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Apocalypse Now?

The Political Vision of Alasdair MacIntyre

12:00 AM, Jul 26, 1999 • By ADAM WOLFSON
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In 1981, a small book appeared from a university press that looked at the modern world and saw nothing but disarray. Indeed, in the author's view, morality as such had nearly vanished, and the collapse of intelligible moral discourse marked a serious "degeneration" and "cultural loss." Arguing that a "new dark ages" had fallen upon us, he claimed we are under the governance of "barbarians." And, in an odd little concluding chapter in which he pointed out a curious parallel in the thought of St. Benedict and Leon Trotsky, he suggested that the only solution is quarantine, a breaking up of the world into small local communities in which civility might be preserved. Only a new St. Benedict -- or a new Trotsky -- can possibly save us.

The book was called After Virtue, and it might have faded away unnoticed: yet another unremarkable tome in the long line of conservative laments for lost worlds and yet another conservative demand that we flee to the distant mountains and escape the decadent last days of a collapsing culture. It might have faded away -- except that its author was Alasdair MacIntyre, the man who is possibly the greatest moral philosopher of the last fifty years and certainly the most unyielding critic of liberalism writing today. Since 1981, After Virtue has been the most widely discussed book of philosophy in English -- not just among philosophers, but among general readers across America. You can violently disagree with MacIntyre, as many do, particularly on the socialist left. Or you can violently agree with him, as many do, particularly on the Catholic right. But you can't get away without knowing about him.

The publication of the new MacIntyre Reader -- a fascinating anthology of his work from his Marxist beginnings to his Thomistic conclusions -- provides an interesting opportunity for reconsidering the man's thought. There are conservatives, of course, who still mourn the loss of the old world and still urge us to flee an America that has become indistinguishable from Gomorrah. But what about those conservatives who believe in the continuing possibilities of liberal democracy and the fruits of Enlightenment culture? What, finally, are we who still want to applaud the American Founding to make of Alasdair MacIntyre?

A renowned teacher, MacIntyre is celebrated by his students and influential far beyond his own discipline. Born in Scotland in 1929, he grew up in a small farming and fishing community. As a young man, he prepared himself for the Presbyterian ministry, but he soon became estranged from religion, only to return to it much later in life via Catholicism. In the interim, he became first a Marxist and then a Trotskyist, writing penetrating essays on Marx, Freud, and Marcuse, and in the field of analytical philosophy. In 1970, he moved to America, marking the start of his philosophical conversion from Trotskyist to Aristotelian to Thomist.

MacIntyre has written five outstanding works in moral philosophy, A Short History of Ethics in 1966, After Virtue in 1981, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? in 1988, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry in 1990, and Dependent Rational Animals in 1999. His books in philosophy are, as one reviewer said, more like "volcanoes and whirlpools" than academic treatises. To call him interdisciplinary -- which he certainly is, with a background in sociology, the classics, and philosophy -- does him a disservice. For alongside his analyses of Aristotle or Hume on the virtues, one finds literary criticism, interpretations of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Weber, asides on funerary inscriptions and Icelandic sagas, anthropological insights, even discussions of what dolphins and humans have in common. These disparate elements are all carefully sifted through MacIntyre's highly tuned historical sense.

What most makes MacIntyre a man to be reckoned with, however, is his intransigent rejection of liberalism. He was one of the first to demonstrate that while liberalism sells itself today as a doctrine of neutrality, it in fact imposes its values of radical autonomy and individualism on nearly everything it touches.

But to say that MacIntyre opposes liberal individualism is not to say that he is anti-humanist. Quite the contrary: He argues that liberalism itself has become the leading agent of anti-humanism in the modern world. This insight is most apparent at the edges of life, in birth and death, where liberalism promotes a regime of abortion and euthanasia. We are not, according to MacIntyre, independent rational agents, as liberalism's leading expositors claim, but vulnerable and dependent beings; thus, the handicapped should not be seen as the "Other," but as enduring a condition that, if only in our aging, we shall all come to know intimately.