I have written previously on the so-called “Benedict Option” and the difficulties it presents (see, e.g., here, here, and here). It appears that commenting on the “Benedict Option” — or any other “option” — is turning into a growth industry. A quick glance at Ethika Politika reveals several pieces on the topic, including Andrew Lynn’s “Saving the Benedict Option from Culture War Conservatism” and Jeff Guhin’s “No Benedict Option Without Benedictines.” The latter piece is rather pessimistic, declaring that not only is “liberalism is hard to shake” but that “[w]e are all liberals now.”
Those aren’t new observations, mind you, but that doesn’t make them any less unsettling. In 1932, during his review of Carl Schmitt’s controversial and pathclearing The Concept of the Political, Leo Strauss opined on the difficulties of deconstructing liberal thought before concluding that Schmitt, a self-professed enemy of liberalism, had failed to find a horizon beyond liberalism. By relying heavily on Thomas Hobbes, a thinker Strauss believed to be one of the progenitors of liberalism, Schmitt had unintentionally and perhaps unknowingly accepted liberal premises about the proper nature of political society right out of the gate. For according to Strauss, Hobbes makes plain the heart of liberalism by pointing to the summum malum: fear of violent death. Liberalism’s “virtue” is that it promises a way out by reducing political society to a mundane peace pact with no demands, but no character as well. “I’m ok, you’re ok” is, in a vulgar sense, the liberal motto. Striving for the common good is replaced by avoiding the greatest evil, and the only cost is our souls.
Guhin is aware of this in his own way. He notes, for instance, that people can choose more communitarian lifestyles, but most won’t. And even when some choose to go that route, the very fact they have a choice at all is indicative of the liberal order in which they live. There is no “right choice” or “wrong choice”; there are only choices — and the more the merrier. Let no choice encroach upon another, then everything on earth shall be fine and there will be much rejoicing in Heaven.
Now, will Benedictines save the world? Can any monastic community be more than ornamental on the liberal landscape? Maybe those are secondary questions to ask. The primary conundrum is whether any form of anti-liberalism, be it communitarian or integralist, can ever overcome the ornamental stage. Can it ever be more than a “preference”? That question has been considered here before as well, albeit in a different light than the one I am comfortable with at the moment.
If it is possible to reject liberalism in a liberal world and, from there, live out that rejection, then certainly monastic communities provide the beginnings of a framework for doing so. At the same time, however, they can also reinforce the illusion of escapism — an illusion more likely to attract single, young men than families with children. There are mouths to feed, bills to pay, and an uncertain future to prepare for (or against). What becomes of those who simply cannot afford the “Benedict Option,” that is, those lacking publication proceeds and/or tenure? If anti-liberalism, or any option against it, remains predicated on annual earnings, then liberalism wins hands down. The question of options turns into a question about class, and that question won’t be addressed by any six-figure luminaries anytime soon.