This is another book about the dissolution of the West.
Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard Weaver
I was told of this book by a good friend. Well, not exactly. Obviously, I knew of the book, but had previously never looked into it. This friend had just read it and was blown away. He knows how much I have written on this “dissolution of the West” idea, yet still suggested that I would find it worthwhile. As I greatly value his perspective, I decided to read the book.
I will follow my usual pattern of writing more than one post as I go along. I am not sure that this will result in the best treatment for the book, but this method has become so ingrained that I don’t know if another approach even remains open to me.
It is in the introduction where Weaver points to what he sees as “the best representation of a change which came over man’s conception of reality….”
It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence.
Thereby ultimately calling into question the idea that there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man. While I did not, at the time, know that Occam was the culprit (discovering this only later), it has been clear to me for some time that there is no chance for liberty as long as this idea of man being the pinnacle is held as the ideal.
The thread continues from Occam through many thinkers, scholars, and philosophers, ultimately leading to Hobbes, Locke, and other eighteenth century rationalists: man needed only to reason correctly from the evidence he saw in nature. To wonder about purposes – especially what the world is for – is meaningless, as it suggests a power higher than man; something prior to nature.
Following on the heels of the rationalists was Darwinism – man explained by his environment. Biological necessity would explain all. This entire story is presented as a story of progress; therefore, it is difficult to get people to see it as anything else. How on earth does one question the Enlightenment?
Yet, it is clear that there is a cultural decline – at least clear to those who consider such things. Weaver looks to establish “the fact of decadence” as the most important duty of our time, and this decadence he sees in the cultural decline.
Jacques Barzun offered his definition of decadence in his wonderful work, From Dawn to Decadence, with this last century being the century of the West’s fall into decadence:
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.
We see this – there is plenty of energy in the ever-expanding animosity in the moral fight of the culture war. In this, Weaver sees that Western man has squandered his estate – despite believing in the story of ever-advancing progress. Yet is this ever-advancing story so?
…let us waive all particular considerations of this sort and ask whether modern man, for reasons apparent or obscure, feels an increased happiness. We must avoid superficial conceptions of this state and look for something fundamental.
Compare our modern philosophers to those of the medieval period; modern architecture to that of a thousand years ago; modern art, literature, and music to that of centuries past.
First, one must take into account the deep psychic anxiety, the extraordinary prevalence of neurosis, which make our age unique.
This book was first published in 1948. What would Weaver write today? The idea of a meaning crisis has fully entered the psyche, and it is visible in the juvenile acting out of many, and the suicides and opioid drug use of many others.
Added to this is another deprivation. Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history, but his daily experience is one of powerlessness.
I could write two-thousand words on this alone; instead, I will offer only seven: sheeple, milk cows, lambs led to slaughter. This is the condition of man today, no matter how much “land of the free” junk is shoveled down his throat.
Reason alone cannot justify itself. As Weaver notes…
Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners.
Reason without proper will and virtue is a dangerous weapon. In the wrong hands, anything can be “reasonable.” Weaver notes that we have become conditioned to accept anything, as we are no longer tied to what he calls “the metaphysical dream”:
It must be apparent that logic depends on the dream, and not the dream upon it.
Am reminded of C. S. Lewis, from The Abolition of Man:
All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else. Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever.
There must be an unquestioned foundation, one that is accepted as given. From this, logic and reason can be applied. Returning to Weaver:
How can men who disagree about what the world is for agree about any of the minutiae of daily conduct?
Precisely. We argue about details when the issue regards fundamentals. Yet we are taught that breaking convention is the path to “extending the boundaries of power or of knowledge.” We see only the material, which only offers the knowledge of death – as the material ends at death. What a meaningless life this offers.
Culture destroyed, obscenity praised, publicity sought, the violation of every sense of humanity, privacy lost, desecration a virtue. This many describe as liberty; instead, these are our chains.
And the loss of reflection and sentiment. But it is sentiment that binds us to both the old and young, ancestors and descendants.
Some form of sentiment, deriving from our orientation of the world, lies at the base of all congeniality. A common metaphysical dream offers community, a common feeling about the world. The absence of a metaphysical dream explains why…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The only redemption lies in restraint imposed by idea; but our ideas, if they are not to worsen the confusion, must be harmonized by some vision. Our task is much like finding the relationship between faith and reason for an age that does not know the meaning of faith.