Reviving discussion and community in a fractured society

Susannah Black recently wrote a long essay on the civic dimensions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. She writes that “Dreher advocates for engaging in practices of sociability and debate, to remind ourselves of our natures as political animals with rational souls. He discusses the work of Vaclav Benda, who during the years of Soviet domination of central Europe saw groups that deliberately engaged in such activity as a ‘counter-polis,’ a much-needed forum for exercising the rudiments of political thinking and action, in the midst of a totalitarian state that did not allow for this part of human nature to be exercised: a sort of secret public sphere.” Black expounds on a the role that these kinds of groups can play within American society:

Given the profound breakdown in civil communication and discussion that so many have noted, especially in this most recent election, and given the incoherence, lack of memory, and rejection of solidarity at the heart of both the left and the right branches of the American political community, what these groups can do is precisely what Benda himself called for them to do: to remember how to think and debate, to remember the deep origins of the best of even the liberal political idea, to fight for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” As Dreher puts it, “dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).

When we say that these groups can help us exercise our political natures, this must be understood as politics in the broadest sense: They can teach us once again to be social in a rational way; they can certainly sometimes be fora for considering properly-political questions, but also for organizing beneficial projects of all kinds.

Such groups, which can (at least in theory) include both left and right, both Christians and non-Christians, can be means of blessing to both the local and the national communities. They can be training grounds for civility and reasoned debate. And these groups, too, can be a kind of salt-and-yeast in the body politic– even a kind of apologetic. Because the very process of debate, of discussion, of life in the public sphere in the liberal tradition, is one which rests on assumptions that are not those of materialism.

Those are things like the fact of a common human nature, of might that should be in service to right rather than defining it, of the value of protecting the weak, of politics that goes beyond the definition of a tribal enemy, of the possibility of rational discussion and the need to convince each other rather than to force each other to believe or do things.

All these bits of the liberal tradition were undermined by the Rousseauian/progressivist idea of the general will, which allows people now to shut down debate with those who are “on the wrong side of history.”

They were undermined too by the rejection of the idea of human nature: If we do not have rational souls as those made in God’s image, and if we are not political animals who are prone to friendship, whose telos is to live in peace with each other, then the best of liberalism has no foundation. To those who value freedom of speech, for example, we must say: Think about what that means. Why is it important that we be able to speak freely? What is it about human beings that makes discussion rather than coercion a just way to go about political life?

To those who fear a resurgence of white supremacism under Trump, we must be able to say: That kind of tribalism is only possible if one denies the vision of the world and of human nature which many secular liberals (though not all) also deny. A thoroughgoing white supremacist or neo-fascist (though the two are not identical) worldview rests precisely on a denial of the good, of true human nature and the dignity of each person, and of the possibility of real human political friendship. It’s only with a robust sense of what we share with and owe to every other person made in God’s image that we are able to also love our particular tribe, our nation, or our family, in the right context– otherwise we become pagans, who worship only the gods of the tribe.

There’s more: more ways in which such groups, and the political discussion they entail, can become a kind of evangelism. Political discussion is inevitably the discussion of the common good; we direct each others’ attention to the good that we share, and that directing is a kind of contemplative delight–and the ultimate common good is God.

And these groups can be the source of not just discussion, but of action as well: If it’s true that we do still have responsibility for and to the polity in which we live, we’ve got to see the utter necessity of doing projects for the common good, whether properly speaking the political common good or not– i.e. of making things, from parks to policies, that are not just for you and your family, but which aim at a common benefit, and which cannot properly be enjoyed alone.

These projects call out of us the kind of exercise of practical wisdom that helps form us in virtue, and requires us to act with tact and graciousness; public life together can become a kind of dance, the exchange of gifts and reasons and honor and deference and command according to the good of the one commanded; obedience in recognition of just authority, and criticism where authority is exercised unjustly. If every level of being can, in some way, reflect the divine order of the cosmos, then our job is to reflect that order as best we can—we won’t do it well, really, but we can maybe improve—in the order of each nonprofit we start, each CSA, each theater company, each neighborhood association.

That sounds grandiose, but there’s really no other way to think about how to organize such things: one wants to be gracious and fair and kind and not exploit one’s employees or volunteers, one wants to make things that are worthwhile, to cultivate the eggplants in the CSA according to the nature of eggplants rather than according to the nature of kale, and basically to show up and do well and be decent. And if one is the head of such an organization, then taking a kind of architectonic care to make sure as best one can that all these things are carried out well– delegating as appropriate– well, that’s just being a good manager. This is how we live together and do projects together; it is purely normal, as normal as planning a dinner party.

It is also in sharp contrast to the liberal vision of social life, which is inherently combative: men are not by nature political animals, in liberalism, but are naturally solitary and must be brought into relationship only by the loss of their freedom and by an artificial social contract. This loss might be worth it, but it constrains people; it’s another kind of fall. But that’s not the case: the constraint on us that enables us to live together is the constraint of the natural law, played out in particular and in many cases varied circumstances.

Political life is not possible if men do not share a common rational human nature. If we are non-rational animals, we may be subject to conditioning; if we are machines, we may be programmed; either way, with such things no political discussion and no communal life is possible.The fact that it manifestly is possible– that it happens every day– that we see it in the city around us and in our workplaces and in our friend groups and, yes, in the thick Christian communities that Dreher profiles in the book– is a strong apologetic argument in favor of a traditional Christian (and classical) anthropology. It is not only Christians, after all, who are by nature political animals, and the road to the truth of the Gospel can run through a reflection on and participation in political life of one kind or another, in seeking the good of a polity that in its own way points towards the true complete community that is the New Jerusalem.

There’s a lot to think about in the essay, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. But it was worth reading.