat, then it is atomizing.  If it is a call for a mere collective of like-minded souls, then it is contrary to its own purpose.  If it is both, then the Benedict Option is a 2,000 year institution and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it — meaningless shorthand for doing what we ought to be doing as the Kingdom of God.  The call to university that MacIntyre expresses then becomes a by-product of the greater cure Guardini seeks to apply.  The former is the salvation of culture; the latter the salvation of souls.

Coming back to culture, this is why the call to university is perhaps the answer to the riddle of After Virtue and the conundrum of the Benedict Option — simply put, the second Benedict will not emerge from a monastery but from a university.  If the true conflict of the postmodern age is one between Neitzschean reason and Thomistic tradition, then no matter how rational the call to monastic retreat, the call to academic refinement and restoration is much more in keeping with the tradition of the Church.   That is a personal call, not a communitarian one.

After all, we were not waiting for Godot, we were simply waiting for ourselves.

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