MacIntyre's Flight from Politics

Pierre Manent

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November 2, 2022
Photo: Sean O'Connor via CC BY 2.0

Liberalism, that’s the enemy! Thus we could summarize the opinion that, in a diffuse and insistent way, inspires the works of those who offer their views on our political, social, and economic situation. At the same time, we agree to recognize that the alternatives to liberalism have lost all credibility. Never has a principle organizing human association been more criticized while triumphant, or more triumphant while discredited. What should we make of this enigma? We need not look for the answer either in the particularity of circumstances or in the universal character of human dissatisfaction. Surely it is liberalism itself that supplies the best explanation of its strange situation in opinion. But how do we conduct this enquiry into liberalism? Must we reconstitute liberalism’s intellectual history? Or its political history? Or that of its social and moral effects, direct and indirect?

All these approaches can be legitimate and fruitful. In Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography, Émile Perreau-Saussine has chosen another. It is, in short, an application of what Charles Péguy called “the method of eminent cases.” Alasdair MacIntyre offers us the eminent case, or culminating case, of a long and complex intellectual trajectory, rich in variations and even in conversions. However, for more than 50 years, his steady core of antiliberal anger has supplied the energy and radiance for his singular and singularly revealing work. MacIntyre’s intellectual biography, which Perreau-Saussine conducts with the necessary sympathy but also without letting himself be intimidated by the philosopher’s often boastful tone, is not only “the story of a soul” (however endearing that may be). It is also the instrument to access a set of political, social, moral, and philosophical problems of pressing interest to us all.

One of the first results of Perreau-Saussine’s enquiry is that it helps us order our past. At first glance, it seems that in the second half of the 20th century, political and philosophical problems unceasingly renewed themselves for each generation. They differentiated according to the circumstances—in particular, the national circumstances. Who does not know that in philosophy and in politics, an abyss separates France and the United Kingdom, or the French and the “Anglo-Americans”? Well, they are not so different! Through the distinctions and connections that our young guide Perreau-Saussine draws, we are made to revisit our past. Both the polemic between Sartre and Camus and the critique of Stalinism on the one hand, and the debate between liberals and communitarians on the other, fall within one large but circumscribed argument. MacIntyre’s work, surely better than any other, enables us to discern this. The existential subject, whether ceding to the prestige of History or stoically refusing to let itself be carried away, exhibits the same fragility as the liberal subject, which is responsible for managing the portfolio of its identities. Yet more essential than good action is action itself. Before “taking a stand” in society and in history, and in order to do it wisely, we need in the first place to recover the understanding of what it is to act. And good action will then appear in the first place as completed action, as that which best fulfills the nature of action. We should be grateful to MacIntyre for identifying the central lacuna in our approach to the human world—namely, our inadequate understanding of human action and our reason’s abandonment of its “practical” register. First, we must understand what acting means!

With the question having been asked in these terms, the answer, at least in its outline, is self-evident. We need to look from Aristotle’s perspective, simply because he is the only author, ancient or modern, to have completely clarified the realm of action on its own terms, with the corresponding notion of practical reason (what Kant calls by that name covers something else entirely). MacIntyre approaches Aristotle through the mediation of Elizabeth Anscombe in particular, who had herself rediscovered Aristotle through the mediation of Wittgenstein, and whose singular personality is well limned by Émile Perreau-Saussine. Here, however, the risk would be to allow oneself to be dazzled by such prestigious figures. On the contrary, Perreau-Saussine is very sensitive to the paradoxical particularity of the Aristotle who is here invoked: He is fundamentally apolitical! We find the strength and weakness of MacIntyre’s approach in his recourse to a philosophy of man as a “social animal,” disdaining real interest in man as a “political animal.”

“MacIntyre is always ‘for’ the subpolitical community threatened by the political community.”

We understand how this mutilated Aristotle comes to serve the oppositional political posture from which MacIntyre has never departed. MacIntyre is always “for” the subpolitical community threatened by the political community that rises in power, and “against” the latter. Very subtly, Perreau-Saussine shows how Andrew Fletcher, the Scottish patriot and enemy of the Act of Union with England, is MacIntyre’s hero and, so to speak, his model. Caught between the sovereignty of the individual and that of the nation-state, the local community—fishermen’s village, craftsmen’s guild, Benedictine monastery—always incorporates the sana pars of human practice, or is the place where this practice takes refuge. MacIntyre’s contribution to the analysis of the life of practice and his phenomenology of the good as “internal” to a practice (therefore incommensurable with the criteria of “money” or “rights”) are often highly incisive. But what is the ultimate validity of a conception of the human world that, in the name of practice, evacuates the human world of its political part?

Perreau-Saussine emphasizes that MacIntyre, in this respect as un-Aristotelian as possible, is interested neither in political form nor in political regime. He roundly condemns the nation-state, even though the political framework in which European man organized his life for many centuries surely merits more than some brisk expressions of contempt. There is no trace in the philosopher’s work of the Aristotelian debate on political justice, holding in tension the demands of a small number and those of a great number. Incidentally, he feels only repugnance for the Aristotelian portrait of magnanimity. As Perreau-Saussine rightly says, MacIntyre broaches political questions guided by the Nicomachean Ethics alone and after having essentially rejected his Politics. He also keeps very little of the Ethics itself. As Perreau-Saussine indicates, this is because MacIntyre is in fact hardly interested in the particular virtues and distinctions of which Aristotle offers an unrivaled description. Rather, for MacIntyre the heart of practical life is the practice of craftsman or skilled worker, on the condition that this practice might be transformed into a habit or a tradition. Certainly, Aristotle makes a great use of “technical” comparisons in his analyses of practical life, but here, the comparison tends to obscure the matter in question. We are therefore very far from Aristotle, but very close to an author such as Michael Oakeshott. I believe Perreau-Saussine does not mention him. But while Oakeshott’s social sensibility is opposed to that of MacIntyre—Oakeshott is just as “refined,” even “genteel,” as MacIntyre claims to be “plain”—Oakeshott analyzes “human conduct” on the model, for example, of the transmission of culinary competences. And in these two cases, the stress placed on the spontaneous or natural transmission of practices endangers the integrity and the validity of reason.

Aurel Kolnai sees a sort of perverse affectation in the way Oakeshott, so to speak, immerses human life in “idioms of conduct,” above which it is impossible to raise one’s head to access something like common reason or rational debate. But Oakeshott does not purport to struggle against moral relativism, which constitutes one of MacIntyre’s principal intentions, perhaps the principal intention. MacIntyre’s intention is undoubtedly rationalist, and his aversion to certain deep practical irrationalities of the liberal world is often expressed in a gripping and liberating way. But how does he intend to depart from relativism or heal us, as we, though sick, are happy? By recourse to traditions, or to some single tradition of moral enquiry? MacIntyre is right to emphasize that the development of a refined practical rationality presupposes the continuity of a tradition. However, he risks mistaking the condition for practical rationality with the substance of practical rationality. MacIntyre does not ignore that it is, so to speak, a perennial experience that a tradition ossifies and loses itself. A tradition “forgets its origins” (as Edmund Husserl says) if it is not periodically shaken by ruptures with the tradition. Perhaps one such rupture, several generations later, will without scandal become part of the tradition that it had attacked. But in the end, at every moment in time, the question posed to us within each tradition is not only whether the tradition coheres but also whether it coheres with the truth of human phenomena.

This is again a point where MacIntyre essentially distances himself from Aristotle. For Aristotle, the opinions of the city and the traditions of the city are only the point of departure for enquiry. This enquiry should lead us beyond the opinions and traditions of the city, which is to say outside of the city itself. It does not seem that MacIntyre feels the slightest need or desire to accomplish this movement of rupture. He does not dream of exiting the cave, as long as the cave is unpretentious and lit by candle-light. If we have really lost all sense of practical rationality, if even the most venerable institutions—the universities and the churches—are but shadows of themselves, as MacIntyre himself readily recognizes, in which tradition can we find ourselves again, since the traditions are precisely what is lost? Are we not, so to speak, condemned to search for the truth with elements detached from all traditions and accessible to the rational animal as such? Would these not be a matter of searching for truth in the human experience, approached either through a “phenomenology” or through the “great books” of the philosophical tradition, which are custodians for the tradition of rupture with the tradition?

We understand that after many “variations,” MacIntyre finally converted to Catholicism. The Catholic conception of “The Tradition” more or less combines with MacIntyre’s conception of the tradition, if at least we avoid emphasizing the rigorous Catholic distinction between supernatural revelation and natural reason—natural reason being the enquiring faculty that is naturally accessible to every human being as such and that is capable of elaborating a “natural theology.” Perreau-Saussine’s development of the religion question makes up the book’s most original and rich sections. We can read in particular a luminous explanation of how the enemy of liberalism happily settled in the country that is the liberal country par excellence, the United States of America. And this explanation of an “eminent case” clarifies this very complicated question of the religious and moral difference between the two sides of the Atlantic, which is very important for us politically today. Let me quote several lines from it:

Why did MacIntyre leave Europe in 1969? Why did he need to immigrate into the United States, into the most liberal of the commercial republics? Beyond the Atlantic, MacIntyre discovered the possibility of not being of his time. European homogenization entails an imperious demand for presentism. Yet, in its origins, America was intended precisely as a land where different temporalities could coexist without melting together. … His theory of the primacy of traditions presupposes liberalism’s success: It comes after liberalism. …. MacIntyre’s America is the same as that which gave asylum to the Puritans of the 17th century: the territory not ruled by the treaty of Westphalia.

So MacIntyre escaped from the powerful by taking refuge in the world’s most powerful country, from money by taking refuge in the richest country, and from the nation-state by taking refuge in the last nation-state of the West. But this is because, like a Thomist of another school before him, Jacques Maritain, MacIntyre discovered in America all the possibilities and virtues of the social, active, working, and benevolent man, who is always conscious that he depends on his fellow citizens as his fellow citizens depend on him. Living in one of the innumerable social segments into which American democracy is subdivided, we can forget that money, like rights, homogenizes incommensurable things. We can forget that the individual, like the state, claims a ruinous and otherwise unintelligible sovereignty. We can forget liberalism.

“This is to flee combat while claiming to still fight on.”

Émile Perreau-Saussine’s book establishes with perfect clarity the merits and the limits of Alasdair MacIntyre’s return to Aristotle, and more generally perhaps of the Anglo-American Aristotelianism derived from Thomism and Wittgensteinianism. To this school, we owe penetrating analyses of practical life. But these analyses remain condemned to a certain abstraction, because they refuse to consider the real concretizations of action, which always have a political mark or coefficient. This school is, in short, an “Aristotelianism of the opposition.” It leaves the great city in the power of practical heresies, and to be happy, it takes refuge in the pores of liberal society—as, in the Middle Ages, according to Marx, commerce took refuge in the pores of feudal society. But this is to flee combat while claiming to still fight on.

The critique of liberalism that would only define it by its errors lacks plausibility. We need to explain a bit why liberalism is still stronger than our good Aristotelian reasons. Or, Perreau-Saussine suggests, might this be because we confuse liberal politics with its most abstract philosophical formulations, or with its most ideological political formulations? Instead of lodging Aristotle in the quarter of the artisans, forbidding exit, why not remember that he is more interested in those who command than in those who obey, simply because only those who command can develop all the virtues, and in particular the supreme virtue of practical life that is prudence? The great liberal statesmen probably did not lack prudence. Today, furthermore, with the European nation-state weakening and perhaps soon disappearing, we can better recognize how much it resembles the Greek city: in its dynamism, in some of its wellsprings, and in the modality of its decline! No tradition protects us against the death of political forms and the disappearance of the practices they harbor. The only thing that does not die is the intellect’s comprehension of things. Such is the teaching of Aristotle that MacIntyre would call prideful.