49 pages 1 hour read

Alasdair MacIntyre

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1981

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Chapters 14-18Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Chapter 14 Summary: “The Nature of the Virtues”

MacIntyre points out that conceptions of the virtues differ widely, and sometimes even incompatibly, between various cultures. MacIntyre compares ancient philosophers with the later Western writers Benjamin Franklin and Jane Austen to show how conceptions of the virtues changed over time. The overarching question he asks is whether all these Western thinkers can be said to have a shared concept of virtue at all.

For Homer, virtue was a quality that enabled a person to fulfill their social role. Homer included as virtues some qualities—like physical strength—that we would not consider virtues today, although MacIntyre points out that the Greek word for “virtue” can also be translated as “excellence.” Aristotle’s list of virtues differs from Homer’s in emphasizing the mental over the physical, reflecting the change of the paradigm of virtue from the warrior to the Athenian gentleman. The New Testament extols humility as a virtue, which Aristotle considered a vice, and adds faith, hope, and love (charity) while insisting that even the lowborn can be virtuous.

In the era of the Enlightenment, Benjamin Franklin emphasized practical virtues like “cleanliness, silence and industry” (183) and redefined many of the traditional virtues to serve a utilitarian ethic of success and prosperity.