MacIntyre and McCandless :: the end of the wild

by Eric Daryl Meyer

“What is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” [1]

This quote of MacIntyre could be the launching point for any number of fruitful conversations, but I’d like to set it alongside the film that Carolyn and I went to see on Friday night. Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a restless college graduate trying to exercise the demons in his family (or at least their hold on him) by throwing himself into solitude, adventure, and unbridled exploration of creation’s wonders. If ever there were a model for someone seeking truth in “the free and arbitrary choices” of a sovereign self, McCandless (or the cinematic reconstruction of him) is that figure.

[Spoiler Warning—from here on, I discuss the plot a bit]

The story is tragic, there is no doubt. But it is powerful because it draws on an instinct present in many of us, the drive for purity, for truth, McCandless launches himself on a quest for truth, convinced that deep within himself—if only he puts himself deep enough into the wild—there lies a spark of divine truth that will emerge to outshine all the pain and corruption he has discovered in his short life. He follows the instinct for purity to its utter end; he will allow no corrupting attachments or relationships in his quest for natural/divine truth. Yet, in seeking to overcome the pain his parents caused him, McCandless leaves a sea of tears in the eyes of people who come to love a reckless wanderer. But, truth, for McCandless is a force more powerful than love.

In the end, when McCandless comes face to face with “nature,” that naked spark of truth he sought all along, it becomes for him a mirror. The realization that his own face is empty, nameless, sends him back to the relationships he abandoned. It is of course, too late, but his dying act reaches out from beyond his own death, calling out to his family by re-claiming their name.

McCandless is a tragic figure because he sought freedom apart from service to others; because he sought truth apart from love; because he sought knowledge in nature apart from any wisdom; because he sought healing apart from forgiveness; because he sought new life without facing the death that was already at his core. He lived out, to the extreme, character traits that we all value, and he died all at once the death that we subject ourselves to little by little.

MacIntyre notes that both bureaucratic scripts and individual quests for meaning are ultimately intolerable. The truth, it seems to me, lies neither in bureaucracy for its own sake—collectivist order to which individual lives are sacrificed; nor in the escape from every hindrance, beholden only to the voice within. There is a bureaucracy whose structure is upside down, whose Head washes the feet, whose last are first. A bureaucracy in which freedom is measured by service and in which control is first turned inward, to be expressed more fully in love for others. It is likely that McCandless never met that good news, or never recognized it if he did, so rare is its presence. May God grant his church the courage to live in its calling.

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[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 35. 

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