- Paperback: 312 pages
- Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press; 3rd edition (March 6, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0268035040
- ISBN-13: 978-0268035044
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 74 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,556 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition 3rd Edition
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The book charts an impressive history of this discourse, its origins in the Enlightenment traditions of Kant and Hume, succeeded by Locke, Mill and Bentham, to the final death knell struck by Nietzsche. Its Nietzsche who could see the absolute destruction of the moral sphere that surrounded him and pulled no punches in decrying it. But this history is too short sighted, says Macintyre. The medieval world view which the Enlightenment repudiated, was the last remaining tradition, one inherited from the ancient Greeks, and more specifically, Aristotle, which gave the world a telos, a final goal for the life of man, and thus provided a framework which could synthesize seemingly disparate points of view and philosophical positions. One could question certain premises of that framework, but not the structural foundations of it. By dismantling the whole structure, he might have gained freedom from the oppressive weight of tradition, but his freedom had no goal to which he could aspire to. He was now free in a world where he didn't know what to do. Its at this juncture of history where the enlightenment philosophers came forward to provide the free man, a telos, a morality which could justify itself on its own terms without depending on theology or tradition. Reason itself would disclose to man, his goal. the great heights of such attempts is preserved in the works of Kant and Hume. But all these attempts failed. None could create a self-sustaining world of morality that could be justified by reason alone. Each had its glaring flaws and it was left to the powers that be to impose its own version of morality, also justified by reason. As time went by, the new oppression came from reason itself as it was twisted and turned to suit various ends , a world Nietzsche describes with horrifying precision in his Genealogy of Morals. So the author asks, was Nietzsche justified in decrying the Aristotelian world ? Was that too an example of power masking itself through a system of morals ? The answer as shown in the book is no. The greek view of morality was fundamentally different from the present system of externally defining certain acts as moral. To begin with, there was no word called morality in the greek society. There were certain unacceptable behaviour but the larger conception of modern day morality was missing. The life of ancient man was structured around a community which provided a coherent frame of action and path which he was trained to walk for his whole life ending with death, the character of which would give the narrative closure to his life. His life was a unity, a self contained block of time with its peculiar struggles and victories which made sense in the larger unity of the society which was the ground for his own existence. Thus it came to be that brotherhood was the greatest ideal of the past, an ideal which gave a kind of solidity to society we have no inkling of. Selfishness was a vice and so was acquisition. A modern liberal educated in ideas of individual success and freedom would recoil in horror at the implication of such a premise.
After the fall of the Greeks, Christianity incorporated much of it in its own moral frameworks, although modified by uniquely christian additions like charity or benevolence. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica provided the most famous synthesis of such a marriage of Aristotle and Christianity. In many ways. the telos or end goal of life remained the same in essence, though the outer character of it changed. It was around the 15th century when the corruptions of the Church and its institutional oppressiveness, forced a backlash from the society, ending its reign as the supreme moral preacher and ushering in the Enlightenment. So why is this history so important ? As the book shows in excellent detail, our problems can be understood as something not unique to our time, but only a later stage in a process which began hundreds of years ago. By understanding this process, we moderns can come to a enlightened understanding of why our debates never end, why we remain confused over life changing issues and what this entails for our fragmented inner lives. The world has been through its flirtations with easy glorification of despair in philosophies like Existentialism, and the great danger today is that the despair itself has stopped being a concern anymore. Art and popular culture has taken over the stage of comforting every searching soul with easy customized and feel good solutions which destroy more than they heal. Its the great accomplishment of this book which is already thirty five years old, that it came out with a hard hitting attack at the post modern celebration of fragmented morality and gave a much needed push to historical understanding of moral structures. Macintrye would go on to write two more books, Whose Justice which Rationality ? and Three versions of Moral Enquiry, completing a trilogy of moral philosophy that remains one of the great "philosophical performances" of our time as another reviewer has pointed out.
Macintyre describes the emotivist nature of modern moral thought, the attempt to relegate moral discussion to a "personal" matter. He argues that this is the nadir, the deep dark hole we have fallen into -- moral thought was once clear and precise, offering real choices. His view depends on Aristotle, and attempts to show the wrong turns of the Englightenment.
The book is sweeping, which makes for some jumpy reading. He asserts some points which he does not want to bother to prove. There is almost a rushed feeling to some of the arguments, as if he wants to get them on the table very fast.
The argument boils down to an attempt to begin a restoration of moral debate, by picking up pieces and polishing the shards. His attempt is to show a historical nature to moral arguments, sited within social contexts, and to show that this in fact offers a strength to moral debate, rather than a weakening through relativism.
If you wonder why everyone seems to be talking past each other, and why moral discussion is nigh unto impossible to sustain, this book offers answers. It is a worthy beginning, or maybe a last diagnosis before the curtain falls. Read it to understand why we are what C.S. Lewis calls "men without chests".