As a recovering bibliophile, I made a promise to myself to read each of the books purchased in the last decade or two and am now making my way through After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. Despite the density of the philosopher’s prose, reading this book is bringing me back to a place I once knew well: thinking about thinking. I use the phrase not as sophistry but to go back to the years when we wondered just what is this life really about-my life, your children? And why do you and I think the way we do, believe and decide what is right and what is wrong the way we do? Ultimately, what informs our beliefs, values and morality?
While driving home from Mass yesterday morning, I listened to Julie James interview George Takei about his upcoming show Broadway show Allegiance. The former Star Trek actor who played Sulo is apparently a gay activist and during the interview with Julie James, Takei explained his joy at the Supreme Court ruling about gay marriage in terms of equality. Finally, he declared, gays have equality with non-gay Americans.
The notion of marriage between two men or two women is something which both attracts and repels me. The attraction is a basic one and has to do with a fundamental respect for love between any two persons while the repulsion is fundamental as well: Husband connotes man while wife denotes a woman. Referring to a woman as husband or a man as wife broadcasts something radical. When Takei spoke to Julies James about the Supreme Court decision about gay marriage in the context of equality and of rights, I understood what I had not before appreciated.
To the citizens of the world up through about half-way through the nineteenth century, natural law was both the order and the rule. Whether taught as the ten commandments of God or the Torah, Koran or Buddhism, there was fundamental cultural agreement on the order of things, on what constituted morality, ethics and things which could be trusted as true. This was so, MacIntyre informs his readers in After Virtue, because there was agreement on the purpose of human persons: beings with an end, a teleology, a life after this one. In the western world, the world view was Aristotelian or constituting a philosophy called Scholasticism. With the enlightenment in the mid-eighteen hundreds, the break with divine law began as man decided he was autonomous, independent of the superstition and ignorance of the former Christian oppressive ages. And the age of Scholasticism was ended, summarily. Admittedly, these previous sentences are a truncated, almost vacuous summary of MacIntyre’s theory but will perhaps illuminate the reason for the chaos of modern moral discourse, if only slightly.
I recall using those words while writing my dissertation. In describing the era which preceded the ‘modern era’, I used superstitious and magical practices to describe the Christian rites and devotions of which I was completely ignorant and think I can dimly understand how we got here. How we arrived in a culture where all things are considered to be in the context of equality, rights and entitlement, including my nature as a woman or as a man. And that because there is no longer agreement on the origin and teleology of man, of conscience and of morality, there can be no real discourse, merely shrill arguments disguised as discourse.
Alasdair MacIntyre wrote After Virtue as a defense of his anti-scholastic training in attempts to justify his Marxist beliefs. In so doing, he destroyed the first manuscript and began again, in defense of Aristotelian philosophy and along the way, converted to Catholicism.