It is simply one of the most impressive works of nonfiction I've ever read.
Like only a handful of relatively contemporary works, its combination of breadth and depth in covering a topic that would seem to defy such treatment in a single volume is impressive. Another such book that comes to mind that would fit this bill is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Like that book, one need not buy every detail of the author's argument wholesale to appreciate the sweeping scope of the view offered.
In the case of Macintyre, the view is of the history of how we think about virtue in the Western tradition, focusing particularly on how we have inherited a vocabulary with which to talk about moral theory which is anachronistic and unsuited to our times. That would be bad enough, but the real problem is that we are not aware of how anachronistic it is. The result is that we don't simply have disagreements when we attempt to discuss issues in terms of virtues--that's no problem at all. Rather, the problem is that it becomes impossible to even characterize these disagreements in any accurate way since we have no common language with which to speak to one another, and no common concepts with which to reason about them.
Macintyre charts the changing notions of what it means to lead a "virtuous" life, from Homer, through Aristotle, Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, noting that what counts as "virtuous" changes, and often for understandable reasons. The virtues of Bronze Age Greece, not surprisingly, have only limited value in the postmodern world.
But in our postmodern world, we have an even more difficult task, because not only do previous concepts of what the virtuous life is seem antiquated, but we have no clear foundation upon which to build our own ideas about what the virtues mean now. Our highly scientific approach to understanding the nature of lived human life negates what Macintyre sees as an essential prerequisite to formulating a coherent view of the virtues: the notion of life as a narrative--a story that we tell about ourselves and which is affected by the stories of others. Without a sense of life-as-narrative, we are left with static and/or fragmentary understanding of ourselves that makes creation of any clear criteria of what constitutes "the good life" impossible.
This is an impossibly simplistic and distorted version of Macintyre's argument, which is rich with discussions of philosophy, the social sciences (spoiler alert: the social "sciences" are not scientific), and history. Even more important than the conclusion Macintyre reaches is the path he takes to get there. Even if one ends up disagreeing with Macintyre in profound ways, spending time thinking along the lines he draws is incredibly valuable.
One potential criticism is one that can often be leveled at ambitious intellectual works, which is that it does a better job of describing the problem than offering any concrete solution. Toward the end of the book, one is hoping that Macintyre will lay out in some specifics how two people who, for example, disagree on the issue of abortion might carry out a coherent conversation and even reach a conclusion rather than talking past one another. That never quite happens. While I haven't yet read Macintyre's follow up work to "After Virtue," I gather that while he seems to hold out the promise of following through on this in these later works, it never quite emerges there either.
But I think the disappointment a reader might feel about this, as understandable as it is, misses the larger point, which is that the solution to the problem is fundamentally to understand that there *is* a problem at all. It truly is a case of "the first step is to admit you have a problem." We live in a world shot through with pseudo-moralistic discourse, but which is cut off from any common ideas about what these words and ideas actually mean. Yet we continue to blather away as if these concepts are clearly understood by all. For me, the upshot of the book is that we must be aware of the extent to which we lack a common language with which to speak about the virtuous life. Simply acknowledging this would be a hugely helpful step forward in creating more meaningful, coherent interactions with one another.
This isn't to say that Macintyre does not have specific points of view on how to approach the task of enriching our talk about the virtuous life. Some thinkers (e.g., Aristotle) are clearly more helpful than others, and some virtues (e.g. justice) are of particular importance. But the point is not to offer a bullet point list of steps or process flow chart with which to hammer out any and all moral conundrums. That would be to impose a pseudo-scientific understanding of something that is inherently human, interpersonal, situated in context, and narrative. Rather, the purpose is to make it clear what particular context we, today, are in and how this affects the way we think and talk about the virtuous life. Only by fully understanding the philosophical, historical, and social context in which we live (rather than attempting to find some sort of meta-contextual guide to virtue, be it the Categorical Imperative, the Old Testament, etc.)can we start speaking with one another in a way in which virtue again becomes comprehensible. ...more
Arendt's long essay/short book "On Violence" notes that war has become unglamorous and ineffective as a political force, yet it remains because we havArendt's long essay/short book "On Violence" notes that war has become unglamorous and ineffective as a political force, yet it remains because we have not found an adequate replacement for this. This is perhaps understood as a more politically-minded equivalent of William James's idea 60 years earlier that we need to find a "moral equivalent of war" that will harness the cooperation and personal altruism that war can elicit, but without the horrific consequences that far outweigh the benefits.
Among the many useful concepts in Arendt's book are the definitions of power, violence, strength, force, and authority as distinct entities, despite our tendency to conflate them, or use them as synonyms. Most important is the difference between power and violence, which Arendt suggests are often found together but are in fact opposite in many ways. Specifically, while violence can undo power, it cannot build it. Violence is not simply power expressed in its most brutish fashion.
Also important is the final third of the book, in which Arendt takes apart the notion that political violence is somehow "natural" or part of the human condition.
In the end, it is this idea that is at the center of the book: violence is routinely accepted as inevitable--as a given in human society. Arendt asks us to acknowledge the much more troubling truth: violence is conscious human action. It should not be natrualized or taken for granted or romanticized, but carefully examined.
The book is well-written, yet dense and often casually drops historical and philosophical references without much explanation for the uninitiated reader. Despite that, it is readable despite its often abstract nature. It doesn't leave you with a clear call to specific action, but by openly questioning longstanding myths about violence and its alleged utility in solving political problems, it does a great service. ...more