As Benedict amidst the rubble
28 september 2023 | Forum for Democracy Intl
The Renaissance Institute organised an essay writing contest about traditionalists in modern times. We are delighted to republish the translated essay by the winner of the contest: Chad Hendriks.
SEPTEMBER 13, 2023
“This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond 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 a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory (1981), p. 263.
It is the year 2026. In the run-up to the presidential election in France, a video is circulated showing one of the candidates being beheaded. Top official Paul Raison must investigate either the makers of the video or the perpetrators because in the extremely polarized political climate, all possibilities must be considered.
Who would not want to be a top official like Paul - until it becomes clear that he is a typical white man. He lives for his job but is actually lonely, frustrated and obsessed with sex. In addition, he is plagued by guilt over his father, who recently had a stroke, and, the fate of every white man, is ultimately left mute. But who cares? Life is meaningless anyway, since we no longer believe in God's providence.
That is what is left of Western civilisation in ‘Destroy’ (Anéantir), Michel Houellebecq's latest novel.
It has not always been that way. We are a civilisation in decline. Not only does this affect us as individuals, but also globalist agencies are actively involved. Can anything be done about that? If we do nothing, our civilisation will disappear. Is there then no hope of salvation at all?
Indeed: our civilisation is in danger of being destroyed
In general, Western civilisation is characterized by an excessive focus on individual rights and the concomitant pursuit of equality and materialism, including consumerism, secularism, and the breakdown of traditional values and lifestyle which does with them. To put it biblically, we live in a time when everyone does what is right in his or her eyes, without sufficiently considering their responsibility for themselves, their neighbours or their natural environment.
It is against this background that we must also view Michel Houellebecq's cultural criticism. An excessive focus on the individual and his material wishes and desires leads to emotional detachment, loss of meaning, the erosion of interconnectedness, a diminishing sense of responsibility and moral decay.
Globalist institutions play an active role in this
In the face of this moral and social decay, since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the state has been expected to provide the cement for society. Houellebecq regularly refers to this, but understandably does not devote systematic attention to it in his novels. On that point, we do see a number of phenomena which, in the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville had already warned about in the second part of his ‘Democracy in America’.
When we need support in our efforts to fulfill our wishes and desires, we appeal to our own network, society or so-called civil society less and less often. Instead, we hold the government primarily responsible - it must make the necessary provisions to satisfy our desires.
The democratic constitutional state is only too happy to comply with this call because it offers it an opportunity, legitimised by the people themselves, to increase its grip on society. Where that ultimately leads we have seen in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany: the state promised salvation on earth and saw itself entitled to regulate every aspect of life, such that the establishment of a totalitarian regime was inevitable.
Since then, as Thierry Baudet has rightly pointed out, ‘the attack on the nation-state’ has begun. As the level of government at which the rights and freedoms of peoples can be most effectively guaranteed, the nation-state has become so discredited that only supranational bodies are left to trust the Western pursuit of unlimited freedom, material equality and global solidarity. This is how the European Union came about and why globalist institutions like the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and a body like the World Economic Forum increasingly determine national policies.
However, with the lockdowns promoted by the World Health Organisation and the EU during the Covid pandemic, with the impending climate lockdowns as promoted by the UN and the WEF, and with the Central Bank Digital Currencies linked to the Sustainable Development Goals from both of these bodies, here too, the control thinking prevalent since the Enlightenment and French Revolution is in danger of leading to a totalitarian regime which leaves no room for moral considerations and responsibilities.
Moreover, through the UN and its SDGs, woke ideology is also being promoted worldwide. Combined with lockdowns, this only exacerbates social dislocation and the associated processes of isolation.
Houellebecq points a direction, but offers no solace
Reading ‘Destroy’ helps us to become aware of the processes which threaten not only our society but also our individual well-being. Besides the supporting values of individualism and materialism, Houellebecq does not see the prevailing woke ideology and the multiculturalism and post-materialism promoted by globalist agencies as solutions. Indeed, these threaten to alienate us even further from our traditional culture and natural environment.
However, reading Houellebecq's work can help us face the fact that our civilisation is virtually bankrupt. Admitting this honestly would already be a win. His work also explores the directions in which a possible solution should be sought: intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, empathy and compassion toward our fellow human beings who are victims of our cultural bankruptcy. In political terms, he sees right-wing populism as a reaction to the imminent demise of our civilisation, without having much faith that they are going to provide a solution.
But even Houellebecq does not offer us a real alternative. He is perhaps too much of a novelist for that. In addition, he shows too little affinity with the culture which once inspired our civilisation and which still offers the best remedy against excessive individualism, materialism and the threat of totalitarianism.
St. Benedict: inspiration for a countermovement
When the solitary individual is no longer salvageable, and the state is part of the problem, then perhaps we can still expect something from traditional communities. At least, that is the idea I want to defend here.
To do so, we need to cherish the elements of ancient classical Christian civilisation which remain. These provide the much-needed counterbalance to the dominant globalist woke ideology. They provide the spiritual practices and everyday routines which can counteract the emptiness resulting from the prevailing individualism and materialism. Through church schooling and traditional education, these practices and routines should be transmitted to succeeding generations. In addition, a broader impact should also be sought through active contributions to art, literature and public debate. In this way, a turnaround may eventually be possible.
Following the philosopher, Alaisdair MacIntyre, this alternative has been called "the Benedictine option”. He was referring to St. Benedict, the monk who founded a monastic order as a counterweight to the barbaric culture of his day. In his days, the decadent Roman elite had no defence against rising barbarism. 'This time, however, the barbarians are not before our borders; they have been ruling over us for some time,' he argued in After Virtue 40 years ago. What we needed, he said, was a new variant of the old St. Benedict.
But what should it bring? The American cultural critic, Rod Dreher, picked up the gauntlet thrown to us by MacIntyre, and thirty years later elaborated the alternative in ‘The Benedict Option’.
Even though the book calls on the believer to become part of a close community of like-minded people, it does not exclude political activity. It is then emphatically about a politics which, given its distance from prevailing thought, has primarily a testimonial character. In short, the Benedictine option offers the following perspective of action for individuals:
- Remain faithful to your ancient beliefs when they are rooted in the ancient traditions of the West. Engage in frequent research of its sources, seek the nearness of God, participate in praise in Sunday and weekday meetings, and share with interested people the joy that lies in a lived faith.
- Be faithful in fulfilling your duties to those entrusted to your care, first and foremost your family, relatives and faith community, in addition to everyone who comes your way through your work, including the time-honoured "works of mercy," and your administrative and, possibly, political activities.
- Do a lot of education, both in the family sphere and within the faith community. Organise your own schools and carefully choose what you want to teach the young and in what way knowledge transfer should best take place. Also be open to young people who do not share your own beliefs but are open to a different perspective and conform to the precepts at school.
- Pay close attention in education and upbringing to the classical Christian virtues, as communal living in intentional communities encourages such virtues as courage, perseverance, discipline, self-control, humility, patience, compassion, tolerance and cooperation, and promotes shared commitment to moral excellence.
- Teaching those virtues prepares young people for their vocation in society, both as role models in their families, at work and, if possible, in politics. There it takes courage to row against the tide repeatedly and, despite being continually declared crazy, to continue to agitate against social and moral decay and the associated threat of totalitarianism.
That does not mean that the followers of Benedict could do without the voice of Houellebecq. It is the latter who, time and again, with his drawing of raw reality, challenges us to first look in the mirror and see whether we ourselves have not already been overcome by barbarism. From that perspective we can then look at society and, with more compassion than before, but no less forcefully, act against barbarism.
In ‘Destroy’, Michel Houellebecq has once again shown us the extent to which barbarism has penetrated our society and our relationships. Even without offering us ready-made solutions to this, he forces us to face the facts, in the hope that the elements of the old civilisation which are still present will be awakened in such a way that a countermovement will arise of its own accord.
As noted earlier, current right-wing populism constitutes an important counter-movement in the political arena. But without support from society, that political movement too will only be the last convulsion of a vague awareness that our civilisation is on its last legs. That support base can most sustainably take shape in tightly organized communities in which the sources of inspiration of the old civilisation are cherished, passed on and bring the seed of a powerful counter-movement to fruition.
We can be grateful to Houellebecq for wanting, with every novel which appears from his hand, to help make the soil of our civilisation ripe the seed of that which is still plentiful in our time-honored tradition of civilisation. That, amid the ruins, still offers perspective. It is now up to us to be re-inspired by it.