Alasdair MacIntyre discusses poetry, modernity, Catholicism


Alasdair MacIntyre, Permanent Senior Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, delivered a lecture on November 11 entitled “Poetic Imaginations, Catholic and Otherwise” as part of the Center’s 17th annual Fall Conference, “You are Beauty: Exploring the Catholic Imagination.”

MacIntyre began by quoting the poem “An Epitaph” by Walter De La Mare, which eulogizes the poet’s beloved: “Here lies a most beautiful lady, / Light of stature and heart was she.” MacIntyre noted De La Mare’s worry that his beloved would eventually be forgotten. But, MacIntyre said, this did not happen; when a poet writes a poem and when we read it, there is an “act of remembering” present, “a shared expression of shared memory.” This, for MacIntyre, helps illustrate a rather bold truth about poetry. “Without the poetic imagination,” he stated, “memory does not function as we need it to function.”

Turning to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” he commented upon the poet’s ability to give insight into a tragedy such as the described shipwreck. MacIntyre said, “Hopkins, by giving us new means of expression, enables us to feel in new ways.” Poetry not only helps us to remember, but allows us to discover things of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Thus, according to MacIntyre, poetry is also “revelatory.”

He then discussed the specifically Catholic dimension of poetry. He noted that today, the power to express things and remember them in poetry is considered separate from the truth of the poem or the beliefs of its author. But, he claimed, this belief itself is “a social and cultural artifact of modernity,” not necessarily the correct view. Perhaps, MacIntyre suggested, referring back to his description of the imaginative revelations, poetry is a key formational tool. He pointed out that at one time poets were authorities, and “it’s only through listening that an audience can learn facts about themselves.” In the case of Homer, we learn “what we owe to the living and to the dead” and “what it is to win and what it is to be defeated.” Truth and poetry have often been closely linked.

It is perhaps for this or a related reason, suggested MacIntyre, that Dante had Virgil guide him in his Comedy, aware of the authoritative nature of poets. Dante, as a poet, presents himself with the authority to guide his reader toward holiness and God through his vivid imagination. Without this imagination—both from Virgil’s natural insight, and from Dante’s grace-filled brilliance—MacIntyre stated, “We are in danger of seeing ourselves as other than we are.” Dante’s task is to shape our imagination poetically and to guide us away from those in Hell—who, as MacIntyre pointed out, have distorted and “self-indulgent” imaginations.

Next, MacIntyre described the state of poetry in modern life—a more postmodern time, where the truth so strongly upheld in older poetry has been replaced. In this time, MacIntyre said, instead of a Dante, we have James Joyce—“cheerfully blasphemous,” subverting Homer and Dante alike, and emphasizing a world in which character and a lack of absolutes is emphasized. “Joyce,” said MacIntyre, “shows us something important about the postmodern condition.” The poetic imagination is still notably present, and even influenced by Catholicism, but it displays something to imaginatively reject. It shapes us by showing us the danger of losing ourselves.

MacIntyre next took up the question of how, in this modern and poetry-scarce time, we must escape losing ourselves. He noted that even some aspects of the Church can be shaped by such modernism, and for some people, may not be able to establish a firm enough foundation. Poetry, he noted, remains essential: “we must be immersed in literature” to help shape the state of society. Until then, he concluded, we live in a “poetically-impoverished society with a poetically-impoverished language and a poetically-impoverished imagination. It is as simple and as complex as that.”

James Rahner is a sophomore philosophy major in Alumni Hall. He also just added a tentative supplementary theology major. To congratulate/question his decision, contact him at