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An Excerpt from “Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography” by Émile Perreau-Saussine

Winner of the prestigious 2005 Philippe Habert Prize, the late Émile Perreau-Saussine’s Alasdair MacIntyre: Une biographie intellectuelle stands as a definitive introduction to the life and work of one of today’s leading moral philosophers. With Nathan J. Pinkoski’s translation, this long-awaited, critical examination of MacIntyre’s thought is now available to English readers for the first time, including a foreword by renowned philosopher Pierre Manent.

In the twentieth century, liberalism was the target of two successive waves of critique: communism and fascism. In the 1930s, caught in the grip of these two threats, liberal democracies seemed in the short term to be doomed. In the Second World War, the alliance of liberals and communists triumphed over fascism. Then private property’s adversaries lost the Cold War. Today, liberalism is the only one left in the arena. The conflicts of the twentieth century have demonstrated that the regime that was in its beginning denounced as the weakest proved to be the strongest. But the questions raised by fascists and communists remain. “What place does liberalism give to greatness, to beauty? “ask some. “What place is there for justice?” ask others. These questions still resonate. Beneath the apparent consensus, liberalism is undermined. In 1945 and in 1989, might liberalism have won only by default? The bodies are satisfied, because comfort and security reign supreme. The soul is troubled.

Today, in reaction to the Nazi and Soviet infamies, human rights triumph. We answer totalitarianism with a politics of individual rights. We counter modern tyrannies with a theory of freedom as the absence of coercion. Naturally, these solutions have their merits. But throughout these pages I have tried to explain that in the eyes of Alasdair MacIntyre, they cannot be enough. We must protect ourselves from evil and guard against tyranny, but we must also support the desire for the good and the true, nourish it, and make it bear fruit. Pascal concisely summarizes my conclusions: “It is dangerous to make man see too clearly how he equals the beasts without showing him his greatness.” The passion for taking away our innocence has its limits: the desire to open our eyes to the atrocities of which human beings are capable must not lead to denying that man desires the good and that he is capable of the good. By absolutizing individual rights, we run the risk of ruining the very meaning of freedom that we propose to cultivate, of favoring a deleterious moral relativism, and of losing any sense of worthwhile purpose. Liberalism needs the habits, customs, and mores that individualism tends to destroy. The arrangement of the laws and the balance of powers is not enough: representative democracy also demands a sense of what a fulfilled life can look like. For MacIntyre, the political response that the cruelty of the twentieth century requires does not merely involve techniques of government, a sort of constitutional engineering, and a systematic circumventing of a human nature deemed too unreliable and too dangerous. It also involves, no doubt on a deeper level, nature itself and man himself.

After having for a long time explored human nature with a particular intensity, the West has bracketed off human nature, to the point of separating it from freedom. We must return to this separation. We must anchor freedom in human nature and relate existence to the two sources of the West, to the two desires by which the scholastic philosophers had understood humanity, and around which they had articulated practical reason: the desire to live in society and the desire to know the truth about God. If we believe the tradition with which MacIntyre aligns himself, freedom is not only the power to choose what pleases us. It is also the ability to act to achieve what is obviously good, in the pursuit of perfection. Yet the good is not always obvious. Knowledge of the good generally presupposes a moral authority. Liberalism delegates the search for the good to the individual alone; it affirms that it is up to the individual to find for himself his own idea of happiness. But it is possible that the good can only be discovered, lived, and deepened by a collective effort. It is not enough to say that political reasoning starts from the fact that men are capable of the worst and moral reasoning starts from the fact that men are capable of the best. For we cannot separate or even distinguish an essentially individual and private morality from an essentially amoral politics. Morality develops within a collective framework, which includes an important political dimension. As such, the individual could prove to be powerless to find the good. Often, moral authority is not so much the opposite of freedom as its necessary condition. According to MacIntyre, it is not true that the modern “individual”, by freeing himself from moral authority, has won his independence and his title to reason. It is not true that it is only the being who is freed from the grip of tradition that is capable of rationality. That individual has in reality lost his reason. It was the moral authority embodied in a tradition that ensured a minimum of practical rationality.

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