The Good Storyteller

April 16, 2013

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to recast Marxism through Aristotle, but this book provides a very helpful prism through which to view contemporary political debate. It does so because of its resurrection of an ancient idea which is at the core of modern politics, albeit in a very different form: that of the telos of a life. This is a complicated idea which will take a while to unpack, so I ask you to bear with me while I do so.

After Virtue is a rejection of individualism, not simply in political terms but in methodological terms too. Contemporary philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world typically involves the inspection of whether a particular statement is true, or whether a particular act is moral. This atomistic approach to reasoning, while giving philosophy some of the reductive qualities of science, may literally miss the point: a statement may be true in the context of a corpus of work, or an act may be moral in the context of a particular society. By shearing these items from their context, their instructive value is lost, and any philosophical theories based upon such an analysis may fundamentally fail.

Similarly, if we consider whether an individual leads a moral life without looking at the society in which they were born, raised and live, we may reach very different conclusions. The morality of a society can be considered as bound up in the stories it tells itself, not because they provide rules and regulations which an individual must obey, but rather provide exemplars that individuals who have particular roles in a society should aim to emulate. The Illiad and the Odyssey are epic poems in which particular qualities are manifested by heroes in particular roles, and those qualities are those that ancient Greek society required people in those roles to demonstrate. The aggregate of those exemplars contributes towards an understanding of what the ancient Greek city-states took to be the good for man, which each of those states was striving for in their own particular way.

It is important to note that there is no strong distinction between the qualities that make one a good person and the qualities that make one a good blacksmith; both are types of excellences necessary for a society that aims at the good for man. The qualities that one should manifest are those of the role the story one finds oneself within. MacIntyre contends that personal identity is bound up with a narrative or story-based understanding of one’s life, and from one’s role in the story flows all that one should do.

So far, so Paul Coelho, but this is a fascinating idea to contemplate, not least for the things it says about morality. While I can author my own story, I am much more likely to understand my role in society from the myths and stories it tells. This implies that moral agency, whether someone can be understood as responsible for their own actions, is two-tiered: the individual is responsible for developing the qualities necessary for their role, but storytellers are the authors of society. The inventors of stories ascribe qualities to roles which inform how those roles are to be delivered by their actors. Those actors are us, for whom acting is another word for being human; we can only be understood in terms of the telos of our role. There is no division between art and society, and attempts to claim that there is underestimate the influence of storytelling on our understanding of social roles even without the author intending to so.

If you think this sounds illiberal you would be correct. MacIntyre is explicitly reacting against atomistic individualist liberalism and indeed almost all the moral discourse that has taken place since the Enlightenment. However, MacIntyre’s approach is exceptionally helpful for understanding contemporary politics, not least because he influenced Maurice Glasman and hence Blue Labour, but because the dominant way in which political parties attempt to communicate with the public is through narrative. All the parties have recognised that the best way of getting their message across is through telling a story about what they’re trying to achieve and who they are. In my next post, I shall explain why these stories are impoverished, and why this presents  a problem for all political parties.


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