Reading After Virtue

My suggestions on reading Alidair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

Unless you are dedicated in following him through his whole argument on virtue and modern discourse’s loss of it as a coherent category, read MacIntyre’s work in sections:

  • Read chapters 1-3 as an introduction to his project and for his assessment of what is wrong with moral reasoning post-Enlightenment. You’ll find here his critique of emotivism, as well as reason to ponder what moral discourse ought to be doing in society. (And that word ‘ought’ – some interesting discussion of that as well…)
  • Then read chapters 14-18 where he begins to make constructive moves on what virtue is, how it functions in society etc. Practice, narrative and tradition are all discussed here – very important to his overall framework. He also makes his most challenging suggestions for what virtue and integrity in life would be here. The title of the last chapter should whet your appetite for this section: “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.”

Then relax. The middle sections of the book are his reading of virtue throughout the history of philosophy. Unless you are dead set on following him through this, I suggest using this part of the book as a sourcebook for interesting and unexpected readings of philosophy and literature.

  • Kirkegaard & his Enten-Eller in Ch. 4, together with Kant and Hume. In fact, Chs 4-6 as a whole are his assessment of the Enlightenment.
  • Nietzsche and Aristotle in Ch. 9. Aristotle in more depth in 12.
  • Sophocles in Ch. 11 with a nice comparison between Sophocles and Aristotle at the end of 12.
  • Stocism in Ch. 13.
  • Abelard and Aquinas (amazingly, a small role for him! — “a highly deviant Medieval figure”) in Ch. 14, together with an interesting reading of Becket and Henry II.
  • Sartre n Ch. 15.
  • And if nothing else, read Ch. 16 for a surprising and interesting look at Jane Austen (she features at various points, actually). She is the hero of the piece:

It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues which I have tried to identify.

Happy reading!

“We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

I admire Obama’s speech in Cairo yesterday. The quote above was one of my favorite moments, though not the most important in the speech by any means. His gestures toward cooperation, mutual understanding and respect and his ability to speak to his audience, using terms of importance to them and addressing issues of importance to them were most impressive.

Sticking points are still there for me: The distinction between wars of choice (Iraq) and of necessity (Afghanistan) is facile. All wars are wars of choice. And his statements on nuclear weapons are all hard to swallow given the overwhelming size of our arsenal. The analogue to his statement “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other” doesn’t hold for our nuclear policy – we seek precisely to impose on others a vision of how that technology is used that the US will likely be the last to embrace.

For better commentary than mine, however, see Andrew Sullivan’s response, David Brooks, and as usual, useful reports from the News Hour with some American and world Muslim reaction.

I can’t help but notice, however, a major player in Obama’s speech:

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradiction between development and tradition.

Progress is invoked throughout the speech — Obama’s faith in progress seems paired to his faith that mutual understanding leads to a better world. Progress, though, is defined vaguely or not at all. What happens when Obama confidently asserts this idea? Is it clear at all that there is no contradiction between development and tradition?  He supplies examples of Japan and South Korea, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai – but aren’t these mostly shining examples of a combination between development and tradition precisely because tradition has not, in these places, strongly put the question to fast-paced economic development and acquisitiveness? I think he vastly oversimplifies.

I need to find out more about how American law makes it hard for Muslims to practice zakat, but might this stand as an example of how American-style progress and tradition have been incompatible?

If there’s hope to negotiate well between tradition and progress there must be dialogue on the substance of ‘progress’ and any faith placed in it.  This seems to happen somewhat in Obama’s treatment of equality for women in the speech. To advocate at once an unconditional promotion of education and to recognize that a woman’s choice to cover her hair need make her in no sense less equal shows a hint of a dialogue between traditions on what sorts of progress are really good. Exposing the American faith in ‘progress’ to the critique of Islamic traditions would be a really good thing and would give hope for a cooperative and peaceful future even better that an undefined hope in this ideal.

Narrative and accountability

Some challenging (and sobering) corollaries to MacIntyre’s attention to life as narrative.

I am forever whatever I have been at any time for others — and I may be called upon at any time to answer for it — no matter how changed I may be now. There is no way of founding my identity — or lack of it — on the psychological continuity or discontinuity of the self. The self inhabits a character whose unity is given as the unity of a character.

To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is is, I remarked earlier, to be accountable for the actions and experiences that compose a narratable life. It is, that is, to be open to being asked to give a certain kind of account of what one did or what happened to one or what one witnessed at any earlier point in one’s life…

The other aspect of narrative selfhood is correlative: I am not only accountable, I am one who can always ask others for an account, who can put others to the question. I am part of their story, as they are part of mine. The narrative of any one life is part of an interlocking set of narratives. Moreover, this asking for and giving of accounts itself plays an important part in constituting narratives.

— from After Virtue

Life and narrative

From Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting on events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer or the writer; narrative form is neither disguise not decoration. Barbary Hardy has written that ‘we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.’

This has of course been denied in recent debates. Luis O. Mink, quarrelling with Barabara Hardy’s view, has asserted: ‘Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. Only in the story is it America which columbus discovers and only in the story is the kingdom lost for want of a nail.’

MacIntyre agrees with Hardy that we not only understand life through narratives but that life is inherently intelligible and storied. He argues that the elements of narrative are so bound up in life that to separate them out as retrospective impositions is wrong. We hope and plan in the middle of the story, we find things tragic or comic in the middle – how can this identification be made without knowing the end unless narrative is inherent in life? And what would a life stripped of narrative even look like? Can one picture it in a such a way that no narrative cries out for recognition?

I think MacIntyre’s arguments do not justify the full strength of his conclusion. At best he can say that Mink’s position is facile – it may not be logically wrong but it does not account for the complexity of how we experience life. But it strikes me that it is more MacIntyrean not to expect an answer to this question via argument. What is true about life and narrative must be sustainable by actual lived lives. Our belief on the question of life and narrative the quotes above raise must be narrated as well. And which would be more convincing: a life that can coherently trace a narrative of its life intertwined with belief that it inhabited a real (broken, troubled, often incoherent) story all along, or a life that must narrate even the belief it held that all meaning is retrospective as another imposed story? I see a very definite distinction, if I can give no argument for the one over the other.

In remembrance of topology past

I’m so glad this exists:

À la Recherche de la Topologie Perdue

It’s in two parts: I. Du côté de chez Rohlin. II. Le côté de Casson.

I’m inspired to re-title my thesis in homage to some masterpiece of French lit. A special prize will go to the best suggestion I receive, so fire away! If you can incorporate hyperbolic rank-rigidity or homogeneous spaces somehow, bonus points for you.

More from After Virtue

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for the Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless, he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such an understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of life. Thus the question of the relationship between being a good citizen and being a good man becomes central and knowledge of the variety of human practices, barbarian as well as Greek, provided the factual background to the asking of that question.          — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I like how, later in his discussion of the virtues at Athens, Sophocles (rather than Plato) becomes the hero of Athenian moral discourse, for providing a narrated account of the coherence of virtues in society.


I’ve just finished reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes, his book on knowledge of God the Creator. In some of the concluding sections he discusses predestination. Although perhaps I’m passing over far too much in saying this, what was most interesting to me is a word he does not use anywhere in his discussion: sovereignty. (This word, in fact, is rarely used in the Institutes and seems more often used in polemics against Rome than in descriptions of God). Calvin’s first treatment of predestination occurs in the context of a larger section on the providence of God and it is this concept, rather than that of sovereignty, that dominates his analysis.

Therefore, since God assumes to himself the right (unknown to us) to rule the universe, let our law of soberness and moderation be to assent to his supreme authority, that his will may be for us the sole rule of righteousness, and the truly just cause of all things. Not, indeed, that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power — but Providence, that determinative principle of all things, from which flows nothing but right, although the reasons have been hidden from us.   (I.XVII.2)

‘Supreme authority’ is somehow sovereignty, but it is interesting how Calvin steers away from bald accounts of power and toward something else.

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence — not the empty, idle sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. (I.XVI.3)

Towards identifying the ‘Sophists’ my footnotes provide this:

What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in hell. (Sermons on Job, Job 23:1-7)*

I can’t pretend to have a full understanding of what Providence is for Calvin, but it is clear that it is tied to a constant and sustaining engagement of God in the world, that it is directed to the eventual good of the world, that its understanding is tied to a life of piety and should encourage and direct the pious. It is the working of God towards His good plan and the Scriptural incidents through which Calvin discusses it are all placed within a larger understanding of the work of God as just and righteous.

By contrast, compare the approach of a modern apologist for predestination, R.C. Sproul. In his popular defense of predestination, Chosen By God, he moves straight past a consideration of Providence to sovereignty (cf. p. 23), which becomes the predominant consideration in his approach. This is the sovereignty which seems to hang on the question of whether there is anywhere in the universe a “maverick molecule” running around free of the sovereignty of God which might frustrate His plans.

It seems to me that Sproul has reversed Calvin’s approach. Sovereignty becomes the guarantor of God’s plan; for Calvin, God’s plan and Providence are determinative — an account of power over molecules or else plays a role of secondary importance. 

I apologize to all committed Calvinists out there if I am procuring a straw man from the world of contemporary Calvinism. But I find this comparison interesting and instructive against an approach that trades on sovereignty, omnipotence, etc. as concepts ready to be plugged in to a logical argument abstracted from the larger account of God’s Providence within which Calvin sets his argument.

File this under my improving impression of Calvin, confirming my suspicion that some of his later apologists do not do him nearly enough justice. But, lest I give the impression that there is nothing to butt heads against in the Institutes or that Calvin is ever-congenial here’s how he closes the sections on Providence and predestination:

Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture. Those who too insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation. (I.XVIII.4)


* Ockham, Gabriel Biel and Duns Scotus are cited as Calvin’s chief opponents here by my version of Institutes.