Daily Reading 9/30/2020

This post represents the first of a series in which I reflect on, and offer quotes from, stuff I’ve been reading lately. I’ll post such entries periodically, especially on days when a unified theme hasn’t presented itself to me. I have a tendency to read several books at once, which means it takes me a long time to finish any given book and also that I tend to experience literature piecemeal, as if each book were a daily devotional. These posts will reflect my thoughts on those devotions.

I didn’t watch last night’s debate, although I experienced much of it vicariously through the social media feeds of my friends and others I follow. A consensus is emerging on those feeds, which are admittedly tailored toward an audience of one (me), that this represented a new low point in the history of our democratic republic. The fact that such a claim is obviously exaggerated should not distract us from the fact that the claim is not wholly untrue. Something unmistakably and uniquely bad has bubbled to the surface of our civic life, and to acknowledge that does not detract from the realities of indigenous genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, forced sterilization and other eugenic policies, the mainstreaming of the Ku Klux Klan, war crimes innumerable, the presidency of George W. Bush, &c. Besides, our current president refuses to condemn those who would apologize for all of the above crimes (except, interestingly enough, the presidency of George W. Bush, complicity in which President Trump and nearly all Republicans now cheerfully disavow). So what President Trump represents is, to those of us who oppose him, everything sinful in the American experiment compounded by boisterous approval of, even pride in, those sins, all of which is compounded by a personality who somehow manages to represent the worst tendencies of raw democracy, of populist demagoguery, and the worst tendencies of oligarchy combined. Aristotle, eat your heart out.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been the one consuming Aristotle, or at least a version of Aristotle presented by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. I promised I’d offer an update of my encounter with MacIntyre, so here goes:

MacIntyre is venerated by those who look past liberalism toward some post-liberal rejection of modernity, and this has led some on the post-liberal right (e.g., Rod Dreher in recent tweets) to make kind remarks about, if not outright romanticize, systems like Franco’s Spain. But the problem with modernity in MacIntyre is not so escapable as thinkers like Dreher would have us believe. The problem at the core of modern moral philosophy, as MacIntyre makes clear in Chapter 17 of After Virtue, is the whole system of modernity: its individualism, its economic theories, and its political systems, including everything from FDR liberalism to Stalinist Communism to Francoist authoritarianism. A person on the right in a chaotic, pluralistic democratic society who wishes to live in a community with a strong, Aristotelian sense of virtue cannot peer wistfully over the fence at Franco’s Spain and think, “Alas, things are better there,” anymore than a person on the left who wishes he inhabited a community of justice can peer over the Iron Curtain and exclaim, “Alas, things are better over there!” The same systemic problems recur across societies that adopt the norms of modernity (and historically, they are likely to be much worse in the so-called “post-liberal” fantasies, left or right). Unfortunately for we moderns, all so-called developed societies have adopted the norms of modernity.

Consider the emphasis MacIntyre places on community and the past (or history), both of which are essential (in his view) to the development of a mature moral philosophy. The whole concept of the modern nation-state, unlike the concepts of the Greek polis or the Medieval kingdom, is unsuited to nurturing communities and reckoning with the past. A polis or a kingdom might work toward a telos or common purpose both demarcates and produces virtuous actions. A nation-state, meanwhile, is very bad at conjuring such a telos. We moderns oscillate between a chaotic pluralism of particularities, on the one hand, and an all-encompassing, universalist language of rights, on the other hand. Our moral philosophy is not contextualized by either community or the past, nor does offer anything like the notion of narrative—literally, story—which is so essential to MacIntyre’s moral imagination. (This is one of the most beautiful ideas in MacIntyre: the idea that virtue emerges from our conception of self in the midst of a narrative. His reading of Jane Austen in Chapter 16 is particularly lovely in this regard.)

Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan

Should we abandon the nation-state? MacIntyre warns us against projects that, like classical Marxism, attempt to remake the world from scratch: new narratives cannot be created out of nothing. (“The true lesson of the Jacobin Clubs and their downfall,” MacIntyre writes, “is that you cannot hope to recreate on the scale of a whole nation when the very idiom of the morality which you seek to re-invent is alien in one way to the vast mass of ordinary people and in another to the intellectual elite”). Besides, he admits that modern governments can, with relative effectiveness, defend the rule of law, defend liberty, dispense justice, and deal generously with human suffering. But we cannot expect a renewal of a virtuous society from within the modern liberal order given the contradictions inherent to classical liberalism and its structures of bureaucratic individualism, free-market capitalism, and the nation-state.

Some killer quotes from today’s MacIntyre reading:

“We cannot…characterize behavior independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible both to agents themselves and to others. … There is no such thing as ‘behavior’ to be identified prior to and independently of intentions, beliefs and settings.”

“We allocate conversations to genres, just as we do literary narratives. Indeed a conversation is a dramatic work, even if a very short one, in which the participants are not only the actors, but also the joint authors, working out in agreement or disagreement the mode of their production. … For conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general.”

“It is no accident that Kafka could not end his novels, for the notion of an ending like that of a beginning has its sense only interns of intelligible narrative.”

“A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fiction, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.”

“Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”

“A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. ….an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present. Living traditions, just because they continue a non-yet-completed narrative, confront a future whose determinate and determinable character, so far as it possesses any, derives from the past.”

“The property-owners of the modern world are not the legitimate heirs of Lockean individuals who performed quasi-Lockean…acts of original acquisition: they are the inheritors of those who, for example, stole, and used violence to steal, the common lands of England from the common people, vast tracts of North America fro the American Indian, much of Ireland from the Irish, and Prussia from the original non-German Prussians. This is the historical reality ideologically concealed behind any Lockean thesis.”

“So the older moral tradition is discernible in the United States and elsewhere among, for example, some Catholic Irish, some Orthodox Greeks and some Jews of an Orthodox persuasion, all of them communities that inherit their moral tradition not only through their religion, but also from the structure of the peasant villages and households which their immediate ancestors inhabited on the margins of modern Europe.”

That last quote gives us a whiff of the ideas that Dreher would pursue in The Benedict Option, although one should note the emphasis MacIntyre places on the immediacy of the ancestral tradition to these contemporary conservative communities. The idea of going underground or breaking apart from society is most popular in the United States among fundamentalist Protestants, whose faith and morality is not premised on the villages and households on the margins of modern Europe but on something much newer. Conservative Protestantism makes a rather dramatic break with the past; fundamentalism is a very modern maneuver, one that MacIntyre would find distasteful.

For my morning devotionals, I’m rereading the New Testament Epistles starting with Romans. Nothing to quote from there just yet. Finally, in honor of last night’s debate, I’ll leave you today with Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 58, which I read this morning. The Psalmist reflects on those worldly leaders who deserve and will inevitably face God’s wrath. May it come swiftly and soon:

Do you, O chieftains, indeed speak injustice,
in rightness judge humankind?
In your heart you work misdeeds on earth,
weigh a case with outrage in your hands.
The wicked backslide from the very womb,
the lie-mongers go astray from birth.
They have venom akin to the serpent's venom,
like the deaf viper that stops up its ears, 
so it hears not the soothsayers' voice
nor the cunning caster of spells.
God, smash their teeth in their mouth.
The jaws of lions shatter, O LORD.
Let them melt away, like water run off.
Let Him pull back His arrows so they be cut down.
Like a snail that moves in its slime, 
a woman's stillbirth that sees not the sun,
before their thorns ripen in bramble,
still alive and in wrath rushed to ruin.
The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees,
his feet he will bathe in the wicked one's blood. 
And man will say, "Yes, there is fruit for the just.
Yes, there are gods judging the earth."

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