Having, for many years and most especially in recent posts, duly praised Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), I hereby lodge a complaint. In The Village Voice also back in 1981, the perceptive critic George Scialabba, citing a crucial line from MacIntyre’s book, saw what I see:
“The good life for man,” he [MacIntyre] concludes lamely, “is the life spent in seeking the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is” (my bold).
In case you’re confused, I’m quoting Scialabba, chiming in about this lame conclusion (“concludes lamely”), who is himself aptly quoting MacIntyre.
Context? MacIntyre has just served up a scathing critique of modernity, which has forfeited any shared vision of the good. This critique is supposed to pave the way for a re-airing of the Aristotelian teleological virtues. Which it does and deftly so. And these virtues are to be bound together by a unified life. Which MacIntyre fails to deliver on.
For we are not all the way home, MacIntyre asserts, so long as we hold fast to the sundry goods of sundry practices. What is wanting still is what–in my words–shall be the highest or ultimate good. What shall be that at which human life ought to characteristically aim? (For more on this, see my “The Liberal Arts During the Meta-crisis.”)
MacIntyre’s allusion to Socrates (“The good life for man is the life spent in seeking the good life for man….”) simply won’t do, for it is a processual account of the endless search for the good (the good is to constantly search for the good) and not the actualization of the highest good itself. In fact, Socrates’s profound, crucial mistake, I’ll but briefly submit here, was to reject Presocratic philosophizing about metaphysics and cosmology in order to “call[ ] philosophy down from heaven, and plac[e] it in cities, and introduc[e] it even in homes, and [to drive] it to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil” (this, famously, from Cicero). You can’t separate the good from the real! It simply won’t do, I repeat, to continually inquire into the nature of the good and call that the highest good for man while also hiving off any genuine consideration of reality. I know this from 20,000 hours of experience of Socratic philosophizing.
The Kyoto School philosopher Keiji Nishitani, in his wonderful essay “What is Religion?,” provides us with another, better, undeniably Zen starting point: “the self-realization of reality can only take place by causing our existence to become truly real” (from Religion and Nothingness, p. 6).
The investigation of what is ultimately good should follow this line of lived, deep-in-the-bone inquiry: whatever is ultimately good just is whatever is truly real; and whatever is truly real shall engulf everything, including the inquirer, within itself. Kishitani again: “The question that asks about reality must itself become something that belongs to reality” (p. 6). Likewise, the one who inquires into the nature of ultimate reality must see that he is nothing but, nor has he ever been anything other than, ultimate reality. In brief, full realization just means reality realizing itself, reality disclosing itself to itself, reality seeing its “original face.”
In other words, the ultimate good is awakening.