Quietism Versus Activism
Can one productively blend the two?
EVAGRIOS PONTIKOS enjoins the cultivation of apatheia, a state of deep calm, of tranquillity of mind. It is hard to achieve, and if achieved, in need of constant protection. Why then do I follow current political and other events? Why do I put myself in a position to have my peace of mind disturbed?
I tell myself to do both: live like a monk while keeping an eye on the world. But experience suggests, if it does not conclusively show, that the ideal is unattainable. An ideal unattainable by me cannot be an ideal for me. A valued conservative friend of mine told me that he doesn't watch conservative television because it makes him angry. So I explained my ideal to him: stay informed while retaining one's equanimity. But in all honesty it is very difficult and I often fail to pull it off. It seems entirely fitting to be angered by the outrages of the Left.
If I cannot productively blend quietism and activism, what should I do? For me, full-on activism and the secularism it presupposes would be psychologically impossible. To be wholly consumed by the mundane is a horror to someone of my type. Besides, this world is a vanishing quantity and simply cannot merit the full measure of our concern. Now you either see that or you don't. If you don't, then these ruminations are not for you.
This leaves quietism, the retreat into the inner citadel, the cultivation of one's inner garden, abstention from media dreck, the avoidance of idle talk and empty socializing, together with devotion to spiritual exercises premised on a resolute NO! to the self-evacuation of the self into the world's sensory-social diaspora. One enters upon the quest for the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters recognizing that this quest alone can give to human life the meaning that we intuitively feel it must have. One stops living for a future that cannot be one's own future, and is chimerical in any event. One accepts that our earthly tenure is either prelude or pointless.
What speaks against full-on quietism is the fact that our political enemies, totalitarians, will not let us be. They pose an existential threat, one to both our physical and our spiritual lives and their continuance. One could ignore this threat if one knew that God and the soul are real. But we don't know that. At best, it is a reasoned faith and a matter of inquiry. We need a tranquil space within which to live the life of prayer, meditation, philosophical investigation, and right conduct. And so we must do battle to secure that space.
So what should I do? Perhaps this: let the quietism dominate while keeping an eye on the passing scene.
You are missing the Boethian Option: ignore the political and devote yourself wholly to the spiritual quest. Withdraw and accept whatever persecution and incarceration should come your way. Did not Boethius write Consolatio Philosophiae in prison? After all, you yourself regularly point out the vanity, transiency, and ultimate nullity of this world of shadows. If the Object of the spiritual quest is real, then these shadowlands are by comparison nothing or next-to nothing. Why keep an eye on, and get activated and upset over, what is next-to-nothing?
Well, I am no Boethius for starters. We lesser lights and weaker spirits could easily be broken under persecution. A broken soul cannot engage in soul-making. And besides, this passing scene, though ontologically derivative, is not, strictly speaking, nothing. If it were, God created nothing. And why would God incarnate into it if it were not worth saving and we with it?
And so I debate with myself.
Richard Sorabji on Evagrios Pontikus (c. 345–99 anno domini)