In 2009, University College Dublin put on a conference for Alasdair MacIntyre to mark his eightieth birthday. The range of participants reflected the breadth of his interests: professional philosophers, social radicals (with a scattering of Marxists), Cardinal Cahal Daly and a coachload of Catholic students from Louvain. We were all admirers wanting to pay tribute, but MacIntyre declined, saying that he didn’t want the conference to focus on him. He did agree, though, to give a talk about his philosophical development.
It was in 1945, he recalled, that he embarked on a course in classics at Queen Mary College, a successor to the People’s Palace in the East End of London. He seems to have been a docile student, happy to be guided through the works of Plato and Aristotle in the original Greek, and if he ran into problems – not unlikely for a solitary 16-year-old Presbyterian from Glasgow – he didn’t mention them. (This experiment in autobiography was, like all MacIntyre’s work, lucid, clever and brisk, but also rather dry.) He fell in with a group of Dominicans who introduced him to Catholic social teaching and the Aristotle-inspired theology of Thomas Aquinas, and joined a local cell of the Communist Party, where he learned about Marx, Engels and the contradictions of capitalism. He was dazzled by the intellectual treasures spread before him, but suspected he could not have them all. ‘One thing on which Marxists and Thomists seemed to agree,’ he said, ‘was that Marxism and Thomism were incompatible.’
Bewildered, he sneaked off to University College London to hear the positivist polemics of A.J. Ayer, who maintained that there was nothing to morality except emotion. He also made a trip to Paris, where he learned about Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialist doctrine that our characters are the product of our unconstrained choices. He noticed that Ayer and Sartre, despite their different styles, were dancing to the same philosophical tune: both hoped to achieve moral liberation by trashing the idea that morality is accountable to reason. Intrigued but not convinced, young MacIntyre drew a conclusion he has stuck to ever since: that philosophy takes time. Instead of choosing an opinion that appeals to you and forsaking all others, you need to take on different arguments and give them time to sort themselves out. Forty years were to pass before he reverted to Christianity or, as he put it, ‘I discovered that I had become a Thomistic Aristotelian.’
But MacIntyre was already a philosophical outsider. While still at school he fell under the spell of R.G. Collingwood, who lambasted contemporary philosophers for lacking any sense of history. Collingwood illustrated his point with a tale about a scholar who insisted on translating the Greek word τριήρης as ‘steamship’ and, on being told that a trireme is nothing like a steamship, replied that this just showed the Greeks were ‘terribly muddle-headed’. MacIntyre cited the story in his first substantial book, A Short History of Ethics (1966), as he upbraided his colleagues for treating ‘Plato, Kant and themselves as contributors to a single discussion with a single subject matter’. They needed to realise, he said, that concepts ‘have a history’, punctuated not only by the thoughts of the great dead philosophers but also by events like the decline of the Greek city-state, the formation of Christendom, the rise of capitalism and the stirrings of working-class resistance.
Moral philosophy had suffered especially badly from this ‘lack of historical sense’. The notions it deals with – ‘courage’ and ‘compassion’, for example – may be abstract, but they are not inert: they can provoke acts of violence or heroic self-sacrifice. From a philosophical point of view, the practical power of moral concepts has always been a bit of a mystery. Plato attributed it to the intrinsic attraction of the idea of the good, while anti-Platonists invoked long-range calculations of self-interest. But MacIntyre cut out the metaphysics: all we need to know, he said, is that morality is, as a matter of historical fact, woven into the fabrics of mutual understanding that bind us to our communities and give structure to our lives.
Moral notions can of course outlast the societies that nurtured them. ‘Courage’ and ‘compassion’ originated in ancient Greece and biblical Palestine, but they fanned out across Europe and beyond, adapting to different conditions while retaining their motivational power. In the 18th century, however, things began to fall apart: the ‘acids of individualism’ produced by rampant capitalism were eroding traditional social bonds, and a few privileged drifters started to imagine they could rise above the restraints of ordinary morality. Their conceit was perpetuated by self-conscious free spirits such as Nietzsche and various members of the Bloomsbury group; and when philosophers like Ayer and Sartre proclaimed the essential irrationality of moral decisions they were, according to MacIntyre, mistaking expressions of leisure-class anomie for timeless features of morality as such.
The point owed more to Marx than Collingwood, and MacIntyre could have made it by describing his philosophical contemporaries as pedlars of individualistic bourgeois ideology. But he chose not to, perhaps because he had already travelled some way along his path towards Thomistic Aristotelianism. Fifteen years later, when he expounded a comprehensive theory of morality in After Virtue (1981), the transition was almost complete. Starting from what he called ‘the classical view of human nature’, he argued that every one of us is essentially a ‘story-telling animal’, and that our stories provide us with scripts for our lives and templates for our relations with other people. (‘I am part of their story,’ he said, ‘as they are part of mine.’) Our stories are not always true, but they constantly ‘aspire to truth’, and morality arises from the fact that we all live our lives in the hope that they will attain, as MacIntyre put it, ‘the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end’.
We do not construct our stories out of nothing, however. We are born into ‘an interlocking set of narratives’, which in their turn are embedded in collective life, particularly in ‘practices’ such as farming, medicine and architecture, or football, chess, painting, music, biology and history. A practice, as MacIntyre defined it, is a ‘socially established co-operative human activity’ directed towards some concrete common goal – good food, for instance, or good health or good housing. But practices have an educational function as well: they have to train new recruits in the techniques and standards of the trade, at the same time as inculcating a few collaborative skills such as fairness, honesty and generosity, thus ensuring that some sense of morality gets passed down, implicitly, from one generation to the next.
But the mechanism isn’t foolproof, and in After Virtue MacIntyre amplified his earlier warnings about the ‘acids of individualism’. Moral decay, as he saw it, was no longer confined to a few languid libertines, and the epidemic was ‘so disastrous that there are no large remedies’. In reality, none of us can fully disengage from morality: even if we think of ourselves as free spirits we still want our lives to make a good story. But many are foolish enough to be impressed by the cynical bravado of Brecht’s Macheath: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral (‘Feeding comes first, morals must wait’) – as if morality were a luxury that need not concern us, like fast cars or a top hat.
The decline of morality had been abetted, MacIntyre said, by a vast intellectual movement which he referred to as ‘the Enlightenment project’. Proponents of the project believed that human conduct can be explained ‘in mechanical terms’, without reference to culture, language, meaning and history, and they liked to present themselves as architects of a scientific brave new world. In practice, however, they were less interested in construction than in the conceptual equivalent of slum clearance: sweeping away the ramshackle superstitions of the old moralistic world to make room, eventually, for the splendid truths of science. And they didn’t confine their attention to ideas: they were also intent on cleaning up conventional social arrangements by turning them over to a cadre of ‘scientific managers’. The ‘fetishism of commodities’ described by Marx had been joined, MacIntyre said, by another fetishism – the fetishism of ‘bureaucratic skills’ – and management was threatening to take control of our lives, in the name of abstract all-purpose scientific efficiency.
The enlighteners were obsessed with science, but they had no idea how it actually worked. They treated it as a monolithic enterprise with immutable methods, rather than a collection of diverse practices – ethnography, botany, virology, linguistics, economics, mathematics and so on – each with its own purposes, protocols and techniques. On top of that they assumed that scientific progress happens automatically whenever a fresh fact is discovered or a new theory proposed – rather than when a bunch of scientists come up with a story which persuades their colleagues that there is something wrong with what they thought before. (‘The criterion of a successful theory,’ as MacIntyre put it, ‘is that it enables us to understand its predecessors in a newly intelligible way.’) The sciences, in short, are not paragons of timeless perfection, but human institutions in perpetual dialogue with their past.
The Enlightenment project had started off as an attempt to replace our sentimental storied world with a utopia based on the solid facts of science and the ‘expertise’ of managers; but it was turning out to be just another sentimental story, and a peculiarly unconvincing one at that – and this is why ‘the Enlightenment project had to fail.’ Its failure should remind us, MacIntyre said, of some facts that the mavens of modernity would like us to forget: that we are not invincible autonomous reasoning-machines, but frail animals shaped by unfathomable traditions; and that the world contains countless other traditions which may, for all we know, be more intelligent than our own. If you are a selfless activist fighting for a just and rational future you may find these facts discouraging, but they are no excuse for despair. You can return to the struggle, according to MacIntyre, but you should first ask yourself the question: ‘Whose justice? Which rationality?’
You may be tempted to evade the issue, either by resorting to the relativism which says that you have as much right to your opinion as anyone else, or by embracing the absolutism which assures you that your own opinions are the whole truth, and anyone who disagrees must be wrong. Neither of these escape routes will get you very far, though, and in the end you will have to accept that your opponents are in the same boat as you: trying to do the right thing on the basis of the versions of justice and rationality that seem to them to make most sense. This does not mean, however, that everyone is shackled for ever to the traditions that shaped them. Traditions aren’t juggernauts or settled destinies: they falter, duck and weave in response to internal conflicts and external shocks. And they aren’t blindfolds either: they offer genuine insights, however partial, into the world we all share. They do not prevent you from criticising your own beliefs or finding out about different traditions, and perhaps becoming an admirer or even a convert. (It’s never too late for apostasy.) But when you change your mind you will do so not out of caprice but for reasons that strike you as compelling; and you will want to incorporate these reasons into the story of your life, and explain them to others in the hope of winning them over. Despite the scourges of individualism, cynicism, managerialism and the entire Enlightenment project, your choices still have their reasons, rooted in the past, and you never reason alone.
One might have expected the account of morality in After Virtue to lead to a turn towards politics. MacIntyre’s emphasis on community, tradition and social change seems to point in that direction, and so does his interest in moral disagreement and the idea that, as he put it, ‘it is through conflict and sometimes only through conflict that we learn what our ends and purposes are.’ From here it would be a short step to sceptical democratic liberalism in the manner of Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin or Richard Rorty, and perhaps to a celebration of politics as the noble art of fostering conversation across doctrinal divides. But that isn’t the route MacIntyre took. For him, liberalism is no more than a front for capitalist individualism, seeking to reduce the complexities of human existence to a grim tug of war between ‘arbitrary choices of individuals’ and ‘collectivist control’. Meanwhile democracy – whatever it may mean in theory – is always commandeered by elites who ‘determine the range of alternatives between which voters are permitted to choose’, so as to ensure that ‘the most fundamental issues are excluded.’ For MacIntyre, therefore, there has never been any such thing as liberal democracy, only ‘oligarchies disguised as liberal democracies’.
His disdain for liberal democracy does not mean he favours any of the alternatives. He surveys the entire field of modern politics with impartial contempt. The state-nations and nation-states that now dominate political activity strike him as further embodiments of the bogus rationality of bureaucratic management, while the idea of laying down your life for your country is, according to him, ‘like being asked to die for a telephone company’. Politics is optional in a way that morality is not, and in its modern manifestations it is best avoided.
MacIntyre once believed that Marxism offered a solution, but by the time he wrote After Virtue he thought that it was ‘exhausted as a political tradition’, even if it remained ‘one of the richest sources of ideas about modern society’. The familiar liberal explanations of its failure missed the point, however: the problem with political Marxism isn’t that it is dogmatic, scientistic, authoritarian or economistic, but that it is ‘deeply optimistic’. This is a typical MacIntyre moment: simple, surprising and – when you come to think about it – completely true. If there is a single thread running through the works of Marx, it is that the evils of capitalism, terrible as they are, will soon be outweighed by its double legacy: on the one hand the enormous wealth generated by modern industry, and on the other an international proletariat with the strength and wisdom to put it to good use. But Marx’s optimism proved to be ill-founded. The proletariat did not live up to expectations, leaving latter-day Marxists scrambling to find alternative superheroes. Hence, according to MacIntyre, the multitudes of ‘conflicting … political allegiances which now carry Marxist banners’, all expressing a well-founded hatred of capitalism but none offering a ‘tolerable alternative’. The resulting ‘exhaustion’ had spread from Marxism to ‘every other political tradition’, plunging the world into a ‘new dark ages’, darker than ever before. (‘This time … the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers,’ MacIntyre wrote, ‘they have already been governing us for quite some time.’) The only chance of building a better world, he concluded, was to abandon politics and concentrate on ‘the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained’.
For mainstream leftists , MacIntyre’s shift from Marxism to localism makes him another rogue in their gallery of sell-outs and traitors; but Émile Perreau-Saussine’s brief and rather brilliant intellectual biography should give them pause. The book is not exactly new: the original appeared in French in 2005, and Perreau-Saussine, a distinguished historian of Catholic thought, died five years later at the age of 37. But it’s now available in a meticulous English version by Nathan Pinkoski, and Perreau-Saussine’s argument is as potent as ever: that MacIntyre’s changes of mind were not so much lapses or regressions as logical stages in ‘the evolution of a sincere philosopher’.
In the preface to After Virtue, MacIntyre himself said that his suspicions about the ‘moral impoverishment’ of Marxism dated back more than twenty years, to a time when he was ‘privileged to be a contributor to that most remarkable journal the New Reasoner’. He was referring to the ‘Quarterly Journal of Socialist Humanism’ launched by E.P. Thompson and John Saville in 1957 as a forum for what they called ‘Britain’s largest unorganised party – the ex-communist party’. The New Reasoner ran to ten issues before being absorbed into the fledgling New Left Review, and it included a memorable essay by MacIntyre on ‘the moral rejection of Stalinism’. He began by noting that ex-communists liked to say they had left the party for reasons of ‘moral principle’. They seemed to be crediting themselves with an unerring instinct for the right and the good, and dismissing everyone else as dishonest and immoral; but for want of any philosophical reflection on the nature of moral disagreement they defaulted to liberal individualism – in other words, to ‘that liberalism in the criticism of which Marxism originated’ – and ended up ‘taking a Stalinist view of historical development and adding liberal morality to it’. Their moral narcissism had left them wandering in a ‘moral wilderness’, but MacIntyre hoped to lead them to safety by devising a historical account of moral rationality worthy of Marx.
Once he had worked out his theory of stories, practices and traditions, however, he began to realise that he couldn’t square it with political Marxism, or indeed with modern politics as a whole. But as usual he took a long time to make up his mind. He spent the best part of the 1960s promoting what he called ‘the Marxism of Marx’, which, unlike ‘the Marxism of Stalin’, was about enabling the ‘victims and puppets’ of capitalism to transform themselves into ‘masters of their own lives’. He put a lot of work into promoting this ‘revolutionary perspective’ inside the excitable world of British Trotskyism – initially with Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League – and remained on the board of International Socialism until 1968. But the events of that year convinced him that ‘the labour movement cannot hope to win political power,’ and that the moment of revolutionary opportunity had passed.
In 1970 he wrote a short book about the German-American leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who was, like him, disappointed with the labour movement, but hoped that the revolutionary slack would be taken up by a coalition of discontented students, sexual radicals and Third World insurgents. MacIntyre was not impressed. ‘To be in conflict with the established order,’ he said, ‘is not necessarily to be an agent of liberation.’ The victims of capitalism could not be ‘liberated from above’: they needed to fight their own fight for freedom, and they didn’t need lectures from Marcuse’s ‘idealised students’, who were in any case no more than ‘middle-class whites’ indulging in ‘parent-financed revolts’. Sexual liberation was problematic too. (‘What will we actually do in this sexually liberated state?’) And as for countries like China, Cuba and North Vietnam, they were not the beacons of freedom that starry-eyed students imagined, but bastions of ‘right-wing communism, an oligarchical disease’.
Many leftists were bewildered by this assault on the gentle Marcuse, but others knew how to respond. ‘MacIntyre should understand that the game is up,’ Robin Blackburn wrote in Black Dwarf: his ‘threadbare political and intellectual clothing can no longer hide the nakedness of his opportunism’. He had already done loyal service as an ‘adornment of the world’s most mediocre and servile bourgeois intelligentsia’, but he was now exposed, along with ‘his old friends in Moscow’, as a ‘miserable charlatan’, a ‘liberal’, a ‘vulgar idealist’ and a ‘professional renegade’, steeped in ‘empiricism’, ‘virulent philistinism’ and ‘academic authoritarianism’.
Unfazed, MacIntyre gave further offence to old comrades by leaving welfare-state Britain to take up residence in the hypercapitalist United States. If Perreau-Saussine is right, however, this too bears witness to his ‘unity of purpose’. In the first place, MacIntyre had never really been British, let alone English: his parents were doctors of Irish background working in Scotland, and he was conscious of a deep debt to an aunt who, by teaching him Gaelic, gave him access to aspects of life in the British Isles of which most Britons know nothing. After graduating from Queen Mary College he stayed away, on the whole, from the Oxbridge axis of snobbery, preferring to study and teach in industrial centres like Manchester and Leeds, and eventually – less happily – in the sociology department at the University of Essex. In 1968 he considered moving to the US in order to get closer to the ‘key conflicts of the age’ – ‘race and class’, together with ‘industrialism and democracy’ and ‘private and public life’. When he settled there a couple of years later, however, taking jobs at a string of different universities before ending up at Notre Dame in Indiana, he found it congenial in ways he hadn’t anticipated. In 1980, writing about Garry Wills’s Inventing America for the LRB, he praised the US as home to numerous enclaves of ‘republicanism’ in the classical sense of the word: outposts of resistance to liberal individualism, committed to ‘the self-government of … a “we”, not a “they” or an “it”’ and inspired by ‘a vision of a common good’ – self-sufficient communities comprising small schools and hospitals, local voluntary and offbeat religious organisations.
In 1983 MacIntyre delivered another shock to old allies by joining one of the oddest of these American minorities, the Catholic Church, but once again Perreau-Saussine sees consistency where others suspect backsliding. Thirty years before, MacIntyre had criticised the attempt to divide the human world into two ‘spheres’, one ‘secular’ and the other ‘sacred’. Treating religion as ‘one activity among others’ – not obligatory but freely available to those who like that kind of thing – might appear even-handed, but according to MacIntyre it threatened to stifle the most fundamental impulse behind religion: ‘to help us see the secular as sacred’. His eventual conversion to Catholicism seems to have had more to do with redeeming the secular than retreating to the sacred – or to theology for that matter. (‘If I were God,’ he once said, ‘I do not think that I would want to be studied by most contemporary theologians.’) For MacIntyre, the glory of Christianity resides not in crucifixes, catechisms, chasubles and censers, but in the monastic communities which for more than a thousand years have provided exemplars of what he has always cared for most – a humble mutuality which treats the world as an object not of utility, but of reverence and love.
The belated appearance of Perreau-Saussine’s book in English will give a fillip to scholarly interest in MacIntyre. But he will not be particularly pleased. His work has always been intended for the kind of reader who would, as he puts it, be ‘considered marginal by those who occupy the dominant positions in today’s societies’, and he detests the prospect of being liked by ‘lawyers, bureaucrats, business school professors, and the ambitious, the powerful and the rich in general’. He is wary of philosophy too: it ‘tends to sterilise the mind and the imagination’, he says, especially when captured by the ‘conformism’ of academic inquiry; and moral philosophy will not flourish unless it takes care to stay ‘on the margins, intellectually as well as politically’. His writings are, however, so vigorous, acute and informative that he may have to put up with more admirers than he would like.
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