"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 1, 2018

Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through: From MacIntyre to Freud and Marx Again

In looking back, as Catholic World Report asked me to do, over some of the significant books I read in 2017, at the top of the list has to stand Alasdair MacIntyre's Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. I've discussed parts of it on here previously, but here are some longer thoughts.

It is this book of MacIntyre's more than anything else that has forced me to start thinking about Marx seriously for the first time, and to return to Freud and engage him anew as well. When someone as vastly learned as MacIntyre says what he does in this book, those of us who are not as learned and have much to learn from and through him pay attention and follow suit. Thus one finds oneself in some fashion pulled into the unfolding of tradition-as-sustained-argument and of teaching as mentorship to an apprentice, both of which MacIntyre discussed in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry

I do not for a moment pretend that this is an exhaustive review; nor do I pretend to have understood some of its more "technical" philosophical arguments. Almost all of MacIntyre's books never cease to pay rereading over many years to continue to unpack so much of his densely argued prose, and that is certainly the case with this perhaps ironically named "essay" which, he says in the preface, is deliberately written for the non-specialist academic philosopher! MacIntyre expects a lot of his readers and refuses to assume that non-philosophers (his "plain persons") are incapable of following complex philosophical arguments.

Until 2017 a lot of those so-called plain persons had probably not heard of MacIntyre until some blogger came along hawking his tract about the “Benedict option” (does one opt for the bourbon cocktail of that name to go with the oysters, and which of those does one opt for--North Atlantic or south?).  MacIntyre, now closing in on 90, does not deserve, in the sunset of his variegated and vastly influential work as the greatest moral philosopher of the postwar period, to be remembered solely or even primarily for one paragraph (which he says he regrets more than anything he wrote) at the conclusion of just one book, After Virtuewhich was so transparently traduced by the blogger in question.

In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity he has now come full circle in reminding us of the remaining potency and relevance of two figures most often thought to be at odds with Catholicism: Marx and Freud, both of whom were treated in MacIntyre’s first two books from the early 1950s. Freud still has much to teach us about the nature of our desires, and how we fail to be good reasoners when our desires go astray; and Marx still offers us a very powerful critique of how capitalism subtly exploits and fuels those desires, even to the point of invading and eroding Christianity from within.

Over the last six decades, as he went from Protestantism and Marxism to a phase where he was estranged by and from both, and had not yet seen his way back to Aristotle via Aquinas and thus into the Catholic Church, there is one constant in all of MacIntyre’s writings:  his desire to unmask the liberalism of modernity and its many disguises. In this he joins with his fellow British convert Cardinal Newman, as readers of the latter’s celebrated Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and perhaps even more his biglietto speech, will know.

Given his anti-liberalism, too many people reduce MacIntyre to a reactionary or else a communitarian, when he has repeatedly denounced both as being but the false choice proffered by the dominant liberalism of modern politics, where, as he put it, there are conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals—but we are all liberals condemned to think and act in terms of the modern nation-state and its various forms of disguised capitalism.

Have we any genuine and available alternatives? MacIntyre does not answer that question directly, instead suggesting—as he has for most of his life—further lines of thought where we might yet find some possible answers. The most promising place for answers, he reminds us in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, is one that most people will not care to visit, having decided in advance it is irredeemably unprofitable and hopelessly out of date. But the place—or, rather, person—MacIntyre says we must engage anew, after two centuries of misunderstanding, misrepresenting, or misapplying him, is Karl Marx. Too many of us are not willing even to hear that, let alone undertake such a process of learning because of a false assumption that the relationship between Christianity and Marxism is, MacIntyre says, one of “straightforward antagonism.” We have assumed such antagonism and in so doing have never yet, after nearly two centuries, actually had the necessary dialogue between Christianity and the critique posed by the Marx of the 1840s in, e.g., his Theses on Feuerbach. The early Marx was, MacIntyre contends, very much an Aristotelian long before he was an Hegalian, and in his Aristotelianism is thus amenable to Christianity (as Aquinas also also found the Greek philosopher to be).

While aware of the dangers of deformed Marxism, and while agreeing that the Catholic Church was right to condemn persecution of Christians in, e.g., China and the Soviet Union, MacIntyre would insist that Catholic (and other) criticism of Marxism often conveniently masks “obfuscating and reactionary social attitudes” designed to do little more than protect people in their “economic and moral complacency.” So it’s not that Marx has been tried and found wanting so much that he has been left untried because he has been rendered invisible, MacIntyre says, by the modern academic discipline of economics. I confirmed this claim by talking to a Catholic economist, colleague, and friend of mine, Doug Meador, who, well aware of currents in his field, and the types of topics discussed at big conferences of economists, very strongly agreed with MacIntyre here when I asked him, saying that most economists today under the age of 40 have probably never even heard of Marx!

Curiously, the same thing could be said—the same dynamic discerned—in an unthinking rejection of Catholicism which seeks to protect people in their spiritual complacency. Marxism has suffered the same fate as Catholicism in some ways—rejected by seemingly intelligent people who have almost no first-hand knowledge of it but nonetheless scorn it because of the mistakes made by some, or the abuses committed by institutionalized forms and authorities.

But MacIntyre is too careful a thinker, too fair a man, to allow uses and abuses of Marx even by self-proclaimed Marxists (in, e.g., the USSR, which in one place he calls a “deformed workers’ state ruled by a bureaucratic elite” and in another acidly dismisses as “Kruschev Enterprises Inc.”) to prevent him from seeing what is of lasting value. MacIntyre is the consummate Catholic thinker and thus a model for us all insofar as he reflects the ancient patristic practice of  “despoiling the Egyptians,” finding good whatever its provenance. This is clear not just in MacIntyre’s judicious thinking about Marx, but also and equally true in his work on Freud.

For MacIntyre, the same explanatory power he found in Marxism  he later found in Catholicism. What unites both, at least conceptually, is their ability to analyze the powers and principalities of the world and to sniff out their hidden mechanisms of control, violence, and greed—what St. Augustine famously called libido dominandi. When both function well, they are not merely metaphysical systems for understanding the world: they are also, and especially, embodied moral practices that seek to change the world. (The same could be said about psychoanalysis, albeit it on a more individual scale.)

Thus both Marxism and Christianity have the conceptual resources to advance a potent critique of our world today. As he bluntly put it in Marxism: An Interpretation (which was later revised and republished as Marxism and Christianity), “the two most relevant books in the modern world are St. Mark’s Gospel and Marx’s National Economy and Philosophy; but they must be read together.” Thus Marxism and Christianity are at their best, or least in danger of corruption, when they remain on the fringes of empire and economy, offering a critique of both.

When either Christianity or Marxism are not on the “peripheries” (to use a favorite word of Pope Francis), they both run the risk, almost invariably realized, of being captured, usually invisibly, within the confines and categories of capitalism, which, MacIntyre now says in 2017, “is not only a set of economic relationships. It is also a mode of presentation of those relationships that disguises and deceives.” To unmask those relationships, we must, MacIntyre says, learn “from Marx just what it was about capitalism—that appropriation of surplus value—that transformed the relationship of the cultural and social order so radically. “ While recognizing the prosperity capitalism has brought some, MacIntyre also insists in his latest book on recognizing that it has also “destroyed…traditional ways of life, created gross and sometimes grotesque inequalities of income and wealth, lurched through crisis after crisis, creating recurrent mass unemployment and left those areas and those communities that it was not profitable to develop permanently impoverished and deprived.” All this Marx had clearly foreseen two centuries ago.

The deceptive power of capitalism today is such that we often fail—at least, ironically, until Donald Trump came along—to take seriously those inequalities and those deprived and destroyed areas that have been increasing in the last several decades. And it is not just politicians who fail to own up to this: many churchmen have also often gone along with, or at least failed to criticize, these developments, which MacIntyre, in an updated 1995 preface to his Marxism and Christianity, sees as a dereliction of ecclesial duty: “Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities” (here one thinks immediately of Dorothy Day).

MacIntyre’s earliest published writings on Marx were from the 1950s and 1960s. Those writings were reprinted in 2008 in the collection, Alasdair MacIntyre's Engagement with Marxism: Selected Writings 1953-1974, edited by Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson. This book has received almost no attention, but for those hoping to understand his newest book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, these Marxist writings, some of which I have quoted above, are necessary reading.

If in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity he has returned to renewed engagement with Marxism, he has also done so with psychoanalytic thought, which MacIntyre also critically appreciated in his very early book, The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, and then later in essays reprinted in Against the Self-Images of the Age, where he argued that "psychoanalysis need not become the self-enclosed system which it so often is" (37). The tragedy of its becoming a closed system and ideology (as with communism) means for MacIntyre, as he wrote in 1958, that it obscures “Freud’s essential and unassailable greatness.”

In seeing what value psychoanalysis has when it is not self-enclosed, MacIntyre in 2017 shares much in common with the man I regard as the most interesting and unconventional psychoanalyst writing today (who also comes out of a British Marxist background along with MacIntyre), viz., Adam Phillips, whose biography of the celebrated psychoanalyst , D.W. Winnicott, MacIntyre cites approvingly. I have discussed Phillips on here extensively over the past two years.

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity is an astonishing book for a man who turns 89 this year. It shows no loss or diminution of his enormous powers of reason, his astonishingly wide-ranging reading, and his synthesis of that reading. It also shows once more his genuine modesty at admitting what he does not know sufficiently, or has not thought about rigorously enough. Again and again he admits, with disarming directness, where he got something wrong, or needed to add to, subtract from, or otherwise revise what he earlier thought and wrote. There is something enormously admirable about this, perhaps because it seems so rare today. It is a feature of nearly every book, including the most recent, but it is perhaps most clearly stated at the end of his updated (2003) edition of The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, where he says that “I owe at least as much and probably a good deal more to those with whom I disagree as to those with whom I agree….One’s severest critics are often those to whom one is most in debt.”

Critics help us to see things differently, and even to help us live differently. In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, MacIntyre looks at the lives of four critical figures who offer us help in order to “live against the cultural grain…as economic, political, and moral antagonists of the dominant order.”

MacIntyre, in typical narrative style, focuses on Vasily Grossman (a Ukrainian Jewish writer in Stalinist Russia), Sandra Day O’Connor (an American jurist), C.L.R. James (a Trinidadian writer, activist, and cricketer), and Denis Faul (an Irish Catholic priest involved in the political troubles there). This prosopological method is similar to one he first used in his 2006 book Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922.

With the four lives in the present volume, MacIntyre seeks to ask about how each was both helped and hindered in reasoning about desires and in rank ordering of the goods of one’s life by both theoretical and practical considerations, starting with their families and schooling, which he takes to be utterly critical to the formation of virtuous character and thus sound reasoning. Families and schools are crucial insofar as they seek to inculcate in children three essential qualities: reliability, truthfulness, and imagination. Here especially one sees the influence of Winnicott's well-known ideas about the "good enough mother."

The result of narrating these four very different stories is to show that “human lives do have a teleological structure” but that the telos towards which each life aims will always and everywhere be incomplete until and unless it finds its fulfillment in “an object of desire beyond all particular and finite goods.” MacIntyre does not give a name to that “object,” for he is—as I suggested more than a decade ago in reviewing his book on Stein—the most apophatic of Christian philosophers—but he ends his book, and so perhaps the last major work of his own extraordinarily fecund life, by saying simply: “Here the enquiries of politics and ethics end. Here natural theology begins”—a suitably Thomistic ending if ever there were one.

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