Friday, September 14, 2012

The Creation of Modernity

I had one of those moments today when you read a paragraph that puts into words something you've been trying to think about. In this case, it was the disconnect between work and "the rest of life" (a disconnect that, admittedly, I haven't directly experienced in a few years). A Christian remedy might be to approach work with a good attitude, to see even the menial as a chance for grace, to "do everything as if working for the Lord". That is surely no bad thing, but that ought not to be the end of the story. Beneath the surface there is a deep socio-cultural issue that can't ultimately be fixed with a smile. In truth, I can't even begin to imagine how it might be fixed.

...the kind of work done by the vast majority of the modern world cannot be understood in terms of the nature of a practice with goods internal to itself, and for very good reason. One of the key moments in the creation of modernity occurs when production moves outside the household. So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household in turn sustains. As, and to the extent that, work moves outside the house and is put to the service of impersonal capital, the realm of work tends to become separated from everything but the service of biological survival and the reproduction of the labour force, on the one hand, and that of institutionalized acquisitiveness, on the other. Pleonexia, a vice in the Aristotelian scheme, is now the driving force of modern productive work. The means-end relationships embodied for the most part in such work -- on a production line, for example -- are necessarily external to the goods which those who work seek; such work too has consequently been expelled from the realm of practices with goods internal to themselves. And correspondingly practices have in turn been removed to the margin of social and cultural life. Arts, sciences and games are taken to be work only for a minority of specialists: the rest of us may receive incidental benefits in our leisure time only as spectators or consumers. Where the notion of engagement in a practice was once socially central, the notion of aesthetic consumption now is, at least for the majority. 
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virture, 227-8


  1. That is one hell of a book, isn't it. I was frequently blown away by it when I was writing my philo thesis.

  2. It's outstanding. I was thinking recently of what my favourite theology/philosophy books might be. After Virtue would almost certainly make that list.

    Also, I would love to read that thesis if you still have a digital copy and if you're willing to share it.