A Great Illiberal American

Alasdair MacIntyre came to America in 1969. He was forty years old at the time, and only a few years removed from the communist and Trotskyist commitments that had been central to his early work. He would not convert to Catholicism for more than a decade, but already he was exploring new lines of thought. MacIntyre would ultimately make his mark as one of the twentieth century’s greatest champions of tradition, drawing on both Aristotle and Wittgenstein, as interpreted especially through the thought of Elizabeth Anscombe. The young communist would end his career as a wizened Thomist at the University of Notre Dame.

What drove this transformation? Are there core ideas or insights that connect the young MacIntyre’s political radicalism to his later work on tradition and virtue? These are among the questions explored in Émile Perreau-Saussine’s Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography, which has just been released in English translation by Notre Dame Press. A protégé of Pierre Manent, Perreau-Saussine was teaching at Cambridge in 2010 when he died unexpectedly at the age of 37. After winning a prestigious prize, his 2005 book has received particular attention in the intervening years from political theorists with an interest in MacIntyre. It offers an overview of his moral philosophy as well, but ultimately moves to a fairly cutting critique of MacIntyre’s political thought, underscored by Manent himself in a foreword that accompanies the book.   

I myself was an undergraduate student of MacIntyre’s in 2000 and 2001, presumably around the time that this book was being researched and written. I found it especially interesting to compare the MacIntyre of my memory to the man Perreau-Saussine found in his research, which were similar in some respects, and in others rather different. This is the work of a young scholar, with broadly traditionalist sympathies. To such a person, MacIntyre’s commanding grasp of the modern moral landscape is simply captivating. I remember this very well. A familiar fascination was clearly visible in the writings of Perreau-Saussine, though not in Manent, who sternly warns in his foreword of the risk of allowing oneself “to be dazzled by such prestigious figures.” (I have a hunch that there may have been some private conversations on this same point.) Some of Perreau-Saussine’s critiques, to my mind, say a good deal about Manent, but are somewhat at odds with the MacIntyre I remember.

MacIntyre is a very significant thinker. I count myself among many who are deeply indebted to him, and not just for his scholarly work. (In debate he is known for being a bit brusque, but he had a bemused tolerance of puckish undergraduates who came to his office with points and objections they wished to press. Don’t ask me how I know.) At the same time, I have reflected before on whether his deep hostility to modernity may, for some, have proven to be a significant stumbling block, not only in the effort to protect the great traditions, but even possibly in their efforts to live rich and fulfilling lives. MacIntyre stands in the modern intellectual landscape as one of tradition’s great champions, but he was never a particularly happy warrior, even though he had a great deal to say about what makes men happy. Anyone who is intrigued by these puzzles will find this book of considerable interest. 

What MacIntyre Achieved

The book’s title is somewhat misleading. Though it is billed as an “intellectual biography,” it clearly turns on the author’s interests at least as much as the subject’s, and in particular, it makes no systematic effort to follow MacIntyre’s thought through its various stages. Readers might be better prepared if the work were simply titled, “Three Provocative Essays on MacIntyre.” The three chapters (any of which could stand alone for a seminar or forum) explore MacIntyre’s politics, philosophy, and theology in turn. Perreau-Saussine is indeed interested in the evolution of MacIntyre’s thought over time. But his interest is driven by particular questions, and especially by his desire to understand MacIntyre’s thought on the liberal order. He wants to know how a Scottish-born Marxist turned into an Aristotelian Thomist, and why throughout he remained so deeply skeptical of modernity. MacIntyre’s decision to emigrate is also of great interest to him. Why did the new world prove more congenial to him than the old? Both Manent and Perreau-Saussine seem a bit affronted by this, which may be a particular point of interest for American audiences.

The chapter on philosophy does make it particularly clear that Perreau-Saussine is fundamentally a political theorist. It fails to capture the significance of MacIntyre’s action theory with the clarity that an analytic thinker might bring to the table, which is a bit frustrating. Still, he does recognize more broadly that MacIntyre’s defense of virtue required a more systematic exploration of the question of what it means to act. The ancients designated prudence as the ruling virtue, but this can be difficult for modern thinkers even to understand; their distorted view of human rationality struggles to connect itself in any meaningful way to the rhythms of ordinary human life. Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Anscombe helped MacIntyre to address this problem fruitfully, and he ended with an account of man as a fundamentally social being who could (at least in most cases) live well only in the context of a community shaped by tradition. Just as language has meaning only in the context of a rich landscape of shared concepts and ideas, so our actions can be meaningful only in the context of a human community and a lived tradition. To live well we must act well, and acting well means acting in an authentically human way, in accord with our nature as rational, social, and corporeal beings. 

MacIntyre understood, in developing his account of virtue, that he needed to answer a range of critics. On the one side, he set himself against the sort of modern rationalist who would dismantle tradition in pursuit of a purer rationality, and a more perfect autonomy. On the other side, MacIntyre also engaged the post-modernists, who agreed that meaning was found only within particular traditions, but who saw these as fundamentally incommensurable and beyond rational critique. MacIntyre was intent on charting a path that avoided both errors.  Understanding that human beings are deeply dependent on the languages and traditions that have been handed down to us, he also held that we are rational beings, with a common nature and a shared capacity to grasp common truths. We often misunderstand one another, particularly if our frames of reference are very different, but communication is not impossible. We have some capacity to enter into deliberation even with people immersed in other traditions. We must reject the post-modernist’s claim that particular traditions are so incommensurable as to be beyond rational critique. This disparages human reason, and indeed the traditions themselves.

MacIntyre has done more than any other 20th-century thinker to articulate a cogent, philosophically grounded account of virtue, responsive to the rival views of his day. This is a major achievement, as Perreau-Saussine and Manent both acknowledge. Nevertheless, Manent accuses MacIntyre of presenting a “mutilated” Aristotle, while Perreau-Saussine asks, “Does MacIntyre really think of man as a zoon politikon?”  If man is properly a political animal, then it seems like some equivalent for the polis must be found. Families and trade guilds cannot offer a complete outlet for this aspect of human nature.

MacIntyre’s French critics want the nation-state to stand as a kind of modern equivalent to Aristotle’s polis, but MacIntyre clearly does not view this as a serious possibility. In the end, then, Perreau-Saussine concludes (with obvious reluctance) that MacIntyre’s Aristotelianism has significant flaws, which he connects back to the utopian political views that defined his early career.

Asking Too Much of One Man

Perreau-Saussine’s first essay, on MacIntyre’s politics, gives readers a glimpse of some of these early writings, while also supplying a thought-provoking discussion of MacIntyre’s writings on community. He notes something I had not reflected on before: MacIntyre is unusual among traditionalists in that he does not seem to write from “nostalgia for tribal warmth.” He does have a real, and sometimes perhaps idealized, admiration for the remote fishing village and medieval hamlets. But there is an austerity to his writing that leaves little space for pleasant reflections on grandma’s hearth. Ultimately, Perreau-Saussine seems to think that MacIntyre’s traditionalism is rooted to an unhealthy extent, not in natural human attachment, but in the same utopian political dreams that originally attracted him to Marx.

This point comes around more forcefully in the essay on MacIntyre’s theology, which develops the argument that Manent most likes, accusing MacIntyre of something bordering on hypocrisy. MacIntyre has devoted considerable energy to showing how the liberal order is, in a sense, predatory, eroding traditions even as it draws on them to form citizens capable of exercising high levels of autonomy. The liberal order, in this picture, cannot renew itself; it builds itself higher by repurposing the foundational supports that keep it standing. Perreau-Saussine, however, sees MacIntyre as committing a related sin by relying on the established liberal order to foster the communities and traditions that he values so highly, even as he excoriates liberalism as the enemy of virtue. Traditionalists of MacIntyre’s ilk, in Manent’s evocative words, “hide in the pores” of the most liberal of liberal societies (America), trusting others to do the difficult work of sustaining the political order that is a necessary foundation for community. 

MacIntyre has a way of stepping into a discourse for just a few moments to throw poxes on everyone’s houses, and this is understandably maddening to many people.

It’s a clever critique, especially since MacIntyre has argued so eloquently that communities formed by tradition provide the context in which a happy, satisfying life can be lived. If affluent, urban professionals are society’s happiest and luckiest citizens, then an argument can be made that churchgoing, childbearing, flown-over traditionalists are the unsung heroes of the liberal order (for as long as it shall endure). But if a Benedict Option really makes for the happiest sort of (modern) life, then perhaps we should be more grateful to the statesmen, bureaucrats, and CEOs, who endure the emptiness and alienation of too-large corner offices and piles of airline peanuts, in order to protect spaces in which tradition-bound communities can thrive. Perreau-Saussine does not really wish to open that precise dichotomy, of course. But he does want to stress the insufficiency of a moral philosophy that cannot really rise to the defense of the political order that nurtures it. 

This strikes me as a very reasonable critique of many of MacIntyre’s students and admirers. Clearly, his anti-modern arguments have been employed by many people to many different ends. But MacIntyre himself is not an integralist, an anarchist, or (now) a socialist. Some of his most clarifying work in this regard was written after the publication of this book, so obviously Perreau-Saussine cannot be expected to account for it, but even in older works MacIntyre does clearly recognize the necessity of finding ways to move forward, building communities that preserve tradition while responding to the needs of the present moment. These communities, MacIntyre thinks, can then serve as a foundation for salutary reform, as the Benedictines did in the Middle Ages. This prescription is admittedly vague, and shows none of the confidence that Manent would like him to show in the liberal order as we find it today. But MacIntyre does acknowledge the necessity of preserving the liberal order in our time, and in the end, it isn’t clear that he is biting the liberal hand that feeds him, so much as issuing some stern advice for what it needs to do to improve its own state of health. 

I think it is very fair to say that the political views of the later MacIntyre are underdeveloped, in ways that can sometimes be dissatisfying. He has a way of stepping into a discourse for just a few moments to throw poxes on everyone’s houses, and this is understandably maddening to many people. Manent, though, effectively calls MacIntyre a coward, “fleeing the fight while claiming to fight on.” This, to me, is far less persuasive. Perhaps the modern nation-state can be an acceptable stand-in for Aristotle’s polis, as Manent wants to believe, but to me at least that point is still in doubt. Maybe it’s not MacIntyre’s Aristotle that is “mutilated” so much as modern society itself. Perhaps he places Aristotle among the craftsmen because they are the modern people whose company the Philosopher would most enjoy. Perhaps we ourselves would in most cases be wise to spend more time learning crafts, and less reading about politics. 

Even if Manent’s view of the nation-state is ultimately compelling, how much does it discredit MacIntyre? He has faced down modern rationalists and vanquished post-modern irrationalists. He offered a ringing defense of tradition in the virulently anti-traditional world of the modern academy. Must he save the nation-state too? It seems a bit much to ask of one man.

Every important thinker has his defining commitments and questions. MacIntyre had a keen sense of the brokenness and fragmentation of modern life, which led him first to communism, and later to Wittgenstein, virtue, and the Catholic faith. Is it wrong to be dazzled by such a prestigious figure? I suspect most young scholars could do worse.