Where is virtue in dark times?

“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 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 recognising 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 a 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 that 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 behind 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 Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”

Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue

I discovered this quotation from the Scottish moral philopoher, Alasdair McIntyre, this week in an unexpected place, a commentary in the pugnacious pages of Quadrant online from the author of The Benedictine Option, Rod Dreher. This commentary, which roams across Zygmunt Bauman and other engmatic reflections on our dissolving culture, responds to the plangent question in Dreher’s soul:

“Do we have the courage to turn our backs to this world, as St Benedict did, and seek Christ where he may be found in these calamitous times?”

Rod Dreher, The Christian Way Forward in a Time of Crisis (2019)

And Dreher quotes McIntyre, who himself converted to Catholicism in his fifties and wrote amidst that crisis and conversion I can never claim to respond the the gloomy catastrophe of our disintegrating culture from the viewpoint of a Christian tradition. It is simply not my path, which has rather been through the classics of literary, historical and cultural modernism of the 20th century – it is not for nothing that this blog has its origins in Walter Benjamin’s strange parable of the angel of history and Paul Klee’s painting of the Angelus Novus.

Yet I was struck by the resonance between Dreher’s question and McIntyre’s 1981 words (his book I have long been aware of, from days in the University of Melbourne Library in the 1980s, but have never read), and my own occasional evocation of the monastic tradition as a response of virtue in troubled times. In January 2016 I posted some thoughts on a New Dark Age:

“It is a dark age when learning is despised; when violence prowls our streets; when the cherished teachings of our wisest culture falls disused and forgotten. Apocalypses are not fashionable, though innovation and disruption are. We celebrate the piracy of wanton wealth and mock the traditionalists who sit in their cells and speak alone with their gods in the poems without which they could not love. In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?”

Jeff Rich, The Burning Archive (January 2016)

I do not know where to turn to for this community of virtue in our time of cultural fragmentation, decay and disorder. I can only evoke images of it, such as in my story of sorts, The Abyss and Cultural Rebirth. And yesterday I had a long conversation with my daughter on this very dilemma: are we ruined; is our culture so decayed, so driven by consumerist folly and digital delusion that there is no hope; and where might we turn for grounds of hope, signs of rebirth, acts of virtue amidst the horror of Ragnorak? Where is virtue in these dark times?

My personal dilemma is that while I hold dear what I lovest well in the hope that it will not be reft from thee, I have no circle, no monastic community, no discipline of tradition, no Benedictine rule of order to dedicate myself to in my turn away from this world, and towards the infinite conversation. I am like St Antony in the suburbs, but it is in the infinite conversation that I find grounds for hope. Perhaps I must write my own?

Perhaps I must find my way to another coincidence. Rod Dreher, whose thoughts emerge from a tradition so different from mine, has recorded on his blog on The American Conservative his recent visit to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where he went, as much as did I to venerate the great Rembrandt painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. When I visited the Hermitage in june this year, I bought a large print reproduction of this painting, which Dreher remarks Sir Kenneth Clark said was the greatest painting ever. Only this week, the print returned from the framer, and it now sits in my room waiting to be hung on the wall, and showing me a way to forgiveness, acceptance and some light in these dark times.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son – does it represent how we might renew our culture?

Image Credits: Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodgal Son, Russian State Hermitage Museum; St Benedict hands his Rule to St Maurus (British Library, Additional MS 16979, f. 21v)

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