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Searching for Ancestors

Searching for Ancestors
Timothy O’Hagan

In Rome [in the fourth century AD] senatorial families
sought out an exemplum, an exemplary character in the
distant past, from whom to claim descent.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippol
With hindsight the transformation of Alasdair MacIntyre from
gadfly into guru looks inevitable, though few members of his
audience in the late 1960s could have predicted it. In 1965-66
Mac In tyre delivered a lecture course at Oxford University
entitled ‘What was Morality?’ to a packed room in the Examination Schools. My image is of a short, jowelled figure in a
corduroy suit, the latest in radical chic. The style was at once
magisterial and provocative, deadpan but destructive. His
undergraduate hearers had been raised on the orthodoxy of
late ordinary language moral philosophy, on the battles between the great -isms of the day (utilitarianism, emotivism,
prescriptivism and the rest), fought out in a timeless vacuum.

MacIntyre’s subversive purpose was to debunk those debates
by putting them into an unexpected historical context. Suddenly our teachers and their immediate predecessors – Moore,
Stevenson, Hare and Foot – emerged as pygmy figures against
a background of giants: Homer, the authors of the Icelandic
Sagas, Jane Austen, Kierkegaard, D. H. Lawrence.

The lesson was that there is no single ‘language of morals’, as Hare would have it, but a plurality of different languages, each with its own semantics, perhaps its own ‘logic’.

Like Nietzsche and Sartre, MacIntyre saw ‘the death of God’

as a cataclysmic event in the history of moral systems which
had, since the Enlightenment, become a series of failed attempts to attain the objectivity of theism without the embarrassment of theistic doctrines, an objective moral code without God as its author. In the heady 1960s MacIntyre was
content to leave us with this deconstructed ruin of history. He
viewed the situation with a cheerful irony and ended his
lectures with a nod towards the Marxism then propounded by
Sartre, which allowed us to seek the ephemeral community of
the ‘group in fusion’, while keeping our distance from the
supposed errors of historical materialism. If this was ‘frivolous’ , said MacIntyre, perhaps that was not a vice. In any case,
it was the most we could hope for.

MacIntyre transmitted some of this material into the books
A Short History of Ethics (1966)2 and Against the Self-Images
of the Age (1971),3 but much of the subversiveness seemed to
disappear with publication. He left Oxford to become first
Professor of Sociology at the new University of Essex.

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

In the following decades, in the United States, MacIntyre
has been seeking to reconstruct moral objectivity. The spirit
of the Gay Science, of ironic frivolity, has been replaced by
one of stem seriousness. His After Virtue (1981)4 ended on an
apocalyptic note:

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.

With tongue not wholly in cheek, MacIntyre bade us wait ‘not
for Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St.

Benedict’.s MacIntyre’s ‘new dark ages’ are the product of
the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which shattered all
previous communities and objective moral systems. In their
stead it introduced Reason as an abstract universal standard
which would allow one to choose between those systems. But
in the nineteenth century Reason itself was put in doubt by
historicism and social theory, which identified different forms
or traditions of argumentation and relativized them to different ages and societies. Confronted by this plurality of moralities and rationalities, the inhabitant of the post-Enlightenment
world lacked both an objective moral community and an
objective rational standard for choosing between the available moral codes. The result is anarchy. Since the 1960s
Mac In tyre has been telling and re-telling this story and as a
narrator he is incomparable.

But MacIntyre is not satisfied with narrative. He seeks
answers to the ultimate philosophical questions of truth, objectivity and authority. What can be their source in the postEnlightenment age? Instead of the Enlightenment’s abstract,
universal goals, Mac In tyre seeks to recover something more
concrete, more specific: a social and intellectual ‘tradition in
good working order’.6 With the idea of a shared tradition
MacIntyre hopes to have laid the ghost of relativism without
returning to the Enlightenment’s ‘impossible’ standards of
justification. Like Gadamer he argues, convincingly, that if
one steps out of all intellectual traditions, one steps not into
Reason, but into a void. The standards of justice and rationality of a given tradition develop internally, as its proponents
engage with problems thrown up within it; and externally, as
they encounter other traditions which challenge their own.

There is nothing in this methodological story which should
alarm the liberal. It can be accepted independently of the pessimistic rhetoric surrounding the alleged legacy of the Enlightenment. In his Philosophical Discourse of Modernity?


Habermas has dispatched the German and French representatives of that rhetoric.

Yet in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre harnesses the plausible methodology to the implausible rhetoric
in recovering the tradition of ‘an Augustinian Christian’.8
How did this intellectual nomad, the great iconoclast of the
1960s, reach this particular tradition? Following MacIntyre’s
own teaching, one would expect a contextual account of Augustine’s work, which would allow the reader to identify with
this crucial moment in the tradition’s development and make
it part of his or her own. Yet a careful reading of the book
reveals a black hole at its centre. Augustine, who should provide the turning-point of the work, exists in a contextual
vacuum. Greek thought, from Homer, through Thucydides,
the sophists, the tragedians, Plato and Aristotle, is examined
in loving detail. Shifting models of reason and justice are
related to the political pressures of the Peloponnesian War.

Aristotle’s philosophical anthropology is located in the
contemporary polis. MacIntyre examines Scotland in similar
detail – its politics, religion, education and law, from the
Renaissance to the end of the eighteenth century, and links
their history to the assimilation of Aristotle, Augustine,
Calvin and natural law. He traces the downfall of that tradition at the hands of ‘Hume’s anglicizing subversion’. But for
Augustine’s context we need to go to another authority.

When we do, the reason for the black hole becomes clear.

As we know from Peter Brown’s outstanding biography,
Augustine’s context is one of crisis, in both personal and
public domains. In his Confessions Augustine tells the story
of his conversion to Christianity as an agonized break with his
pagan, classical past, in particular with the ‘splendid countenance of Philosophy’.9 Central here is the reality of the Fall
from Grace, which affects our intellect as deeply as our
morality. The conversion takes place in the North Africa of
the fourth and fifth centuries, riven by the Donatist heresy and
threatened by peasant rebellion. In response, Augustine must

bankrupt tradition and to the positive view that’ Augustinian
Christianity’ is the most promising rival tradition for the
modern age. It should be apparent that the latter view is far
from convincing. But what of the former? Even if MacIntyre
has failed to find the remedy, is his diagnosis that liberalism is
in terminal decline still correct? That diagnosis is in vogue in
the United States. Indeed it is the received wisdom across the
political spectrum from Alan Bloom on the right through
Michael Sandel on the communitarian centre to Roberto
Unger on the radical left. It is no surprise therefore to find
MacIntyre, only five pages into Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, sneering at ‘that parish magazine of affluent and
self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment’ ,13 the New York
Times. Would that we had such a parish magazine, indeed
such a parish, in this country! But what is the evidence for the
bankruptcy of liberalism? According to After Virtue, it lies in
the fact that ‘the debates and disagreements of the (liberal)
culture’ are ‘unsettlable’ .14 Nonetheless, they do get settled,
particularly in the United States, by the law: in the last

demolish with quite exceptional savagery, the whole of
the ancient ethical tradition: ‘those theories of mortal
men, in which they have striven to make for themselves, by themselves, some complete happiness within
the misery of this life’ .10
It is not hard to see how fifth-century Hippo corresponds to

MacIntyre’s America of the 1980s: a plurality of traditions in
disarray, no properly constituted authority to settle them. It is
also easy to see why Augustine’s context has disappeared
from MacIntyre’ s book. If he had brought it into the open, he
would have at once displayed the impossibility of incorporating Augustine’s tortured vision into a continuing shared tradition of contemporary democracy.

We can now begin to understand MacIntyre’s reaction to
contemporary ‘liberal’ readings of Aristotle and Aquinas.

The Catholic John Finnis, for instance, has returned to those
thinkers to revive the natural law tradition. For him fundamental human goods can be discerned and pursued by human
beings ‘without needing to advert to the question of God’s
existence or nature or will’.11 Of course, for Aquinas Aristotle’s ‘secular’ table of virtues is incomplete, but nonetheless, as Copleston pointed out many years ago,
Aquinas … did not think that without revelation it is
impossible to have any knowledge of the good for
man…. Grace perfects nature· but does not annul it:

revelation sheds further light, but it does not cancel out
the truths attainable by purely philosophic reflection. 12
MacIntyre holds to the negative view that liberalism is a

instance by the US Supreme Court. But MacIntyre will not
accept the liberal view that the courts provide true settlements, that they constitute what Ronald Dworkin calls a form
of principle, expressing a continuing public moral debate
within a shared moral tradition. 1s On the contrary, according
to MacIntyre, the Supreme Court plays ‘the role of a peacemaking or trucekeeping body by negotiating its way through
an impasse of conflict, not by invoking our shared moral first
principles. For our society as a whole has none.’16
MacIntyre continues the critique of liberalism in Chapter
17 of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In keeping with his
general methodology, he ties a particular view of rationality
and of the individual to a particular view of justice. Liberalism, from MacIntyre’s perspective, holds that society consists
of individuals essentially endowed with wants or preferences.

According to liberal rationality, each individual orders his or
her preferences for presentation in the public domain, rationally translates preferences into decisions, and decisions into
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

actions. There is no public vision of an overriding good. Distributive justice merely ‘sets constraints on the bargaining
process’ between individuals as their preferences conflict.

For MacIntyre there are two tensions within this ‘liberal’

picture. First, each sub-group within a pluralist democracy
has a substantive view of the good and of the theoretical and
practical means of attaining it (its ‘practical rationality’). Yet
that practical rationality is disregarded at the public level of
the liberal order. On the one hand, the substantive question of
the correctness of the sub-group’ s view of the good is ignored.

On the other hand, its substantive view is accepted simply as
a preference. Second, the liberal ideology of justice is egalitarian: all individuals are to have an equal freedom not only to
express and implement their preferences, but also to share in
the means (money, power etc.) necessary thereto. But in
reality the liberal order is radically inegalitarian: ‘power lies
within those who are able to determine what the alternatives
are to be between which choices are to be available … the
range of possible choices is controlled by an elite …. ‘ So liberalism stands accused by MacIntyre of impotence (failure to
right substantive inequalities) and of inconclusiveness (not
‘arriving at substantive conclusions, and more and more …

continuing the debate for its own sake’ P
But should the liberal be dismayed by these charges? It is
held that there is a qualitative difference between liberalism
and earlier ‘healthier’ traditions in that it is uniquely incapable of reaching substantive conclusions about the good life,
lacking a vision of human beings’ dominant ends. Here two
questions should be posed: is this in fact unique to ‘liberalism ‘? And is it not a sign of a healthy, rather than of a sick tradition? A little reflection shows that neutrality with respect to
judgements of personal preferences is not unique to liberalism. Both Aristotle and Aquinas also regarded the individual
as a competent judge concerning his ‘apparent good’ in most
choices. For Aristotle the polis is ‘by nature a plurality,
consisting of individuals differing in kind’. For Aquinas ‘the
community of the political order is made up of many persons
and the good of the community is achieved by the variety of
actions of those persons’ .18 The idea of the common good in
these thinkers is consistent with the fact that there is no automatic identity (but equally no automatic conflict) of interest
between persons. For Aquinas ‘the common good is the goal
of individual persons living in the community …. Yet the good
of one individual person is not the purpose of another’ .19 His
view of the relation between law and morality is not so far
from J. S. Mill’s or Hart’s: the law

tems only in allowing individuals a greater range of choice. If
the natural law tradition arose in a context of greater moralreligious consensus, there is no reason to think that it cannot
be extended beyond it. In its Thomist form the most general
precepts of natural law were already held to be universally
accessible. The seeds of Enlightenment universalism, so much
feared by MacIntyre, are already sown by St. Thomas, as
Friedrich Heer noted many years ago in his Intellectual History of Europe. 21
The charge that the legalistic egalitarianism of the liberal
order is but a mask for the real inequalities of class and power
is simply Marx’s charge, deprived of Marx’s sense of history
and of any coherent political programme for setting things
right. Liberal capitalist societies are indeed radically inegalitarian in just the ways Marx identified in his theory of class
exploitation. But is MacIntyre seriously suggesting that the
societies inhabited by Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas were
more egalitarian? Let’s hope not. He might, on the other hand,
be saying something rather more congenial to certain Marxists’ namely that greater equality requires a sacrifice of the
rights and freedoms of the deceptive liberal Rechtsstaat. Let’s
hope he doesn’t mean that either, for socialism bought at that
price is properly described as totalitarianism. On this, as on
much else, Rawls got it exactly right.

Liberalism, in short, is neither incoherent nor inconclusive
nor impotent. MacIntyre’s own trajectory, from Anglicanism,
through every shade of Marxism and post-Marxism, to his
present resting-place in ‘Augustinian Christianity’, is conceivable only within an order which is more or less liberal.

The string of elite institutions, of different intellectual and
religious colours, through which MacIntyre has passed en
route to the University of Notre Dame reflects the pluralism,
defended by the Supreme Court in many decisions, which he
now sets himself to attack. It is to be hoped that his arguments
do not win the day.

The post-war liberal ‘tradition’ of constitutional rights and
a more or less interventionist welfare state may not survive
the Thatcherite assault in this country. MacIntyre’s idiosyncratic package of anti-capitalism and ‘Augustinian Christianity’ hardly amounts to a political programme to match it. But
it represents an ideological response to the troubles of our
times which has reached a large audience. The thought that it
could be taken seriously will not comfort Salman Rushdie.

MacIntyre would do well to ponder the verdict of Friedrich
Heer, a Catholic of an earlier and more humane generation:

Thomas realized … that Augustine was a genius of dangerously inexhaustible fertility … Augustine’s highly
personal and Platonic doctrine of the penetration of the
divine light into man, the illumination of the Spirit of
God, could be made to support every arbitrary position
held by any self-appointed prophet. 22

does not forbid all the vices from which upright men
can keep away, but only those grave ones which the
average man can avoid, and chiefly those which do
harm to others, and have to be stopped if human society
is to be maintained, such as murder and theft. 20
Now it may be true that the public moral-religious worlds of
both Aristotle and Aquinas were more coherent and integrated than ours. But that simply means that their range of
objects of choice (of mere preference) was more restricted
than ours is. In other words, the range of rival religious
systems or forms of rationality was not the same for them as it
is for modern Americans. Yet those thinkers too encountered
radically different systems, and MacIntyre is an acute historian of those encounters. At some stage of every system rich
in intellectual resources, individuals holding different views
of their own good, and often of the common good, will engage
with each other, will express their views of the good against
each other as preferences, and will need a public authority to
regulate their conflicts. Liberalism differs from previous sysRadical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

His words, now over thirty years old, have an increasing
resonance today. 23




P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Faber and Faber, London,
1967, p. 308.

A. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, Macmillan, New

A. MacIntyre, Against the Self-Images of the Age, Duckworth, London, 1971.

A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, Duckworth, London, 1981,


Ibid., p. 263.

A. McIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, London,
Duckworth, 1988, p. 7.


MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 253.


I. Habermas, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans.

F. Lawrence, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1987.


MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, pp. 342-44.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, la 2ae 96.l.

Ibid., 2a 2ae 58.9.

Ibid., la 2ae 96.2.

F. Heer, The Intellectual History of Europe, trans. I.


Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1985 (Chapter 2: ‘The Forum of
Principle ‘).

MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p. 10.


Brown, op. cit., p. 176.


Ibid., p. 327.

J. Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Clarendon Press,



Oxford, p. 49.

F. C. Copleston, Aquinas, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1955,

MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p. 5.

Maclntyre, After Virtue, p. 252.


R. Dworkin, A Matter of Principle, Harvard University


Steinberg, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1966, p. 155.

Ibid., p. 153.

My thanks to Nick Bunnin for advising me to read Friedrich
Heer in 1967; and to Alan Malachowski and Ionathan Ree
for correcting some of the mistakes in the present paper in

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