Tag Archives: Alasdair MacIntyre

Leszek Kolakowski Remembered

One of the greatest of modern thinkers passed away 2 years ago this month.  Leszek Kolakowski was rightly known for his searing critique of Communism, embodied in his magisterial 1978 survey, the 3-volume Main Currents of Marxism.  The 20th century had crushed his every favorable illusion about Communism (as it did for virtually every other Pole).  He exposed the ugly philosophical reality of Marxism as thoroughly as Alexander Solzhenitsyn exposed its hideous physical reality.  With Main Currents and Gulag Archipelago on a bookshelf, and only The Black Book of Communism between them, no library really needs another volume on the subject.

He was a fine prose stylist, with a vein of incisive wit. Here is his summary of the “New Left”:

“While the ideological fantasies of this movement, which reached its climax around 1968-69, were no more than a nonsensical expression of the whims of spoiled middle class children, and while the extremists among them were virtually indistinguishable from Fascist thugs, the movement did without doubt express a profound crisis of faith in the values that had inspired democratic societies for many decades.  In this sense, it was a ‘genuine’ movement despite its grotesque phraseology; the same, of course, could be said of Nazism and Fascism.” (Main Currents, vol. 3, p. 490)

Kolakowski lived long enough (he was 92) to be recognized for his brilliant contribution to the debunking of Communism.  The eulogies from Roger Kimball (New Criterions) and Christopher Hitchens (Slate) (among many others) make the point well.

But in his later years, LK made equally brilliant contributions to the understanding of liberal, secular modernity’s crippling of our civilization.  In books like Modernity on Endless Trial (1990), he made clear the extent to which a post-religious world is incapable of sustaining moral standards.  He understood the magnitude of failure that resulted from what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the Enlightenment project of providing a rational vindication of morality” and “the secularization of morality” (After Virtue, 1981).   LK realized that without religion, morality, human rights, human dignity, and therefore civilization itself were all unsustainable.  They are edifices built on eroded Judeo-Christian foundations, waiting to be knocked down by the next strong wind.

Although he was able to see the dead end inherent in secular society, LK was not himself able to embrace what he knew to be the only solution: religious revival.  But religion does not exist because it is effective; it exists because believers have faith in God.  Faith in the power of religion is no substitute for religion.  (He states this beautifully in Modernity on Endless Trial, but I don’t have my copy handy to quote it.)

And he as much as stated that he himself could not embrace faith itself; he was not a believer.   So, like many of us, he must have stared into the abyss with a sense of profound sadness and pessimism.

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Moral Conversations

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we have lost the language needed to discuss moral questions, and have thereby nearly lost the capacity even to think of them.

Reading him recently reminded me of several recent conversations I have experienced.

First Conversation:  Talking about problems with big corporations, a friend recounts his own experience with a utility. He was approached by a shady character who offered to “fix” his electric meter so that it would record only half of his actual usage.  He took the offer, and got half-price electricity for eight years.  Then the company, no doubt suspecting something, replaced the meter – but not before he had stolen a fair amount of power from them.  My friend recounted this in a pleasant and amusing narrative, and someone in our group remarked “Good for you,” in a “stick-it-to-the-man” tone.

My friend reacted sharply. “No. No!  It was wrong.  I never should have let that guy talk me into it.  I wish I’d never done it.” He was judging himself, in uncomfortable response to being applauded for his misdeed.   

The conversation paused awkwardly.  No one quite knew what to say, so someone changed the subject.

Second Conversation: A group is discussing movies they have seen.  When a particular movie is mentioned – an absolutely ordinary, mainstream comedy-drama – one friend reacts strongly.  “I am just so tired of movies about miserable families making each other suffer from their abuse of each other and their affairs.  I just don’t want to see any more of them.”

She was articulating her rejection of a culture that normalizes dysfunctional behavior.  We all agreed in a perfunctory way, but didn’t know what else to say.

Third Conversation: A man takes part with some friends in a weekly Trivia Contest at a local bar.  Sometimes they do well, sometimes not.  After another losing night in a long dry spell, the man bemoans his poor performance, saying how stupid he felt for not knowing some answers.  He talks of quitting the team.  Another team member responds “Oh, well.  It is humbling, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Instead of the customary words of locker-room inspiration (“We’ll lick’em next time”), she offered a moral reminder about pride.  It cheered the man, but he didn’t know how to respond, except to say “You’re right.  Thanks.”

In each case, when the conversation reached a moral point, there was an awkward pause, a fumbling for words, and a swift turn to other topics.

We have grown accustomed to the lack of moral consideration in our conversations with others.  But once you notice it, you start to find these absences everywhere.

As MacIntyre says, it is a kind of forgotten language – one we vaguely remember from long ago, but are too uncomfortable to use.  I think of those tales of frontier children abducted by Indians, and raised by them as tribe members.  When later returned to white society, they may remember some of English, but not enough to communicate effectively.  The language must be re-learned.

How, I wonder, will we re-learn the language of morality?