Alasdair MacIntyre famously ends his assessment of the modern moral condition in After Virtue by lamenting the impossibilities of sustaining a coherent moral culture. His call to action in the last pages of the book presents the fall of the Roman Empire as an age similar to our present day. During that time, “men and women of good will turned aside from the tasks of shoring up the Roman imperium” to build local forms of community in which intellectual and moral life could be sustained. For MacIntyre, the preservation of civilization today depends upon the emergence of “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” who can begin the same sorts of local communities that sustained civilization and moral life through the Dark Ages.
At the same time, over the last year or so, MacIntyre’s prognosis—now popularly called the “Benedict Option”—has gained prominence among a subset of conservative and religious writers, mostly associated with The American Conservative and senior contributor Rod Dreher. Dreher’s work has consisted largely in aggregating various strands of the expanding conversation and offering a working thesis as to its cohesion; and he and several other writers (among them Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby) have articulated nuanced explorations of what MacIntyre’s assessment might mean for the present political landscape. Yet in the larger conversation the Benedict Option—pitted against calls to “stay the course” of the Culture War—has become almost synonymous with an acceptance of defeat and subsequent withdrawal from the public sphere.
There is a sense among many conservatives that the Benedict Option is really just a more sophisticated “I’m moving to Canada” lament by those who lost the Culture War. But is this white-flag-waving, defeat-and-retreat “Benedict Option” the same vision we find in the final pages of After Virtue? Or is it—as several interlocutors at Dreher’s blog have begun questioning—a repeat of the “take to the woods” strategy of American Protestant fundamentalism in the early 20th century?
There’s good reason to believe that the popularized Benedict Option diverges from MacIntyre’s understanding in several crucial ways. Take, for instance, the basic timeline. MacIntyre sees our condition as the result of many centuries of development in moral and political thought, while those advocating the popular version pinpoint the origins of the decline within the last decade—in the post-Bush American political landscape. Such a hasty adoption of this “civilizational collapse” mentality should raise several concerns, most centrally whether such culture-despairers might—given the right set of platitude-spouting political candidates in the next election cycle—find themselves drawn back to the seductive hopes of “imperium maintenance.”
A proper understanding of MacIntyre’s larger argument can save After Virtue’s Benedict Option from being reduced to conservative Culture War retreatism. While After Virtue‘s conclusion may stand out for its “Dark Ages” imagery and grim diagnosis, MacIntyre’s body of work reveals a consistent predilection for particular localized forms of shared moral life. This is often confused with contemporary conservatism or communitarianism, two traditions from which he distances himself. Understanding his vision of localized communities requires also a broader engagement with his ongoing interactions with Marxism, his criticism of contemporary communitarianism, and his more recent political thought in the 2011 volume Virtue and Politics.
Briefly stitching together this vision allows us to see that some Benedict Option advocates have diverged from MacIntyre in three crucial ways: conflating contemporary electoral gains and losses with centuries-long conditions of modern culture; endorsing a form of “conservatism liberalism” denounced by MacIntyre; and falsely creating an either/or of engagement and withdrawal efforts that misses the “radical localist” push of MacIntyre’s political project. Briefly exploring each of these points supports a clearer evaluation of how MacIntyre’s work might serve the particular needs of our current political and moral predicament.
First of all, MacIntyre’s concerns are largely detached from national electoral politics and the gains and losses of the Culture War. The timeline of his work is more than sufficient evidence here. MacIntyre’s Benedict Option first appeared in the early 1980s, just as the Christian Right began to establish itself on the national scene to “take back America.” Yet neither the growth of the Christian Right nor the rise of Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal economics would do anything to offset MacIntyre’s dark assessment of the “barbarians governing us,” which he reaffirms in the two editions and the 2007 prologue published subsequently. His uninterest in either 2004 presidential candidate confirms the conflict. MacIntyre’s focus has consistently been on sustaining “practice-based communities” amidst cultural conditions that transcend court rulings, electoral cycles, and partisan gains and losses.
Secondly, MacIntyre’s Benedict Option is not a blueprint for piecing together utopian societies built around the modern conservative agenda. He explicitly distances his work from the contemporary “conservative moralist” who imports his “inflated and self-righteous unironic rhetoric” to a set role established for him among the ruling liberal elite. Much of modern social conservatism envisions shoring up particular values—whether personal, patriotic, or sacred—through means of the modern liberal state, displaying a confidence in the modern state not shared by MacIntyre.
What popular Benedict Option accounts also leave out is MacIntyre’s critical view of certain economic configurations in advanced capitalism that are equally culpable for producing our current moral condition. Though MacIntyre left behind organized Marxism over fifty years ago, his work still takes seriously the interrelationship between economic systems and flourishing moral culture. Modern conservatism often fails to connect the two. Contemporary Benedict Option advocates could recover this interrelationship by turning to the careful empirical work of several sociologists attuned to the moral consequences of neoliberal capitalism: thinkers such as Richard Sennett, William Julius Wilson, and even Christian Smith’s wider contextualization of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a frequent subject of Dreher’s work. Such work reinserts into this discussion an examination of economic configurations compatible and incompatible with the pursuit of particular forms of flourishing.
Finally, MacIntyre’s wider work envisions thick moral communities that are as revolutionary as they are retreatist, and that encompass both inward-facing and outward-facing virtues and practices. In Dependent Rational Animals MacIntyre develops from Aquinas the virtue of just generosity, a form of solidarity that extends to those with needs outside one’s immediate community. This openness to and concern for the outsider reflects the practices of Benedictine monasteries themselves.
So is this retreatist? Or could this vision entail bonds of solidarity that actually surpass the “contract of mutual indifference” found in liberalism? Turning away from “imperium maintenance” to the local politics of “grassroot organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, small businesses that serve neighborhood needs, schools, clinics, and transport systems” is hardly political quietism or indifference. Such activities work within the niches and cracks of existing structures to build alternative practices and social relations that resist dominant cultural norms—what Erik Olin Wright labels “interstitial” strategies of transformation.
Conservatives have rightly recognized that these “cracks and niches” have shifted in recent years, but there is no shortage of public arenas severely lacking in and desperate for “just generosity” and other practices oriented toward human flourishing. Dreher has rightly found resonance with his vision among New Monastic efforts that build communities in areas marginalized economically, culturally, and socially—“places abandoned by the empire.” Both MacIntyre and Wright argue that such efforts—in forming people’s imaginations counter to the dominant culture while still spatially located within it—can lay necessary groundwork for wider social transformation.
We are at a time when a growing number of observers have recognized the prevailing political structures are unable to produce particular moral results, whether greater economic justice, a non-racialized policing and justice system, decisive environmental policy, or the preservation of privacy rights. MacIntyre’s work, saved from a retreatist Culture War conservatism, can speak to a variety of efforts and traditions that seek ends of justice and flourishing that counter the dominant social order. Whether this initiates the building of rural communities, urban places of refuge, or new social movements, the shared underlying vision for such projects is purposeful pursuit of types of human flourishing that have become marginalized within our current political and cultural setting.