On virtues of the heroic ages: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

The exercise of the heroic virtues thus requires both a particular kind of human being and a particular kind of social structure. Just because this is so, an inspection of the heroic virtues may at first sight appear irrelevant to any general enquiry into moral theory and practice. If the heroic virtues require for their exercise the presence of a kind of social structure which now irrevocably lost – as they do – what relevance can they possess for us? Nobody now can be a Hector or a Gisli.


The answer is that perhaps what we have to learn from heroic societies is twofold: first that all morality is to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion, and secondly that there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors in which series heroic societies hold first place. If this is so, the contrast between the freedom of choice of values of which modernity prides itself and the absence of such choice in heroic culture would look very different. For freedom of choice of values would from the standpoint of a tradition ultimately rooted in heroic societies appear more like the freedom of ghosts – of those whose human substance approached vanishing point – than of men. – After Virtue, Duckworth Second Edition, pp. 126-7

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