Thirty years ago, when I was a senior in college, a book came out that shaped my thinking profoundly: Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue. My now-wife and I read it to one another as we made our evening cocoa. This week I re-read the book for the first time since those formative days.
McIntyre argues that modern moral language is so incoherent, because what we have today are the fragments of several contrasting moral cultures from the past. The virtues tradition, especially as understood by Aristotle and improved by Christianity, was concerned with how people could lead a fulfilling life within the roles and destiny of their community. Modern societies, by contrast, try to find a picture of how human beings can have a fulfilling life without specifying their roles or their community, or even what might be fulfilling.
McIntyre helped me understand why individualist theories of what human beings are seem so impoverished. This has been a great help to me as a sociologist.
His account of politics as a civil war among the virtues of different communities has been a help to me in understanding politics as a social enterprise, while not thinking that my community and my virtues are the only rational ones.
His account of how Christianity synthesized the virtues of the Greek polis with the broader and more inclusive history of the biblical story was crucial to my becoming a Christian.
One surprise of re-reading After Virtue is how little of it seemed new to me this time. I think it was just the right book at the right time for me when it first appeared. I absorbed its message so thoroughly that it shaped the architecture of my worldview. And its message is not a bit less timely now.