Given the failure of the Enlightenment project and the disturbing phenomena of today’s shrill, incommensurate, and emotivist moral discourse, Alisdair MacIntyre has argued that we face one of two options: return to a teleological account of the order of natures or embrace the inherent nihilism of enlightenment anthropology. The choice is between Nietzsche and Aristotle. Which will we choose?
His dichotomy may be questioned, but MacIntyre’s narrative of the breakdown of contemporary moral discourse is compelling, and the Thomistic-Aristotelian movement in moral philosophy he has helped re-invigorate is encouraging. I saw what I take to be an impressive sign of the vitality of this movement at the annual philosophy conference held a fortnight ago at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York.
“Free Will and Virtue” was the theme of this third annual Thomas Aquinas Philosophy Workshop hosted by Mount Saint Mary on their beautiful Hudson River Valley campus. The four-day international conference featured an impressive roster of presenters including Russell Hittinger from the University of Tulsa (“Religious Freedom & the Final End of the Human Person”), Candace Vogler from the University of Chicago (“Intention and End”), and Michael Sherwin from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (“Virtue, Truth, and Freedom”). Notable philosophers from the University of Notre Dame and the Catholic University of America also gave papers.
Aside from the erudite papers, which ranged from free will and determinism to the requirement of natural ends for freedom and love, and the engaging panel discussions, the most striking aspect of the conference was the community, fraternity, piety, and joy that obtained among the seventy-one participants from twenty-four states and several countries. With ample time each evening for conviviality, debate, and “spirited” conversation, the conference carries the baton of the lively Thomistic Summer Institutes organized by the late philosopher Ralph McInerny.
With Mass celebrated each morning and a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration on offer each evening, the conference embodies the mutual enrichment of faith and reason, theory and practice, that typified the life of the event’s patron. The tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of Aristotle’s greatest commentators, was alive at Mount Saint Mary College during those days, a tradition that extends beyond the content of his thought to embrace the form of life that was its font.
The philosophy of Aristotle is certainly in the ascendency, both in the philosophy of science (as noted recently by John Lamont) and in moral philosophy (as noted recently by Jennifer Welchman). There is good reason to hope that, given MacIntyre’s dichotomy, Nietzsche may fall on the losing side of intellectual history. The latest conference in Newburgh, which numbered several recent converts to Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy among its participants, is one small sign of hope pointing in that direction. And that is good news for those, like myself, who dread the alternative.