Secular monastics

In his 2000 book, The Twilight of American Civilization, Norman Berman excoriates the shallow popular culture of contemporary U.S. society, sounding a clarion for sustaining the classical and the enduring. This sounds very conservative, even reactionary. But Berman also excoriates corporate corruption, profit motive, and consumer society with its mindless acquisitiveness and its abuse of the environment. Here Berman seems to sound the opposite side of the spectrum. How to reconcile his values?

What we narrowly call opinion and poles of a spectrum are themselves defined by the narrowness of the very culture. Thus Berman is intent upon going beyond what one writer calls the “right-left fallacy” and tapping the human psyche beyond personality and social convention.

As an alternative, then, Berman proposes the enlightened individual who takes on the tasks in personal and daily life of a “secular monastic” model — preserving the best of culture while embracing simplicity and an ascetic sense of habit and consumption. It is a monastic model in that its structure is a succession to a successful historical one, but it is necessarily secular today in that the aura of faith (one faith, anyway) across an entire civilization is obviously gone. It is secular, too, in that the model must be universal and perennial. Berman sees this as largely something individuals will pursue and reconcile, not groups or organizations.

It is a pursuit that many solitaries have already quietly understood as exemplars for their lives.