On the Pitfalls of Having an Intellectual Hero
The reputations of great, pioneering intellectuals tend to be damaged more by their admirers than by their critics. I’m not sure why this is, but it is a pattern I have seen repeat itself again and again. Thus, for example, I never had doubts about the wit and wisdom of GK Chesterton until I began attending Chesterton society meetings and conferences. Suddenly, all kinds of doubts began to creep in. The Chesterton I admired had genuine sympathy for the socialists, theosophists, and progressives with whom he so often found himself in disagreement. The Chesterton I admired read their works carefully and not only understood, but appreciated whatever was good and true in them, while maintaining (correctly in my view) that only orthodox Christianity contained the fullness of truth. The Chesterton I encountered at meetings and conferences, by contrast, was a zealous culture warrior, willing to concede that his opponents had a point or two, but quick to rally the troops of the One Truth Faith off to battle – especially in defense of the family, which of course was code for opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
To take one more example — this time from the other end of the cultural/political spectrum — while a grad student in English literature, I was expected to bow down and genuflect before literary theory. No commentary on Jane Eyre or Hamlet was complete without reference to the postcolonial Other or a discussion of the relevance of Lacan’s mirror stage. I hated and resented literary theory and thought I hated and resented literary theorists – until I read them, at which point I realized that intellectuals like Foucault and Marx were not “literary theorists,” but perceptive and engaging writers who had been disfigured by a discipline that had desperately sought for itself the credibility and prestige of the sciences. (As I later discovered, literary theory also served as a convenient means of socializing grad students, ensuring that the bold and promising projects of human liberation undertaken by humanities faculty members were not thwarted by the heterodoxy of their students.)
Reading this piece by Thaddeus Kozinski, I fear that Alasdair MacIntyre may soon take his place among intellectuals made to look bad by their followers. The MacIntyre I recall reading was indeed a fierce opponent of classical liberalism, but also understood and respected liberalism — responding to its strongest arguments on their own terms, rather than staging a siege against what he perceived to be its most vulnerable points. Kozinski’s MacIntyre equates liberalism with nihilism and nihilism with the Virginia Tech massacres and a girl who committed suicide by driving into oncoming traffic. Kozinski’s MacIntyre makes essentially the same rhetorical move against liberals as liberals have historically made against Catholics: which is to claim that liberalism is inherently violent. Just as liberals like Christopher Hitchens have used the Inquisition and Crusades against Catholicism, so too are Catholics like Thaddeus Kozinski attempting to tarnish liberalism by associating it with violence – as though tolerating pornography and violent video games are somehow key tenants of that tradition. (Kozinski apparently failed to notice the uproar among political liberals over violent video games following the Columbine shootings).
Similarly, the MacIntyre I recall reading proposes a solution to what Kozinski deems the traditionalist dilemma. Certainly, this is not apparent in the passage Kozinski quotes in which MacIntyre states that theologians who wish to “translate what they have to say to an atheistic world” will fail in one of two ways:
Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves.
Actually, if there were true, there would be no point in attempting to translate ideas from one’s tradition into the language of another tradition at all. But, in fact, it is precisely the problem of incommensurability that MacIntyre’s three great works seek to overcome. If it is not possible to learn another tradition as one’s “second first language” (MacIntyre’s term), identify key respects in which that tradition fails by its own standards, and explain to that tradition’s adherents how and why one’s own tradition is able to both diagnose the problem and supply the resources necessary to overcome it, then what we are left with is relativism. The MacIntyre I recall reading is thus committed to ongoing rational debate between traditions and goes so far as to propose modeling universities on such debate in Three Rival Traditions of Moral Enquiry. The MacIntyre Kozinski presents us with despairs of rational debate; Kozinski’s MacIntyre seeks to shore up Catholic triumphalism via the equivalent of a reductio ad Hitlerum rather than seeking to test the Augustinian Thomist tradition against the strongest possible objections.
So in each of the instances I have mentioned – Chesterton, Foucault, and MacIntyre – the pattern seems to be this. A great writer absorbs, but surpasses the insights of his heroes, while at the same time continually scrutinizing these insights and subjecting them to the strongest possible objections from unsympathetic outsiders — which, in turn, serves to further refine the insights. This combination of intellectual rigor, creativity, and willingness to learn from others generates enthusiasm and cult-like devotion among followers. But, unlike their intellectual hero, the followers do not concern themselves with all of the complexities and nuances of the debate. Nor do they actively engage intellectual opponents. This leads to a choking off of the lifeblood of the argument, rendering their hero’s insights flat, stale, and unprofitable. What a shame.