Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is primarily a book about Christian living, and its chief value lies in that. Nevertheless, his argument borrows a lot of capital from wider discussions in American political theory, including its invocation of the famous conclusion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Dreher’s bolder theoretical claims stir up controversy in American political theory, casting doubt on the viability of American constitutionalism and conservatism. How should we evaluate these theoretical undertones?
Why Dreher Is Not a Straussian I: Differing Accounts of Modernity
In a thoughtful essay here at Public Discourse, Paul DeHart takes up this question. He comes to a surprising conclusion: Dreher’s project is flawed because he cleaves to a Straussian understanding of modernity. At one level, a refutation of DeHart’s argument seems straightforward: Dreher has never read Leo Strauss. Yet this proves too little, for the issue is whether Dreher unintentionally deploys Straussian assumptions.
DeHart sees Dreher as affirming a “modern-premodern rupture”—the view that modernity is the decisive, possibly flawed turn in Western history. For this reason, DeHart calls Dreher a Straussian. But this logic is too vague, making every critique of modernity Straussian. Dreher’s specific critique of modernity is for promulgating “atomization, fragmentation, and unbelief,” which he argues has its roots in the turn away from medieval metaphysical realism toward nominalism. Dreher’s villain is William of Ockham, making the theory behind the Benedict Option sound more like Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences than anything Strauss ever wrote.
While DeHart thinks Straussian narratives of history ignore Christianity, this is an odd charge to make. First, in Strauss’s words, “the theme” of his studies is the theologico-political problem, which emphasises that the tension between the biblical and the philosophical life is more important for understanding history than the divide between the ancients and the moderns. Second, Strauss regards a definitive characteristic of modernity as its challenge to revelation, or its anti-theological passion: a rejection of biblical theology and the replacement of it “by such things as deism, pantheism, and atheism.” To define modernity in this way means that Strauss takes the introduction of biblical theology into history seriously—so seriously that modernity is constituted by a rejection of it. For this reason, Strauss sees figures like Machiavelli, who barely concealed his hostility to biblical theology, as more important to the impulse of modernity than faithful Christians like William of Ockham.
Strauss couples that claim to a second claim that neither Dreher nor DeHart discusses: that modernity is about the transformation of the idea of philosophy. Modernity politicizes philosophy, changing the purpose of political philosophy. While modern political philosophy encourages a zealous political program to achieve moral and social progress, Strauss holds that the ancient understanding of political philosophy teaches moderation and the inherent limitations of political programs. The ancients teach that in political life, “there is no adequate solution to the problem of virtue or happiness.” Christianity is closer to the ancients than the moderns because it aligns closely with that teaching.
Why Dreher Is Not a Straussian II: Omitting Political Science
As DeHart overlooks how Strauss’s narrative of modernity describes a transformation from the old to the new form of political philosophy, he omits the most profound difference between Dreher and Strauss.
For Strauss, the old political philosophy receives its true theme from a study of politics—political science—that focuses on the phenomenon of the “regime.” Following Aristotle’s understanding of political science, Strauss argues that “regime” identifies the basic political authority that orders a society—the form of government—as well as the particular ends toward which the government, the laws, and public morals are dedicated. Because the best regime that most completely realizes the common good may never have existed and may never exist, the task for political science is to find the second-best regime: the best possible regime that can realize the common good in light of present contingencies. To decide what kind of regime is appropriate to present contingencies, one requires the virtue of prudence.
For American political science, the basic issue is what regime should order the American people. While Strauss wrote little about American politics, it is consonant with his thought to argue that the founding principles and documents of the United States produce the best regime possible in light of present, modern circumstances. For US citizens, the exercise of prudence entails defending and upholding this American regime.
Dreher happens upon the theme of regime when he writes critically of conservative efforts to shore up this American regime, a theme throughout his writings. Dreher’s bête noir is the American conservative, nourished from the victories of 1980, 1984, and 1994, who believes the GOP is only a few battles away from winning the culture wars. For Dreher, conservatism is sheltering behind a Maginot Line, oblivious to its imminent defeat. Dreher argues that, uncomfortable as it makes conservatives, they must plan for that defeat.
If the Fifth Republic falls, France remains. If the constitutional monarchy collapses, England will still be England. But if the novus ordo seclorum in the United States wastes away, who will we be? This fear drives a lot of the reflexive opposition to the Ben Op among conservatives, I think.
Here, Dreher insightfully distinguishes between the country (like France), a people who share a collection of habits and customs, and the regime (like the Fifth Republic). He also observes that America is defined more by its regime and less by the shared habits and customs of its people. However, by insisting the country remains when the regime changes, he adopts a very un-Aristotelian and un-Straussian approach.
For Aristotle, the change of regime transforms a given country into another country. This approach seems absurd: is republican France really a different country from monarchical France? Defending Aristotle in The City and Man, Strauss argues that it is: not in the sense that France ceased to exist when it became a republic, but in the sense that a change in the country happened according to its most important respect, the end toward which the political community is dedicated—which is to say, the regime. So conservatives who are fearful of what becomes of Americans if the novus ordo seclorum wastes away are, on these terms, justified. Conservatives commit to defending and upholding the American regime because they worry that the transformation of the end toward which their political community is dedicated will leave them, not without a country, but in a new, fundamentally different country, which does not realize the common good. Dreher’s analysis does not accommodate this kind of reasoning about politics.
Dreher could reply that he omits the theme of the American regime because he thinks it does not address the roots of the American political problem. Perhaps he is then a political radical, and thinks that no modern regime, including the American constitutional regime, can realize the common good. If so, his political thought would align with that of Alasdair MacIntyre.
Why Dreher is Not a MacIntyrean: No Revolutionary Aristotelianism
Throughout his writings, MacIntyre advocates a radical neo-Aristotelianism, holding that the common good necessary for the achievement of human flourishing can only be realized in and through participation in small political communities, not at the level of nation-states like the United States. Reading After Virtue, Dreher must have found this notion attractive, but there is a striking difference between his argument and MacIntyre’s.
MacIntyre wholly rejects the modern nation-state and encourages the development of practices that will eventually replace it. As MacIntyre scholars acknowledge, there is a program of “revolutionary Aristotelianism” behind MacIntyre’s waiting for a “new, doubtless very different, St Benedict.”
Dreher does not share this program. Responding to a critique attributed to MacIntyre, who apparently accused Dreher of wanting to withdraw from social life, Dreher replies that he is only interested in a qualified withdrawal to “defend the remnants of Christian culture.” To do so, Dreher provides excellent advice about how Christians can attend to their spiritual life, use of technology, and education. Dreher wants to strengthen social ties, not cut them. Yet he says nothing about developing these kinds of social practices in order to replace the modern nation-state.
For MacIntyre, in order to realize the common good, a genuine political community must be small, local, and informed by a shared deliberation about the good. Dreher does not see the small community as one that realizes the common good per se; he sees it as one that contributes to a larger social order in which the common good is realized. Look at this example from a recent article.
Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi, has called on Christians to learn from Jewish people how to be a creative minority in the contemporary world. “You can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith and contribute to the common good,” he said.
This approach presumes that the small political community is still contributing to a larger common good that is ultimately realized at the level of the nation-state. MacIntyre thinks this is a fatal error. Any advocacy of a creative minority (or another of Dreher’s favorite images, a “parallel polis”) is a false solution, since it practices détente with the very state institutions that must be replaced. For these reasons, MacIntyre would say that Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has nothing to do with him, in spite of the charming reference of its title.
Conservatism and its Discontents
How, then, are we to understand the theoretical undertones of Dreher’s politics?
We could start by observing the similarity and difference between Dreher’s Christian politics and the politics of another writer. Like Dreher lamenting the results of the 2016 GOP primaries, this writer notes that conservatism has failed to win a “Diogenes search for an honest Presidential candidate.” Like Dreher, this writer speaks pessimistically about conservatism’s future in political institutions. Like Dreher, this writer calls for a new strategy based on a qualified withdrawal:
A Middle American Right should begin working in and with schools, churches, clubs, women’s groups, youth organizations, civic and professional associations . . . The main focus of a Middle American Right should be the reclamation of cultural power, the patient elaboration of an alternative culture within but against the regime–within the belly of the beast but indigestible by it.
Who is this, another voice of 2016 lamenting Donald Trump? Not so: the lamenting voice is that of Samuel Francis, writing in 1992. His complaint is that conservatism failed to establish an effective beachhead in Washington during the 1980s, and never won over the political elite. In that sense it has failed.
Twenty-five years later, Dreher has made the same observation. For all his fierce criticisms of American conservatism, the irony is that Dreher operates very much within the same intellectual framework. He follows in the footsteps of the same pessimists who emerged in conservative political thought a few decades ago.
But conservative political thought did not culminate with political pessimism; its political pessimism became a starting point to reassess its political action while preserving its basic commitment to the American regime. The overall objective of Francis’s political theory is to recalibrate political action to better resist liberalism’s managerial bureaucratic regime and ultimately develop a fundamentally different, republican regime. In present-day American conservatism, further examples of thoughtful political recalibrations abound, which debate ways to preserve and reconstruct the American regime.
Like Strauss in his reading of Machiavelli, conservatives accepted that prudence requires lowering one’s sights—considering how modern human beings actually behave, and what is socially and politically possible in light of modern realities—and aiming to achieve the best practically possible regime. On this account, the exercise of prudence is not an oblivious Maginot defense, but a constitutive feature of politics. One can concede with Dreher that the volleys American Christian conservatives fired in the 1980s and 1990s did not reach their intended targets, but conservatives have adjusted their objectives, strategies, and arguments—even around persisting issues like abortion. To reject this prudential recalibration that aims at preserving the American regime would require a radical critique of the regime. MacIntyre provides this and denounces political conservatism.
From his stance of conservative political pessimism, Dreher nods in the direction of both Strauss and MacIntyre, but does not hold to assumptions definitive of either. In the last analysis, Straussians or MacIntyreans, as well as their critics, should recognize this: The Benedict Option may be the work of an admirer of these schools, but it is the work of neither a collaborator nor a fellow traveller.