Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Alasdair MacIntyre: Retractationes

This morning I finished four weeks of teaching Alasdair MacIntrye's After Virtue to my Christianity and Culture class. It is a great book and it gets better every time through. Recently I traded in my old, battered 2nd edition for a shiny new 3rd edition with the Prologue written 26 years after the original book was published in 1981. I found a few notes of interest.

The most important point is clarified right after the bat. MacIntyre writes: "If there are good reasons to reject the central theses of After Virtue, by now I should certainly have leaned what they are. . . but I have as yet found no reason for abandoning the major contentions of After Virtue. (ix)

He says something of interest to me when he clarifies that it is only possible to understand the dominant culture of our day "from a standpoint external to that culture." (ix) Now this is a problem: how to find such a standpoint. There seem to be three possibilities only. One could examine our culture from the perspective of the future - say the 23rd century - but that would require a time machine, which we do not have. Or one could examine our culture from outside our culture - say from a position embedded in Chinese or Animist African or Saudi Arabian culture, but that is not really possible for one born and raised in late modern, Western, Anglo-American culture. Or one could find a place to stand in the past from which to look at our culture, which seems to be the most likely possibility.

n After Virtue, MacIntyre evaluates our culture from a the perspective of the premodern, Aristotelian tradition and surely this is the secret of the book's persuasive power. He does not criticize modernity from within modernity - which can only result in an extension of modernity - but from outside modernity. He acknowledges that the tradition he favors flourished in the European Middle Ages, but he brushes aside charges of "nostalgia and of idealizing the past." (xi) He says "there is, I think, not a trace of this in the text" and he is right.

MacIntyre clarifies one important point when he writes that when he wrote After Virtue he was "already an Aristotelian, but not yet a Thomist," which of course is plain from the text. But he says that he did become a Thomist through the process of writing this book and that can hardly come as a surprise to the attentive reader.

There has been much talk of claiming MacIntyre for the so-called "communitarian" school, but he says that he has never been a communitarian in the mold of Amitai Etzioni. Furthermore, he sensibly states what many communitarians never explicitly face up to when he asserts that not all forms of community are good. Some, he claims, are "nastily oppressive." (xiv) In addition, he goes so far as to state that such versions of communitarians "are compatible with and supportive of the values of the liberalism I reject." (xiv) For MacIntyre the good community is one in which the tradition of the virtues is developed on the basis of a shared conception of and devotion to the good.

He is so concerned to reject liberalism root and branch that he wants no part of conservatism either, which he seems to regard as a species of liberalism. Certainly, of the five main streams of conservative thought today: libertarianism, neoconservatism, anti-communism, social conservatism and traditional conservatism, the first two and often the third (and sometimes, but not always, the fourth) are really just classical 19th century liberalism, which has become conservative because of the Western drift toward socialism. But I would argue that MacIntyre's Thomism has much in common with the traditional conservatism of the "permanent things" as embodied in the thought of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver and writers associated with Human Events or Touchstone. Certainly if he would not claim them, they would want to claim him as a friend and ally for they mostly love Aristotle and Thomas too, not to mention Augustine.

He also clarifies that he has rejected the Marxian program as hopelessly modern and the only aspect of it that he retains is "Marx's critique of the economic, social and cultural order of capitalism." It is important to say this because it is amazing how easily adopting a Marxian critique of capitalism slides (in the hands of lesser thinkers than MacIntyre) into a ideology of anti-capitalism that begins to sprout Marxist prescriptions alongside the critiques.

One delightful little tidbit is his confession that the opening chapter is an allusion to A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., which has been my favorite novel (apologies to Dostoevesky) ever since I first read it as an undergraduate in a novels course. I have always thought it might be a conscious allusion and here is proof. I teach Canticle in the same Christianity and Culture class as After Virtue along with the Political Writings of St. Augustine and have the students write a paper on Canticle as an Augustinian novel. Reading those essays is the most pleasant aspect of my marking each year.

The final chapter, MacIntyre tells us, is an allusion to the poem by Constantine Kavafus "Waiting for the Barbarians." I reproduce that poem here for those to whom it is unfamiliar. It speaks to our situation so powerfully that it is hard to believe it was written in 1904.

"What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed
many titles and names of honor.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution."

Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)

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