The contemporary aversion to philosophy – and to most philosophers, come to think of it – has the same emotional foundation as the contemporary aversion to poetry. Sarah Hoyt once wrote that the decline of civilization begins with open-mic poetry nights. She had an excellent point. It would apply with equal force to open-mic philosophy nights, if there are such things. (God be thanked if there aren’t.)
But as Ayn Rand suggested in Atlas Shrugged, and later expanded on in her nonfiction writings, there are worthwhile philosophies, both wholesome and sound. (Yea verily, there are even ones for which we needn’t learn Latin or Greek.) They’re distinguishable from their worthless competitors in several ways, perhaps the most important of which is this: they accept the absolute character of virtue.
Virtue is the antithesis of relativism. It is not a set of values or preferences. The word cannot have a sensible meaning without referring to absolutes. Thus, a relativist philosophy, which denies the existence of absolutes, cannot grapple sensibly with what virtue is and is not. The majority of contemporary philosophy-grinders evade the question “What are the virtues?” entirely.
Roger Kimball has posted an essay on one of today’s worthwhile philosophers: Alasdair MacIntyre, and his book After Virtue: A Study In Moral Theory. The essay itself is excellent, but the book is the point. Kimball leads the reader through MacIntyre’s steadily evolving worldview. He started out as a doctrinaire Marxist, but observation, thought, and study led him to Aristotle, thence to St. Augustine of Hippo, and finally to St. Thomas Aquinas, to become a Catholic – largely through his pondering of the nature of virtue. A snippet from Kimball’s essay:
Previously best known for his combative, Marxist-inspired ruminations on liberalism, ideology, and religion, MacIntyre now said goodbye to all that—well, goodbye at least to his old militancy—and came to the “drastic” conclusion that Marxism was every bit as bankrupt as liberal individualism. One no longer found him arguing, as he did in Marxism and Christianity (revised edition, 1968), that Marxism is “the historical successor of Christianity” and the only philosophy “we have for reestablishing hope as a social virtue.” By the time he wrote After Virtue, MacIntyre had decided that Marxism and liberalism both embodied “the ethos of the distinctively modern and modernizing world, and nothing less than a rejection of a large part of that ethos will provide us with a rationally and morally defensible standpoint from which to judge and to act.”
MacIntyre’s intellectual-moral journey puts me in mind of another great intellect, Soren Kierkegaard, who passed through fascinations with metaphysics, epistemology, and esthetics, finally to focus on Christianity and its moral-ethical code. The parallels between their paths to the understanding of virtue suggest that great minds really do think alike. We of today would be well advised not to be quick to dismiss the thought of those who have gone before us. Few of us are as bright as they…or, for that matter, as we think we are.
Interestingly, American Greatness bills Kimball’s essay as “political philosophy,” though I can find no political assertions in it. Read it and decide for yourself.
I’ve acquired a copy of MacIntyre’s book and will be studying it in the days to come. Expect occasional mention – perhaps even frequent mention – of the thoughts it stimulates, in these pages.