- 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 0.5 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,892 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, a self-proclaimed Aristotelian, ultimately argues that Aristotle was wrong in his approach to morality, but that his arguments can be (are) broken down and restated to express a proper view. Basically, MacIntyre corrects Aristotle and helps us understand modern morality and the faults of arguments therein. This is an eye-opener; however, now thirty-four years since its first publication, it seems we still have a long way to go from academia to expressing these things in a way that pragmatically appeals to the general populous in order to make any kind of real change in the way we approach morality, virtue, and governance by way of such arguments.
I think I am right to assume this isn’t going to be on most people’s reading list, and even fewer will get excited enough about the material to do anything with it. So, I am going to make specific recommendations with this one. If you are or anticipate finding yourself working in any of the following fields, read and wrestle with this book: ethics, law, philosophy, politics, theology.
The answer, I'm pleased to say, is that MacIntyre, like most really good philosophers and poets, improves as one deepens intellectually. This book is accessible enough that I'm going to teach it without fear, yet its central theses, concerning tradition and the shape of modern moral thought, continue to challenge me.
MacIntyre's central call is for moral philosophy to remember the historical and the social. For help with the latter he enlists Aristotle, whose conception of arete is always couched in the inescapably social nature of human existence. But he does not merely parrot Aristotle but marshals resources from medieval thinkers to introduce a sense of history to the Aristotelian project, insisting that being a proper Aristotelian means developing the historical sense that Aristotle himself lacked.
Returning to this book has been nothing short of joyful, and I recommend without reservation a journey with MacIntyre to anyone interested in thinking about the social, historical, ethical complexity of human life.