Skip to content

Ends and Meanings (3): Alasdair MacIntyre virtue, mortality and story in heroic societies

Without … a place in the social order, a man [in a heroic society such as Homeric Greece or Saga Iceland] would not only be incapable of receiving recognition and response from others; not only would others not know, but he would not himself know who he was. It is precisely because of this that heroic societies commonly have a well-defined status to which any stranger who arrives in the society from outside can be assigned.

In Greek the word for ‘alien’ and the word for ‘guest’ are the same word. A stranger has to be received with hospitality, limited but well-defined. When Odysseus encounters the Cyclopes the question as to whether they possess themis (the Homeric concept of themis is the concept of customary law shared by all civilized peoples) is to be answered by discovering how they treat strangers. In fact they eat them—that is, for them strangers have no recognized human identity.

We might thus expect to find in heroic societies an emphasis upon the contrast between the expectations of the man who not only possesses courage and its allied virtues, but who also has kinsmen and friends on the one hand and the man lacking all these on the other. Yet one central theme of heroic societies is also that death waits for both alike. Life is fragile, men are vulnerable and it is of the essence of the human situation that they are such.

For in heroic societies life is the standard of value. If someone kills you, my friend or brother, I owe you their death and when I have paid my debt to you their friend or brother owes them my death. The more extended my system of kinsmen and friends, the more liabilities I shall incur of a kind that may end in my death.

Moreover there are powers in the world which no one can control. Human life is invaded by passions which appear sometimes as impersonal forces, sometimes as gods. Achilles’ wrath disrupts Achilles as well as his relationship to the other Greeks. These forces and the rules of kinship and friendship together constitute patterns of an ineluctable kind. Neither willing nor cunning will enable anyone to evade them. Fate is a social reality and the descrying of fate an important social role. It is no accident that the prophet or the seer flourishes equally in Homeric Greece, in saga Iceland and in pagan Ireland.

The man therefore who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. It is defeat and not victory that lies at the end. To understand this is itself a virtue; indeed it is a necessary part of courage to understand this.

But what is involved in such understanding? What would have been understood if the connections between courage, friendship, fidelity, the household, fate and death had been grasped? Surely that human life has a determinate form, the form of a certain kind of story.

It is not just that poems and sagas narrate what happens to men and women, but that in their narrative form poems and sagas capture a form that was already present in the lives which they relate. ‘What is character but the determination of incident?’ wrote Henry James. ‘What is incident but the illustration of character?’

But in heroic society character of the relevant kind can only be exhibited in a succession of incidents and the succession itself must exemplify certain patterns. Where heroic society agrees with James is that character and incident cannot be characterized independently of each other.

So to understand courage as a virtue is not just to understand how it may be exhibited in character, but also what place it can have in a certain kind of enacted story. For courage in heroic society is a capacity not just to face particular harms and dangers but to face a particular kind of pattern of harms and dangers, a pattern in which individual lives find their place and which such lives in turn exemplify.

Alasdair MacIntyre – After Virtue [amazon]

What are the enacted stories of the early 21st century, and what does it mean to have courage (and other virtues) within them?

What is the place of the heroic?

See also:

Ends and Meanings: Alasdair MacIntyre on the three-legged stool of Aristotelian ethics
Victor Hugo on right, reality and the morality of the past
Dark Counterpart
Freedom to the Nose
One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor: Paul Fussell on Experience and Perspective
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (1)
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (2) – notable exceptions
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (3) – the hard part
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (4) – leaning out (or “Whose fool are you?”)
At the Mountains of Madness: Edwardian* Science; Lovecraftian Cosmology
Emperor of Ruins (Lovecraftian anthropology; Kremlin psychodrama)

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...