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Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences



 Biographical Note 

John Augustine McCabe was born on 2nd August 1926. He studied at St Mary’s College, Middlesborough, and then went to Manchester to read Chemistry. There he switched to philosophy, because, according to him, "I didn’t have to get up so early". He joined the Dominicans in 1949 where he developed a profound interest in the work of Aquinas under the influence of teachers like Victor White. Also influential on him were Cornelius Ernst, Thomas Gliby and Gervase Matthew. After ordination in 1955, he worked in parishes in Newcastle and Manchester, where he did much in adult education and with students. His social radicalism developed in this period, and he became involved with the "December Group" which included the literary critic Terry Eagleton, and with the magazine "Slant". At the time of the Vatican Council, he was editor of the Dominican journal "New Blackfriars" and his outspoken comments in editorials got him into trouble with Church authorities (including those of the Dominican Order), although his suspension from the priesthood was rescinded after only a few days. After this, he spent some time in Ireland, which radicalised him even further and made him a lifelong supporter of the Irish cause. He was reinstated as editor of "New Blackfriars" in 1970 and is famous for the opening line of his first editorial after his reinstatement: "As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted, . . .". McCabe was a great teacher of Aquinas, but he was too fastidious and insecure of himself to publish much. He does have a few books to his name, including "The New Creation" (1964), "Law, Love and Language" (1968), but much remains to be published posthumously. Below we republish a short article from the newspaper "The Independent" which shows McCabe at his best. Apart from his lucid style, what is striking is his ability to show, simply and incisively, how relevant Thomism remains to the social problems of our day.



SURVEYING the devastation of Toxteth after the nights of rioting, Michael Heseltine mused aloud: 'Violence gets you nowhere.' 'Well', said the local priest beside him, 'it got you here.' I was reminded of this exchange while reading The Loss of Virtue, a collection of essays by authors who share, I think, a fundamentally Thatcherite view of economics but have noticed disturbing things happening in the free world. People are getting more and more unhappy, violent and lawless.

The authors do not speak entirely with one voice: all, however, seem agreed that we urgently need to turn the hosepipe of old-fashioned morality on the fire that has broken out in the house of capitalism; especially amongst the lower orders. When they are not rioting they are being feckless with their domestic accounts.

All this would be quite welcome as a preliminary fusillade against the sillier forms of liberal individualism if one could only be sure that it would go a great deal further. The difficulty is that, by and large, the moral teaching available to these authors is not old-fashioned enough.

Alasdair MacIntyre dates from David Hume the popularity of the view of virtues as 'just those dispositions necessary to produce obedience to the rules of morality' and this, it seems to me, is the pervasive assumption of this book. It contrasts quite sharply with the more ancient belief that law and rules are in the service of virtue and both are for the sake of establishing the kind of social friendship between consenting adults that Aristotle calls philia within which it is possible to lead a good human life.

The book lays the blame for the moral confusions of our time on the permissive decade of the Sixties. But surely that was merely the exciting, volatile, careless period that sparked off the fire in a house already built of highly inflammable materials. Liberal capitalism had already cut off the world of production, business and finance from any wet concern for outdated moral and social controls.

For an Aristotelean, virtues are established dispositions that are acquired with difficulty (or, as Aquinas would add, given by divine grace) by which our personality or 'self' is formed such that we are mature enough freely to decide on good action for its own sake and for our own.

The first thing to be noted about this freedom is that it is utterly different from anything covered by the Sixties phrase 'Doing your own thing' which is a consecration of whim - and not far from what Margaret Thatcher apparently meant by 'choice'.

The second thing is that education in virtue is a highly complex matter involving much more than schooling. Such education demands that people grow up amidst the formal relationships and bonds of fairly small communities in which virtues have an immediately recognisable and desirable place; in which decisions can be made locally by the people who have to live with their consequences.

The relentless government policy of the Eighties to subvert every institution that stood between the state and the individual - whether they be trade unions, universities, local councils, churches or, ultimately, despite the rhetoric, the family itself, has made the systematic development of human virtues nearly impossible. To put it generally, a society in which 'the free market' has been elevated from simply meaning a sensible way of producing and distributing certain goods to being some kind of god presiding over human lives, provides an overall climate more hospitable to the development of such a vice as avarice than of such a virtue as justice.

If, with the older tradition, you see the moral life not as elaborating a set of rules, a moral code, which you must then train your will to obey, but as learning how to make good decisions in the living out of your life-story, then much depends on what you think of human decision- making. For the tradition of Aquinas such a decision is the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning, and this conclusion is not a rule or a piece of advice to be followed by an effort of will, it is the actual free act itself.

There are two sides to this practical reasoning: one to do with what we want and the other to do with what we are. On the one hand we consider possible means of achieving what we intend, to discover which are sufficient and suitable for our end in view; on the other hand we view such means in relation to ourselves, to our personalities as formed, for good or ill, by the dispositions we have learnt. It is these virtues or vices (and not 'will- power') that supply the dynamism for our decisive acts. We act freely as we find it in what we have made of ourselves to act. Without a character, good or bad, there is no decision, no real free choice, just a drifting or an arbitrary whim.

A virtuous man acts generously, or chastely or patiently, because it has become second nature in him so to do; to do otherwise would be foreign to him and distasteful. He does not act by an effort of 'will' to obey what he happens to know is the right rule in the matter. One who did so would, in Aristotle's view, be not, for example, temperate, but merely self-controlled; and for him, as for Aquinas, self-control is not a virtue. The aim of education is to transform initially uncontrolled people who do not, say, act generously at all, through a phase of being self-controlled - acting generously but from motives external to them - into generous people.

In his impressive and moving paper on war memorials as icons of self-sacrifice for one's country (Faith and Reason, 6 March), Jon Davies rightly complains that: 'We live in a culture that has no formal maturation system, primarily because adult roles in such a culture have been infantilised . . . the culture has no particular respect or need for adult behaviour.' Nevertheless, if education is a maturing into virtue, intellectual and moral, rather than a training in obedience to rules, it is not at all clear that the military life is an illuminating example of this; nor that it was so regarded traditionally. Though knighthood retained its social status and tournaments were the equivalent of rugby football, respect for war and its practitioners is not easy to find in pre-nationalist Europe. (Thomas Aquinas asks himself: Is war always unjust?)

Jon Davies can go no further back than the 17th century to find the kind of memorials that make his point. The men who actually fought in medieval engagements were mostly mercenaries on hire to the highest bidder who were regarded not with admiration but with either well-grounded fear or else pity, depending on the circumstances. The man reduced to soldiering was too often the masterless man deprived of his niche in society rather than a model of duty and loyalty to the community.

How then can we be and learn to see ourselves as integral parts of a society ultimately based on a kind of friendship, within which reasonable happiness and creativity are at least possible; a society to which we are responsible and which is responsible for us? It will surely demand an upheaval in both structures and attitudes at least comparable to what has been taking place in Eastern Europe.

It would be simpler, perhaps, if both the original school and university days of education and the subsequent work-structures were so remodelled that getting a job might itself be recognisable as National Service. But that, of course, is known as socialism.


Fr Herbert McCabe OP




From The Independent, Faith and Reason, 27 March 1993, reprinted with permission.


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