Are Wars of Religion as Dangerous as Secularization?

Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that action falls within the context of a community. But what happens when the duties of one’s station conflict with each other? How do “communities” relate to each other? What place does MacIntyre grant to international relations? What should we do when communities decide to come to blows? Most often we can rank their demands—for example, subordinating the family to the city, or the county to the region. However, this is not always the case, particularly when it is a question of church and state. This question is all the more important as it is at the heart of the thought of Hobbes, who is the great theorist of atomism and sovereignty. MacIntyre refers to a theory of natural law, thus suggesting that a set of norms transcends cities and enables arbitration over conflicts. But this forgets the gravity of the tensions that go with religions. Machiavelli, then Hobbes, devoted the essence of their reflections to these tensions. Faith introduces into the city an absolute that disorients and knocks awry the course of civic reasoning. The believer cannot compromise without fearing that he compromises his reasons for living. The disagreement between communities quickly degenerates into civil war, for neither “good sense” nor “interest rightly understood” always fulfills its function when salvation and eternity are at stake. In considering that each individual is both unique and of an infinite value, in choosing a God who is both personal and absolute, Christianity proposes a synthesis of the universal and the particular. From a political point of view, however, this synthesis is not without its weaknesses. The wars of religion showed churches preaching war and anathema, exalting their own particularities in the very name of charity and truth. Churches of universal ambition and incompatible credos are condemned to clash with each other. They take up a combative stance, which is to say, a particularist stance.

The religions that preoccupy us, particularly Christianity, are universalist, and MacIntyre himself is concerned to take the unity of humanity into account. Nevertheless, to the extent that religion presupposes a singular faith and revelation, it cannot be confused with the pure universalism of reason. When compared to the Enlightenment’s overblown universalism, Christianity seems like a particularism, and consequently, like fuel for division, like a troublemaker. By way of answering these troubles, the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitanism proposes to remedy the difficulties raised by the distinction between God and Caesar, and by the wars of religion. MacIntyre claims a certain particularity, which is in the last analysis the particularity of the Church, but it could just as well be that of the chosen people.

What happens when the duties community life calls for come into conflict with one another? Above all, what do we do when several communities make contradictory demands? Certainly, we can rank the spheres and subordinate the demands of the family to that of civil society, and these in turn to the state; we can also, through patriotism, rank the different communities. But there are two that we cannot rank so easily: church and state. It was once asked who was supreme, the pope or the emperor. The solution that seventeenth-century political philosophy brings to the theologico-political problem is to reduce politics to the quest for security and to separate it from the rest: in the first place, from religion, then from the economy and society. Separation of the state from civil society, separation of man and the citizen, separation of church and state . . . In placing each man on the level of humanity, in making each believer and each citizen an “individual,” the Enlightenment offers a response to the theologico-political problem. Following Hobbes, who was himself hardly a liberal, the theorists of liberalism call for the sovereignty of the individual and of the state. Thanks to the nation-state, these same citizens conceive an identity that is no longer essentially confessional. Thanks to individualism, these same citizens come to conceive of themselves as relatively independent from their church, whatever it may be. If Hobbes develops a radical individualism, it is in order to isolate man from the duties of his station, in order to offer a solution to the conflict between church and state.

Concerned to join together the right and the good, MacIntyre criticizes the liberal separation thereof. The artificiality of Hobbes’s Leviathan and its legal positivism contrasts with the idea of a community ordered around natural law, as well as with the supernatural community (the Church). To the extent that MacIntyre is a theorist of the rights of minorities, which is to say a critic of individualism at the same time as being a critic of the positivist idea of sovereignty, Hobbes is his adversary par excellence. On what do they disagree? On the importance, the existence, and the significance of the theologico-political problem.

The theorists of liberalism often return to the question of the wars of religion, as if it were liberalism’s deepest source, because there they find a justification for their universalism. By contrast, their adversaries tend to neglect the theologico-political problem, to better denounce liberal universalism. Marxist Christianity, with which MacIntyre was for a long time aligned, thus seems to presuppose the natural harmony of (Marxist) philosophy and (Christian) theology. Marxist Christianity inherits the Hegelian synthesis of Christianity and modernity. The Hegelian theory of objective spirit relies on a theory of Absolute Spirit, which reconciles or encompasses God and History, which is to say church and state. Does God not save human beings throughout history? Is not reading the newspaper a kind of morning prayer, and history a kind of theodicy? In the early 1950s, MacIntyre reproached modern Christianity for its apolitical nature, its tendency to want to build the kingdom only in heaven. Marxism, desiring to build the kingdom on earth, seemed to him to offer happier perspectives, provided that faith was associated with it. At the end of his intellectual journey, referring to St. Benedict, he leaves to monasticism the privilege of symbolizing the successful articulation of the city of God and the city of men. In both cases, the tension between church and state is singularly absent. More generally, this tension is hardly the driving force of MacIntyre’s work. The ancient community can receive two interpretations, which, if they are not contradictory, are at least different—one as polis and the other as ecclesia. The liberal figure of the individual was invented in the seventeenth century as a means to escape conflicting allegiances. At the end of the millennium, MacIntyre believes that this conflict is no longer the order of the day. MacIntyre falls within the British tradition of scholars such as Ernest Barker, Francis MacDonald Cornford, Eric Havelock, and Arthur W. H. Adkins, who understand Plato much more as an enemy of the sophists than as an enemy of the poets. He thus suggests that the poets (the theologians of pagan antiquity) and the philosophers can (and should) make an alliance against the sophists (the liberals).

The theorists of liberalism tend to insist on the individual character of practical reasoning. Most often, they repudiate every authority and every tradition. The Church, inasmuch as it represents an authority and embodies a tradition, appears to them to be essentially irrational: hence the “theologico-political problem.” By contrast, MacIntyre looks to show that individual judgment relates to collective reasoning, taken up in an authoritative tradition. Thus the Christian tradition does not fuel irrationality: as a tradition, it potentially offers a powerful contribution to practical rationality itself. At the most fundamental level, the theological and the political spheres prove to be less incompatible and more complementary. Once a Christian Marxist, now a Thomist, MacIntyre is not overly concerned with the tension between reason and revelation—even though he takes care to distinguish between the reason of the Enlightenment (in conflict with faith) and medieval philosophy (compatible with the faith). A former Barthian and an antiliberal, he is sensitive to the tension between the Church and the world. But in his eyes the theologico-political problem does not have the importance or the meaning that liberalism’s founders ascribe to it.

Historically, the wars of religion called for a fourfold reaction: liberal individualism, the theory of state sovereignty, the cultural homogenization of the nation-state, and the abandonment of the Aristotelian theory of the mixed regime. Each time, the same goal was pursued and wisdom sacrificed to consent. Each time, it was a matter of circumventing the question of community and truth. MacIntyre, for his part, opposes the sovereignty of the individual with the individual’s forms of belonging, and the sovereignty of the state with the existence of a kind of natural right and (up to a certain point) the rights of minorities. He criticizes national homogenization and takes up the theory of the mixed regime, by proposing to temper consent with wisdom.

I hope my reader will excuse a rather long quotation, but the lines below are all the more important as they open MacIntyre’s first book, Marxism: An Interpretation, and thus they mark the general orientation of his works from 1953 onward.

The division of human life into the sacred and the secular is one that comes naturally to Western thought. It is a division which at one and the same time bears the marks of its Christian origin and witnesses to the death of a properly religious culture. For when the sacred and the secular are divided, then religion becomes one more department of human life, one activity among others. This has in fact happened to bourgeois religion. From Monday to Friday one is occupied with earning one’s living. On Saturday and Sunday one relaxes and, if one is so minded, fulfils any religious obligations. Politics, industry, art—this is the kind of list to which religion can be added. But religion as an activity divorced from other activities is without point. If religion is only a 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. For the task of religion is to help us see the secular as sacred, the world as under God . . . Likewise if our religion is fundamentally irrelevant to our politics, then we are recognizing the political as a realm outside the reign of God. To divide the sacred from the secular is to recognize God’s action only within the narrowest limits. A religion which recognizes such a division, as does our own, is one on the point of dying.

The fear expressed in these lines is clearly that of the end of religion, threatened by liberal separations. What is properly religious is unceasingly further isolated, further restricted, and further eliminated. MacIntyre designates liberal individualism as the root of secularization. It seems to him that, under the guise of taming the Church, the liberal tradition comes to make the Church disappear. His starting point is the threat society poses to faith. Yet the starting point of liberalism is exactly the opposite: the threat faith poses to civic peace. Liberalism responds less to the danger that society poses to faith than to the danger that religion poses to the city. If the anguish of liberalism’s founders is religious warfare, the young MacIntyre’s anguish is secularization, the loss of the difference between good and evil. If the custom of decorating books with frontispieces remained, it would be a good bet that some scene of disagreement would illustrate After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Most of MacIntyre’s works and a large part of his articles open with this theme. Whereas liberals start with disagreement as a fact, MacIntyre starts with disagreement as a problem. Disagreement is the political form that philosophical skepticism takes. This skepticism, which numerous liberals take as basic, tends to appear to the believer as a difficulty, or even a defeat and an error. If individual reasoning is participation in collective reasoning, as MacIntyre maintains, then agreement on a custom or tradition proves to be indispensable to practical rationality.

We find here the questions raised in the book’s first chapter. Whereas liberalism considers that forms of belonging threaten the individual, MacIntyre considers that the erasure of forms of belonging threatens the individual. Whereas liberalism protects the person from the state and from tyranny, MacIntyre recalls the importance of participating in something greater than oneself. The insistence on “community” is a reaction of believers against utilitarianism and emotivism as much as it is a reaction against the agnosticism of liberal democracy. In MacIntyre’s eyes, the same individualist danger threatens faith and practical reason. In neglecting his forms of belonging in certain rich traditions, the agent loses subtlety and finesse, and impoverishes his reasoning to the point of reducing it to brute emotion. In turning away from the sacred, the “individualist” believer ends up wrecking the substance of his faith, reducing it to some edifying principles, and becoming agnostic without even perceiving it. Both reason and faith pass through wisdom rather than calculation. Both reason and faith presuppose that man considers himself called to step outside of himself, to be concerned with something greater than himself. If liberalism starts from the conflict between faith and reason, between the sacred and the profane, and between religions themselves, MacIntyre starts from the common danger that individualism poses to the believer and to the citizen: the enclosure in a self reduced to almost nothing and the loss of the sense of the sacred, the meaning of good and evil. From the 1950s onward, MacIntyre’s restlessness situates itself on two spheres: one profane, the other sacred. In the profane sphere, it is the progress of “the consumer society” that has led him to analyze the emptiness of a society reduced to commerce and to ratify the description of society that the postmodern school proposed. In the sacred sphere, it is the process of “secularization” that has retained his attention. Since liberalism domesticated the Christian faith too well, people no longer set goals for themselves.

If MacIntyre relativizes the importance of the theologico-political problem, it is to develop and privilege the interrelatedness of Augustine’s two cities. In The City of God, Augustine answers certain accusations. Christianity is not responsible for Rome’s decline, for it combats the vice and corruption that are the real sources of decline. In his eyes, the city of God refers to the perfect city of Plato, except that Plato held his city to be practically nonexistent, and Augustine shows it realized, or on the way to realization. The Church is the divine instrument that leads civil society to virtue and that ensures the fulfillment of pagan philosophy. Augustine contrasts the city of men to the city of God, but he also shows how closely the two cities are associated: how some of the virtues that the city of men encourages can also help build the city of God, and how the virtues that grow within the city of God improve and strengthen the city of men. MacIntyre follows in Augustine’s footsteps. Against liberalism, which proposes to escape discomfort, anarchy, and tyranny, he counters with the perfection of the soul. He counters the flight from evil with the search for the good.

An activist for the first New Left and a Christian Marxist in the 1950s, by the end of the twentieth century MacIntyre is nostalgic for medieval and neo-Thomist communities. In his intellectual journey, MacIntyre thus replicates a classic schema from the early twentieth century, except in reverse. The same body of doctrine can be reached from opposite directions. Reactionary Slavophilia matures into revolutionary Leninism; Guild Socialism matures into the New Left; and the kind of Christianity most hostile to change matures into the communist mystique. Revolutionaries often reversed the politics of their reactionary progenitors, while preserving their hatred of the bourgeois, of liberalism, or of the West, and their refusal to accept and adapt to the present. Sometimes chronological turning points sketch intellectual boundaries. Very often, the reactionaries of 1910 were the forefathers of the revolutionaries of 1945. The condemnation of liberalism by the Syllabus of 1864 paradoxically favored Marxism. Before Marx, Maurras was considered the champion of the “Christian recovery.” The “red” Dominicans of the 1950s and 1960s had as their masters the Royalist and reactionary Dominicans from the early twentieth century. The worker priests were raised in the school of Action française. The postwar Christian Marxists were grateful to the communists for their hostility to representative democracy. Had they not, as good monarchists, learned to hate it? Rome’s condemnation of the worker priests in 1953 answers its condemnation of Action française in 1926. In France, Christian Marxism is, if not the spiritual son, then at least the prodigal son of neoThomism. Here I shall only note the name of Maurice Montuclard, who between 1942 and 1945 shaped the journal Jeunesse de l’Église. While the first volumes echoed Maritain, the last came to consider Marxism the “immanent philosophy” of the working-class world. Christian Marxists sought to baptize Marx, just as St. Thomas had in his time baptized Aristotle. Thus those nostalgic for medieval guilds became partisans of the New Left, and the Thomists of Action française became Christian Marxists.

MacIntyre, for his part, takes up this path in reverse, undoing between 1950 and 2000 the work completed between 1900 and 1950. To be sure, British Dominicans did not share all the political passions of their Continental brothers. But we should note one exception, one who happens to have played an important role: the Dominican Herbert McCabe. Like MacIntyre, McCabe was at the University of Manchester in the early 1950s. McCabe had long been one of the dominant figures in Slant, a journal of the Catholic left. Both Marxist and Thomist, he effects MacIntyre’s transition from Marxist to Thomist. It was notably under McCabe’s influence that the fifty-four-year-old MacIntyre, after spending a year at Oxford delivering the Carlyle Lectures, converted to Catholicism in 1983 and reconsidered the objections with which he had countered Thomas Aquinas in After Virtue.

The sources of Christian Marxism lie in the conviction that “the modern worker, in order to enter into a Christian sphere of life, is not so much stopped by the spiritual leap from unbelief to faith, as by the sociological disorientation to which the average lifestyle of pious Christians calls him.” The author of these lines, Emmanuel Mounier, edited the journal Esprit, which effects a political turnaround at the end of the Second World War, not unlike that of the Dominicans. Following 1945, the Church seemed ill. Is this not the same argumentation that links the Church to a peasant sociology, a reactionary politics, and an Aristotelian philosophy? Is that not what Louis Althusser, then still a Catholic, wrote at the time, in the journal Montuclard edited? Mounier borrowed his conclusions from the little book by Frs. Godin and Daniel, La France, pays de mission? (1943); the Paris Mission, which was at the heart of the worker priest movement, wanted a response to their book. The fashion for the expression “France, mission country,” generally attributed to Fr. Godin, in fact dates back to the 1890s.

The same fear of de-Christianization is found in the origins of the Thomism of Action française, Christian Marxism, and MacIntyre’s approach. The starting point of the Thomism of Action française, Christian Marxism, and a fortiori MacIntyre, is the threat that society poses to faith.

What is a “community”? MacIntyre merely says: neither an empire nor a nation. But that is not enough. Is it a tribe, a mafia, a polis, a chosen people or a church? This “community” does not seem to correspond to any political form. Properly understood, the communitarian school’s reflections could have as their object the community of believers—Israel or the Church—insofar as it is not actually confused with humanity, in the abstract sense of the term. Taylor and MacIntyre are Catholics. Michael Walzer is Jewish—as is Michael Sandel, Rawls’s most systematic critic. Contrary to what most communitarians suggest, the debate over communitarianism in fact bears on the theological-political problem. Whereas only yesterday liberals defined themselves in relation to the great democratic revolutions of 1789, 1793, 1848, and 1917, today’s liberals increasingly tend to focus on the wars of religion. “Multiculturalism” takes liberalism back to these origins. Incidentally, the contemporary problem is not really that of “multiculturalism,” because one does not really fight or die for one’s “culture”: a “culture” is not properly speaking an authority. One dies as a hero for one’s country, one dies as a martyr for one’s faith. Cultural differences, which are readily exalted today in the name of “identity,” are of very limited interest. “Culture” is a residual phenomenon, what remains of patriotism when the law has disappeared. “Culture” will not do: because if all differences are recognized to be on an equal footing, then those differences are emptied of their content. They become flat, banal, and trivial.

It is noteworthy that none of the principal communitarians who are usually likened to MacIntyre belong to a religion that is the political majority in their country. Neither in Britain, Canada, nor the United States could Catholicism and Judaism claim that status. It is significant that it was an American theologian who was one of the most influential supporters for religious freedom at Vatican II. The contemporary renewal of the Church relies on her awareness of forming a counter-society within society itself. Communitarians belong to religious minorities. As such, they take a certain cultural and religious pluralism for granted—at least from a human point of view. They start from the absence of consensus in liberal regimes, the absence of a recognized authority in moral and religious matters, and the necessity to deal with this absence in other ways than through individualism, relativism, and skepticism.

Why did MacIntyre leave Europe in 1969? Why did he need to immigrate into the United States, into the most liberal of the commercial republics? Beyond the Atlantic, MacIntyre discovered the possibility of not being of his time. European homogenization entails an imperious demand for presentism. Yet, in its origins, America was intended precisely as a land where different temporalities could coexist without melting together. MacIntyre can only align himself with “the liberty of the Ancients” against “the liberty of the Moderns” by refusing to share in the obsession about anachronism that is Benjamin Constant’s theme, in a vein of thinking specific to the old continent. He finds asylum in North America. For there, one can profit from the liberal separation of the state and civil society to critique liberalism, and one seems to be able to deepen the demands of faith without fear of restarting wars of religion. MacIntyre found a nation where the theological-political problem had received an apparently satisfactory response. His theory of the primacy of traditions presupposes liberalism’s success: it comes after liberalism.

Following the Pilgrim Fathers, MacIntyre found in the United States the possibility of escaping the European demand for homogeneity, a land of faith rather than a land of civic-mindedness. His criticism of the Act of Union of 1707 refers to the malaise that he feels before the spectacle of uniformity in European nation-states. MacIntyre can only align himself to a St. Benedict and St. Thomas—who in his bizarre logic are subversive—because he inserts himself into the American political tradition. A good illustration of this is the admiration he bears for Andrew Lytle and Wendell Berry. They are poets and farmers, Christians and proud of it. “Rooted” in Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively, they define themselves as “agrarian traditionalists.” MacIntyre’s America is the same as that which gave asylum to the Puritans of the seventeenth century: the territory not ruled by the treaty of Westphalia.  

Here we touch at the heart of the question of minority rights, or of communitarianism. To foreground these rights is to presuppose that the nation-state, the theory of sovereignty, and cultural homogenization have no objective. It is therefore to say that the problem of religious war, civil war, and war between nonstate communities does not arise.

MacIntyre’s America is the America founded by the Puritans, who from their arrival formed self-governing, self-disciplined religious communities, thus combining the democratic dimension (self-government) and the religious dimension. For this reason, it is America that has never needed to consider that democracy must become secular or anti-Christian in order to be established. Unlike Europe, America remains Christian and practical. North America could be MacIntyre’s political Nunc dimittis. We do not stand to gain if we understand the allusion to St. Benedict, which concludes After Virtue, as referring either to Joachim de Flore, who dreamt of a harmonious city and an “age of the Spirit,” or as referring to Nietzsche, who often dreamt of a new Port-Royal-des-Champs, for which he would have been St. Cyran. We should understand the allusion to St. Benedict as referring to the Puritans, who founded the United States. There is room for a geography of ideas alongside intellectual history. Is it a coincidence that MacIntyre immigrated to the United States and Taylor returned to Canada? In North America, they found nations where the theological-political problem received a satisfactory enough answer to dispense them from further thought.

MacIntyre’s works respond to this new situation, to the existence of antimodern communities within the most modern country. Does not liberalism, in its American version, ensure the durability of traditional forms of sociability, the permanence of particularisms within the most universalist nation? Since “separation” is only possible in the most liberal regimes, it is in the country organized around the thought that is least compatible with his own that MacIntyre seems to have found a form of inner peace. 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. MacIntyre demands a renewal of community life with even more eloquence because he seems to be able to count on the achievements of liberalism. That is why he finally rallied, as if in spite of himself, to liberal democracy. His reflections bear less on liberalism as an art of ensuring coexistence than on contemporary liberalism’s moral and spiritual consequences. He comes to sacrifice the political community to a community of believers that is not and cannot be its substitute.

Does MacIntyre really think of man as a zōon politikon? His theory of internal goods, which is to say goods that we cannot really compare, seems to appeal to an architectonic theory of politics. This theory understands the political art as the art of comparing these goods, of articulating how one relates to another, and of establishing which goods are equivalent in spite of their heterogeneity. But while Aristotle follows this route and considers politics as the architectonic framework within which ends are ordered, MacIntyre leaves only a limited role for civic life. Internal goods are understood in terms of ethics rather than politics. MacIntyre remains indifferent to the neo-Aristotelianism of German origin, which, in particular with Hannah Arendt, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss, looks to the Stagirite’s political thought. MacIntyre draws his inspiration from the neo-Aristotelianism of analytical philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, who are mainly interested in the philosophy of action.

Aristotle makes mores depend on the law: the change of regime or political form is a radical change, which leaves almost nothing as it is. MacIntyre insists that the liberal political system remains dependent on preliberal provisions. It presupposes the mores that it progressively destroys. For him, therefore, political form does not absolutely supersede political matter. His definition of man as a “dependent” animal invokes less of Aristotle’s “political” animal, and more of Thomas Aquinas’s “social” animal. It represents the Christian diminishment of the city of men, and the universalism of the city of God. MacIntyre aligns himself with a tradition that has never placed politics at its center. I will not ask here whether this tradition is true, which is quite possible. I shall merely remark that this tradition insufficiently confronts the questions that the founders of liberalism raised.

Communitarians appeal all the more readily to the community of believers when they know it is weakened. From this point of view, their thinking is linked to a specific context. Outside this context, their remarks would be either obvious or an absurd call to restart wars of religion. Politically, their remarks have a limited bearing. Communitarians can only allow themselves to ignore the theological-political problem by taking the results of liberal democracy for granted. Politically, their considerations are important only for societies that have lost all sense of truth and need to rediscover it. Their considerations are not for societies threatened by fanatics too convinced of their rectitude—these fanatics should be reminded of the importance of civil peace.

It is important here to contrast two generations of philosophers: those born around 1900 and those born between 1925 and 1935. Inasmuch as Raymond Aron, Karl Popper, Arendt, and Berlin pondered the Cold War and the political criticisms of liberalism, so Foucault, Derrida, Bernard Williams, Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Walzer, Taylor, and MacIntyre neglected the problem that the division of the world into two antagonistic parties raised. For this second generation, the pressing enigma was not so much the conflict between East and West as the spectacle of the consumer society within the very heart of the Western camp. Politics is here but a relatively secondary preoccupation. Foucault’s work is typical in this respect. His analyses of “micro-powers” and his studies of asylum and prison reveal forms of oppression more subtle and perverse than those that Marx denounced. His work, in this sense, responds to the feeling that behind the appearances of liberal freedom and of class reconciliation under the aegis of the welfare state, a more radical alienation is at work. Foucault’s or MacIntyre’s antiliberalisms are rooted in a virulent reaction to the climate of their youth and to the questions raised by the critique of Stalinism. This leads them to argue that “for modern thought, there is no possible morality.”

As a young man, MacIntyre wanted to be both a Marxist and a Christian. “If the Christian hope is to be realized in history,” he wrote in 1953, “it must assume the form of a political hope . . . Marxism is in essence a complete realization of Christian eschatology.” Marxism is a kind of political maximalism, and Christianity a kind of ethical maximalism. Christianity has its highest ambition for the person, at the same time as it has a tendency to subordinate civic life. Marxism, by contrast, nourishes the highest hopes on the subject of society, but has hardly any esteem for the individual. With Christian Marxism, which adds the utopianism of the city of God to that of the city of men, MacIntyre adopts the utopia par excellence: more impatient than Christianity, more perfectionist than Marxism.

The Marxist critique of the category of politics can be read in two ways—one revolutionary, the other abstentionist. As a Marxist and Christian, MacIntyre had combined two expectations; having become an Aristotelian and Thomist, he comes to combine two kinds of contempt. Behind his “subversive Thomism,” his “St. Benedict and Trotsky,” it would hardly be difficult to discern the now-somewhat-rusty sign of Christian Marxism, if MacIntyre had not shifted his emphasis. As he came to despair of the Enlightenment, “politics” seems to have disappeared from his horizon. If we no longer believe in the revolutionary ideal, abandoning politics may be the only way to remain in some manner faithful to that ideal. By abstaining from participation in political life, MacIntyre paradoxically remains faithful to Marx’s teaching, even though it is a Marx who has suddenly become pessimistic. In MacIntyre, we find a “politics” and a “philosophy”; I am not sure that we find a “political philosophy.”

EDITORIAL NOTE:  This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming (September 2022) Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Photo of Alasdair MacIntyre is by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame and was taken on March 26-28, 2017 at the Nanovic Institute The Common Good as Common Project event, used by permission of the photographer; image originally accessed via Flickr here


Émile Perreau-Saussine

Émile Perreau-Saussine (1972–2010) was a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and the author of Alasdair MacIntyre: une biographie intellectuelle and Catholicisme et démocratie.

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