While reading recently the third edition of After Virtue by the great living philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, I was struck once again by the notion of the “philosophia perennis.” This is the notion that there is one, and only one, recurring and inevitable set of mutually dependent universal truths on the nature of man, and of the world in which he appears — one and only one convincing view of what we can mean by the good, the true, and the beautiful. This view is accessible to all men who can summon the intellectual and moral resources to be wise, which include the patience to deeply consider the alternatives and reject all those that ultimately contradict themselves.
MacIntyre is not a philosopher with whom I feel entirely at home. I agree with where he is going; I do not always agree with how he gets there. For example, to my mind, a scandalous amount of his work has been devoted to explaining, I think mostly to himself, how he could have been a Marxist in earlier life, and how Marxism itself — whether or not paradoxically — helped guide him toward his later views. He has, I think, an instinct to be a “man of the Left,” if at all possible, and it is an instinct I do not share. Perhaps this is because I am one of the few “men of the Right” who never passed through an early leftwing radical phase, and thus never had anything to disown, except godlessness. I was raised by my “secular humanist” parents as an old-fashioned liberal, and a detestation of Marxism feels to me as if it were written into my DNA.
Not that I’m against communism entirely. I believe it is the appropriate economic arrangement within a family, or within a monastery where vows have been made. A little more generally, I cherish a proverb Czech exiles taught me, in the good old days when we were all students of one kind or another, swilling beer in the cheapest pubs: “Communism is only possible among friends.” Among those not friends, it is tyranny.
But MacIntyre’s background contention is superb. He holds that it is only through “beliefs and suppositions . . . articulated in their classic form by Aristotle, that we can understand both the genesis and the predicament of modern morality.” More broadly, a tradition of thought, coming down to us through Aristotle and his greatest interpreter, Thomas Aquinas, must hold the field — because no alternative works.
I devoted four years of my own misspent youth to an absurdly ambitious autodidactic project, in which I tried to study and comprehend everything that went into and came out of Aristotle — discovering toward the end of this time the profound wealth of mediaeval thought, just when I really had to get a job and earn a living. So though unlearned, I will admit to being predisposed to the position MacIntyre is taking. I feel an inward certainty that the historical rise of the Catholic West is predicated upon the best articulation of the philosophia perennis, guided by the light of grace — and that reciprocally, the loss of that tradition in later modernity has necessarily entailed the loss of our purchase upon the very levers of reality.
For several centuries now, it seems to me, the Church herself has been retreating from her very bold claim to be the authoritative interpreter of things as they are. And while the postmodern opposition between “science and religion” is the product more of attacks on the Church than any gratuitous retreat, the Church now finds herself once again in the position she occupied in earlier centuries, when she was the one bastion of sound philosophical reasoning in a dark, and incidentally very plural, environment. We must, in other words, stand for Reason, because no one else is prepared to do so.
Moreover, in addition to the pillars of Scripture and Tradition, a third, Reason — the truth of nature in itself — is required to maintain an impregnable fortress. We do not claim to be the best product available in the free market of ideas. We necessarily claim to be the only product that works, consistently — and not only for human salvation, but even human comprehension of the world as it is.