I’m going to see Alasdair MacIntyre give a lecture this evening. He’s my favourite living philosopher – better than my other faves: Martha Nussbaum, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor. MacIntyre is more radical, and the influence of his ideas keeps on growing.
He wrote a ridiculously ambitious book, called After Virtue, back in 1981. His thesis was that the Enlightenment actually marked a new Dark Ages. When everyone thought the light of reason had been turned on, actually it had been turned off.
That was because, with the collapse of the authority of the Church, we had lost a common idea of the meaning of life, which had previously been provided by Aristotle’s philosophy. We had lost a common telos or end for society, and a common language for talking about the good life.
Various Enlightenment thinkers tried to construct new secular moral frameworks: Adam Smith constructed his theory of moral sentiments, based on our desire for approval and sympathy; Bentham constructed his theory of utilitarianism, based on the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number; Kant constructed his theory of the categorical imperative.
But MacIntyre tears through these theories one-by-one. Smith’s moral theory, for example, turns morality into a performance designed to win the applause of the audience. Being good becomes merely looking good – this is where we are today, in the world of corporate governance and PR.
MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche, that all these Enlightenment moral theories are so many placards to wave or agendas to impose, and that ultimately, all we have in liberal society is emotivism: I am right because I feel I am right. I am right because more people agree with me. I am right because I am more powerful than you.
The only way beyond the morass of ethical relativism in which we find ourselves, MacIntyre argues, is to return to Aristotle, and his idea of the virtues. The virtues are ‘true’ because they fit with our human nature, and guide it to fulfillment and happiness (what the Greeks called eudaimonia).
Philosophy is the bridge between human nature in its raw form, and human nature in its finest form. Enlightenment moral theories failed because they were either based on human nature in its raw form (eg Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, which merely looks at conventional human behaviour and says ‘that is good’); or they were based on human nature in its perfect form (like Kant’s theory) but gave us no practical ladder to get to that perfect form.
Greek philosophy, by contrast, has a biological model of human nature as it is, and a model of how it can be at its most perfect, and a ladder for getting from one to the other.
All well and good. What does this have to do with the movies?
I think some of the most interesting films of the last 30 years are usefully understood through the lens of MacIntyre’s argument. I don’t think the writers and directors necessarily read MacIntyre – in one case they certainly didn’t, because their film pre-dates MacIntyre’s book. But they’re thinking along the same lines, about the collapse of tradition and authority, and the emptiness of liberal pluralism.
The first film is Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorcese. It remains a disturbing movie, because of its dark vision of the liberal, pluralist megapolis, filled with ‘whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies’ (in Bickle’s words), where there’s no common moral framework anymore, where the liberal political elite has become completely divorced from the amoral jungle at street level.
Travis Bickle, the film’s disturbed hero, believes in virtue. He is ‘God’s lonely man’, disgusted with the amorality all around him, and yet also compulsively drawn to it. He embarks on a regime of ‘total organization’: “I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pull-ups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”
And eventually he declares war on the liberal, pluralist society. He writes in his diary: “Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” He buys a variety of guns, and sets himself the mission of saving a child prostitute from her life of amorality. He tries to become a superhero: a man of virtue in an unvirtuous society.
Taxi Driver was clearly a big influence on Se7en, David Fincher’s equally dark movie, released in 1995. The villain of Se7en is a serial killer, John Doe, who, like Bickle, and like the hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, is disgusted by the petty amorality and absurdity of modern life, which he obsessively documents in his journal.
Like Bickle, John Doe decides he will not take it anymore, and commits six murders, each one designed to illustrate one of the seven deadly sins (he is himself the embodiment of Envy).
He is, in a way, a lone Aristotelian in a liberal, pluralist world, showing how far the liberal megapolis has come adrift, and demanding we return to the classical virtues. He says: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example.”
And the darkness of the film is that, while they may not agree with John Doe’s methods, even the ‘good guys’ agree with his thinking: the liberal megapolis has become a place of moral chaos. The film’s hero, William Somerset, says: ” I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.” By the end of the film he has become an absurd figure – a policeman defending a polis he no longer believes in.
The last film, and perhaps the most MacIntyrean, is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The film’s central struggle, between Batman and the Joker, is basically the struggle between Aristotle and Nietzsche which is dramatized in MacIntyre’s book.
On the one hand, Batman is, like Bickle or John Doe, a lone fighter for the virtues in the amoral wasteland of the liberal megapolis. On the other hand, the Joker is Nietszche, trying to expose the amorality, trying to show that just inches below the surface of civilization, we are unreformed animals. He misquotes Nietzsche in his first line in the movie: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you…stranger.’
The irony is that, by the end of the film, Batman has beaten the Joker, but become an outcast, a monster. He has become an Aristotelian without a polis, which means, in effect, that he doesn’t exist – because for Aristotle, man can’t truly be a man if he doesn’t have a city that shares his values. So, in effect, Batman doesn’t exist. In fact, according to Aristotle, none of us really exist, because none of us truly live in communities, only in the atomised fake community of the liberal marketplace. We are all outcasts.
That, by the way, is where Alasdair MacIntyre is: like Travis Bickle, John Doe and Batman, he rejects liberal society, but he is powerless to change it. He thinks the nation-state can never be redeemed, and we merely have to wait for something else to appear out of its ashes. He is a communitarian without a community. He doesn’t exist.