PoW: On revolutionary Aristotelianism

One of the most influential modern philosophers is the Neo-Aristotelian Alasdair MacIntyre, who helped kick-start the revival of virtue ethics and the politics of flourishing in contemporary political thought. He is cited everywhere: in the MP Jon Cruddas’ call for Labour to embrace a ‘politics of virtue’, in Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, in Philip Blond’s Red Toryism and the Big Society, even in David Brooks’ dubious brand of neuro-politics.

Sadly for us Brits, MacIntyre left these shores several years ago to teach at the University of Notre Dame, home of many other eminent specialists in Catholic philosophy (MacIntyre calls himself a Thomist Aristotelian, meaning that he prefers Thomas Aquinas’ version of Aristotelianism to Aristotle’s version). But today, we got a rare chance to see him talk, at the London Metropolitan University, where he was promoting a new collection of essays by him and other academics called Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism.

I asked him what he thought of the many different contemporary thinkers, like Glasman, Blond and Brooks, who cite both Aristotle and himself for their various political programmes – and what he thought a contemporary Aristotelian politics should look like.

He replied: ‘What Aristotle provided us with is a scheme in which to understand the existence and attainment of individual and common goods. When we look at contemporary societies, we see that they don’t achieve these common goods. Why don’t they? If Aristotle is right, then something has gone horribly wrong. If something hasn’t gone horribly wrong with contemporary societies, then Aristotle is irrelevant. The people you mentioned think something must be done in contemporary societies, but they don’t think the change should be root-and-branch. The thinker who did understand the need for root-and-branch change was that great Aristotelian, Karl Marx. He provides the first and best account of what prevents an Aristotelian society.”

After the talk I had a look at MacIntyre’s interesting opening essay in Virtue and Politics, which is called ‘How Aristotelianism can become revolutionary.’ He writes that several institutional aspects of contemporary society make a genuine politics of human flourishing very difficult today. Firstly, the nature of modern life leads to the compartmentalization of the self into several different roles, each with their different moral agendas (you could be a different person with different values at work to who you are at home, for example, like Wemmick in Great Expectations), which obstructs the Aristotelian question of what is the good life for me as a whole person.

“The question substituted [MacIntyre writes] is ‘what do I feel about my life?’ or ‘Am I happy or unhappy?’ One consequence of this is that we have now in academic life a growing happiness industry…[But] what matters is not so much whether people do or do not feel happy about their lives, but whether they have good reason to feel happy or not about them. Most important of all, this focus on psychological states once again gets in the way of asking Aristotelian questions.”

Secondly, the capitalist economy gets in the way of asking Aristotelian questions about the good life. “We inhabit a social order in which a will to satisfy those desires which will enable the economy to work as effectively as possible has become central to our way of life, a way of life for which it is crucial that we desire what the economy needs us to desire. What the economy needs is that people become responsible to its needs rather than their own, and so it presents as over-ridingly desirable those goals of consumption and ambition, the pursuit of which will serve the economy’s purposes. The desires to achieve these goals, when they become central to our lives, prevent us from becoming self-critical about our desires, and so prevent the asking of Aristotelian questions about character and desire.”

Thirdly, modern capitalist economies lead to “conditions of gross inequality: inequality of money, inequality of power, inequality of regard, and it is an undeniable fact that even the most successful examples of growth in the present globalised economy generate further inequalities. Aristotle pointed out long ago that a rational polity cannot tolerate too great inequalities, because where there are such, citizens cannot deliberate together rationally. They are too divided by sectional interests so that they lose sight of the common good.”

So what does that mean for us today? If our society requires a root-and-branch revolution for us to achieve our basic individual and common goods, does it necessitate some kind of mass revolutionary organization like the Communist Party? MacIntyre’s vision is more local:

“Everything turns on the kind of projects in which plain people may get involved. Here I can give only one example, but there are many others. From time to time, it becomes possible in some local community either to bring into being a new school or to remake some existing school so it can provide an education for the children of that community. If such an opportunity arises, it is sometimes possible for parents, teachers, and other interested members of the community to become involved, and to participate in discussion and decision-making. In so doing, they become unable to avoid such questions as ‘what kind of school do we construct for our children?’, and ‘what do we want our children to learn?’ We also have to ask ‘what do we take the goods of childhood to be?’, and ‘how, in achieving the goods of childhood, can our children be prepared to achieve later on the goods of adult life?’

MacIntyre goes on that, when you try to set up this sort of project, “you find almost immediately that you encounter the systematic resistance of the representatives of the larger social and economic structures…When we try to achieve the human good there is going to be entrenched resistance to it.”

“You will be told by those who represent established power, the kind of institutions you are trying to create and sustain are simply not possible, that you are unrealistic, a Utopian. It is important to reply by saying, yes, that is exactly what we are – this Utopianism of those who force Aristotelian questions upon the social order is a Utopianism of the present, not of the future…The present is what we are and have, and the refusal to sacrifice it has to be accompanied by an insistence that the range of present possibilities is always far greater than the established order is able to allow for. We need therefore to acquire transformative political imagination, one that opens up opportunities for people to do the kind of things they had hitherto not believed they were capable of doing, and this can happen when someone becomes involved for the first time in community organizations and actions, when parents become involved in some community that sustains their children’s school in the inner city, or when unorganized workers struggle to create a union, or when immigrants become involved in forms of communal enterprise that enable them to resist attempts to treat them as no more than a disposable labour force.”

Interesting stuff eh? Sorry for such long quotes, but this won’t be reported anywhere else so I thought it worth simply passing on. I like his idea of a revolutionary politics of flourishing very much – but I also see a lot of room for multiple competing interpretations of this politics of the common good. For example, Toby Young might think he is a revolutionary Aristotelian when he tried to set up a free school in his community, while the National Union of Teachers see such efforts as attempts to undermine their own status as organized workers. And a committed Marxist might dismiss all these local efforts as ineffectual without a broader global vision of justice. We might quote MacIntyre back at him, and accuse him of making small local changes within capitalist society without any systematic programme for ‘root-and-branch’ reform. In any case, much to think about.

In other news (very briefly):

Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology and a sort of Aristotelian, is giving a talk at the RSA on 6th July on his new book, Flourish.
Filip Matous and I from the London Philosophy Club spent the weekend at the How The Light Gets In festival, and ran a workshop on Street Philosophy. Thanks to everyone who came along, we really enjoyed it.

The Philosophy Shop, which teaches philosophy in schools, is holding an event at the LSE on the 23rd of this month, with Anthony Seldon, Philip Blond, and Angie Hobbs talking.

One way that philosophy gets taught in schools, outside of the curriculum, is through the Gifted and Talented scheme for extra-curricular studies. I am sorry to hear (rather belatedly), that the scheme has been scrapped last year. Apparently there is now no money for state-schools to run extra-curricular classes (thanks to the banks), although academies still have both the cash and the curricular flexibility to bring in extra classes in things like philosophy.

I wonder if there is a way to secure private funding (eg from banks and hedge funds) for extra-curricular classes for state schools (rather than just academies)? Or perhaps what is needed is simply an organization that puts in touch people who want to volunteer with schools looking for visiting speakers. Apparently Evan Davis of the BBC is looking to set up this sort of network. If anyone knows more about it, I’d love to hear.

Finally, here’s a nice piece in the Bookseller, announcing the deal I have finally secured for my first book, Philosophy for Life. It’s with Rider Books, an imprint of Random House. Thanks to my new agent, Jon Conway, for getting me the deal. I also owe a lot to the commissioning editor at Rider, Sue Lascelles, who read my manuscript when I sent it in to The Literary Consultancy and paid them to read it and give me feedback. Sue, who freelances as one of the TLC’s readers, read my proposal, gave me some great feedback, and said she thought Rider Books might be interested in it. A few weeks later, she had got me a deal with Rider, and she’ll be editing my book over the next few months before publication in May 2012. Thanks Sue, and thanks to TLC, who I highly recommend for those authors struggling to get an agent or a deal.

See you next week,



  • This seems really thought-provoking, but MAN is it over my head after just one read. I'm going to have to print this out and reread it until it makes sense, because I really feel there's some great stuff here. May even pick up that book of essays.

    Thanks for this.

  • Gary says:

    "modern capitalist economies lead to "conditions of gross inequality: inequality of money, inequality of power, inequality of regard, and it is an undeniable fact that even the most successful examples of growth in the present globalised economy generate further inequalities."

    It's not modern capitalist economies that lead to inequality. It's state-controlled capitalism that leads to wealth inequality, and Statism that leads to power inequality. The most successful examples of growth – India, Brazil, China – are the direct result of allowing economic freedoms and respecting individual property rights.

    China, India and Brazil have together brought over 300 million people out of poverty since they allowed simple economic freedoms, began to trade internationally, privatised services and deregulated industries. It is a human tragedy that Britain now controls more of the British economy than China does of the Chinese economy when you consider that 450,000 young men and women died in World War II fighting against socialism. Today, around 22% of the UK population lives in relative poverty compared to 10% in China.

    What's good for society can only rationally be what is good for individuals, for society is just a group of individuals. Those who believe in the benevolence of Government believe that coercion (taxation/regulation/legislation/unions) and the use of force (police) leads to virtue on a social scale even though it self-evidently does not lead to virtue on an individual scale, in our everyday lives. This is clearly a contradiction.

    In little more than 400 years the American Government has gone from being the smallest (and most restricted) to the largest in human history. The State has become so pervasive and insidious that it is now destroying the very economic freedoms that fuelled its rapid growth, and, worst of all, it's destroying the individual freedoms that were supposed to be protected by The Constitution. Right now, the American people are the least free they've ever been, almost half the population is dependent on food stamps, and the national debt is the futures of a couple of generations worth of children. America as an economy, as a society, is dying.

    It's very likely that in the next few years the world will witness either hyper inflation in American or the U.S. government defaulting on the monopoly-money-trillions they owe China et al. This was inevitable. You can't keep printing worthless paper money and borrowing against it. At some point the scam has to come crashing down. It's very likely this will happen to several other Governments too. For they are all built on fiat currencies, paper money, that only has 'value' because of a threat of violence.

    How will people react when the Government says, "sorry we don't have any more money", when it can't pay their pensions or their benefits any longer? Only time will tell. And it's likely we won't have to wait very long to find out.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hey Ricky Raw

    Yeah, MacIntyre isn't always the easiest read but he is pretty interesting.

    Basically, Aristotle thought that the good society is one in which humans achieve their full potential or flourishing. His idea – that politics should try and achieve as much flourishing as possible – is very popular in modern politics.You see it being cited all over the place.

    But what MacIntyre is arguing is that the way our society is built today makes it almost impossible to have an Aristotelian society – particularly because of capitalism, because of its restless consumerism, and because of the inequalities it creates. (You may disagree with this take on capitalism, but its what MacIntyre argues).

    The question then becomes how would you resist the present economic and social order and move towards a more Aristotelian society based on human flourishing?

    MacIntyre seems to contradict himself – when I asked him what he thought should be done, he said we needed 'root and branch reform', or perhaps an actual revolution. But in his essay, he argued for smaller, local activism. He gives some examples of what he has in mind: parents setting up a local school, fishermen creating their own 'community of the virtues', even a circus!

    I think whats interesting about him is that he is an inspirational figure for a lot of modern policy thinkers. But he's actually a lot more radical than they are.

    All best


  • Kim says:

    Just thought I'd post a link to the book that was actually being launched at the conference http://undpress.nd.edu/book/P01462 for anyone interested in this topic

  • Peter Wicks says:

    It's not important for the content of what you're saying, but it's not true to say that MacIntyre left the U.K. to teach at Notre Dame. His first non-visiting appointment in the U.S. was at Brandeis and he held appointments at Boston University, Wellesley, and Vanderbilt before moving to the University of Notre Dame. He left for the U.S. in 1970 and took up his first professorship at Notre Dame (he has held two) in 1988.

    "We might quote MacIntyre back at him, and accuse him of making small local changes within capitalist society without any systematic programme for 'root-and-branch' reform."

    But that's hardly an accusation since MacIntyre has been quite explicit that he doesn't have a systematic program for root-and-branch reform. Indeed, he's argued at considerable length that there is no prospect for a viable program of large-scale root-and-branch reform. Of course, you may find those arguments unpersuasive, but personally I think it would be extremely hard to combine his diagnosis of contemporary politics with any large scale-reformist program.

  • Michael says:

    I would have loved to have been able to attend this, but I think at the time it was happening I was just becoming familiar with MacIntyre.

    I discovered him during the end of my second year at university. I had large number of questions that had built up during my first two years- some- like the question of “which good” is the correct one for orientating politcs and ethics and how one comes to a decision about it- prompted by the course and some prompted by the enviroment (such as, the problem of conviction- I believe something in part because I was raised to believe it, because my environment had a part in informing my convictions. I take myself to be rational but how can I be sure of this, given the influence of environment on my beliefs? And in fact how can I be sure the same is true of my peers and teachers?).

    I think I’d stumbled upon a review of After Virtue and thought that it’d looked interesting. I could have scarcely have guessed I would have found something that answer most of these questions.

    The lack of a clear systematics program for change is the most frustrating part of being a MacIntyrean. Partially its because his reform absolute craps on the idea of the possibility of either:

    1) Their being the possibility of a rational discourse with non-Aristoleans, given that the idea of rationality is the very idea under dispute.
    2) The complete destruction of a notion of casual-bound human science. As far as I understand it, MacIntyre rejects the notion of a human science that operates under law-like generalisations. This means there is no programme guaranteed to produce the conditions for flourishing. As a society, we tend to assume that guarantee in most of our thinking.

    As far as I can tell that leaves people wanting to engage in the formation of local communities with a rather pervasive form of vunerability. There isn’t a guarantee, even under the best possible circumstances, that a community can be engineered to continue to exist and thrives forever. It’s entirely dependent on the virtues of its members.

    But because these circumstances aren’t ideal, there is an interference with the community by others (normally the state). Then the question of how to deal with that comes up.

    Sorry, hope that wasn’t just a massive splurge of text. I think about these things a lot.

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