Many circus books tell us why their authors have run away to the circus; few address whether they should have. In the contemporary social order, even to ask this question is to invite ridicule – surely we should do what makes us happy, posits the egoist, surely we do what our unconscious drive tells us, posits the psychologist. Those who have thought seriously about the attraction of the circus, find some answers in the neurosciences as the emotions of the viewer can be shown to mirror the experience of the performer. But these are not answers to ‘should’ type questions, the purview of moral philosophy. Professor Alasdair MacIntyre, soon to reach his 90th Birthday, has been seen as one of the world’s greatest living philosophers since the publication of his seminal After Virtue in 1981. Amongst many other arguments, his latest book (entitled Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity) endorses the decision to run away to the circus. In this article I will try to explain why.
‘Running away to the circus’ has been a constant in our 250 year history. Performers, directors, writers, visual artists, musicians and even academics have been attracted in Paul Bouissac’s words (in his book The Meaning of the Circus: The Communicative Experience of Cult, Art & Awe), like ‘moths flying to a candle in the night’. As Katie Hickman put it, recounting a year spent in Mexican circus: The circus is full of the enchanted: many come here for love, both girls and men; others are orphans, runaways, or simply nomads, such as myself. Our presence occasions neither comment nor surprise: it is expected; because it has always been so. ...
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