Reflections on the Enlightenment and Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’

Critics and defenders of the Enlightenment are a dime a dozen these days, especially as theorists and actors on both the political left and the political right have increasingly turned against liberalism and its Enlightenment foundations in early-modern Europe. Back when Rush Limbaugh was still a morning-show DJ, American conservatives casually dropped the “so-called” from “so-called liberals” when attacking their opponents and began referring to them simply as “liberals.” The word no longer described a virtuous defender of democracy and individual rights—it was now a term of abuse, comfortably deployed by right-wingers who never much cared for democracy or individual rights in the first place. Today, the term “liberal” is an epithet hurled about by the “woke” wing of the American progressivism against their more moderate, reform-minded comrades. Enlightenment values such as, well, democracy and individual rights are so eighteenth-century, so European, and so problematically tied to all kinds of dangerous ideas about race. (If Thomas Jefferson was for it, how good can it be?) For the first time I can remember, a person like me might find himself derided as a “liberal” from either ends of the political spectrum.

Granted, attempts to attack or defend something as big and broad as the whole Enlightenment will inevitably lead you astray. Steven Pinker, who has made a career out of treating the Enlightenment like an antebellum Southern belle whose honor demands defense and who misrepresents just about everything he writes about, notoriously misrepresents both the Enlightenment and its critics. The former is much more varied and less tied to tough-minded foundationalism than Pinker would like to think; many of the latter are much more sophisticated than he gives them credit form. Heck, a rich and vital critique of the Enlightenment was already embedded in the Enlightenment itself. Perhaps you’re quarantining with volumes by Nietzsche and Foucault; joining an integralist bookclub with some fellow RadTrads; enrolling in Peter Thiel’s René Girard course at Berkeley (the city, not the university); or launching a neo-Marxist defense of revolutionary violence that nevertheless accounts for the Marcusian account of one-dimensionality and the fact that your antifa pals are armed with only bear spray and tasers. No matter who you are, chances are good that you’re at least somewhat wary of the Enlightenment.

Because I’m constitutionally inclined to view the Enlightenment favorably, heterosexual white male that I am, I feel duty-bound to absorb the best and most thoughtful critiques of that intellectual culture that remade Europe and the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I already spent large chunks of my graduate school education reading the anti-foundationalist critiques of the Enlightenment, beginning with Nietzsche and continuing up through the post-structuralists (Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, I’ve read ’em all). Less well-known to me are radical traditionalists: moral philosophers and classicists who view the European Enlightenment as a dramatic wrong turn after several centuries of Aristotelean moral consensus embodied by medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Ibn Rushd (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, respectively). Among these critics of the Enlightenment, nobody did his homework much better than Alasdair MacIntyre. As I mentioned in a post earlier this summer, I am currently reading his major work, After Virtue (published in 1980). My reasons for starting with MacIntyre are influenced by the fact that he is enormously influential among conservative Christian intellectuals (the last chapter of After Virtue inspired the title of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option).

Alasdair MacIntyre

The first thing to note about Macintyre is that he is much smarter than I am. I am not a trained philosopher or ethicist, so following his argument—even in a book as ostensibly accessible as After Virtue—can be very difficult. It is also exhilarating. Something about following a masterful philosopher as he constructs a devastating critique of modernity is inherently exciting, even if you’re predisposed to disagree with him.

As an Orthodox Christian in the United States, I am in an interesting position vis-à-vis MacIntyre, who so strongly endorses the world of scholasticism and Medieval Christianity in general. The Orthodox Christian in me favors the late Antique, early Medieval forms of Christian practice and thought. By the time you get to the High Middle Ages, East and West had definitely parted ways, and the ideas we typically associate with Medieval Christianity aren’t those we associate with Eastern Orthodoxy: they tend to be decidedly Western, decidedly Catholic, decidedly scholastic and systematic. (To be crude: the West emphasizes scholarship whereas the East emphasizes mysticism; the West is concerned with correct belief, the East with best practice. That’s my extremely crude generalization.) Meanwhile, the American in me is the beneficiary of post-Medieval ways of thinking and being. By virtue of being a democratic subject, I am a child of the Enlightenment. I take all sorts of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment premises entirely for granted simply by virtue of breathing North American air. I believe in liberty, human rights, personal property, and the pursuit of happiness. I can’t pretend to be anything but what I am.

This will not be my last post on MacIntyre. I haven’t finished After Virtue, but I already want to start writing about it. What follows are my notes from chapter five, which is entitled “Why the Enlightenment Project Had to Fail.”

So, why did the Enlightenment project have to fail?

First, it has to do with the absence of telos (or purpose) in the Enlightenment paradigm. Within Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, and Ibn Rushd, there is “a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature” (After Virtue 52). “Ethics,” MacIntyre continues, “is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the later.” For Classical thinkers, this telos was identified in the proper arrangement of one’s relationship to others and the city. For Medieval theists, this telos was identified in the proper arrangement of one’s relationship to God. For the Classical philosophers, one achieved one’s essential purpose in this world; for the Medievals, one only achieved one’s essential purpose in the next. In either case, however, a teleological paradigm existed. You could draw a “threefold scheme in which human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be (human nature in its untutored state) is initially discrepant and discordant with the precepts of ethics and needs to be transformed by the instruction of practical reason and experience into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos” (53). The three parts of this “threefold scheme” are 1) human nature as it is, 2) our telos, and 3) the ethical precepts that will allow us to move from our human nature to our telos.

What happens in the Enlightenment? According to MacIntyre, it drops the telos and the threefold scheme collapses. You are left with two leftover components—human-nature-as-it-is and ethical precepts (don’t murder, don’t steal, &c.)—with no obvious relationship between the two.

So why did Enlightenment thinkers drop the telos? Skeptical philosophers lost the telos when they rejected the notion that human reason can obtain our ultimate purpose, when they became skeptical about reason itself and limited its scope to “truths of fact and mathematical relations” (54). Protestant and post-Medieval Catholic thinkers lost the telos when they embraced Calvin-inflected notions of original sin, which hold that human reason is necessarily corrupted and, therefore, cannot obtain our ultimate purpose (only by grace is our ultimate purpose achieved in this formula). For this reason, thinkers as varied as Pascal, Hume, Kant, Adam Smith, Diderot, and Kierkegaard rejected teleological accounts of the human condition.

The pre-Enlightenment philosophers would emphasize the fact that the elephant exists and can be known, however difficult that may be; the Enlightenment philosophers would emphasize the limits of our ability to know the elephant.

So the moral scheme that underpinned the traditional conception of morality and drew a clear relationship between 1) human nature, 2) human purpose, and 3) the concrete do’s and don’ts that allow you to get from 1 to 2 ultimately fell apart during the Enlightenment because human purpose became, in the view of Enlightenment thinkers, unobtainable. That’s the cliffhanger MacIntyre leaves you on in chapter five. What are the consequences of the Enlightenment’s failure? That’s the subject of chapter six.

I want to end with some killer quotes from chapter five:

…the use of ‘man’ as a functional concept is far older than Aristotle and does not initially derive from Aristotle’s metaphysical biology. It is rooted in the forms of social life to which the theorists of the classical tradition give expression. For according to that tradition to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God. It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that ‘man’ ceases to be a functional concept.

Pages 58 – 59

Abstract changes in moral concepts are always embodied in real, particular events. There is a history yet to be written in which the Medici princes, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Walpole and Wilberforce, Jefferson and Robespierre are understood as expressing in their actions, often partially and in a variety of different ways, the very same conceptual changes which at the level of philosophical theory are articulated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, by Diderot and Condorcet, by Hume and Adam Smith and Kant. There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of believe is a political and moral action.

Page 61

Finally, on the last page of the chapter, MacIntyre throws down the gauntlet: “When the distinctly modern self was invented, its invention required not only a largely new social setting, but one defined by a variety of not always coherent beliefs and concepts. What was then invented was the individual and to the question of what that invention amounted to and its part in creating our own emotivist culture we must now turn.” I would challenge MacIntyre’s use of the verb invented. Surely some Enlightenment thinkers would say the modern self was discovered rather than invented. But I’m very excited to see where he goes next.

More soon.

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