As I mentioned previously, I have been reading through Richard M. Weaver‘s Ideas Have Consequences, and realized that it brings up some worthy topics for discussion, namely the role of truth in a society, and how that fundamental concept has been twisted and garbled in the West over the past few centuries. Of course, many believe that the West was a paragon of goodness and virtue until the past few decades, but according to Weaver, the shift began 600 years ago. Sure, it was not fully corrupted until the mid-20th Century, but it began much earlier.
If he is correct, we need to know what led to this shift and how to get back. It won’t do much good to restore what we had 40 years ago, if we will simply drift back here in a few years. It would be much more useful to fix the fundamental problems and shore up the base.
Note that we are not talking about technology or things of that nature. Instead, this will focus on metaphysical or philosophical (even religious) concerns. They go deeper than the existence of technology and address things like how we use technology. In any event, those things should be clear as we move through Weaver’s arguments.
Now, I am not going to give much background on Weaver. You can look that up yourself, if you are so inclined. My purpose is to consider his content from this book. If you are not sure if you should trust him, then do some research on him. I find him credible, intelligent, and worthwhile.
So, to the task at hand. As I work my way through this content, I will simply address each chapter in the book individually. I will present a summary of his arguments and close with my own thoughts on the matter. So this first installment will cover his introduction.
He begins by stating the obvious: “This is another book about the dissolution of the West.” The prevailing modern notion is that things improve over time, and that the present is the point of highest development. In other words, due to scientific progress and the loss of a moral compass, people tend to believe that, due to evolutionary principles, things are moving from simple to complex, and therefore from worse to better. Weaver opines that “there is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.”
So modern man, on the whole, is incapable of actually discerning better or worse, and over the past 600 years has replaced moral authority with the self. Here, he argues that the concept of individuality leads to anarchy, which is incapable of providing a cohesive culture. In his own words, “every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics,” and this is not desirable. How so? “The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals.”
So he moves into the debate which I discussed in my previous post about nominalism and transcendence. Ultimately, is there a truth that is higher than, and independent from, man? Is what is real determined only by what a man can see and touch, or at least perceive? Is it possible that something exists that man cannot fathom? Before 1400, men would have answered that there certainly existed something transcendent – God. After William of Occam, that thinking began to shift, denying that universals have a real existence. “With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.”
This denial of universal truth leads invariably to the relativistic mentality of “man the measure of all things.” As such, modern culture is alienated from fixed truth. If it cannot be directly experienced by a man, he assumes that it cannot – and must not- be true. Only experience matters. That relegates all things to a subjective experience.
This can only work if Biblical truth is ignored, of course. While the scriptures argue that “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that without God, man is a fallen creature, predisposed to a sinful nature, nominalism requires the opposite: man is, by nature, good. So this inherent goodness, and man’s ability to experience and reason, necessarily lead to an steadily improving culture. “The question of what the world was made for now becomes meaningless because the asking of it presupposes something prior to nature in the order of existents.” Without a doubt, this leads to a confrontation between religion and science. Religion looks to something beyond man, while modern science looks to man himself. [Ed. Note: Of course, science founded upon univeral truth is not contrary to religion. Weaver is discussing the modern variant that denies universal truth. He expands on this in a later chapter].
Weaver then discusses various attempts by nominalists to explain where religion fits into the equation, with Deism, Materialism, and others such -isms, given attention. How each of these attempted and failed to address the reality of life is worth its own discussion, but for our purposes, let’s move to how Weaver considers the impact.
Leadership is a persistent issue that the nominalist worldview affects. For example, in the 17th Century, Weaver notices that on one side, a Royalist and learned defender of the faith leadership style was pitted against an Aristocratic intellectualism. which then morphed into Whigs versus Romantics. All of these were intellectually astute, but also “assiduously cut the mooring strings to reality as they succumbed to the delusion that man is by nature good.”
Soon thereafter came “the popular leader and demagogue, the typical foe of privilege…[which] in the United States replaced the social order which the Founding Fathers had contemplated with demagogism and the urban political machine.” By the 20th Century, we saw the rise of the leader of the masses, which broke into two groups: sentimental humanitarians and elite remorseless theorists with no tie to sentimentalism. Here, we see the divide, in Weaver’s mind, between such leaders and Hitler and Stalin. One appealed to a nationalistic pride, while the other purported to adhere to intellectual rigor. Weaver condemns them all. They are all the product of a cultural facade built upon a faulty foundation.
His argument, and the purpose of his book, is thusly: “This story of man’s passage from religious or philosophical transcendentalism has been told many times, and, since it has usually been told as a story of progress, it is extremely difficult today to get people in any number to see contrary implications. Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact – which can be established – and that modern man has about squandared his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism…we approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capicity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.”
So the reality of good and evil must be rediscovered and defined. Modern man must admit the possibility that his own experience is not the sum of all things. There must be some avenue for self-reflection and self-criticism, which necessitates the existence of personal humility, something sorely lacking in modern culture.
Modern man, especially those who lead others, have immersed themselves in particulars (or individual experience) and forgotten about principles (universal truth). This gets to the heart of the definition of knowledge, which Weaver defines as “the classical proposition that there is no knowledge at the level of sensation, and therefore knowledge is of universals…the process of learning involves interpretation, and the fewer particulars we require in order to arrive at our generalization, the more apt pupils we are in the school of wisdom.”
Modern education has been reduced to sharing massive amounts of particulars, all the while ignoring or pushing aside universals. Weaver argues that modern knowledge has expanded “by diffusion until it approaches the point of nullity.” So people learn many “facts” or specific items, but these are all devoid of any relationship with universal truth. As such, “In a society where expression is free and popularity is rewarded they read mostly that which debauches them and they are continuously exposed to manipulation by controllers of the printing machine…the staggering number of facts to which [modern man] today has access serves only to draw him away from consideration of first principles, so that his orientation beomes peripheral.”
How does this play out in the modern world? Man has confused materialism for knowledge. Man has increased his ownership of stuff and has more to own and consume than his forebears. “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…the typical modern has the look of the hunted. He senses that we have lost our grip upon reality.”
So we have a break between what we are told and what we experience. Man is assured, based upon this nominalistic worldview, that he has more power that ever, but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. “Not only is this man likely to be a slave at his place of daily toil, but he is cribbed, cabined, and confined in countless ways…Civilization has been an intermittent phenomenon; to this truth we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by the indolence of material success.”
Weaver concludes his introduction thusly: “In the final reach of analysis our problem is how to recover that intellectual integrity which enables men to perceive the order of goods.” As such, he intends the rest of the book to tie some specific items to the univeral principles, rather than to particular experience.
Now, obviously, as long as this is, I have left out quite a bit of detail from his work. The introduction is about 18 pages. But what we see is a man who has glimpsed a failing in the foundation of Western Culture, as it has existed for centuries. Admittedly, Weaver acknowledges that this crack in the base did not immediately ruin the whole, but slowly shifted and dissolved those things needed to lead mankind away from universal truth. It took centuries to accomplish, but that time arrived, nonetheless. Not only do intellectuals and leaders eschew transcendent truth, but most common people have bought into the lie.
Weaver has provided us an excellent little book that gives us ammunition for taking the culture back. Here, I will address one of those things mentioned above – individualism. Especially in the United States, individualism has been held forth as an ideal. We love movies and stories about the rugged individual who stands alone and faces his enemies, and there is surely a nice, romantic element there.
At the same time, the fundamental unit of a healthy society is not the individual. It is the family. Individuals can only reach their potential by being in relationship with others. If we accept God as the ultimate transcendent truth (and the Bible clearly states that He is), then we must note that God Himself exists in relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If ultimate truth is found in the context of relationship, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that the individual, in isolation, can be seen as superior to community.
Faulty political theories find root in this error. Based upon the individual, both extremes are simply wrong. Libertarianism requires the individual, as does modern liberalism. They may obscure this, epecially modern leftists, with “group identity,” but the underlying principle is that what is best for ME is what is best, regardless of how it affects others. Ultimately, this is a dead end. What is truly best is what is best for my family, community, and culture. And what is best is founded upon that transcendent reality of community.
Weaver has much more to say, as he expands on this and other topics. The introduction serves to present the problem, not to provide specific solutions. Those are still to come in succeeding chapters, and we will discuss them here, as well.
The first step is to recognize the problem. Between now and the next installment, I hope you will spend some time pondering on it.