Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Lessons on Cultural Preservation

In his book, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman talks about the collapse of western Roman culture in the 400s (pp. 71-76). He then examines the preservation of the best of that culture done by monks whose work enabled a renaissance of classical culture in the 1100s (pp. 76-87). Their work of preservation inspire us as we too face civilizational collapse (pp. 87-90).

As the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) put it, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft a-gley” (1786) or often go astray. While we might commit ourselves to preserving the very best of Western Civilization, we have no guarantee that doing so will lead, at some future point, to a rebirth of that civilization even though that did happen once before.
Organizing ourselves into monastic communities as, for example, the Benedictines did, might not be our most creative response. Morris has misgivings about repeating this approach. “[W]e are talking about individual habits of mind that cannot and should not be channeled by means of ‘structures.’ If this is going to work, it must be spontaneous and natural…” (88).
Morris argues that any hope of civilizational renewal in the future depends on our commitment to individualism in the present. Right now he believes there is a destructive trend of subordinating the individual to the group. In practice, this leads to conformity rather than community (88). As it is, corporate goals and technological constraints already submerge “the self into the Mass Mind” (88). The result is a devastating loss of meaningful individuality through the disappearance of self-awareness, critical thinking, personal goal-setting, and responsibility for qualitative excellence. What’s left is the contemporary American version of a herd culture of “sheeple.”
In contrast to this, Morris believes that today’s “‘monk’ is com-[88]mitted to a renewed sense of self, and to the avoidance of groupthink, including anticorporate or anti-consumer culture groupthink” (88-89). Morris warns us against thinking that creative monasticism now can be strengthened by “[m]embership cards and badges (whether real or metaphorical), avant-garde language and appropriate party line, organization and even visibility…We don’t need to form our little institutes or committees; that would be the kiss of death” (89). Instead, Morris encourages us to work together, certainly, but to keep our relationships flexible.
One last advantage we have over our monastic predecessors: we can go about the work of preservation with much greater intentionality.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
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