We are living through dark times. Most Christians today share a sense of foreboding as we watch the decline of our culture. We see our friends and neighbors succumbing to loneliness, confusion, and despair. Our faith is increasingly regarded with hostility. Orthodox Christians find ourselves debating the best way forward, as we try to discern a path that will enable our children to have a future.
A number of interesting suggestions are already on the table. Rod Dreher has famously recommended that we focus our energies on building up vibrant, counter-cultural communities where Christian beliefs and values are preserved. He calls that strategy “The Benedict Option.” Here at Crisis, Austin Ruse has suggested another alternative, which focuses more on cultural revitalization and a day-to-day effort to infuse holiness into ordinary life. He calls that the “Escriva Option.”
I see merits in both of these recommendations, which overlap at many points with the work of Archbishop Charles Chaput, Anthony Esolen, George Weigel, Sherry Weddell, and many others. Most thoughtful Christians appreciate today that we must find ways to survive and thrive in a society where we are increasingly countercultural, and in a minority.
In that spirit, I would like to propose my own recommended strategy for forging a path to the future. Let’s call this one “The Wenceslaus Option.”
St. Wenceslaus, the patron saint of Bohemia, was a virtuous Christian duke. As a young man, he accepted charge of his government in order to spare the people from the anti-Christian rule of Princess Dragomira, his pagan mother. She did not accept this loss of power gracefully. In 935, when St. Wenceslaus was still in his early thirties, she helped arrange for him to be murdered, along with the Catholic (paternal) grandmother who had originally taught him the faith. St. Wenceslaus is still commemorated in Bohemian lore, and also in the popular Christmas carol, which urges good Christians “wealth and rank possessing” to steward their possessions well, in such a way as to ameliorate the suffering of the less-fortunate.
In that same spirit, the Wenceslas Option recommends that Christians endeavor to raise up a new generation of Christian leaders. I want us to start thinking of ourselves as cultural entrepreneurs, developing strategies for navigating a modern world that is in many ways deeply inimical to human flourishing. Just like Dreher, Ruse, Chaput and others, I want Christians to be the salt of the earth. I also happen to believe, in our time especially, that this can be done most successfully if we adopt the posture of benevolent aristocrats.
Aristocracy has a bad name in our society. America has from its inception been a republic with a democratic ethos. Partly for that reason, class distinction has always been distasteful to us, and we are naturally inclined to downplay our “wealth and rank,” where elites of many other societies unashamedly flaunt their privilege. In America, we imagine aristocrats to be desultory young fops who exploit peasant girls while their self-righteous wives drive about in ostentatious carriages. In fact, ostentation and indulgence really are not the essence of aristocracy.
The word “aristocrat” derives from the Greek term for “excellence,” and an aristocracy is meant to be excellent in all facets of life. Aristocrats should distinguish themselves through a broad-spectrum commitment to excellence in education, mores, tastes, lifestyle, and (most importantly) character. Obviously, real-world aristocrats have often fallen well short of that ideal. They are reliably rich, but not reliably virtuous. Nevertheless, the idea is still relevant, and may still have some capacity (as in ages past), to at least instill some sense of social responsibility in those who are best positioned to do good.
Is the Wenceslaus Option only for the wealthy and powerful, then? Though it remains especially fitting for the powerful, the aristocratic virtues can in our time be useful to far more than just the 1 percent. The truth is, we live in a time when most people are able to live extremely well by historical standards, at least in some measurable ways. In some historical societies, aristocrats were able to be cultivated in a way that ordinary workers mostly were not, simply because they had advantages (both time and resources) that the common people mostly lacked. Today, those advantages are enjoyed by far more than just the elite.
We spend a lot of time bemoaning the defects of modernity, so let’s briefly consider some ways in which we are richly blessed. Very few Americans today are undernourished, or relegated to eating a simple diet composed mostly of bread or rice (or whatever we are personally able to grow or catch). Obesity, not hunger, is the major health concern in our time, especially among the poor. We have access to a mind-boggling array of ingredients, cooking implements, and recipes. In a sense, we can all eat like kings nowadays.
The list of blessings goes on. Most of us (not just the 1 percent) have houses filled with luxuries our ancestors would have found incredible. Indoor plumbing spares us some unpleasant and unsanitary chores, while modern heating and air conditioning fend off the worst of seasonal suffering. Appliances save us time, and nearly everyone has access to electric lighting nowadays, so curling up with a book in the evening is no longer a luxury for the well-to-do. Just as our nutritional problems mostly derive from excess calories, so our cultural deficiencies seem frequently to stem from an excess of time. Addictions of all sorts (to sex, pornography, drugs, alcohol, junk food, technology) are rampant, testifying to an excess of time and deficiency of purpose.
Nearly all of us (to varying degrees) have the capacity to do better. Great wealth may make it easier to raise highly cultivated children, but it really is not necessary in our time. People of modest means can still expose their children to art and high culture, to great literature and poetry, and to beautiful liturgy. We have an abundance of libraries, plus museums with weekly “free days,” free concerts and lectures, and churches with a wide range of cultural and social offerings. The internet is full of sludge, but it also offers an abundance of serious mind-food, usually at no extra cost. These luxuries are widely available to ordinary people across our nation. People choose instead to devote themselves to cartoons and video games (or still more vicious things).
In a wealthy and dissipated society like ours, aristocratic sensibilities may be precisely what is needed. One purpose of aristocratic cultivation is to fend off those very vices (sloth, gluttony, promiscuity) to which our society is most prone. Imagine what might happen, then, if orthodox Christians worked especially hard to cultivate higher and more elevated sensibilities, using our (shared) modern gifts in more fitting ways. Suppose we were the people with a fine appreciation of art and music, a nuanced understanding of history, a cultivated palate, and a range of skills and hobbies that commanded the respect of our alienated and wayward compatriots. Would it make a difference to the future of Christianity in this country? We can’t know for certain, but it very well might.
The peasant in the traditional carol was hungry and cold. Good King Wenceslaus brought him food and fuel, thus reflecting God’s love through his own benevolent actions. In our time, relatively few lack food and fuel, but the world is yearning for truth, beauty, purpose, friendship, and love. It is yearning, above all, for God. But if people are not prepared to “meet” God directly, we might be good emissaries by offering them the things that they immediately lack: beauty, meaningful activity, common decency, and healthy human bonds. If we want to secure a place for ourselves in our nation’s future, we need to show that we ourselves have found ways to cope with the unique challenges of modern life. We want the world to see that our traditions have helped us, not hindered us, in that common endeavor.
Our world is rich in material goods, but impoverished in meaning. In the words of the famous carol: Ye who now will help the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.