Part 1 in a series
Back in 1981, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre published After Virtue, in which he claimed that moral theory since the Enlightenment doesn’t work. In ancient Western culture, thinkers such as Aristotle presumed that human lives were lived towards some end; but this idea was abandoned by Western thinkers during the Renaissance. As a result, MacIntyre claimed, Western moral theories from the Enlightenment on simply don’t make sense. So this is basically one of those postmodern books that says the Enlightenment project has failed.
This raises the difficult question: How do we live a virtuous life, after it has become obvious that Enlightenment morality does not teach us how to lead a virtuous life? Nietzsche answered the same basic question by telling us that we should go back to the aristocracy of Homeric Greece — which would imply that most of us would wind up as slaves. MacIntyre says, in part, that we should go back to the ethics of Aristotle; but on a more practical level, MacIntyre calls for some kind of new monasticism:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history [e.g., of late Rome] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the 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 so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too 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. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without ground for hope. 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 of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a God, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict. After Virture, 263
I vividly remember sitting in my senior philosophy seminar listening to Richard J. Bernstein excoriate MacIntyre on this point: “He wants us to go back into monasteries! That’s the whole point of this book!” As a leftist, Bernstein obviously wanted us impressionable college students to feel compelled to get directly involved in political process, and in changing the world through direct action; equally obviously, Bernstein thought that any kind of monastery would lead to passivism and quietism.
At that time, in 1983, I probably would have characterized myself as a Marxist in the Frankfurt School tradition; and I was sure that we would soon figure out a way to put an end to late capitalism and build a more humane and just world. Looking back, 1983 was probably just after the high-water mark of liberal and leftist successes; from 1980 on we saw an increase in racism (both in the United States, and, in other forms, abroad), the sharp rightward turn of politics in the United States and elsewhere, and the increasing dominance of a free market ideology that completely lacked any sense of morality. In 1983, I rejected Alisdair MacIntyre; looking back from the perspective of 2008, I’m beginning to think that he wasn’t entirely wrong when he called for a new monasticism.
(Next part in the series will appear March 3. A new part in this seven-part series will appear every other day from now through March 13.)