I am very hopeful about our long-term prospects, it is the near-term ones I’m worried about. What’s the near-term?—the next few hundred years, give or take a century.
Since the near-term is when my children and grandchildren will pass their lives I feel I should do something to help them. I’ve passed the half-life stage and I’m preparing to leave this world. I expect that against an absolute standard of human history my end will be very comfortable—something even a pharaoh could envy. But I can’t see how life after I am gone will do anything but get harder. The litany is familiar: rising public debt, social anomie, illiteracy and so forth. What can I give to those who will live their lives in what Alasdair MacIntyre has called a new dark age?
MacIntyre is not only famous for saying we have entered a dark age, he is also famous for prophesying the coming of a new but very different St. Benedict—you know—the man who gave us the first rule book for monastic orders. MacIntyre believed we need a new sort of monastery, something that can serve as an institutional time-capsule to preserve the best of our civilization. When I mentioned this to a friend recently he reminded me that the original Benedict did not write his rule to save Western civilization–he wrote it to save souls. It was because monks wanted to gaze upon the glory of God that they read Plato and Homer as well as the Bible. And it was because they found classical texts useful for the praise of God’s glory that they labored to preserve them, not because they wanted us to remember the glories of Greece and Rome.
We often fail to see how high things and low things join hands when they serve us. The trees of Eden were said to be both pleasant to look at and good for food. Sometimes the way to the useful is through the beautiful.
This is a book about building a house. Plato and Homer and even the Bible may seem too high-minded for that. But I don’t think you can build a house that will stand for long without them. And without a house I don’t see how you could possibly survive in the years ahead. And so this is how I imagine the high and the low meet: what is true, good, and beautiful and what is useful for survival mutually reinforce each other in a well-built house. It is because Aristotle and the Apostle Paul tell us the truth that they are useful. And if MacIntyre is correct and night is falling on the Western World, then our shelters should be filled with light, good and beautiful, like a homely house at the end of the day with windows all aglow.
So this is my little handbook for building such a house. It is for young men because they have always been the house builders. Young women will find it interesting too because a young man cannot build a house without a wife. And so, I begin—this is how to build a house.
Now a few additional words for my friends at The Imaginative Conservative are in order. These thoughts won’t make it into the book, they’re just for you.
The first thing you need to know is that The Young Man’s Guide to Building a House really is going to add up to a book someday—albeit a small book—a handbook. If the editors at The Imaginative Conservative can put up with me I can see 16 to 24 short chapters published here on the installment plan before they are assembled and sent off to a publisher.
Because these installments are early drafts they are in the rough. And this is where you can help me–I really am interested in hearing from readers on ways to improve the book. If you have such a suggestion the comments section below is the place to make it. Of course I cannot incorporate every suggestion but I will try to respond to them all and use the ones that seem to be to be truly helpful.
The next thing to know is this truly is a book for young men; I am especially interested in hearing from them. I am interested in hearing from young women too, but they must understand that if my intended audience thinks I am merely a mouth-piece for women and their grievances, men will not listen to what I have to say. Ladies, you are important, but I’m not talking to you.
On a personal level I care about this subject because I am a father of two sons, both of whom are coming of age. It is time for them to begin thinking about these things.
I am also the father of a girl, and I am concerned about her prospects. Many young men seem aimless and apathetic, and I have seen this lead to frustration and anger among many women. Any man who wants to marry my daughter had better know the things contained in this book or he can look for another girl. (As you have probably inferred, I am a patriarch of the old school.)
But what if everything turns out alright in the end? What if our leaders in government and the owners of multinational corporations manage to defy gravity and somehow keep the welfare state and the global economy from crashing to the ground? What if the so-called “alternative-lifestyles” are actually viable? What good will this book be?
All I can say is that those who build good houses are never disappointed. In good times their houses make life even better, and in bad times their houses make life livable. Houses are always difficult to build—in good times because short-cuts and alternatives appear reasonable, in bad times because even when the right thing is the only thing you can do, it is still hard.
Finally, there is no guarantee of success. People get sick, markets go bad, disasters happen. But more often than not those who set out to build a good house fare better in the vicissitudes of life than those who do not.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 263. Here is the pregnant passage: “A crucial turning point…occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from shoring up the Roman imperium…. what they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained…..we ought also to conclude that for some time now we have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. …This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness that constitutes our predicament. We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
2. James Matthew Wilson, Assistant Professor of Theology and Literature at Villanova University.
3. Genesis 2:9
4. Houses like Elrond’s Last Homely House in The Hobbit are what I have in mind here. Here is Tolkien’s description from the chapter, A Short Rest. “His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”