Can one be fully human in suburbia?

I have only a passing familiarity with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, but one of his concepts, the collapse of a common vision of ethics and its effects on modern culture, was very important to me.

Today I ran across this challenging quote, from an article on MacIntyre by Stanley Hauerwas, which in a way relates to my Christ and Community:

The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the ­community.

OK, that is pretty dense. What MacIntyre means is that the only way to live a fully human life is to live it in a small community where one’s activity – economic, political, social, religious, etc, is related to the good of each individual (or family) in the community, because it makes sense against the backdrop of of the ultimate goal of human existence to which everyone implicitly agrees.

OK, that is still dense. But think of it this way: if one works for a large multi-national, he does not see how his economic activity affects the guy living next door to him. In fact, it has no relation at all to his neighbor. In that sense, they are barely neighbors at all.

What he is essentially saying is that a village mentality is the only context in which life can make sense. This is the kind of argument one finds in work of Wendell Berry. Berry is an agnostic farmer-poet from Kentucky, MacIntyre a Scottish Marxist-turned-Catholic, but they end up in the same position. For Berry, whose novels explore the lives of several generations of farmers in a fictional Kentucky farming community, the only humane life is a village life, close to the earth.

(Of course people like reading Wendell Berry’s novels but have no desire to live like his characters do, working 18 hour days just to keep the bank from repossessing your 70 acres. The great rule of world-wide modern development, industrialization and migration is that anyone who can escape the life of a small farmer does. Those who embrace small-scale farming have either made their money by other means, or fill a highly specialized market for wealthy suburban clients.)

But this sort of village life was also, until just a few decades ago, the same as urban life. As large and densely packed American cities were in the 1940s, economically and socially they were really a thousand continuous villages, and for the most part about as friendly and safe. Bad policy triggered the economic and cultural collapse of the cities in the early 70s, a collapse from which most have still not really recovered.

It is pretty clear there is only a tenuous notion of “the common good” in modern politics, which are designed to explicitly ignore the question of the common good. Those who do invoke it, usually on the political left, abuse the concept, calling social programs in which one persons’ money is taken from him by coercion and given to another (in return for his vote) who has no sense of obligation to spend it wisely “charity” and “empathy”. The right usually retreats to the language of individualism, but what is the above situation anything but extreme individualism, even if it is couched in the language of charity? As MacIntyre famously says, without a common vision of the good, “politics is civil war by other means.”


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