Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, has deeply affected my thinking—and my ambitions as a writer and philosopher—since I first read it in 1993. After that first taste, naturally I read Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, and Dependent Rational Animals. MacIntyre inspires and pleases, but not through style. His sentences are often long, complex, and dense. I sometimes warn students expressly to not write like MacIntyre. No, MacIntyre is important for his ideas. Here is a passage, from p. 216 in the 2nd edition of After Virtue.
A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
MacIntyre here is expressly disagreeing with philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche or, more recently, Richard Rorty. Nietzsche thought that we create ourselves through the expression of will. Weak people, frightened by the moral vertigo of creating values, give themselves false consolation by accepting “slave morality,” the safe conformity of English utilitarian gentlemen. (“Man does not seek happiness,” wrote Nietzsche. “Only the Englishman does that.” His scorn for careful philosophers such as Mill and Sidgwick sparkles.)
Rorty takes a slightly different line. We deceive ourselves, Rorty thought, if we succumb to the idea that our stories can be true. Nietzsche apparently thought that his “will to power” doctrine was actually true. We should be ironists, thought Rorty. We ought to recognize that our deepest feelings and values are historical accidents. If we had been born in another century or society, we contemporary liberals would have celebrated the torture of animals and the public execution of heretics. We ought to regard ourselves as poets, says Rorty. The poems we write are our lives. We should not judge a poem or life as true, but as interesting.
No reader of this blog will be surprised that I side with MacIntyre, not with Nietzsche or Rorty. MacIntyre says that I can only write my story—that is, my life story, told through actions—if I can locate that story inside another(s). Nietzsche and Rorty would be quick to respond that my siding with MacIntyre merely expresses my preferences, my own will-to-power or my own “poetry.” They would assert such claims, but is there reason to believe them?
MacIntyre gives an argument for his position. It’s long and complex, so I will summarize. 1. The concept of “action” is unintelligible apart from background concepts. 2. One of the background concepts for “action” is the concept of narrative. 3. Therefore, I cannot understand the actions I make without understanding narrative.
Perhaps the summary is too short to do much good. Maybe an illustration, MacIntyre’s own illustration, will help.
Imagine that someone points to a man and asks, “What is that man doing?” Here are some possible replies: “He is digging with a shovel,” “He is planting turnips,” He is getting exercise,” “He is gardening,” “He is pleasing his wife,” and so on.
(The “and so on” here is intriguing. Logicians and philosophers of language have taught us that for any possible physical event there is an infinite number of possible descriptions.)
Do you see MacIntyre’s point? We do not know how to describe a human action without reference to intentions, beliefs, and narrative. The man is not pleasing his wife unless he believes that she wants him to plant turnips. Planting turnips in spring is a very different thing than “planting turnips” in dead of winter; the lack of a proper narrative makes certain descriptions of actions literally incredible. What would you think of a story that began with the next sentence? “The bachelor resigned while feeding his wife.” Words like “bachelor,” “resigned,” and “wife” are essentially narrative concepts. They bring story with them.
The concepts of human action, intention, belief, and narrative form what I call a “concept nest.” Each notion is defined in terms of the others. Like a bird’s nest, the various ideas support one another. Someone might worry that this creates a self-referential loop in the concept next, a vicious circle. But the worry is unfounded. We do in fact understand the various terms in a concept nest. Each term helps us understand the others. Gradually, by learning the connections between the concepts, we learn the whole.
A few years ago, in a blog post in Story and Meaning, I confessed one of my intentions in writing fiction. I want my stories to cohere, to make sense, in the light of the great story. Stories give background to values. My stories are full of good and evil: good people, bad people, and lots of people who struggle with virtue and vice. I want my stories to be “good” stories in two ways. I want them to be about good and evil. And I want them to be good in the sense of enjoyable to read. (The jury is very much still out on that.)
We all author our own stories, our own lives. However much I want to write good stories, I’m much more concerned that I write a good life story. The way to do that, MacIntyre says, is to find the story in which mine is a part. The great story of Christ backgrounds and overarches us all.