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C H A P T E R S E V E N T E E N Ethics and the Evil of Being W I L L I A M D E S M O N D Nietzsche or St. Benedict What has been achieved in twentieth-century ethics? The diversity of ethical discussions precludes a simple answer. Currents of thought have come and gone, but the presiding god of modernity still sits on its throne— autonomy. The god may take many forms: Kantian, utilitarian, existentialist ; it may tire of its individual form and mutate its self-determination into more social definitions, whether Hegelian, neo-Hegelian, Marxist, neoMarxist , liberal, neoliberal. It sits there still. But has not the chorus of postmodern thinkers, led by their Pied Piper, Nietzsche, dethroned that god? It might seem so, for the chorus swells with many songs of otherness, not always quite in tune with the hymns to solitude sung by that lonely Piper. And yet the trickster god Dionysus sits there, there where he seems not to sit, and this Dionysian sovereign, new yet old, springs from the same sacred seed of which autonomy is a tamer, humanistic offspring. Even when the torn postmodern thinkers wring their hands about the fall of the subject and seem again to offer us a vacated throne, there is a power behind the throne, and one cannot but worry that it is still the same old will that wills itself, still busy behind the mask of lacerated autonomy. It is not released freedom. For 423 424 WILLIAM DESMOND what is there to be released to, if there is no good beyond the ring of selfdetermination ? One might reply: released to something other. But what other, what kind of other? What if the ring of self-determination coils so curiously and tenaciously around itself as god, as the good, because there is no good, there is no god, and outside the coil or under it the contagion of the evil of being insinuates itself and infects all things? Iris Murdoch offered an assessment of literary culture and ethical theory about midway through the twentieth century in “Against Dryness” and tried to recuperate some sense of the Platonic good in her more constructive reflections.1 The evil of being is somewhat more sinister than dryness, though if the dryness is spiritual the parched desert of resulting life may not be very different. Alasdair MacIntyre gives a fine genealogy of ethical modernity in After Virtue, where, passing through a mixture of emotivism, utilitarianism, and Kantianism, we are brought to a culmination that as much poses a question as suggests perhaps an “either/or”— “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.”2 There is something teasing about the exact meaning of the underlined or, something perhaps more teasing in the underlined and. The stress of the concluding lines is less teasing: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another— doubtless—very different St. Benedict” (263).The fire in MacIntyre’s belly in After Virtue lit many a fire in others, some cooperating, some countering , none allowed the indulgence of continued moral somnolence. Afterwards , the tones of scholarly sobriety are perhaps more to the fore in his work. Here he calls himself an Augustinian Christian, as he did in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,3 there offering an exotic hybrid of Thomism and Marxism, tantalizing to some, alarming to others, as he did recently at the University College Dublin conference honoring his work. Continuing is the stress on practices, the patterns of their formations, and the importance of their immanent norms. Concern with virtue allows an opening to more premodern ethical philosophies like Aristotelianism and Thomism. But does the god autonomy simply bide its time to renew ever imperiously its demand that these openings again be reformulated in its immanent terms? This question is not directed to MacIntyre himself, of course, but it does suggest this slight reformulation of his wording: “Either St. Benedict or Nietzsche.” There is a choice here that, one senses, still awaits being fully addressed.4 I think especially of the still hovering shadow of nihilism of which Nietzsche was an impressive diagnostician but a relatively disastrous therapist. It is too much of the old therapy: bleed the patient more, or the dying god. Nietzsche suggested that nihilism was the devaluation of all value, the inversion of the highest values. I would define nihilism rather as the cultural sovereignty of the...


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