Ideas Have Consequences
Richard M. Weaver
(University of Chicago, 1948)
“This is another book about the dissolution of the West.”
Such is the desultory opening sentence of a book that has, I think it is fair to say, achieved the status of a minor classic of contemporary conservatism. It is a curious book in some respects, rather uneven, but at its best it’s very good indeed. The title serves as an apt reference point for the book as a whole: ideas do have consequences, and Weaver takes us on a tour of the generally bad consequences that have followed from the generally bad ideas that animate the contemporary West.
The structure of the book is fairly loose. The chapters are arranged thematically: one about the modern aversion to hierarchy, another about the fragmentation of culture, one about modern media, another about political entitlements, and so forth. To the extent that there is an over-arching argument, it proceeds roughly as follows: key intellectual developments in late medieval Europe gave birth to a set of ideas that have animated the West for the past half-millenium, and those same ideas are progressively destroying the culture to which they gave rise. At the end, he speculates on what we ought to do about it.
The book is better on the small scale than on the large. Weaver must have been a world-class grouch, and he has a deliciously acerbic wit. His writing is often pungent, and cries out to be quoted. I’ll append a string of my favourite quotations to the bottom of this post.
Weaver famously identified the canker at the heart of Western culture with the nominalism of William of Ockham in the 14th century. Nominalism denied that things have real natures apart from the human mind, or at least denied that we can know them. This made possible the belief, at the heart of modernity from the beginning, that “man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals”. Weaver sees following in its train a host of distinctly modern ideas: a new theory of nature as a self-operating mechanism, the rise of empiricism, materialism, dialectical materialism in economics and politics, behaviorism, and on down the line.
Weaver is particularly good when he plucks at our culture’s aversion to social hierarchy and the making of distinctions: “The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” The problem has only gotten worse since he wrote, so this is prescient. Conservatives have long argued that when equality is taken as the highest good, the result, intended or not, is likely to be strife and conflict, for expectations of equality give rise to envy in the face of even natural and spontaneous degrees of distinction. Moreover, if all desires are held as equally worthy then the clash of conflicting desires can only be understood as a contest of wills, a struggle for power, rather than something judicable by a higher authority or standard. Weaver cites Shakespeare to this effect:
O, when degree is shak’d
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!…
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. [Troilus and Cressida, I.III.]
And he is himself quite good on the relative value of equality and fraternity as social ideals:
The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality, but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it (equality) in history because it (fraternity) goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. 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 sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights — that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.
In any case, the emancipators attack social hierarchy but tend to then replace it with bureaucratic hierarchy. This we have in abundance.
Some of Weaver’s other points, such as his observation that specialization cuts against the ideal of the well-integrated mind and contributes to the fragmentation of a common culture, or that we lose perspective when immersed in a clamouring media environment, are quite obvious and have by now become commonplace. There are times when his disdain for modernity gets the better of him, as when he describes jazz as “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.” Far be it from me to give a positive defence of jazz, but this does seem excessively grouchy. But even this comment takes place in the context of an overview of the trajectory of serious music since 1900 which is, on the whole, astute and defensible.
Toward the end of the book he considers resources for renewal. He stresses the importance of private property rights, which he, rather surprisingly to me, describes as “the last metaphysical right”. He explains: “We say the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness.” It is interesting that he sees private property in this light, rather than simply as a buttress against governmental power.
But even more than this Weaver recommends a revival of piety, which he defines as “a discipline of the will through respect”, arguing that piety is necessary on three fronts: toward nature, toward others, and toward the past. Modernity, conceived of from the beginning as a means to power through knowledge and of emancipation from the past, has always had intrinsic difficulty with the first and third. Piety toward nature would include a sincere concern for the integrity and health of our natural environment (and thus a corrective to the political right, broadly speaking) as well as, for instance, respect for the human body and the legitimate differences between the sexes (and thus a corrective to the political left, broadly speaking). Hostility toward the past is practically a defining feature of modernity: “I would maintain that modern man is a parricide. He has taken up arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration. He has not been conscious of crime but has, on the contrary… regarded his actions as a proof of virtue.” This pride that modernity feels in its destructive actions is a real phenomenon, and it makes the case for recovery seem hopeless. But for those of us who must live our lives in this particular time and place, we must salvage the fragments we have shored against our ruin, and Weaver’s counsel, though limited, does seem very much on point.
Now let me gather up some of the juicier quotations that I gleaned while reading:
“The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite.”
“Comfort becomes a goal when distinctions of rank are abolished and privileges destroyed.” (De Tocqueville)
“The very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper.”
“Fanaticism has been properly described as redoubling one’s effort after one’s aim has been forgotten.”
Our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases with their degradation. Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens. It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself; and this, I suspect, explains why medieval thinkers were extremely agitated over questions which seem to us today without point or relevance… We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.
[Importance of sentiment to reason]
When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest. In the cultural life of man, therefore, the fact of paramount importance about anyone is his attitude toward the world. How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justify itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good.
[Conservatism as respect for existing forms]
We invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other. The truth can be expressed in another way by saying that the man of culture has a sense of style. Style requires measure, whether in space or time, for measure imparts structure, and it is structure which is essential to intellectual apprehension.
[Psychology of progressivism]
Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.
The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent.
[Metaphysics and sentimentality]
our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.
It is just as if Plato’s philosopher had left the city to look at the trees and then had abandoned speculative wisdom for dendrology. The people who would urge just this course are legion among us today. The facts on the periphery, they feel, are somehow more certain.
[A man of understanding]
The man who understands has reason to be sure of himself; he has the repose of mastery. He is the sane man, who carries his center of gravity in himself; he has not succumbed to obsession which binds him to a fragment of reality. People tend to trust the judgments of an integrated personality and will prefer them even to the official opinions of experts. They rightly suspect that expertise conceals some abnormality of viewpoint.
Many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in time to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.
[Rights and obligations]
Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his actions to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.
Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality. Dante’s “In la sua voluntade e nostra pace” is the final discovery. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.
In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition… Here, it would seem, is the apothesis; here is the final collapsing of values, a fantasia of effects, suggesting in its wild disorder the debris left by a storm. Here is the daily mechanical wrecking of hierarchy.
[A mental habit]
The habit of judging all things by their departure from the things of yesterday is reflected in most journalistic interpretation… The touchstone of progress simply schools the millions in shallow evaluation.
[Reflection and judgement]
The absence of reflection keeps the individual from being aware of his former selves, and it is highly questionable whether anyone can be a member of a metaphysical community who does not preserve such memory. Upon the presence of the past in the present depends all conduct directed by knowledge.
[Mind and religion]
The Greeks identified God with mind, and it will be found that every attack upon religion, or upon characteristic ideas inherited from religion, when its assumptions are laid bare, turns out to be an attack upon mind. Moral certitude gives the prior assurance of right sentiment. Intellectual integrity gives clarity to practice. There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.