- 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 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 75 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,487 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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“After Virtue is a striking work. It is clearly written and readable. The nonprofessional will find MacIntyre perspicuous and lively. He stands within the best modern traditions of writing on such matters.” ―New York Review of Books
About the Author
Alasdair MacIntyre is research professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
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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.
All this to say: MacIntyre writes a moral thriller of great drama and urgency. He writes it with a tactic used by more conventional suspense novelists like Ruth Rendell: give the end at the beginning, then explain how such a bizarre and catastrophic end came to be. Our moral language assumes a universality we do not believe, he argues at the beginning. How have our moral beliefs become so ruptured from (and so much smaller than) the language we use to describe them? That rupture is the history he traces. The setting is the Western world; the characters are philosophers; the plot is the murder of Aristotle. Who killed him? Was it Hume in the Enlightenment with the candlestick? Was it Machiavelli in the Renaissance? Was it Kierkegaard the Dane with a book: Enten-Eller? Was it the Bloomsbury group with their emotivist approach to ethics? Was it, after all has been said and done, Nietzsche?
And, can Aristotle (and his teleological view of morality) be brought back to life?
MacIntyre's style is that of a perfectly trustworthy guide. He fends off more counter-arguments than I could have generated for him in a lifetime. "How is he going to get out of this scrape he's just identified?" I asked myself, and rested in peace that he would. He manages to tie literature, scientific results, case studies and metaphorical examples to his abstractions, rendering his work not only readable but practical.
The narrative structure of the book (its movement through time) is intricate. For perhaps the first time in my (limited) exposure to philosophy, I found myself in suspense. Knowing what happened, I wanted to know, had to know, why--because it is my story, and yours, and the crux of the plot has been reached, but the end has not yet been written.