TCS Daily

Did Benedict XVI Take a Page Out of MacIntyre's Book?

By Nathan Smith - April 22, 2005 12:00 AM

I have a theory about why Joseph Ratzinger chose the papal name "Benedict:" he took his inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

In After Virtue, written in 1984, MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project to establish a rational basis for morality has failed. He advocates a return to an Aristotelian-Catholic tradition, as the only viable alternative to Nietzschean moral nihilism. MacIntyre has since become the leading light of virtue ethics, and one of the most influential Catholic moral philosophers. Here is the final paragraph of After Virtue:

        "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 declined into the Dark 
        Ages. 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 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. (After Virtue, p. 263)

Pardon, if you will, MacIntyre's grumpy assertion that "the barbarians... have already been governing us for quite some time." Yes, he's referring (I think) to the elected and corporate leaders of our democratic-capitalist order. MacIntyre's disdain for liberalism owes something to the strange paths by which he arrived at a Catholic worldview: he was initially a Marxist.

However, the allusion to St. Benedict is fascinating. It is the climax of a book in which MacIntyre took himself to be presenting a critique of Enlightenment moral philosophy as a whole, though today it also lends itself to another reading, as a manual for resistance, in particular, against the Great Society of the 1960s and 1970s. A review in Village Voice (quoted on the back cover of my copy) describes the book as "a reinterpretation of the entire history of Western moral philosophy, as decline, fall, and -- possibly -- rebirth." It is in a new St. Benedict that MacIntyre looks for that rebirth.

Wikipedia describes St. Benedict (of Nursia) as follows:

        "Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia [born in 480 A.D.]... He 
        was at the beginning of life, and he had at his disposal the means to a career 
        as a Roman noble... Benedict... left Rome... to find some place away from 
        the life of the great city... in some kind of association with a company 
        of virtuous men
who were in sympathy with his feelings and his views of life."

This desire led Benedict to become, first a monk, then an abbot, and eventually:

        "[M]any people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to 
        be under his guidance. For them he built in the valley twelve monasteries, 
        in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth 
        he lived with a few, such as he thought would more profit and be better 
        instructed by his own presence
(ibid., 3). He remained, however, the father 
        or abbot of all. With the establishment of these monasteries began the 
        schools for children; and amongst the first to be brought were Maurus and 

        "St. Benedict spent the rest of his life realizing the ideal of monasticism 
        which he had drawn out in his rule."

The Benedictine monks went on to keep learning alive for six centuries as civilization collapsed around them. Even today we owe much of our knowledge of ancient Roman classics -- including, ironically, bawdy pagan works by such writers as Ovid -- to generations of nameless Benedictines scribbling on parchment in the cold. Benedict and his followers retreated from civilization, only to end up saving it.

St. Benedict's act of "turning aside" from a corrupt imperium to "construct new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained" has kept repeating itself throughout the history of Christianity. Monasticism flees the world; the world follows. Monasticism turns its back on civilization, then, time and again, becomes the spearhead of civilization.

The Benedictines did not aspire to great erudition. Benedict's rule prescribes merely that the brothers be taught to read. But literacy became so scarce in the centuries after St. Benedict that monks were drafted as a scribal class, serving dukes and kings, and sometimes acquiring great power.

Later, the worldly success of the Benedictines disillusioned St. Bernard and others, who sought to renew the monastic ideal by venturing out to wild places to seek simplicity and poverty: thus appeared the Cistercian monastic movement. What followed was ironic; seeking holy poverty in the wilderness, the Cistercians settled new lands and became "the great farmers of those days." Writes Wikipedia: "It was as agriculturalists and horse and cattle breeders that, after the first blush of their success and before a century had passed, the Cistercians exercised their chief influence on the progress of civilization in the later Middle Ages... [M]any of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them."

The same religious impulse to turn aside from corrupt civilization and begin the moral community afresh motivated the creation of America. Jamestown, Virginia, established for profit, almost perished, and survived only with the help of African slaves, casting a shadow across the future of the South. The free America we know began with the Pilgrims, who came to build the Kingdom of God. The Pilgrims came to practice (what they held to be) the one true faith, not just as individuals but in community. As with the Cistercians, the result is ironic: America today is a great success from the worldly point of view, but far from being the pious "City on a Hill" that the Puritans envisioned, it has become a secular place, and the face it presents to the world is that of sin-drenched Hollywood.

Yet in the generations since, tens of millions more have emigrated to America. The story of a religious sect establishing a successful settlement has repeated itself: thus the Quakers settled Pennsylvania, and the Mormons settled Utah. The Benedictine motto -- ora et labora, pray and work -- aptly describes the immigrants to America, who left behind the old ways in order to pray and to work according to their own conscience. And just as the Benedictines incubated the heritage of Greco-Roman civilization through the Dark Ages, it fell to America to ensure the survival of European civilization as a dark age of fascism and communism swept over the continent. As Ovid's works survived thanks to monastic scribes, so many a Marxist intellectual escaped the Nazis to become a tenured professor at a university in free-enterprise America.

Is there room in the world today for a re-awakening of the monastic impulse?

There is certainly plenty of physical space waiting for those who wish to begin the moral community afresh. First, the world has lots of big, sparsely populated countries, such as Russia, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, most of southern and eastern Africa. But even in the wealthy countries of the West, the rural population has often been stagnant or declining in the 20th century. These pastoral places are as beautiful as they were when they inspired Goethe to write:

        "A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet 
        mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel 
        the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of 
        souls like mine. I am so happy, my friend, so absorbed in the exquisite 
        sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be 
        incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel 
        that I never was a greater artist than now." (Sorrows of Young Werther, 2)

The internet, with its blogs and chatrooms, should make it easier than ever for people to seek out "companies of like-minded people who are in sympathy with their feelings and their views of life." And technology should make it easier than ever for those who withdraw from the world to bring its comforts with them selectively. On a simple laptop computer one may stash enough texts to read and music to listen to to last years.

It's a win-win situation. Having withdrawn from the world, the new Benedictines, the new Cistercians, the new Pilgrims would no longer put off others with their sanctimonious, judgmental presences. But those who were drawn to their ethos would know where to look. And if history is any guide, where monasticism fled the world, the world would soon follow.

MacIntryre called for a new St. Benedict. Maybe Ratzinger hopes to answer the call.

Nathan Smith is a writer in Washington, DC. He blogs at Towards a Good Samaritan World and contributes to the blog at Citizen-Journal.You can email him here.


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