The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Monday, February 21, 2011

How We Got Here From There

Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1948, 1984, 190 pages.

The collapse of Western civilization is evident wherever we turn our eye. When living amidst ruins our thoughts often turn to the civilization that existed before the collapse and to the question of what happened to it. How did we get to where we are today from where we were back then?

Sixty-six years ago, the Second World War came to an end. Today, this conflict is widely remembered as “the Good War” and the Allied victory is regarded as the ultimate triumph of good over evil by many. Distance from the events has helped this rather uncritical perspective to spread. For while the end of the war had brought about an end to the tyranny of the Third Reich and to the aggression of Imperial Japan, it also brought about an end to the British Empire. The liberation of occupied Europe and of the concentration camps had brought to light the astonishing degree of evil that was possible in the country that had given us Mozart, Beethoven, and Goethe. An even more evil regime than Nazi Germany, Stalin’s USSR, came out of the war triumphant. Stalin held in captivity the Eastern European countries the Red Army had “liberated” from the Nazis and now posed a major threat to Western Europe. Finally, the war had been brought to an end, by the unconscionable act of dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities.

In the years immediately following the War, the question of “how we got here” was on many minds. In 1948, the University of Chicago Press published an answer, in a brief but deep, book by Richard M. Weaver entitled Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver was an English professor at the University of Chicago and a conservative. His book, in the words of Dr. Robert Nisbet, “launched the renaissance of philosophical conservatism in” the United States and “is one of the few authentic classics in the American political tradition”.

In the first sentence of his introduction, Weaver declared his topic to be the “dissolution of the West”. On the same page he tells us “there is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot”. If that could be written in 1948, think about what that says about man today!

In his introduction, Weaver presents a series of steps, that have taken Western man from the nominalism of William of Occam in the late 14th century and brought him to Nagasaki in the 20th century. This is a lot further back than most conservatives today would trace the decay. There is a tendency among the current generation of conservatives to see the decline of the West as a 20th century problem or, if they are more informed, to trace it back to the “Enlightenment”. When nominalism was born, the Renaissance was just in its infancy stage and the Reformation was a century away. Weaver has done a very good job of showing how the stages he writes about, proceed from the previous ones in a chain, as well as of demonstrating why that chain is a chain of descent rather than the chain of ascent that progressives would identify it as.

Ideas Have Consequences, however, should not be read as an exercise in finger pointing – “it is all Occam’s fault!”. It is a diagnosis of a culture and a civilization and to understand a diagnosis we need to have an idea of what a “healthy” culture and civilization looks like. A healthy civilization is one which is integrated around a center that is illuminated by universals.

What are universals? They are ideas which transcend particulars. The material world consists of particulars. There are particular people, particular objects, particular places, particular things of all sorts, which we experience in everyday life. A universal is something which we cannot see and experience but which is essential to our understanding particulars. If we say “Bob is a man” what are we saying about Bob? To know what that predicate is saying about Bob, we need to have an idea of what “man” is. This means having an idea of something called “man” which is different from a particular man like Bob, but which applies to Bob, Joe, Bill and every other particular of whom “is a man” is a valid predicate.

Plato and Aristotle disagreed as to the nature of universals and their relationship to human knowledge. Plato, asserted that universals were Forms, that existed in the realm of pure thought, and that we obtain knowledge when particulars, which are imperfect representations of universals, awaken within us innate concepts of the universals they represent. Contemplation of those universals is the road to truth. Aristotle argued that knowledge of the universals is not innate, something to be awakened through a process of remembering, but something we arrive at by generalizing from particulars.

Weaver was a Platonist rather than an Aristotelian, and this manifests itself in his book, but a Platonic rather than Aristotelian understanding of universals is not absolutely essential to his main concept. However they may have disagreed on the nature of universals, both Plato and Aristotle insisted that true knowledge is a knowledge of universals (truth) rather than an accumulation of knowledge about particulars (facts). This is the classical perspective which was incorporated into the Christian religion and Christian theology.

It is this perspective that William of Occam, the 14th century Franciscan friar who is best remembered today for his law stating that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”, and the school of nominalism attacked. As Weaver puts it:

The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence…It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. (p. 3)

The steps, according to Weaver, that brought Western man from nominalism to the Twentieth Century are as follows: From the denial the real existence of universals, came the necessary belief that nature (the physical world) is fully intelligible within itself, from which came the liberal rejection of Original Sin and faith in the fundamental goodness of man. From this came rationalism and modern science which uses knowledge of the physical world as a means to domination. Next came Darwinism which sought to explain man by his environment, and from that social theories which explained human action by economic factors.

To those who object, that these steps represent progress, because modern science and the technology it has created have led to an increase in material blessings, Weaver points out that:

One of the strangest disparities of history lies between the sense of abundance felt by older and simpler societies and the sense of scarcity felt by the ostensibly richer societies of today. (p. 14)

This disparity has only gotten more pronounced in the decades since those words were first written.

What nominalism robbed Western man of , Weaver explains, is the center of his knowledge and civilization, and without a center civilization must inevitably disintegrate. Man cannot rely upon reason alone because the outcome of reason is determined by man’s disposition:

If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good. (p. 19)

Reason, in other words, is instrumental, it is a means to an end. But what end?

Our everyday thoughts, Weaver tells us, rest upon our beliefs, which in turn are derived from our “metaphysical dream”. Now, upon a first reading of Weaver, one might be tempted to write off Weaver’s rather singular terminology as the kind of rhetorical flourish to be expected from a university English professor, and to read “worldview” wherever Weaver writes “metaphysical dream” or “mass media” wherever he refers to “the Great Stereopticon”. This would be a mistake, however, for Weaver chooses his terminology for its precision rather than for its rhetorical effect. Worldview is a much more general term, referring to any broad outlook upon the world in general. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines questions about the world which cannot be answered through the natural sciences, such as why it exists, and what the purpose of life is. A “metaphysical dream” then, is the level of conscious thought where one’s basic understanding of the answers to such questions lies.

It should be apparent how this level of reflection depends upon universals. For if the sentence “Bob is a man” is unintelligible apart from the universal concept of “man”, in which case the universal is clearly, if imperfectly, reflected in a physical world before our eyes, then ultimate questions of the reason and purpose for existence will require universals to be understood, let alone answered, and these universals will be ones whose manifestation in the world observable through the senses is less immediately apparent than that of “man” – universals like, truth, love, justice, good, etc.

The metaphysical dream is the center which integrates and unites a “metaphysical community” which Weaver describes as being “suffused with a common feeling about the world which enables all vocations to meet without embarrassment and to enjoy the strength that comes of common tendency”. (p. 33) When the center is lost, the culture it holds together begins to fall apart. When men reject the universals, they make the mistake of defining the physical world as the “real world” and they must search for a purpose and meaning for their lives that is contained entirely within this physical world. How often have we heard someone refer to the struggle to obtain the material necessities of life as “the real world”, making the end of that struggle the purpose of existence, and dismissing the civilizing forms, structures, and conventions of culture?

When man turns away God, the Good, and the universals, he loses his sense of higher purpose. When he loses this, he loses his vocation, i.e. the sense of higher calling which makes his activity meaningful and fulfilling. He also loses his sense of having a shared purpose with all other members of his community from the highest to the lowest. In the second through fourth chapters of his book, Weaver explores how this loss manifests itself politically, socially, and economically in ways which are harmful to the community and to society.

When a shared sense of a higher purpose is lost to a community or a society it loses its fraternity which has been replaced, in Western societies, with the notion of equality. Weaver writes:

The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sterns exact duty of big brother. (pp. 41-42).

Fraternity binds a community together, equality, other than equality before the law, tears it apart. Equality is the rejection of distinctions and hierarchy, both of which are essential to the structure of society. Modern democracy, Weaver informs us, is a lie and a contradiction. It is a lie because:

If it promises equality before the law, it does no more than empires and monarchies have done…If it promises equality of condition, it promises injustice, because one law for the ox and for the lion is tyranny. (p. 44)

It is a contradiction because it purports to be the most effective means of placing the people best suited to leadership in governing positions. This contradicts egalitarian democracy’s own rhetoric, for if one man is as good as another, there can be no people who are better suited for leadership than others, let alone any that are best suited. If egalitarian democrats truly believed what they preach they would demand that governors be chosen at random rather than through elections.

If we want our society to be led by the people best suited to be leaders, we must believe in a distinction between best, better, good, bad, worse, and worst. This distinction forms a hierarchy and the leadership of the best, is by definition, aristocracy. “Democracy” Weaver writes, “cannot exist without aristocracy.” (p. 49)

In this context that Weaver, talking about modern democracy’s celebration of the common, the mediocre, and the average and denigration of the excellent, made the following interesting remark:

The democrats well sense that, if they allow people to divide according to abilities and preferences, soon structure will impose itself upon the mass. Hence the adulation of the regular fellow, the political seduction of the common man, and the deep distrust of intellectuals, whose grasp of principle gives them superior insight. (p. 46)

Many would probably balk at Weaver’s description of intellectuals as people “whose grasp of principle gives them superior insight”. Contemporary “intellectuals” tend to be supporters of every progressive fad, revolutionary cause, and left-wing notion no matter how utterly stupid it is. Why on earth, then, would Weaver describe such people in such adulatory terms?

The answer is that he is not talking about that kind of intellectual. In his book, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, historian Paul Johnson describes people who believe that because of their intellectual accomplishments, they form a class that better deserves than the clergy to fill the clergy’s old role as the spiritual and moral leaders of society and the world. Professing their love for mankind, they are brutal to people in particular, and Johnson describes their personal tyrannies towards the people closest to them in their own lives, in great detail, to make the point that these are the people who are least suited to spiritual and moral leadership.

Author Tom Wolfe made an interesting point about such people in his commencement address to Boston University in 2000. He said:

Now, we must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement, who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.

As an example of this, Wolfe pointed to Noam Chomsky, the brilliant linguist. After describing Chomsky’s contributions to our understanding of grammar and our psychological ability to learn, Wolfe said:

Did anyone call him an intellectual merely because he was one of the most brilliant people in the United States? No. When did he become an intellectual? When he finally spoke out concerning something he knew absolutely nothing about: the war in Vietnam.

Chomsky was, in other words, a specialist who was speaking outside his field.

Weaver, in the third chapter of his book, explains the phenomenon of this kind of intellectual to us. His explanation is similar to Wolfe’s but also very different. For Weaver, the problem is not that a specialist is speaking outside his field of expertise, the problem is rather specialization itself.

In the Middle Ages, Weaver tells us, “the possessor of highest learning was the philosophic doctor”. (p. 52). This was not someone who had earned the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in a university, but someone who “had mastered principles”, i.e. the universals of metaphysics and theology. Such a person ranked far above “those who had acquired only facts and skills”.

In the initial stage of modernism the philosophic doctor was replaced by a secular equivalent – the gentleman, Castiglione’s courtier, the “renaissance man”. The gentleman was in some ways similar to what we would call a polymath today but there is also a key difference. A polymath is someone with expertise in several areas, Weaver’s gentleman is characterized by “a general view of the relationship of things”. The original meaning of “liberal education” was education designed to impart such a general (“broad” or “liberal”) view to a person.

The philosophic doctor, the renaissance gentleman, and their North American descendant the antebellum Southern gentleman raised in the “Ciceronian tradition of eloquent wisdom” (p. 55) are the intellectuals Weaver spoke of “whose grasp of principle gives them superior insight”. What happened to them? When nominalism rejected universals, it started a process whereby truth, which is at the center of knowledge and was the subject of the learning of the philosophic doctor and gentleman, was replaced with facts, the subject matter of the specialist. The modern scientist is a specialist. He spends his life amassing a huge amount of information about the aspect of the physical world that he has chosen as his subject of expertise. This may lead to amazing breakthroughs within the context of his own field. In the broader view of human knowledge, however, he has focused on the peripherals (facts) and ignored the center (truth).

When the importance of truth and fact are inverted, in this way, Weaver tells us, the result is the fragmentation of human knowledge, and the specialist “ceases to be a doctor of philosophy since he is no longer capable of philosophy” (p. 57) He focuses on the kind of knowledge that increases man’s power, man’s domination of the world, but neglects the knowledge that essential to man’s relationship with other men and with God. This focus on physical facts and neglect of the more important areas of human knowledge is an obsession and “Civilization must be saved from some who profess to be its chief lights and glories” (p. 62).

The example that Weaver points to, of what this process of elevating the study of the physical world for the purpose of dominating nature over knowledge of God and truth, was the development of the atomic bomb in World War II. From a scientific point of view it was an amazing development. From a moral perspective it was a disaster.

In the decades since Ideas Have Consequences was first written the triumph of science over morality has continued unabated. Today, scientists are able to help infertile couples conceive artificially. In and of itself that would be considered a blessing, but to do so they must create human lives that the know beforehand will never be able to grow into human adults. That should be a major ethical roadblock in the way of such processes. Modern man has abandoned true ethics for utilitarianism, pragmatism, and consequentialism, however, and the solution the scientist offers is to put the “unused” embryos created by this process to the service of mankind by doing research on the development of stem cells in such embryos. “Modern man” as Richard Weaver wrote “has become a moral idiot”.

Weaver’s book was written in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These same years saw the beginning of the Cold War and this also is reflected in many of the themes Weaver chose for this book. The Cold War would come to be seen by many as a conflict between two sides that embodied opposite ideas, those of capitalism and socialism. Weaver’s perspective is quite different. He writes that socialism is “itself the materialist offspring of bourgeois capitalism” (p. 37). This is an insight that Weaver derives from the Vanderbilt Agrarians, some of whom were his mentors, and within whose tradition he writes. Weaver is very critical of capitalism, attributing the growth of commercialism to the loss of heroism and saying that “the man of commerce is by nature of things a relativist”.

This might seem odd to someone who thinks of conservatism primarily as “neoconservatism”, which in the last decades of the Cold War preached capitalism and democracy as the source of all blessings in the Western world and which in the decades since the Cold War has elevated capitalism and democracy into universals themselves, insisting that for the good of the world the United States should militarily bring these things to all countries. Weaver’s is the more authentic conservative tradition and there are many parallels between his critique of capitalism and technology and that made by his fellow Platonist and conservative, George P. Grant. Weaver, however, understood the nature of socialism better than Grant and points out how it makes all the same mistakes of capitalism because it is itself an outgrowth of capitalism.

Ultimately, the error that both capitalists and socialists have bought into, is one of materialism, the substitution of material ends for a higher calling as the goal and motivation of human activity. Men have lost their sense of vocation – the sense that the work they do they are called to do, and that there is meaning and purpose to it, other than as an unpleasant necessity in order to obtain a paycheck. They have also lost their spirit of heroism whereby they are willing to endure hardships to achieve ends that are not motivated by mercantile factors. They have developed the mentality of a spoiled child, who rejects all authority on the part of his superiors and sees no higher goal than the fulfillment of his every material whim.

If Richard Weaver could write such a diagnosis in 1948 – imagine what he would say if he were living today.


George P. Grant, Technology and Justice, Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1991. (originally published in 1986)

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001 (originally published in 1943).