Tag Archives: West

The Monastic Roots of Western Democracy

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Reading a 6th century text is probably not most people’s idea of a good time, but on this Feast of St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.) I want to encourage you, even if you are not Christian, to take a look at an extremely important document to the development of Western culture, the Rule of St. Benedict.  Although it was originally written for religious communities, to provide guidelines on how to live, work, and pray together, it had a tremendous impact on the formation of our Western democratic form of government.  Through the example provided by St. Benedict and those who tried to live under his precepts, his Rule is an often-overlooked  touchstone for the shift from oligarchic to republican rule in Western civilization.

Sometime between the year 529 A.D, when he founded the Monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (which was famously nearly obliterated during World War II), and his death in 547 A.D., St. Benedict wrote down what would become known as his “Rule”, which you can read in its entirety here.  For the past 1500 years it has been the basis for many monasteries and convents around the world, both Catholic and Protestant.  The Rule of St. Benedict greatly resembles what we would call a constitution, and provides a set of guidelines on how to live and co-operate peacefully and productively in a Christian community.  Its importance to Western culture is sadly often overlooked today, but it gave rise to numerous, deeply important ideas which still shape the ways in which we live in civilized communities, as we shall see.

Around 500 A.D., St. Benedict had become concerned about the lawlessness and moral laxity he observed in Roman society, of which he as the son of an aristocratic family was a member.  The degree of immoral behavior which he observed, in which people behaved as they wished, ignoring the teachings of the Church but still claiming to be Christians – sound familiar? – was something which appalled him.  He decided to withdraw from that society to try to grow closer to God, and focus on spiritual development rather than hedonism and material pleasures.  It was a path fraught with difficulties, which you can read about here.

Rather than focus on his fascinating life, however, I want to draw the reader’s attention to two interesting aspects of St. Benedict’s thought process in writing his Rule, which will be familiar to those of us living in a republican democracy.  One of St. Benedict’s most important contributions to the later growth of representative democracy in Western Europe was the concept, albeit not stated as such, of one man, one vote.  The proper application of his Rule meant that no member of the community had any greater standing than any other member of the community in voting for a new leader or making some other community decision, for all were equal before God.  Thus, the vote of an older monk did not count for more than that of a younger monk, nor did the vote of a monk from an aristocratic family count for more than the vote of a monk from a merchant or laboring family.  Consider what a departure this was from a well-established class system which prevented people from moving up or down the social ladder, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they might be in life.

A second, equally important consideration was that St. Benedict thought the leadership of the community ought to come from the one best-suited to the job, who was not necessarily the one who had been there the longest or whose background was the most prestigious.  This, in an age of privilege and social standing as birthright, can be viewed in many respects as an astonishing concept for the time.  Moreover,  when offering suggestions on how the leader of the community should be selected, St. Benedict counseled that due consideration ought to be given to wisdom, age, and experience when examining the nominees, but that everyone in the community was eligible to be elected, “etiam si ultimus fuerit in ordine congregationis” [roughly, "even the most recent one to join the community."]  Thus, one should not be automatically disqualified from office as a result of being a relatively new arrival, or being younger than the others in the community.   Again, this concept of finding the best man or woman for the job, based on ability rather than birth or seniority, is something that Western democracy would take some time to come to enshrine in its own laws.

We are often told that Western Europe at the end of the Roman Empire entered into the “Dark Ages”, when what we would view as civilization simply disappeared or retreated in many places.  Yet through the work of deeply devout men such as St. Benedict in his Rule, the foundation stones for our present-day representative democracies were established.  Much as we must thank the Ancient Greeks and Romans for their philosophical ideals regarding the rule of law and the nature of government, which more often than not they did not bother to put into practice, truthfully it is through Christian thinkers like St. Benedict who were able to move the idea of representative government away from being only a theory or the sole purview of the elites, to being a truly participatory and merit-based system.  For that reason, among so many, the Rule of St. Benedict ought to be far better-known among contemporary students of Western political theory.

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St. Benedict Giving His Rule to the Monks (c. 1129)
Monastery of Saint-Gilles, Nîmes, France

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Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.


Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade

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Drawing the Curtain on Childbirth

This morning the press is reporting on the birth in Brooklyn yesterday of a baby boy, known as “Baby X”, to a woman who describes herself as a performance artist.  If you have missed the stories leading up to this event, the “artist” in question set herself up in a gallery, and invited people to come and watch her give birth to her son, as a form of art.  The fact that this woman and those who supported her in this concept are shameless exploiters of both herself and her own innocent child, goes without saying.  And yet when examined in the context of Western society’s attitude toward the concept of human life, it is not surprising that something so decadent and perverse would attract an audience.

I do not care to know what those in attendance thought of the event, because the type of person who would attend such a thing – so reminiscent of a “happening”, that old Baby Boomer nonsense – is not someone whom I would care to know, socially or otherwise.  It is not a question of taste, as if one was deciding whether to have the Chateau d’Yquem or the Pedro Ximenez with dessert.  It is a question of associating with people who try to turn the birth of a child into an entertainment and a commodity, thereby contributing to the deterioration of our culture.

The so-called performance took place at a time when Western society continues to sputter and spin in confusion over how we treat our unborn children, as well as how we treat our children once they arrive.  For every good decision on the unborn, such as the European Court of Justice ruling yesterday that one cannot patent a process to create human life only to destroy it, we learn of horrors such as that of a prominent Catholic hospital continuing to seemingly gleefully go on committing infanticide.  And once our children arrive, they are not safe, either.  If you know who I am referring to when I write “The Duggars”, “The OctoMom”, “Jon and Kate”, or “Toddlers and Tiaras”, then you know that the popular media is more than happy to exploit young children in unusual circumstances, just as their parents are more than happy to collaborate in selling their children to the highest bidder.

The realization that the murder of unborn children and/or the exploitation of children once they are born can lead to wealth and fame drives many people, not just modern-day Dr. Mengeles experimenting on human life, supposedly in the name of science, or untalented artists from Brooklyn looking to draw attention to themselves, supposedly in the name of art.  With respect to the issue of the child before it is born, far more has been written far more eloquently than I could hope to do in these brief few paragraphs about the importance of protecting human life from the moment of conception.  We shall have to leave further consideration of how our present-day Western culture treats the unborn, for the moment.

And so we return, as regrettably we must, to yesterday’s birth in an art gallery, and what this event tells us about the West in the present day.  In his much-loved book, “Mere Christianity”, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis observed that we could tell a lot about the health of a culture by its media and entertainments.  In discussing the attitude of contemporary society toward sexuality, Lewis made the following analogy:

Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

Lewis’ point about media titillation in the 1940′s – which has become even more outrageous in our day than in his – is equally applicable to a society where people would attend the birth of a child as they would an opening of an art exhibition or a play.  Are we now to have a special columnist assigned to the New York Times who will critique births across the city?  Will there be stars awarded in Variety based on whether the mother takes an epidural, or off-track betting on the sex of the baby?

I am not so myopic in my loathing of the “artist” in question nor my deep sense of pity for what her new child is going to have to grow up with as to deny the fact that in different cultures, and indeed at one point in our own Western culture, the birth of a child often served as a ceremonial moment for a tribe.  I cannot speak about tribal life and the process of birth in places like Sub-Saharan Africa or Australia, not being from these places nor having traveled to them.  How and why communities in these places look at the moment of birth, I leave for them to explain.  Though if you are familiar with the history of Western art as I am, you know that in paintings depicting the birth of someone like St. John the Baptist, or a future king or queen, such occasions often featured numerous amounts of attendants and observers.  In the case of European monarchies, of course, birth could mean the difference between dynastic continuity and civil war.

Yet for the vast majority of those of us who reside in the Western world, pregnancy and childbirth have come to be viewed as intimate events, and collectively a private, family matter.  It is our responsibility to protect our children from exploitation, for ultimately we will have to answer for how we have treated them – whether because they turn out maladjusted and injurious to society, or when the time comes that we must give a final accounting of our lives and how we spent them.  To make the arrival of our child on this planet an occasion for public entertainment is to make of ourselves and our child a mockery.  And while I am free to make as much of an arse of myself as I choose (and indeed often do), I am not free to do the same with someone else’s life – particularly when the life in question is that of an innocent child whom I helped bring into the world.

Detail of “Mother and Her Children” by Mary Cassatt (1901)
Private Collection

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High Culture Needs High Finance

As the reader is likely aware, at the moment there is an unwashed melange of middle-class would-be hippies, professional agitpropstars, and various screaming harpies a-feather, spreading their collective effluvia around Lower Manhattan in a protest against the loosely defined concept of “Wall Street”.  The theory, so far as one can discern one from the many, seemingly contradictory goals of these persons, goes something like the following. The United States has lost its way by promoting capitalism (which is bad), by protecting financial institutions (also bad), and by not imposing enough taxes on those who run such institutions (ditto).  The hope of these quasi-anarchists, who would make real Wall Street anarchists like Luigi Galleani laugh hysterically, is that they can replace the pursuit of money with something else – what, it is not exactly clear – and thereby create some sort of cultural Renaissance in the Western world.

This country of late seems to have developed something of a blind spot, among certain of its citizens, with respect to how very much our cultural achievements are dependent upon capitalism, at least in the areas of what traditionally has been viewed as high culture – admittedly a term not much favored these days in certain quarters. Having no interest myself in spending time in the smelly places of the world, I cannot claim in any way to be some sort of experienced, global anthropologist, who can look at both the frescoes of Giotto and at a tribal rock painting, and view them as being of equal artistic merit. Of course I read, I donate, and I may even watch a documentary on such places and their cultural outputs, but I leave the mission lands and their respective cultures to the missionaries.

What I can claim, as someone who has lived his entire life within an urbanized Western culture, studied it, and thereby educated himself about it, is that I recognize the higher achievements of my own culture when I see them.  And it is a plain fact that in most cases, these high achievements of Western culture would not have been possible without a significant amount of money given by private individuals who practiced Capitalism, to either pay for or to preserve them.  Unfortunately, this is a fact that appears to be lost on a certain group of my contemporaries.

I direct the reader to a solid, well-written travel essay by The Torygraph’s Harry Mount on the wonders of Florence.  The cradle of the Renaissance and one of the most beautiful and culturally important cities in the world, Florence has more great buildings and works of art than perhaps any other city of comparable size. And the reason for this explosion of culture, as Mr. Mount explains, is Capitalism.

“There’s a pretty unromantic reason why the Renaissance sprouted up in Florence,” writes Mr. Mount in his article, for “it’s the place where modern banking was born. We like to think of art as a spiritual, sensitive calling, far removed from the ruthless desire for filthy lucre. But Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci needed money as much as the rest of us.”

The great Florentine banking families, such as the Medici, began as the nouveau-riche, the robber barons, the internet millionaires, or the hedge-fund capitalists of their day. They made so much money by perfecting the mechanisms by which one could engage in commercial transactions both at home and internationally, with at least some guarantee that the whole thing would not go pear-shaped, that they had to do something with their profits. And the people of Florence, as well as visitors to the city, continue to marvel at what they paid for.  One can criticize their motives for doing so, and yet one can hardly argue with the results.

And they were not alone. Look at the achievements of Flanders, where merchants and bankers gave huge sums toward the beautification of their cities with beautiful churches and civic assembly halls; the splendors of Britain, made possible by those whose finances often came from shrewd investments in agriculture, manufacturing, and international trade; or even this country, where people like Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, capitalists all, established cultural and educational institutions for our young Republic, from Carnegie Hall to the Art Institute of Chicago, and filled them with the wonders of human invention.

Or consider Paris before World War II, as I did last evening with a young lady of my acquaintance. People like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, and the like, who were working during a period which produced an extraordinary variety of music, art, literature, and design, all came to be regarded as cultural icons not only because they had talent, but because people with financial means recognized those talents, and decided to encourage and promote them. Jimmy Durante may have sung, “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you,” but in the world of high culture of that era, you really were nobody until somebody like Peggy Guggenheim – capitalist heiress, natch – loved you.

What the whinging collective does not appreciate is the fact that in order for us to have great culture, there must be great sums of money to pay for it. Historically, governments have often done a terrible job when they intervene in such matters, unless there is private money working behind the scenes to shape the project. Virtually the entire country of Georgia provides us with endless examples of what horrors are brought about when a socialist government calls the shots on creating art and architecture – as indeed is true here at home, in the case of Boston City Hall. Thus, even the publicly-owned, highly successful National Gallery here in Washington would not have happened but for the patronage, in the form of money and collections obtained for it by – you guessed it – capitalists like Andrew Mellon, Samuel Kress, and Chester Dale.

This is not to say that the creation of great works of art, literature, and so on, is only possible under the auspices of Capitalism. However it cannot be denied that Capitalism is of lasting importance to the cultural life of the Western world not only historically, but also today. It allows the individual who cares about high culture to make choices, rather than having a one-size-fits-all quasi-culture imposed upon him by the state. And as I have never been a one-size-fits-all sort of person, I for one certainly prefer the largely beneficent influence of Capitalism to help direct the path of how Western culture develops.

(Brought to you by Capitalism)

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