Thinking Through Hell: Repentance

I just read Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno with my students. Dante is in the eighth ditch of the eighth circle where the Fraudulent Counselors are punished. Here he meets Guido da Montefeltro, a man who experienced a spiritual transformation in his life only to relapse into sin in response to pressure from Pope Boniface VIII.

I’m not going to give a full summary of Montefeltro’s particular sin. If you want a good overview, Wikipedia has a decent summary. I also recommend you check out the passage itself on the World of Dante website.

The fascinating part of the scene with Montefeltro occurs at the end. Although 08 | June | 2010 | Wickersham's ConscienceMontefeltro was hesitant at first, he decides to commit the sin of evil counsel because Boniface VIII guarantees him absolution ahead of time. On the day of his death, St. Francis attempts to take Montefeltro’s soul to heaven, but he’s stopped by a demon who says Montefeltro is bound for hell.

Why? Because, as the demon points out, the law of non-contradiction holds true for repentance. One cannot repent of a sin and at the same time commit that sin. Absolution, likewise, can’t be granted ahead of time because it does not function like an advance on a paycheck. Contrition and the resolve to avoid sin are the two conditions required for absolution to take effect.

My students raised a natural concern: what is the role of repentance in salvation? If we die without having repented of our sins, will God bar us from heaven?

These questions are worth struggling with because they force us to confront two oversimplified narratives of salvation. The first narrative concerns the relationship between faith and works and whether our works have any effect on our salvation. Protestants–especially those rooted in the reformed tradition–will quickly say “Faith alone!” Works are a product of faith in Christ. Works have no bearing on our salvation except as evidence of our salvation. God saves people. Period. Full stop. Insistence on faith alone guards against the first narrative of a works-based salvation.

A second narrative pushes the first to an opposing, though logical, extreme: if works have no bearing on the efficacy of faith and salvation, then God will bring sinners into heaven regardless of repentance or any other good work. In Montefeltro’s case, his initial conversion to Christianity should have been enough to carry him into heaven. Yes, he may have committed a sin at the behest of the pope, but such a sin–even without specifically repenting of it–would not inhibit the salvation that comes through faith. But the idea that God will save people regardless of repentance contradicts scripture and what many of the church fathers since the second century have taught about the nature of salvation. God does not infringe human will. In Dante’s scheme, the gates of hell are open. No one stands guard ushering sinners in or keeping sinners from escaping. Hell is the place for people who, because of their unrepentant life, would find heaven unbearable.

So what is the role of repentance in the Christian life? I’m still working the answer out myself, but here are some initial thoughts inspired by Dante:

Repentance is an act of faith. “Of” indicates that the efficacy of repentance is rooted in something outside itself. That is, repentance qua repentance is meaningless and useless unless it is oriented to some external end. Describing the relationship between faith and repentance in this way, however, dangerously over-emphasizes the subordination of the act of repentance to faith. A Christian cannot confuse faith with repentance, but he cannot pretend that repentance as a discipline of the faith is optional. St. James famously drives this point home in his discussion about the relationship between faith and works:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:24-26)

James’ formulation “faith apart from works is dead” works in reverse order as well: “works without faith are dead.” The two share a symbiotic relationship with each other. Too often in conversation with my protestant/reformed friends, discussion about faith and works inevitably ends in weird abstractions, as if a person’s faith exists as a non-material substance within the heart and mind. But as James points out, an abstract faith is no faith at all. Faith will prove itself through the discipline of good works.

“Discipline” is key to understanding how works and faith relate to each other. Insofar as repentance is a work of faith, it should be a defining feature of a Christian’s daily life. The works of faith will not come naturally to the Christian because converting to Christianity does not entail immediate sinless habits of thought or behavior. Instead, it prompts the process of sanctification. The work of sanctification progresses slowly and requires the purposeful participation of the sinner. Believing in Christ as the Son of God and in the salvation he brought through his death and resurrection is an important start. The rest, however, is prayer and repentance. St. Paul famously exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. The life of the Christian is a constant striving to live in communion with God every second of every day.

Through repentance, we recognize the variety and patterns of sins committed, and then we resolve to avoid them by calling upon God’s mercy and grace, trusting fully that God has and will answer our request: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Historically, the church has provided devotional disciplines to help facilitate and encourage repentance. Some of these practices include the sacrament of confession and seasons of fasting. There’s also a monastic tradition where monks and nuns frequently repeat the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, a discipline that conditions a person to pray for repentance without ceasing:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

 

Tidiness is (not) Next to Godliness

Marie Kondo finally has her own Netflix show. She puts her tidying strategies into practice with “real life” people who could use a house-size purge of material possessions. My wife has been watching it recently, and any time I walk pass the living room I’m inevitably drawn to the latest depiction of American consumption gone awry. Some of the participants have floor-to-ceiling boxes of baseball cards, shoes, or nutcracker dolls. Clothes spill out of closet doors. Kitchen appliances litter counters, cupboards, and tables.

For each of the show’s participants, Kondo employs a simple technique to help them tidy their home: pick up each possession individually and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “Yes,” then keep it. If “No,” then donate it or throw it away (and don’t forget to tell it “Thank you” for having served its purpose). Easy enough.

Like everything in the ever trendy anti-consumerism movement, Kondo argues that the Image result for marie kondopurpose of tidying up is to help you “establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” But what could this magical self-fulfillment be? It’s hard to say because it’s different for everyone.

Kondo is not the only anti-consumerist lifestyle coach teaching a doctrine of self-fulfillment. She’s in line with most writers of the minimalist movement. Joshua Becker, in The More of Less, argues that by embracing minimalism, “we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions.” In New Minimalism, Cary Fortin and Kyle Quilici encourage their readers to find “your own wonderful, decidedly unique middle path” in the journey toward living a meaningful life with fewer possessions. Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus also define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people add value to their lives” by focusing on “the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

On a practical and visceral level, minimalist practices and Kondo’s tidying up method directly counter-balance general mindless consumption–a phenomenon related to the enormous amount of capital produced within the past century. At best, most people are low-key hoarders. The slow accretion of possessions, however, has contributed to a growing awareness of a psychological burden. People feel they’ve lost control over their lives. They’ve buried themselves in debt and storage units, and find it increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to keep everything.

I get it. Extreme consumerism erodes most people’s emotional and mental well-being. Who wouldn’t want a tangible solution like getting rid of stuff to ease the inner turmoil?

But “self-fulfillment” as the primary motivator for reducing possessions and tidying up just doesn’t cut it.

First, introspection rarely produces the clarity and long-lasting results it claims. I can only speak for myself here (though I know others who would agree with me): most attempts of turning inward usually result in high levels of anxiety. Nothing will set me on edge faster than when I ask myself questions like, “Are you happy?” “Are you living your dreams?” “Have you achieved, or are you achieving everything you want?” The honest answer to all these types of questions is “I don’t know!” and “Oh no, I’m going to die some day!”

I’m not wholly against introspection. I think it can be good for identifying bad habits and patterns of thought. The trouble arises when we confuse means with ends. Introspection is a means, not a solution. Truth, goodness, and beauty–the ultimate objects of all our desires–lie outside the self, not buried under our insecurities and boxes of scratched CDs stashed away in a closet.

Second, minimalism plays into a cultural obsession with individualism and autonomy. Here’s an underlying assumption in the doctrine of self-fulfillment: if we clear away the non-essentials in our life, we’ll inevitably find a glorious, coherent self underneath it all. And this self is free from all forms of social and cultural limitations.

Nothing in my experience suggests that such a self exists. There is only the me born into a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture. The particulars necessarily limit the person I am and become. They give me my identity. I cannot transcend these circumstances, nor should I want to–any attempt would be pure hubris. One of the redemptive aspects of stuff is that it reminds me of who I am, of where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Kondo always wants you to ask, “Does it spark joy?” But what if an old t-shirt reminds me of a family camping trip in the sierra mountains, which then signals a whole network of other memories that makes me aware of the relationships and experiences that led me to the present moment? Nothing can substitute that kind of tangible interaction with my own history. Not to mention the memories that would have disappeared if not for the physical presence of a particular object.

No man is an island. We all come from somewhere, and all our achievements stem from the help and love we’ve received along the way. As a new father, I’m constantly amazed that the human race has survived. It’s a bloody miracle. My three month old child is completely helpless. Without his mom and me, he’d never make it past infancy. Yet, this is the starting point for every human being. Somebody fed us, clothed us, and ensured our physical well-being so that we could become relatively successful and responsible individuals. To throw away every tangible reminder of our dependency creates a fictional ego-centered reality that only leads to self-deception.

So by all means, let’s reduce our consumption and recycle our stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves.

Thomas Becket and T.S. Eliot

The BBC Podcast In Our Time has a great episode on the life of Thomas Becket. I listened to it the other day in preparation for teaching T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.

(Side note: In Our Time ranks as one of my top five favorite podcasts; I hope to be like Melvyn Bragg when I grow up.)

Having not read much of the history about Thomas Becket himself, I was unaware of how what we know about Becket’s personality and reputation does not recommend him as a saint. His story reminds me of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal who eventually becomesThe Death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral Henry V. As a young man, Becket was energetic, rash, and stubborn. Henry II made him Lord Chancellor, and Becket proved himself an effective and efficient member of the state. As Melvyn Bragg and his guests point out, Becket was the kind of person who had very few friends: everyone loved him or hated him.

Becket took the job of Archbishop of Canterbury reluctantly. Henry ushered him into the position hoping Becket would ensure that the church would remain subordinate to the power of the state. But like Prince Hal who forsook his closest friends when he ascended the throne, Becket swore his allegiance to the church and made a habit of frustrating Henry’s attempts to exercise authority over the church.

There are at least two ways to view Becket’s transformation: either it’s a genuine spiritual conversion which resulted in his conviction that the church should remain on equal footing with the state, or it’s an instance of Becket being consistent with his brash personality. In the podcast, Laura Ashe argues that Becket’s change is similar to a professional footballer changing teams: the player takes his skill-set and uses it in a new setting, even if it’s to the disadvantage of his previous team. How you interpret Becket’s personality inevitably colors your interpretation of his death. Was it a courageous, selfless act in service to the church? Or was it unnecessarily undiplomatic and foolhardy?

Eliot’s dramatization of Becket’s martyrdom engages with this exact historical problem. Upon returning to England after seven years of exile, Becket recognizes that his decision to return will bring his conflict with Henry to a tipping point. He is then met with four Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot — Reviews ...different temptations, all of which point to different ways of handling the situation. The fourth tempter is the most insidious because he tempts Becket with martyrdom—a sacred and revered title within Christian history. The church remembers martyrs for their uncompromising bravery, and reveres them as spiritual exemplars of Christian conviction.

Martyrdom, however, cannot be sought for its own sake. Otherwise it becomes a vehicle for self-glorification and egotism. The tempter makes the case clearly in his appeal to Becket:

But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Said and Martyr rule from the tomb. (37-38)

And…

Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation. (39)

Martyrdom for the sake of fame and power is no martyrdom at all. Exasperated, Becket responds,

Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition? (40)

The play does not provide easy or clear answers to Becket’s questions. All human action is bound up with good and bad intentions, with sin and grace, virtue and vice. “Sin grows with the good” (45), Becket points out. No action can be viewed discretely or as devoid of value; yet every action can be construed in opposite extremes. How then should Thomas act in his situation when even holy martyrdom seems infected with pride?

Becket’s final speech before his death gives some clue. After the four knights have arrived and are returning to the cathedral to kill Becket, some of the priests attempt to persuade him to lock himself in the cathedral. Implicitly, the priests argue that Becket’s decision to leave the doors open is reckless. But Becket responds:

You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent. (73-74)

Temporality is the problem. Actions committed and perceived in time become mixed: “For every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown.” The passage of time also tends to fragment experience and perception. The moment of experience is only understood as a memory, which is malleable. There is no isolated, objective, unadulterated “fact” of experience. In time, everything “become[s] confounded.” The Thomas Becket | 10 Facts About The Murdered Saint ...only hope of a virtuous selfless action is eternity: some mode of perception in which experiences occur without the distorting effects of time. To act rightly requires either 1) a supernatural gift of insight prior to the decision to act, or 2) a grave humility that acts in faith and hope that right action does not require perfect knowledge, only the grace to act well.

Eliot ends the play with the four knights’ defense and the priests’ memorial speeches. Like the passage of time, the effect of Eliot’s ending distorts the audience’s ability to judge Becket’s actions. Is he a martyr? We’re never given the chance to consider his death on its own terms. Instead we’re met with a series of arguments for the practicality of his death as a means to retain peace within the kingdom, and then the laments and praises of Becket’s followers. Neither group—the priests or the knights—fairly represent Becket’s decision. They are equal and opposite extremes, demonstrating that “good and evil in the end become confounded.”

I think Eliot believed Becket to be a saint, but I appreciate that he doesn’t present him uncritically. There’s room within the play to think Becket made the wrong decision. Given the inescapable distortion of temporality, the play ends appropriately with a call to prayer, and specifically for God’s mercy:

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us. (88)

 

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

I’m just over half way through the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s History of Christian Doctrine. Fingers crossed, I’ll finish it before the end of January.

One of Pelikan’s main observations throughout the book is that Christian doctrine developed in (at least) three distinct ways: as a response to Judaism and Greek philosophy, as a response to heresy, and as an articulation of the life of the church–i.e., its liturgical forms of worship and common practices among Christian believers. Having grown up in a non-denominational church I regularly heard about how early Christian writers were responding to heresy and contemporary religious belief systems. But I can’t recall anyone making the claim that liturgy preceded doctrine. Even now, as a member of an Anglo-Catholic parish with strong sympathies for the Orthodox church, I’m struck by how strange it is that early orthodox Christians were worshiping the Trinity before they had any clear idea of how the theological conception of the Trinity is distinct and separate from the worship of any other deity.

By the first century, Christians were already meeting regularly, praying together, baptizing their infants, and celebrating the Eucharist. It wasn’t until teachers began articulating the specifics of Christian belief that controversy arose. The baptizing of infants, for example, inspired discussions about original sin–what is it? how did we acquire it? how does baptism affect it? The Eucharist raised questions about Christology, of the relationship between Christ’s divine and human nature, and whether Christ was present in the Eucharist itself.

I don’t know if Pelikan makes this point later in his series, but from this lay-observer’s point of view, it seems that the relationship between liturgy and doctrine has been inverted in most Protestant churches. When I talk with my low-church evangelical Image result for thomas aquinas strawfriends about the Anglican liturgy, I’m often met with questions about whether prayer to the saints, infant baptism, or belief that Christ is present in the bread and wine is biblical. The answer to both questions is an emphatic “Yes!” But this would have been a strange question in the second century of the church. They were worshiping and believing based on the teaching and revelation that had been passed down to them from the apostles, not based on careful biblical exegesis (…though of course early Christian writers were also busy analyzing the Old Testament and outlining its continuity with the revelation of Christ).

Like poetry, the life and prayer of the church says more in its form and ritual than any single doctrine could express in any number of volumes. It’s no wonder that Thomas Aquinas, after experiencing a beatific vision toward the end of his life, considered all of his writings to be nothing but straw. The power of liturgy cannot be fully harnessed by the rational mind. It always transcends and encompasses rational thought.

 

 

Looking Ahead to 2019

2018 has been a year of major transitions. The most significant was the birth of my firstborn child in October. If three months of parenting has taught me anything, it’s that the messiness and intensity of life swirls just below the surface of daily routines. I’m more aware now of how hard-won true discipline is. Whether it’s the small habits of attending morning prayer every morning, or simply obeying the admonition “Don’t shake a baby” when every fiber of your being wants to shake the inconsolable child who is squirming, crying, and screaming at 3a for the fifth night in a row. But no. You put the kibosh on all the impulses that distract and attempt to misdirect your behavior. It’s a herculean effort.

(…though when he smiles at me in the morning, I magically forget everything that happened the night before. I’m pretty sure it’s witchcraft.)

So now, sitting at the beginning of 2019, I’m wary of making New Year resolutions. Only small, actionable resolutions for me this year. Here are a few related to the blog and reading/writing habits:

First, I’m going to start by trying to keep a reading log for the year. I’ve made attempts at this in the past, but I’ve never managed to come up with a system that I could reliably update throughout the whole year. For 2019, I’m incorporating my reading list to this website. I’m not going to stash away my reading log in a random journal or in an obscure file on my computer. I’ve dedicated a whole page to the site and have created categories and codes that will make it easy to update.

Second, I’m going to take another step in my attempts to remove myself from social media by financially investing in magazines, journals, and various other forms of periodicals. The internet in general has made me less and less tolerant of information that costs money. Pay walls frustrate me. Shouldn’t all internet content be free? No. Good content–whether it’s print or digital, essays or podcasts–takes hours and hours of preparation. Most of the writers I enjoy following have day jobs because writing itself usually isn’t enough to make a living, much less support a family. Supporting writers is an obligation if you want to read thoughtful arguments or careful analysis, and not just the latest, most provocative hot take. I now have subscriptions to Mars Hill Audio Journal, Christianity Today, and Comment Magazine. I’ve followed these publications for a while, but have yet to put my money where my mouth is. I plan to add to the subscription list throughout the year–First Things and Plough Booksamong others, might make the list as well, but I’m also open to other suggestions. By investing money into the articles I read on a regular basis, I now have some skin in the game, which I hope will motivate me to read more carefully and more diligently. Despite the “free stuff” on the internet, I’m more and more convinced that “free” dangerously flattens the hierarchy of carefully edited publications and encourages intellectual laziness on the part of readers.

Third, I’m convinced by Austin Kleon’s call to “own your own turf.” I began to revive this blog as an attempt to support my extraction from social media, and to encourage a more consistent writing habit. I’ve been more or less successful, but I’d like to kick it into a new gear for 2019. Piggy-backing on my resolve to invest in the information I read, I’m also going to invest in this site and purchase the lowest level WordPress subscription. The goal for the remainder of the year will be to practice writing short posts–three to four paragraphs–what Brad East calls “mezzo blogging.” My hope is that writing more frequently and in a more controlled, though still public, context will eventually lead to writing more long-form pieces for other venues. Because everything on the site is linked through categories and tags, it’ll function as a kind of notebook of ideas I can return to when I’m working on other projects.

Cheers to 2019! In the words of Sheldon and Davy Vanauken, “If it’s half as good as the half we’ve known, then here’s ‘Hail!’ to the rest of the road.”

Review: After Virtue

I met one half of my goal at the end of 2018 and finished Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. There were points where I had to push my way through some of the dense philosophical analysis of other philosophers and allusions to some of the current academic debates that were relevant at the time he wrote the book. Much of that went over my head. Nevertheless, the thesis of the book and some of MacIntyre’s most important arguments came through loud and clear. This is due, in part, to MacIntyre’s repeated summary of his own argument and my prior familiarity with recent work by writers like Karen Swallow Prior, James K. A. Smith, Rod Dreher, and Patrick Deneen (et al.) who frequently reference some of his most important claims.

The premise of MacIntyre’s argument is that the modern world of moral knowledge is in tatters and has produced a “simulacra of morality” in western culture (2). Although modern moral knowledge relies on the intellectual/philosophical capital of ancient Image result for after virtuecivilizations, it purports to have disabused itself of ancient myopic prejudices. Despite the similar moral vocabulary, morality itself has been reduced to “use” and “preference.” MacIntyre describes the current accepted mode of moral philosophy as emotivism, an idea he locates primarily in the work of G. E. Moore whose book Principia Ethica was influential for the early 20th century writers known as the Bloomsbury Group. MacIntrye defines emotivism as “the doctrine that all judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude and feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (11-12).

Sound familiar? Go check out Comment Magazine’s recent issue on minimalism where they address many of our current cultural obsessions with #lifestyle choices and self-actualization, and you’ll see what I mean.

To demonstrate the precedence for Moore’s philosophy, MacIntyre walks backward through history. He shows how modern moral conceptions have been built on previous failures of philosophy to justify various moral behaviors. After Moore, he discusses Kierkegaard, then Kant, Diderot, Hume, Mills, and Bentham, among others. I can’t give a full evaluative account of his philosophical history on this point, but what little I have read of the philosophers he engages, his observations about the development of moral philosophical ideas ring true.

The walk backwards through the history of moral philosophy changes directions at chapter nine. At this point, MacIntyre addresses the significance of Nietzsche who, he argues, was one of the few philosophers in the history of the modern west to fully grasp the hollowed-out moral vocabulary in the west. MacIntyre, however, is an Aristotelian and he uses Aristotle as Nietzsche’s character foil.

The brilliance of Nietzsche’s “will to power” theory stems from his willingness to take seriously the logical outcomes of moral utilitarianism and emotivism, which MacIntyre identifies as the view that individuals are autonomous agents. During and after the 18th century, philosophers began to think of individuals atomistically–as discreet entities that can be understood apart from their social context. This shift marks a radical departure from historical forms of anthropology. Beginning with Homer, MacIntyre observes that most (if not all) ancient conceptions of man stem from a conception of the social order to which an individual belongs. Every human person has a social role, and this role tells us at least two important aspects about that person: 1) we learn her identity—i.e., who she is is predicated on her social membership and inherited cultural traditions; and 2) we learn her moral value—i.e., what she is owed and what she owes to others.

According to MacIntyre, any recognizable and practical form of virtue is inextricably linked to the larger social order. Individuals cannot be virtuous on their own, much less have an identity apart from the social context in which they were born. To pretend that a person can wholly cast off the cultural traditions inherited by the time and place of her birth, and the context in which she grows up, is delusional at best, and at worst will usher a person off the cliff of existential despair (e.g., MacIntyre does not mince words about his disagreement with Jean Paul Sartre). Toward the end of the book, MacIntyre argues that the fragmentation of morality has corresponded with changing conceptions of the self—specifically the tendency to think atomistically of human identity and actions (204). In contrast, “moral arguments within the classical, Aristotelian tradition…involve…the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function” both of which are rooted in the larger social structure (58). More from MacIntyre: “It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from his roles that man ceases to be a functional concept” (59).

The atomistic thinking of the modern era has resulted in two fundamental problems. First, individuals have been stripped of any coherent identity. The “self,” abstracted from its social embeddedness, loses any narrative sense of its place and purpose. In some ways, the idea of an overarching narrative is at the root of MacIntyre’s solution to his diagnosis of modern western culture. Without a narrative—the inherited history, stories, modes of behavior, geographical location, traditions, etc.—people lose their conception of a telos. There is no end by which they can evaluate themselves, nor is there a clear functional purpose to their existence. It’s important to note as well that MacIntyre does not believe a person is the sole author of her own narrative. At best she is a co-author. Narratives are passed down from one generation to another. While it’s possible to reject certain aspects of a particular narrative, a person cannot completely reinvent or escape the givenness of their history and traditions.

The second and correlative problem is the inability to speak constructively about moral knowledge, much less moral behavior. The problem can be seen in the etymology of the word “moral” itself. In the writings of Cicero, morality referred to a person’s overall character which derived its coherency from a unifying and communal conception of the “Good.” It was not typically used in reference to the moral value of discrete actions. Actions, as Aristotle demonstrates in the Nicomachean Ethics, were discussed in the context of disciplines and habits which formed and revealed character. And this is (one of) MacIntyre’s main points: without any unifying concept of “Good” there can be no rational basis for argument (71). There can only be discrete actions made by autonomous nodal points we call “persons.”

It’s at this point in MacIntyre’s argument that most critics begin to bristle. He starts to sound nostalgic for the good ol’ days of ancient Athens, when people knew their place, agreed upon a unifying “Good,” and behaved accordingly. Scott Alexander, for example, agrees with MacIntyre’s analysis of modern philosophy but finds a) his use of virtue ethics to be a non-solution solution because it requires a consensus about how to solve moral dilemmas, but such a consensus is impossible; and b) he thinks MacIntyre’s version of history is overly simplistic.

Responding to Scott Alexander’s distaste for virtue ethics would require a whole new post—and I’d need to do more homework on the subject. But his critique of MacIntyre’s history is much less substantial if you pay attention to MacIntyre’s own critique of Aristotle’s view of history. Aristotle did not understand the transience of the polis because he did not have an understanding of historicity. Both Plato and Aristotle took the long-term staying power of the polis for granted, and failed to recognize that no city will last forever. Cities—and specifically social orders—rise and fall and reappear in new iterations. Sometimes the fall of a particular polis is good and sometimes a new iteration successfully corrects the errors of the previous one. But sometimes they don’t. MacIntyre is not nostalgic for an ancient Athenian polis. However, he recognizes that Aristotle’s insistence that virtue is connected to a social order, and that successful social orders require a shared understanding of the “Good,” is not wrong. Unfortunately, the modern era’s hyper awareness of historicity has caused many of its most influential moral philosophers to advance an extreme and untenable view of moral knowledge. Hence, “unmasking/demystifying” history has become one of the highest and only true modern virtues (72).  The result, however, is a culture that uses an inherited moral language with an unspoken emotivist understanding, hallowed out of meaning and deprived of any grounds for rational justification.

During and after reading After Virtue, I was struck by the thoroughness of MacIntyre’s argument which he roots in a series of interconnected close readings of philosophical, literary, and historical texts. All of which call for greater scrutiny, since each of those chapters could have been a book unto itself. In preparing this post, I toyed with the idea of only writing about his section on medieval narratives and his assertion of a fundamental historical shift from ancient heroic to medieval quest narratives and the role they played in reshaping anthropology. Any writer is in dangerous waters when he condenses and summarizes large, complex, and epochal social changes into a single book chapter.

In fact, it would be worth taking each chapter on its own terms. But for a blog post that, I realized, would risk getting lost in the weeds and missing the big picture. From the beginning, I forced myself to read through large chunks of the text so that I could get a better sense of MacIntyre’s argument. I wanted the big picture, even if it came at the expense of all the details which are equally important and fascinating in their own right. I’m sure I’ll return to specific chapters in After Virtue. In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the discipline to read it all in one fell swoop.

For further reading, especially if you’re interested in some more contemporary engagement with MacIntyre’s work, I recommend the following:

1. Brad East has a fantastic article at Mere Orthodoxy that outlines the ways in which academic debates trickle down into mainstream discussions. Brad specifically addresses the Benedict Option phenomenon and its academic predecessors. He doesn’t solely focus on MacIntyre, but he figures heavily in his article.

2. Stanley Hauerwas is a philosopher and theologian who has not only been influenced by MacIntyre’s work, but has also become one of the great expositors of MacIntyre’s philosophy as it has developed across his various publications. Hauerwas wrote a great article for First Things several years ago that gave me a better sense of MacIntyre’s philosophical project, context, and development.

3. Dallas Willard also engaged MacIntyre’s work regularly. As far as I can tell, he believes MacIntyre’s project ultimately failed, but that it brought to light important, under-discussed dimensions of modern moral philosophy. I watched Willard’s UCI lectures, and hope eventually to read the corresponding book to get a better idea of where Willard disagrees with MacIntyre.