Friday 6 July 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre and surviving barbarism

One of the key events in my academic development was discovering the works of Alasdair MacIntyre as an undergraduate. I suppose I took two main things from him at the time: the central interest of Aristotelianism particularly in ethics; the possibility of a fundamental incoherence in contemporary non-Aristotelian thought. Although the effect wasn't immediate, the ultimate consequence of this was my conversion to Catholicism.

After Virtue ends thus:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history 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 that imperium. When 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 grounds 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 Godot, but for another -doubtless very different- St Benedict.

MacIntyre's point is that, in the face of a general incoherence in the intellectual and social practices of modern, western societies, the need is to establish citadels of civilization apart from those societies, analogous to the monasteries of the Dark Ages, where the good life can still be lived. I'm rather less pessimistic than MacIntyre about the state of modern society, but in the wake of a current attacks on marriage and the family as well as Catholic education, Catholics do have to begin thinking much more seriously than we have previously about how to create that sort of space. For example, if same sex 'marriage' is introduced, how do we ensure that Catholic marriage and those entering into it are sharply distinguished from  the new institution? In part, this is a matter of education, telling people that they are different. But is that enough? Unless the rituals and customs surrounding Catholic marriage reinforce the teaching that marriage is different from nu-marriage, this message will be lost.

And what of Catholic students? Should we as parents go on sending them to institutions where their beliefs will be, in MacIntyre's terms, undermined by an incoherent liberalism? Or should we be sending them to (say) those US Catholic institutions such as Steubenville or Ave Maria which take seriously the task of forming the young in a coherent Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition? 

These are clearly only a couple of issues that need to be thought about if accept anything like MacIntyre's analysis. In essence, we would need to start thinking like previous generations of recusants and Eastern European dissidents: how do we survive within an actively hostile society which is doing its best to extirpate our beliefs? Such an approach would require a much more thoroughgoing effort at separation than anything most Catholics currently envisage: not just monitoring TV but the sort of deliberate community building that we see among ultra-Orthodox Jews.

I hope that such a future is rather a dystopian fantasy than a realistic possibility. In particular, I would not advocate the abandonment of the struggle to re-convert mainstream society or at least to convince it of the benefits of allowing Catholics to live out and pass on their lives and beliefs with integrity. But I am equally convinced that we need to be much more thoughtful about emphasizing and institutionalizing our separate Catholic form of life than we currently are. What precisely that involves, I am less sure. It certainly won't be comfortable.

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