Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alasdair MacIntyre in Dublin

In November 2000 I visited a friend from school who had got a job with People’s Education Press in Beijing revising their English textbooks. He had, at the time, recently completed a doctoral thesis at Hong Kong University. After a hard day’s sightseeing (for me, he’d had to work) we were chatting and drinking in his PEP-provided flat, in a massive complex in a smoky Beijing suburb (the sort of place where smoking or not smoking made little difference to the state of one’s lungs), when I picked a book up off his desk with the arresting title After Virtue. He urged me to read it, praising the author, Alasdair MacIntyre, beyond all measure. So when I got home I bought a copy, and soon thereafter started reading, and rereading, anything else by MacIntyre that I could lay hands on. It was a mind-expanding and eye-opening experience. His books combine denseness with readability - you don't have to have studied philosophy to follow, but you do have to work hard. And most excitingly, they combine a tremendous breadth of erudition with a genuine sense of what it means for real people to make moral choices. I don’t know how MacIntyre is regarded by other philosophers, but he’s certainly got fans in the fields of the History of Education and the History of Communication.

A few weeks ago MacIntyre gave a lecture in University College Dublin, entitled “On having survived the academic moral philosophy of the twentieth century”. I’d seen the lecture advertised, and had been planning to go (a mark of my seriousness as a fan, but with cheap flights, and a friend willing to put me up in Bray, not as much of a mark as you might imagine). A number of family, parish and professional duties conspired to keep me in Belgium. So I was delighted to discover through a post on another blog that UCD had put up a video of the lecture online (follow the link, and scroll down a little). At last I have a face and a voice to put to the words I've read and reread to such effect!

The lecture is an autobiographical “story in eight parts”, and recapitulates in just over three quarters of an hour a philosophical journey that took decades. From an autobiographical perspective, the key line is: “I was 55 years old when I discovered that I had become a Thomist Aristotelian.” For those interested in getting to grips with it, click here for a more detailed breakdown of what he says: my own notes attempting to work through the denseness mentioned above. I was a little surprised, but probably shouldn't be, at how often Peter Geach was mentioned. I've recently been reading what I can by his wife, Elizabeth Anscombe, but I haven't (yet) read much by Geach himself.

Part one (at 1 min 30 secs): as a student MacIntyre had to regard Thomism as problematic, due to the state of Analytic Philosophy. Attending Ayer’s seminar at UCL (while studying Classics at QMC), MacIntyre “became convinced that the test of any philosophical thesis ... was whether or not it could be vindicated in and through such debates” - rigorous debates that seemed never to reach a definitive conclusion, so “However strong the case for Thomism, there was bound to be a strong case against it, just because however strong the case for anything, there turned out to be a strong case against it.”

Part two (at 6 mins 12 secs): Thomism was not only problematic, but was rejected. MacIntyre was introduced to Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism” on a visit to Paris in 1947, imbibing the notion that “What makes a paricular reason a good or a sufficient reason for me to act depends on my decision to treat that reason as good or sufficient.” Ayer and Sartre agreed (although disagreeing about much else) that Thomism must be wrong to hold that a good reason is valid regardless of whether we choose to accept it as such. A Thomist evaluates choices in the light of ends; for Ayer and Sartre ends are determined by choices. Concluding (as MacIntyre then did) that one can choose between the two views as a matter of personal opinion is, in fact, to reject the Thomistic view.

Part three (at 9 mins 13 secs): MacIntyre became a Marxist (of the post-1956 "New Left") and still accepts the validity of Marx’s critique of capitalism. On the basis of Marxist insights, he sought to identify “the distinctive morality of the social and economic order that I now inhabit”: a morality that, in practical life, oscillates between Kantianism and Utilitarianism, two philosophically incompatible systems. Marxism, however, has no alternative moral resources of its own, and suffers from much the same confusions. Where can a suitable standard be found for laying bare the problems with the morality of modernity?

Part four (at 14 mins 12 secs): Describes two lines of thought about the meaning of the word “good” in English philosophy since 1930s. First, the expressivism of Ayer et al.: to speak of something as good is to express an approving sentiment (rather than a moral truth). alternatively, Austin: the meaning of “good” in ordinary language is extremely heterogeneous. Peter Geach (1956): "good" and "bad" are noun-phrase-dependent adjectives, so “What it is for an x to be good depends on what the x is” ("a good king", "a good burglar"), which leads on to Aristotelian position that “To be a good x is to excel in the activities characteristic of an x” (a judgement one can arrive at regardless of one’s personal approval or disapproval of the thing or activity in question). Can the existence of such an objective standard of goodness be seen in human life in general, can there be such a thing as "the good life"? This is the philosophical heart of the lecture. MacIntyre enumerates four types of general goods:

“First, without adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter, physical exercise, education and opportunity to work, no one is likely to develop their powers - physical, intellectual, moral, aesthetic - adequately. Secondly, everyone benefits from affectionate support by, well-designed instruction from, and critical interaction with family, friends, colleagues. Thirdly, without an institutional framework that provides stability and security over time, a variety of forms of association, exchange and long-term planning are impossible. And fourthly, if an individual is to become and sustain her or himself as an independent rational agent, she or he needs powers of practical rationality, self-knowledge, of communication, of enquiry and understanding. Lives that are significantly defective in any one of these four respects are judged worse, that is less choice-worthy, than lives that are not. ... Thus on any version of this line of thought, ... there are standards independent of our feelings, attittudes and choices, by which we may judge whether this or that is choice-worthy, whether this or that is good to choose, to do, to be, to have, to feel.”

Expressivism is profoundly at odds with any such view, but how is the issue between them to be resolved (without implicitly granting the expressivist case)?

Part five (at 24 mins 22 secs): At the level of theory, of academic debate, the quarrel remains inconclusive - with much brilliance deployed on either side. It is “one more example of an interminable controversy.”

Part six (at 27 mins 58 secs): Practice does provide an answer: through “housework, farmwork, learning Latin and Geometry, building houses and making furniture, playing soccer and playing in string quartets” we discover standards of excellence that require us to recognize goods independent of our own feelings and preferences. Without a disciplining of our desires, “good” will bear an expressivist meaning; with it, we will recognize independent standards of goodness. Expressivism and objectivism are not two accounts of moral life, but accounts of two different types of moral life: the modern and the traditional (not a term MacIntyre actually uses - I think he says "ancient").

Furthermore, the goods of particular practices can only be given due weight in relation to one another if common goods are secured - the goods of “family, neighborhood, school, clinic, workplace, political community”. As we correct our inclinations, we gain a clearer view of a final end, to which we can only move through certain habits (virtues). Theory serves to clarify our understanding of what we discover through practice, and makes intellectual constructs such as Kantianism or Utilitarianism moot. It gives insight into why these are wrong (or irrelevant), but cannot overcome them within the forum of theoretical debate. The moral confusion of modernity results from the lack of a shared mode of practical life. Practices also provide grounds for remedying defects within Aristotelianism, and choosing between rival versions of Aristotelianism. MacIntyre came to see a Thomist version of Aristotelianism as superior to any other version.

Part seven (at 39 mins 02 secs): outlines some of the defects and limitations of contemporary academic moral philosophy, which deals with abstractions, and lacks appreciation of the practical circumstances in which the questions it discusses actually matter. Needs sociological, anthropological and historical grounding, but meta-ethical debate eschews such empirical data. Shows “an inability to recognize first that contemporary morality of advanced capitalist modernity is only one morality among many, and secondly that it is, as a morality of everyday life, in a state of disorder, a state of fragmentation, oscillation and contradiction.” Tremendous amount of fruitless (unread) writing being done, inculcating dubious habits of mind about what academic moral philosophy is for, while direct practical engagement is not being encouraged at all.

Part eight (at 46 mins 50 secs): two thoughts: a critique of moral confusion and academic fruitlessness must be from “the margins” of modernity and of the academy - in MacIntyre’s case informed by both Thomism and Marxism, “marginal movements of thought”, “sustained and enriched” by Jacques Maritain, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Charles De Koninck and Ralph McInerny (in the one case); and Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, C.L.R. James and Michael Kidron (in the other). (Not sure I got De Koninck and Kidron right - couldn't quite make out the names and am making an (ill?) informed guess.) But any critique of the mainstream of modern moral philosophy has to learn as much as it can from that philosophy, and understand its strengths and weaknesses from within as well as from without.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lenten Stuff

It's Annunciation Eve (so I'm getting in a bit of anticipatory blogging), and I wish I knew more about the solemnities that fall in Lent (that is, from the point of view of how "Lenten" a celebration ought to be: feasting and fasting are both important, but hardly combine well).

Between evening meetings and losing my voice for a fortnight, reading out the Imitation in modern Dutch has been a slow business. We've only just got to book I, chapter 13, and a passage that could have been written for me:

Some are kept safe from great temptations, but are overtaken in those which are little and common, that the humiliation may teach them not to trust to themselves in great things, being weak in small things.

Thursday last week the cardinal came and gave a lecture at the parish I help out in, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation. He speaks very well, and says very sensible things. His pastoral letters, his lectures, his essays and his sermons always contain, and convey, so much wisdom. How have things come so badly unstuck on his watch? You wonder why someone so sensible seems so reluctant to do anything about it.

On a lighter note, looking for material to illustrate a lecture on (among other things) the BSE crisis, I came across this rendition of Roast Beef of Old England:

Hardly Lenten fare. But Fielding: what a genius!
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Feast of St Patrick

And to celebrate the occasion (a day late, but better late than never), my favourite hymn (the one I sometimes sing when the hymn provided in the Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer is unknown to me - which, for morning prayer at least, is most of the time).

The lyrics were produced a hundred years ago, as an English translation of an ancient Irish hymn attributed to Dallan Forgaill. The tune is "Slane", which gives the pretext for posting it: Slane Hill is where St Patrick reputedly lit a fire to celebrate the Easter vigil, in defiance of the pagan custom which dictated that, it also being the night of a pagan festival, no fire be kindled until the king had been seen to light his on nearby Tara Hill.

The final verse of the hymn suddenly brings to mind the envoi to Hilaire Belloc's Ballade of Illegal Ornaments:

The controversy was ended by His Lordship, who wrote to the Incumbent ordering him to remove from the Church all Illegal Ornaments at once, and especially a Female Figure with a Child.

When that the Eternal deigned to look
On us poor folk to make us free
He chose a Maiden, whom He took
From Nazareth in Galilee;
Since when the Islands of the Sea,
The Field, the City, and the Wild
Proclaim aloud triumphantly
A Female Figure with a Child.

These Mysteries profoundly shook
The Reverend Doctor Leigh, D.D.,
Who therefore stuck into a Nook
(Or Niche) of his Incumbency
An Image filled with majesty
To represent the Undefiled,
The Universal Mother — She —
A Female Figure with a Child.

His Bishop, having read a book
Which proved as plain as plain could be
That all the Mutts had been mistook
Who talked about a Trinity
Wrote off at once to Doctor Leigh
In manner very far from mild,
And said: "Remove them instantly!
A Female Figure with a Child!"

Prince Jesus, in mine Agony,
Permit me, broken and defiled,
Through blurred and glazing eyes to see
A Female Figure with a Child.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Third Sunday of Lent

Catechism class yesterday was great. To freshen up their memory of everything done so far there was a quiz (not in the American sense, but an actual quiz, with teams conferring and competing). Both sides did brilliantly, ending with a 33-all draw. As a sudden-death tie-breaker each team had to come up with a Gospel passage (a story about or told by Jesus), and the first team to get stuck would lose. So the 11-year-olds shouted back and forth: Prodigal Son! Nativity! Resurrection! Stilling the storm! Baptism in the Jordan! Forty days in the desert! Two loaves and five fishes - no, I mean the other way around! The Crucifixion! The parable of the two brothers! The Finding in the Temple! When Jesus was on the mountain and suddenly Moses and that other one were there too - was it Elijah? That woman who went with a man and they wanted to kill her and Jesus wouldn't let them! And on and on. In total they came up with 36 Gospel passages between them, before a draw had to be called for lack of time.

Tuesday I'll be lecturing about the Thatcher Revolution; or: how wealth accumulates and men decay.

Lenten renewal hasn't been going too well. Giving stuff up (meat, coffee, sugar, alcohol, blogging, TV, Facebook, reading novels - I think that about covers it) has been surprisingly easy, but any more positive undertakings have been impeded by illness, sloth, and the continuation of time-consuming and dependent habits in other forms (reading blogs, commenting on blogs, watching Youtube: what's the point of giving up Facebook, blogging and TV if this is how I spend my evenings?). Well, at least I suppose I'm clearer about where the problems are.

Speaking of Youtube, Friday night I was up till almost 2.30 in the morning watching clips of Hong Kong films. It's amazing how much is on there. Ching Siu-Tung, Wong Kar Wai, John Woo and half a dozen other directors basically got me through my doctorate, by providing the only entertainment that actually enabled me to stop thinking about it before going to bed. For two or three years I was watching two or three East Asian films a week - first on video and then on VCD. Not that I was buying or borrowing them at such a rate (even with VCDs so cheap at the Chinese supermarket, and Brussels public library not badly stocked with Asian cinema) - there are twenty or so films I've seen half a dozen times apiece, and another twenty or so I've seen at least twice. Films from the People's Republic, Taiwan, Japan and Korea got added to the mix in time, but Hong Kong was always at the heart of it. It began from happening to catch A Chinese Ghost Story on late-night television at my parents' house. It ended with five years of Chinese classes in evening school. With two or three children there still seemed to be time for that; with four, somehow, not. Of course, the seeds were planted in childhood, with Monkey and The Water Margin.

So here is the opening to A Chinese Ghost Story, establishing Leslie Cheung's "wandering scholar" character (reduced to working as a tax inspector or debt collector):

The director, Ching Siu-Tung, is a cinematic genius. Readers might know him as the action choreographer on House of Flying Daggers. The plot of Ghost Story is inspired by a 17th-century collection of "Strange Tales", and (not untypically) involves a lonely scholar seduced by a ghost (it also involves a mysterious painting, a sword-wielding Taoist monk, a cruel and ancient tree spirit, a Buddhist sutra, and the legions of hell, as well as pratfalls and exploding incantations: it really is a film that has everything). Here, in full, is the one and only (and relatively discreet) sex scene, the highpoint of the film not because of the impassioned embraces, but because of Sally Yeh singing "Dawn do not come" (黎明不要來 - "Li Ming Bu Yao Lai" is how I was taught to read these characters; but this being Cantonese she's singing "Lai Ming But Yiu Loi"):

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

2nd Sunday of Lent

Catechesis yesterday afternoon was about the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. And led on into a consideration of the Eucharist. The programme we use had a three step procedure: the story itself (with Jesus explaining Scripture and then breaking bread); thinking about what it means to break bread in memory of Jesus, or to recognise Jesus in the the breaking of bread; and a consideration of Sunday Mass. The middle step was supposed to let them grope towards the conclusion, brainstorming about the question "How might we go about 'remembering Jesus' or 'recognising Jesus' in the 'breaking of bread'?" before getting all explicit about the Mass, and Jesus's presence in the Eucharist.

But the youngsters were a step ahead of me, two or three of them immediately identifying the story as Eucharistic (it probably helps that they also have RE in school). Their brainstormed list of 'what we would need to remember Jesus' turned out to be: a church, an altar, bread, wine, the Scriptures, a priest, a diocese, the Pope, Faith, Hope, Charity, "being present", "quiet", and "being together". Oh, and one of them suggested "Easter eggs" - I'm starting to worry about him. They even identified the parish priest (by name) as taking on the role of Christ in explaining the Scriptures and breaking bread.

At every stage I queried their answers, "Do we need that? Can we manage without it?" They conceded that a church and an altar were not strictly necessary (private houses and tents will both do at a pinch, or a table or any other flat surface - one of them remembering Mass at camp); all the rest they considered non-negotiable. When I queried whether the Pope was strictly necessary to Eucharistic celebration one of them got quite indignant (a boy with an Italian surname; how relevant might that be?). Even Luke's account of the disciples returning from Emmaus mentions Simon! I wasn't expecting a bunch of brainstorming 11-year-olds to come up with "No Mass without Rome", and I'm sure the course designers would be pretty surprised too.

More soberingly, two of them (four years after First Communion) claimed never to have heard that Christ is present in the Eucharist. I wish I could assume it was just because they hadn't been paying attention.

Come Wednesday it's Bible study in the parish again: the Cleansing of the Temple. The literal meaning aside, Bede sees it as the cleansing of worldly concerns from the Temple of the Holy Spirit (probably not just Bede, but Bede is certainly among those who so consider it). Perfect for Lent.
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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why This Waste?

Long Catholic blog rant. If you really want to read it, click on the link at the bottom of the post.

Before Mass this morning I attended a talk about John's Gospel. The talk itself was very interesting, but not what prompts this post. In the course of it the priest (a Jesuit provincial) referred to John's account of the pound of ointment poured out over Our Lord's feet, and Judas's objection to it "Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?"

He said (I translate freely while quoting from memory), "Judas had got behind what we might call the Jesus project - a world of justice and peace - but had not developed a loving relationship with Jesus himself" - and contrasted this with what we know of Peter and John.

This jogged something in my mind. One of the blogs I read so regularly that it's listed in the sidebar is written by a parishioner of the parish of Our Lady of the Rosary in Blackfen, on the outer fringes of London's estuary sprawl into Kent. Anybody who regularly reads British Catholic blogs, or the Tablet, will be aware that a couple of weeks ago the Tablet took it upon itself to have a go at her parish priest for saying one Sunday Mass not only in Latin but according to the old missal (which the Pope said a year or two ago could now be done without seeking special permission from the bishop every time). This is alongside a Saturday evening Mass, a Sunday morning family Mass, and a Sunday evening hymnless Mass all in English, so really it looks as though every taste is catered for, but some folk seem to be offended that anything "preconciliar" should happen in an ordinary parish at all, and this is music to the Tablet's ears (I used to read my mother's copies of the Tablet fairly regularly, because they were in the house, and am grateful that, indirectly and without their knowledge, they made it possible for me to spend half a year teaching English at a junior seminary in Malawi; these days I just give it the occasional glance while waiting for old books to be brought out of the strongroom in the Theology faculty library, if L'Osservatore Romano is already taken).

What another blogger I regularly read, in an alternative view from across the estuary, has dubbed "the tradosphere" (a portmanteau of "traditionalists" and "blogosphere") was briefly in an uproar about the Tablet's "hatchet job" (the wikipedia page was even "semiprotected" to stop a rash of hostile editing). My own experience of the "old Mass" (it's the same Mass, of course, always new and aways ancient, but you know what I mean) has never been encouraging - having an avid celebrant promise that “the Mass our martyrs died for” won’t take over fifteen minutes and you don’t actually have to listen to any of it, does nothing to endear the form; nor does being told that floods, famines and earthquakes could have been averted by people receiving communion without touching it with their hands - but I certainly got a great deal out of the way the Oratorians said Mass in Oxford, following the missal of Pope Paul VI in Latin and with a gentle, careful, painstaking devotion that I (perhaps mistakenly) mentally associate with Newman; and I can well believe that there are those who derive the same sort of benefit from the "preconciliar" missal when it's not gabbled through in an undertone.

I hadn't blogged about this because it's really none of my business (or the Tablet's either, for that matter), but one thing about the article did bother me, in a niggling, sub-conscious sort of way, and this morning's talk brought what it was into focus. It was the mention of "complaints about their priest’s refusal to support Cafod, [and] his expenditure on traditional vestments". Never mind the fact that collections do go to other charities, or that the vestments are often salvaged or hand-me-downs, really it only changes three letters of one word: "Why was not this vestment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?"

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