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Alasdair MacIntyre:
An Intellectual Biography

by émile perreau-saussine, translated by nathan j. pinkoski
university of notre dame, 
216 pages, $40

He lived, he worked, he died.” Heidegger’s famously terse summary of Aristotle’s life expresses one common view of the project of intellectual biography. An opposed view holds that every thinker’s work is a disguised confession—a translation into the abstract language of thought, of hopes and fears too deep to be uttered directly. Truth lies between these extremes. A good intellectual biographer will lay bare the threads that connect the creative mind to its surrounding circumstances without suggesting that the one is reducible to the other. He or she must have tact, discretion, and a willingness to let the hidden unity of a life show forth by ­implication.

Alastair MacIntyre: An ­Intellectual Biography was first published in French in 2005. Its author, Émile ­Perreau-Saussine, died five years later, at the young age of thirty-­seven. It is not, despite its subtitle, an intellectual biography. It is organized topically, not chronologically, and tells us little about the mental processes underlying MacIntyre’s public commitments. Why did he join and then leave the Communist Party? What caused him to lose and then regain his faith? Having no access to ­MacIntyre’s private papers, ­Perreau-Saussine was not able to answer these questions. Nor does he seem to have been granted interviews with the great man; or if he was, he evidently got little out of them. This was probably not his fault: All attempts to delve beneath the surface of MacIntyre’s published writings have met with the same terse ­unforthcomingness. “Auto­biographies should only be undertaken by those with the appropriate literary gifts . . . I do not have those gifts,” was his response to one ­interviewer’s suggestion that he might attempt a more confessional form of writing.

This, then, is not so much a ­biography, even an ­intellectual ­biography, as a conventional monograph by one thinker about another. Occasionally, Perreau-­Saussine permits himself some more personal speculations. He suggests that ­MacIntyre’s early leftism was a reaction to his encounter with posh boys at Epsom College, a minor public school in South London. It’s a good hunch—­MacIntyre clearly has no time for the English “gentleman”—but no more than that. A few pages later, he invites us to find deep significance in MacIntyre’s decision to move to America in 1969. “Why would an intellectual immigrate ­into the ­United States?” he asks, with snobbish incredulity. To which one can only reply: Why wouldn’t an intellectual immigrate to the United States? Universities there are lively, hospitable, and invitingly well funded. Perreau-Saussine rightly points out that MacIntyre’s version of communitarianism has had more resonance in the States than in Europe, but he gives us no reason to suppose that this was MacIntyre’s reason for relocating.

On the whole, however, this is a competent and at times insightful essay in intellectual history. Or rather, it is three essays, dealing respectively with MacIntyre’s politics, philosophy, and theology. The first covers MacIntyre’s early involvement with the British New Left. It notes, importantly, that he was always an ethical “guild” socialist in the mold of G. D. H. Cole. He was never attracted either to Soviet-style state socialism or to the sexual libertarianism of the sixty-eighters. (Marcuse is the target of one of his fiercest early polemics.) ­MacIntyre’s conversion to Catholicism in the early 1980s was therefore not the radical about-face it might at first appear. It was a return to the source of what had always been his deepest political and ethical convictions.

A second chapter deals with the philosophy of action and ethics. From Wittgenstein and Elizabeth Anscombe, MacIntyre draws the key thought that “action” is an interpretive category, a way of making sense of ourselves and others, and not a naturally given fact. Imagine a man hacking at a lump of stone. We are then told that he is “carving a spandrel.” Suddenly, an arbitrary string of movements heaves into view as an intelligible whole. But the enterprise of sense-making does not end here. We must further ask: Why is he carving a spandrel? Perhaps he is a mason, employed in building a house. And why do men build houses? MacIntyre’s point is that, in order fully to understand this particular act of stone-carving, we must first understand the practice of building in general. The individual action makes sense only in the context of an ongoing tradition of action. But, adds MacIntyre—and here his thought takes a pessimistic turn—our traditions of action have been eroded by the twin forces of state and market, rendering our practical lives fragmented and opaque. In this situation, we are naturally drawn to a rival account of action as an expression of blind desire—the account we find in Hobbes, Hume, and mainstream modern economics.

Perreau-Saussine’s coverage of this (admittedly dense) field of argument is thin and uncertain; he is, we feel, outside his intellectual comfort zone. Sometimes, he gets things plain wrong. Anscombe and MacIntyre do not think that “­rational explanation is a form of causal explanation.” That is a view they both reject. And emotivism does not treat “ought” statements as disguised orders; that is “prescriptivism.” These are small errors, which might easily have been corrected, but they weaken our trust in the general narrative.

A last chapter, on theo­logy, sees Perreau-­Saussine return to safer ground. The founders of modern political thought viewed organized religion as the chief threat to political stability, inasmuch as it demands a loyalty superior to all civic loyalties. They sought to defuse this threat in one of two ways: by subordinating religion to the secular sovereign (the Hobbesian solution), or by confining it to a sphere that is “private” and therefore harmless (the liberal solution). Yet this “theologico-­political problem” (as Perreau-­Saussine calls it) evokes little response in ­MacIntyre. What worries him is not religion’s threat to the secular state but the secular state’s threat to religion. It is not Hobbes’s nightmare of sectarian insurgency, but Kierkegaard’s nightmare of creeping relativism and indifference, that most preys on his mind. “When the sacred and the secular are divided,” he writes at the beginning of his first published work, Marxism: An Interpretation,

then religion becomes one more department of human life, one activity among others . . . But religion as an activity divorced from other activities is without point. If religion is only part of life, then religion has become optional. Only a religion which is a way of living in every sphere either deserves to or can hope to survive.

This, in a sense, has always been MacIntyre’s endeavor: to save religion from that attitude of mind which would make it just another item on the menu of consumer choices—the “aesthetic attitude,” as Kierkegaard called it. What distinguishes his later from his earlier thought is the conviction that politics in the conventional sense has nothing to contribute to this endeavor. There can be no salvation through revolution. This is the lesson of Stalinism: All attempts to destroy the bureaucratic state must end up swelling the bureaucratic state. What matters now—in the famous last words of After Virtue—is

the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Perreau-Saussine finds this retreat from politics surprising in a self-proclaimed follower of ­Aristotle, the great theorist of the polis. MacIntyre, he notes, has little to say about Aristotle’s political thought and shows no interest in the political Aristotelianism of Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin. But there is no real surprise here. MacIntyre has always refused to identify the ancient polis with the modern state, which he insists is a merely prudential association, an alliance for the mutual benefit of its individual members. Politics in the modern world cannot be a “practice” in his special sense of that term: an activity aiming at the realization of goods internal to that activity. It can only be a managerial divvying-up of resources, or an amoral struggle for power. The modern state’s claim to embody “the spirit of the nation” is a hypocritical ploy to secure the compliance of its members. Being asked to die for the nation state is “like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

The motives for MacIntyre’s retreat from politics are clear enough, then. But is it justified? Perreau-­Saussine shrewdly points out that there is a certain bad faith in voiding the liberal state of any positive ethical value while at the same time insisting that nothing else can take its place. MacIntyre assumes the achievement of liberalism in securing religious peace, but he cannot, or will not, say anything explicitly in defense of that achievement; indeed, much of what he says serves covertly to undermine it. He is—to paraphrase brutally the gist of ­Perreau-Saussine’s ­critique—the spoilt, ungrateful child of the Enlightenment. And this, adds Perreau-Saussine, is why his philosophy has struck such a chord in the United States, the nation of ­Jefferson and Franklin that is at the same time host to a thousand cults and communes. “His St. Benedict is not so much the patron saint of Europe as the spokesman for antiliberal religious communities within the very heart of a liberal state.”

A final epilogue locates MacIntyre’s story within the broader story of his epoch—an epoch that has seen liberal democracy triumph politically yet lose its emotional and ethical appeal. What most people now seem to crave is not the thin air of freedom but the warm carapace of community, “identity,” belonging. “The particularities are arming themselves and sharpening their weapons,” writes Perreau-Saussine. That was in 2005. Since then, the “particularities” have only grown in strength and sharpness. In 2017, Rod Dreher wrote a bestselling book urging American Christians to recognize themselves as outsiders to mainstream society and build up a counterculture of their own, comprising schools, universities, and even farms and factories. He called this “the Benedict Option,” in homage to MacIntyre.

MacIntyre has disassociated himself from “the Benedict option.” But he cannot deny that it is one consequential response to what he himself has diagnosed as the ills of liberal modernity. And this fact seems to me to reveal a blind spot in his political vision. At this moment in time, when the terms “liberal” and “enlightened” are routinely denigrated by both left and right, it is more important than ever to hold onto them as symbols of something precious and easily lost: the possibility of civilized disagreement. “Liberalism” is a much debased word. But rather than jettisoning it entirely, our task must be to rescue it from its own distortions, to bring out its continuity with the best of the preliberal past. We must remember that a “liberal” was originally someone who showed liberalitas, the virtue of generosity, tolerance, and noble forbearance with the errors and weaknesses of others—a virtue little in evidence among most of those who call themselves “liberals” today. Liberalitas was not a virtue stressed by St. Benedict. But it is a virtue we sorely need in our current ­political crisis.

Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University.

Image by Levan Ramishvili via Creative Commons. Image cropped.