When Alasdair MacIntyre was twenty-three years old, he wrote this remarkable passage:
When the sacred and the secular are divided, then religion becomes one more department of human life, one activity among others. . . . Only a religion which is a way of living in every sphere either deserves to or can hope to survive. For the task of religion is to help us to see the secular as sacred, the world as under God. When the sacred and the secular are separated, then ritual becomes an end not to the hallowing of the world, but in itself. Likewise if our religion is fundamentally irrelevant to our politics, then we are recognising the political as a realm outside the reign of God. To divide the sacred from the secular is to recognise God's action only within the narrowest limits.
What is particularly remarkable about this passage is its robust theological claims, for not only was MacIntyre much less open to things theistic at this time--this passage comes from his first book written as an atheist Marxist--but also his later work as a Catholic Thomist evinced a strong commitment to strictly philosophical discourse: "I am by trade a moral philosopher, not at all a theologian, and certainly not an exponent of Christian ethics."
MacIntyre's life work has been that of a philosophical doctor, diagnosing the intellectual maladies of modernity and prescribing medicine for their deepest root causes, causes detectable and treatable by the philosopher's instruments, hence MacIntyre's philosophical diagnosis of modern culture in 1979: "There is largely lacking any conception of political life as being the pursuit of a common good which transcends all partial interests and which can be realized by the individual only through his participation in political life." The prognosis follows: escalating political corruption, moral turpitude, and philosophical anarchy, of which the root causes are the Enlightenment's rejection of the Aristotelian philosophical tradition and post-Enlightenment western culture's having inherited, embodied, and furthered this rejection. Finally, there is this prescription: the reestablishment of the Aristotelian tradition in modern western culture.
In After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, and Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre gave us what is arguably the most sophisticated and radical philosophical critique of and alternative to modern moral and political philosophy and practice ever penned by a modern philosopher. However, in none of these works does MacIntyre return to or develop his distinctly religious and theological diagnosis of and prescription for the sick moral culture of the late 1970s. Instead, MacIntyre would go on to articulate his initial supernatural and theological diagnosis in purely natural and philosophical terms: the divorce of, not religion, but the good from everyday life; the separation of, not the sacred, but communal authority from the secular; the cleaving of, not Faith, but a determining telos from reason. In the last book of his trilogy, MacIntyre provides an eminently philosophical justification for the superiority of the Thomistic tradition:
The conception of truth embodied in the scheme requires that claims for truth on its behalf and on behalf of the judgments in which it is expressed commit those making them to hold that when that scheme encounters alternative standpoints making alternative and incompatible, even incommensurable, claims, Aquinas's dialectical synthesis will be able to render those standpoints intelligible in a way that cannot be achieved by their own adherents from their own point of view and to distinguish their defects and limitations from their insights and merits in such a way as to explain the occurrence of what they themselves would have to take to be their defects and limitations at points at which their own explanatory capacities are resourceless.
In his new book, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, MacIntyre has developed and, in a sense, completed his life's work of vindicating the Catholic philosophical tradition by writing a philosophically and theologically informed history of that tradition. After decades of rigorous exploration of and grappling with the philosophical questions and problems of the Catholic philosophical tradition, MacIntyre's history reveals that these questions and problems can only be adequately and accurately answered and understood in their fullest meaning from the vantage point of revealed theology:
Part of the gift of Christian faith is to enable us to identify accurately where the line between faith and reason is to be drawn, something that cannot be done from the standpoint of reason, but only from that of faith. Reason therefore needs Christian faith, if it is to do its own work well. Reason without Christian faith is always reason informed by some other faith, characteristically an unacknowledged faith, one that renders its adherents liable to error. (152-153)
Continuing his "theological turn" that began with his book on the philosopher- saint, Edith Stein, and his interpretative essays on Fides et Ratio, God, Philosophy, Universities might be described as a work after philosophy. MacIntyre's succinct yet rich narration of the history of the Catholic philosophical tradition reveals the superiority of this tradition in all its dialectical deftness, cultural adaptability, and synthetic richness. In his prior works, MacIntyre aimed his critical eye at the decrepit state of moral philosophy, cultural discourse, and political life in the West, offering us as a way back to health the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition.
In this work, however, MacIntyre is more concerned with the internal state of this tradition itself, and especially with that institution most indispensable for its preservation, sustenance, and development--indeed for its very survival--the Catholic university. Since theory and practice are inextricably related, as the student of MacIntyre knows, any discussion of Catholic philosophy must include its institutional analogue:
Philosophy is not just a matter of propositions affirmed or denied and of arguments advanced and critically evaluated, but of philosophers in particular social and cultural situations interacting with each other in their affirmations and denials, in their argumentative wrangling, so that the social forms and institutionalizations of their interactions are important and none more so than those university settings that have shaped philosophical conversation, both to its benefit and to its detriment. (1)
Just as the interminable and fruitless quarreling that constitutes contemporary public moral discourse, and the "civil war by other means" that is western, democratic political life indicate a profound problem in contemporary moral and political theory, so the secularization, careerism, specialization, fragmentation, and politicization of the contemporary Catholic university, in obeisance to its illegitimate, secularist offspring, indicates something radically wrong with its theoretical foundation. Thus, we need a reappropriation, rejuvenation, and rearticulation of the Catholic philosophical tradition, as well as a refounding of the Catholic university firmly and immovably on this tradition.
According to MacIntyre, Catholic universities ¬en masse have uncritically adopted and imitated the secular-research model, in which authentic worship of and robust discourse about God has no institutional or curricular place--religious studies and community service take the place of the Catholic Mass and the queen of the sciences. Philosophy becomes "just one more specialized form of academic activity, important perhaps for those whose interests incline them toward that sort of thing, but something that can be safely ignored by the huge majority of humankind, that is in no way an indispensable part of an adequate education" (170-171). However, the heart of the Catholic philosophical tradition, though not reducible to it, is the Faith it serves and is enlightened by, for philosophy is its perpetual interlocutor, companion, and student. Indeed, philosophy is born from the existentially unstable encounter with the mystery of religious belief: "Philosophy is in the offing for the first time when someone asks whether something hitherto commonly and unquestioningly taken to be a religious truth is in fact true" (9).
The diagnosis of 2009, then, is that the Catholic philosophical tradition and university are in bad shape, with risk of death unless something drastic is done. What, then, is MacIntyre's prescription? In a word: God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition! What best revitalizes any craft gone into disuse is sometimes just the existence of a mastercraftsman who is willing and able to teach apprentices. MacIntyre is the mastercraftsman of the guild of the Catholic philosophical tradition; we are his apprentices, and studying his masterful narration of this tradition's history, centering on St. Thomas Aquinas as its culminating figure, and the tension between religious belief and philosophical enquiry as its informing and enlivening problem, is our first task.
But why study the past when our most urgent problems are in the present? Why not engage in philosophical polemics against the enemies of faith and reason here and now? MacIntyre answers,
Our present philosophical problems and our present philosophical resources are what they are only because of what they have become in the course of enquiries by and debates among our predecessors, and they are only fully intelligible when they are understood as issuing from that history. (169)
Fair enough. But what prompted MacIntyre to share this historical story with us now?
Traditions are defined retrospectively. It is only on looking back that the unity of a project to which over considerable stretches of time there have been different contributors, each with their own goals and concerns, becomes apparent. When it does, it is sometimes because of some challenge to a tradition from outside it, a challenge that awakens in those whose lives and work are informed by that tradition a new awareness, both of their shared inheritance and of the issues and problems that they now have to address, if they are to sustain their tradition in the future . . .(165).
The challenge that MacIntyre is alluding to is that counter-tradition most threatening to the internal good and external purchase of the Catholic tradition today: what was once the secular, classical liberal Enlightenment, but has now metastasized into the secularist, advanced-liberal post-Enlightenment. How did it get so advanced? In his chapter "The Catholic Absence From and Return to Philosophy, 1700-1850," MacIntyre suggests that this counter-tradition in its earlier stage could have been engaged dialectically and purified philosophically by the Catholic philosophical tradition--but wasn't. Instead, "Where philosophy flourished, Catholic faith was absent. Where the Catholic faith was sustained, philosophy failed to flourish" (133). "To have to reckon with all of these now is part of the price that Catholic thought has to pay for its absence from the philosophical scene during those periods in which these secularizing modes of thought were first developed" (178).
Thus, more than ever, we need a good retelling of the history of the Catholic philosophical tradition, and what MacIntyre provides is as good as it gets: In 180 pages, we learn, among many other things, about this tradition's antecedents in Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Boethius, and Pseudo-Dionysius; the Islamic and Jewish Prologue to this tradition; its culminating synthesis of Christian Faith and Greek reason in St. Thomas Aquinas; the challenge to this synthesis by Scotus and Ockham and the rise of skepticism; the unsuccessful response to this skepticism by Descartes, Pascal, and Arnauld; the efforts of Rosmini and Newman to reestablish Catholic intellectual influence in a rapidly secularizing culture with fragmenting universities; the resurgence of Thomism after Aeterni Patris and the call to engage non-Thomistic culture and tradition with this new Thomism in Fides et Ratio.
"What is it to be a Catholic philosopher now?" MacIntyre asks toward the end of the book. It is to master this tradition, now definitively presented by MacIntyre in its origin, development, and essence, and critically to engage the many non- and anti-Catholic philosophies: methodological naturalism, Heideggerian existentialism, pragmatist liberalism, and all the rest that now inform western universities, both Catholic and secular, and the culture at large. Can we reform Catholic universities that are now "multiversities" where the Catholic Faith plays only a marginable or even negligible role, or do we need to build new ones from scratch? As MacIntyre warns us, we cannot hope to reappropriate, rejuvenate, sustain, and develop the Catholic philosophical tradition without integrally Catholic and Thomistic universities, but, paradoxically, such universities require a Catholic Tradition already enlivened and appropriated to inform them! Can we be optimistic? No, but we can be hopeful: ". . .we can take courage from the thought that, in the life of the mind as elsewhere, there is always more to hope for than we can reasonably expect" (180).