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Richard Weaver’s Ideas & Their Consequences

7,566 words

Richard M. Weaver
Ideas Have Consequences
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948
Expanded edition, with a Foreword by Roger Kimball and an Afterword by Ted J. Smith III, 2013.

The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture …. There is no term proper to describe the condition in which [modern man] is now left unless it be “abysmality.” — Richard Weaver, 1948

“The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.” — Ignatius Reilly, 1962 [1]

Surprisingly, for someone who has delved into the world of the Beautiful Losers of the American Right for some time now, I’ve never gotten around to reading Richard Weaver’s magnum opus, although it’s slender enough to count as one of those novella-length works I prefer to deal with, and, being a natural-born cheapskate as well, I had obtained years ago a beaten up, heavily underlined paperback for a buck or two.

Thanks to this commemorative symposium, and the recent appearance of a fine new edition (bookended on one side with an appreciation by Roger Kimball and an account of its genesis and rather frosty reception by Ted J. Smith III on the other), I’ve now remedied the omission, although I must say, on reading it, it seemed like I’ve read the like many times before. Just as the Left specializes in progressive Utopias, the Right specializes in tales of decline, such as Spengler’s Decline of the West, or René Guénon’s The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

Not that Weaver intends to fool anyone; he states right there in his very first sentence: “This is another book about the dissolution of the West,” although he goes on to claim, like a Wall St. operator, that this time it’s differentfirst, his account is based not on an analogy but on deduction (I think that’s a swipe at Spengler and his organic model powered by “physiognomic tact”), each stage of the decline resulting logically from an initial “unintelligent choice”; and second, being based on choice, man is not impotent to change (again, a swipe at Spengler’s supposed “pessimism”).

Unfortunately, problems start right away with Weaver’s choice of what Microsoft would call a “restore point”:

It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. [Instead,] universal terms [are] mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man. . . The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect [2] and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. 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.

It’s an arguable point, I suppose, and Weaver does make a case for it (or not, as we shall see), but before looking at the supposed “deduction” we can immediately see how this makes his second point problematic. As Roger Kimball says in his Foreword, even if accurate, Weaver’s account is comical:

It is comical because to locate the source of our present difficulties on so distant and so elevated a plane is simply to underscore our impotence. If William of Occam is responsible for what’s wrong with the world, there’s not much we can do about it.

Or, as another conservative would say, We Are Doomed™. At least Kimball, unlike myself, has the politeness not to mention Ignatius Reilly.

As for his “deduction” itself, Weaver does a pretty good job of presenting the main cultural features of the last millennium or so as in some way derived by a kind of plain yet irresistible logic from the starting point of nominalism; at least if you squint a bit. Doing so in less than 200 pages, of course, requires a good deal of shoving and squeezing, and the idea that one man of Weaver’s age and education could do so fairly and accurately is unlikely. Which is to say, it’s oddly like reading the mainstream news (oddly, because he devotes some space to calling for the abolition of the lying press); when you come across something you know about, it’s all wrong, so you have to ask yourself: what else have they got wrong? [3]

This confidence in the power of sheer logic, both to cause the collapse as well as explain it, while in line with thinkers from Plato to Hegel, (though not, of course, the very different method of Spengler), also seems oddly like one the project of those “innerlekshuls” that fellow Southern partisan Marion Montgomery disparaged, [4] or even today’s cock-sure SJWs, airily dismissing whole chunks of Western culture with the code of Political Correctness as their guide.

Even as deduction, there are some issues never addressed. As John Findlay said of Hegel’s Phenomenology, even if a sequence is necessary, it does not follow that each segment is itself necessary; i.e., the sequence could have been composed of a different set of stages. [5] Even with nominalism as a starting point, might there not have been a different, perhaps more palatable series of developments? [6] Mere logic cannot explain why this actual historical sequence occurred.

Moreover, Weaver assumes, and wants his reader to assume, the truth of not just realism but a whole host of ideas, basically Platonic; and while I’m all for the Platonic worldview, Weaver nowhere argues for it or any part of it. [7]

I realize, of course, that some parts of any argument, especially over worldviews (or what Weaver charmingly calls “metaphysical dreams”) are going to have to be assumed or taken for granted, but the effect of Weaver’s procedure is to give him an easy out, giving the reader the impression that there never was any real issue to discuss here, and that everyone from Occam onward was just stupid or dishonest.

Mention of Plato, though, gives us a clue: in Platonic terms, Weaver isn’t engaging in logic, or philosophy; Ideas Have Consequences is an exercise in rhetoric, disguised in the language of a logician.

Of course, this should be obvious; Weaver was a professor of rhetoric and author of a textbook on rhetoric; Kimball quotes a friend observing that “Weaver was a rhetor doing the work of a philosopher.” Even Weaver admits in his Preface, ten years after the fact, that “I have come to feel increasingly, however, that [the book] is not primarily a work of philosophy.”

The advantages of the philosophical cloak are many; Weaver can skate over messy historical details while concentrating on the supposed “essence” of each step of the supposed decline and pummeling his reader to acknowledge the inexorable logic of each move forward [8]; and indeed, the rhetorical format itself demands brevity — not only is it easier on the writer to produce a bare 190 pages, rather than two Spenglerian volumes, but it allows the rhetor to make his case and then make his getaway; for conducted over Spenglerian length, the reader at some point is bound to burst out with something like “Oi, governor, what about us?”

Indeed, what about the reader? My reader here today has no doubt already been moved to ask, “What, this guy can’t possibly be serious about going back to the Middle Ages, can he? What about Science?

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Democracy? Really?”

Or as another, rather different conservative expressed it:

As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves ups as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cock-sure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous or as wrong as they’d been in the Middle Age — Margaret’s way of referring to the Middle Ages? [9]

To Weaver’s credit, he does see the need to address the issue, and he does so forthrightly: in effect, what doth it profit a man to sell his soul for a pair of shoes?

What! Did I dare to go there? The oldest, crudest slur on Southern culture: the lack of shoes? Again, to his credit, Weaver went there first, addressing himself to “those who side with the Baconians [i.e., the nominalist-inspired inventors of modern Science [10]] in preferring shoes to philosophy. . .”

There you have it: shoes or philosophy. Which way, White man? Of course, this is a false dichotomy, which would shame any actual philosopher, but nicely suited to make Weaver’s rhetorical point. As we’ll see, he’ll later climb down off his high horse and hope you won’t notice.

But for now, let’s stay with this forced choice, shoes or philosophy. Stated as such, of course, Weaver chooses philosophy, as should we all. [11] But we also note a pervasive tone of what might be called sublime indifference to their wants and desires, occasionally modulating into a barely concealed contempt. I was reminded of two other works of the Cold War era, Dr. Strangelove, where Ambassador de Sadesky explains how “Our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines,” while in The Manchurian Candidate, the Red Chinese brainwashing expert has to cut his session short to run over to Macy’s, since his wife has given him “the most appalling list.”

But then it hit me: the rigid logic, the nostalgia, the contempt for the ordinary worker, so easily bought off by nylons and washing machines — there was somewhere else I had read this before, somewhere very unlike National Review or Chronicles. Could it be. . . Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man?

Needless to say, I’m not about to put myself through the grind of looking through all that rot again, so I pulled out The New Left: Six Critical Essays by various chaps, edited by Maurice Cranston, who writes on Marcuse. [12]

Today “people find themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” He is ready to admit that this way of life may seem to be better than that which preceded the rise of industrialisation. . . But Marcuse holds that [this isn’t] genuine because [it] “militates against qualitative change.” [13] Indeed, Marcuse goes so far as to speak of “those whose life is the hell of the Affluent Society” [in which] people have lost the spiritual qualities they possessed in simpler and less prosperous societies.

The corrupted mind of the modern man allows him, Marcuse notes with bitterness, to accept without protest preparations for nuclear war, [14] the falsehoods and vulgarities of advertising, and the built-in obsolescence of automobiles. The homo conformans of modern society is a “one-dimensional man, [whose] ideas, aspirations and objectives that by their content transcend the established universe of discourse and action [realism] are either repelled or reduced to the terms of this universe [nominalism].”

The style of modern journalism … has, and seeks to have, a hypnotic effect. Its aim is not communication from mind to mind but the “overwhelming of the reader’s consciousness.” [15]

It follows from this diagnosis that modern industrial civilization is getting worse and not better.

Indeed. I would suggest that in these ideas, targets, and even words, we have the very mind and spirit of Richard Weaver. And by that I mean not just his ideas, but his psychology, at least as displayed in Ideas Have Consequences. As Cranston puts it in his summing up:

In all his strictures on the Affluent Society. . . he never enters for one moment the mind of the working man in the real world, to whom the dawn of prosperity after years of unemployment and recession meant an immediate step forward from woeful deprivation to a decent condition of life [16]. . . To Marcuse the past means . . . an age when a gentlemanly life was still possible. [17] His attitude to the present is often indistinguishable from that of any elderly Blimp or Junker. [He deplores] “the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights and smells.”

He often uses the word alienation. . . But it is. . . a word that can be aptly applied to Marcuse’s own predicament. His feelings about the real world, towards … the only kind of civilization we know, are manifestly alienated. Far more than his divine discontent and moral disapproval towards the inhabitants of the modern world, one is conscious of a simple disgust. The people, the populace, the majority, are manipulated, indoctrinated, enslaved; Marcuse cannot bear their sights, their sounds, their smells. [18]

It’s hard to imagine Weaver’s book had any influence on Marcuse, [19] so what we have here is a similarity of mind, of temperament, while showing that the means of expression — Marxist analysis, [20] a history of nominalism — is quite arbitrary and contingent.

So independent is Marcuse’s work, despite being written in the US, that we can extend the terms of our comparison to his colleagues in Germany. Turning to Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left [21] we can find similar evidence. For instance: away with mere empiricism, return to pure the contemplation of essences!

It is in vain for the ‘bourgeois’ scientist to consult the facts: in the absence of the ‘total’ vision of Marxism he who refers to the facts merely condemns himself as an empiricist, and empiricism is ‘an ideology of the bourgeoisie’. But what Lukács proposes is the rejection of data in the interests of a philosophy that disparages empirical observation altogether, as the last refuge of the ideologist.

And our point about style vs. sensibility:

Horkheimer introduced into the Frankfurt School agenda some of the conservative and pessimistic currents of thought… For English readers these insights come clothed in the idiom of Arnold and Ruskin. They have been associated, our time, not with a Marxian theory of bourgeois rationality but with the conservative defense of the Great Tradition by F. R. Leavis, whose critique of “Benthamite” civilization [Weaver’s Baconianism] expresses in a more concrete, more historically pregnant language [versus Weaver’s “deduction”] the same abiding sense of the uprootedness of homo technologicus. This critique, being common to radicals and conservatives, attaches Horkheimer to neither camp. Without his Marxizing he says nothing unacceptable to an Ernst Jünger or a Heidegger. Indeed, Heidegger’s discussion of ‘technē’ delivers, from the point of view of that philosopher’s dark phenomenology, just the same vision of modernity as does the ‘critique of instrumental reason’.

The Frankfurters, like Weaver, focus their cultural critique on empirical reason and science, although they locate the Renaissance itself rather than the late Middle Ages as where the rot set in; the next two quotes could come from Weaver’s manual typewriter or perhaps Big Chief tablet:

In place of the humility of the awe-struck man who bowed down to nature’s eternal order, the Enlightenment presented the strutting arrogance of the … who had the solution to hand for every problem, and recognized no problem that was not a matter of technique. [22]

The Enlightenment had replaced mystery with mastery. [23] And in doing so it had cut mankind off from the true meaning of culture, which is the self- knowledge and inner truth which only the arduous path of high art can disclose to us.

[Adorno] had been appalled not only by [Hollywood’s] vulgarity, but by the easy- going way in which Americans seemed to enjoy the rubbish that enslaved them.

And a point we shall return to: the futile and morally obtuse nature of their critique:

What was needed, in order to vindicate the new spirit of revolution, was a doctrine that would … show the illusory nature of capitalist freedom, and to perpetuate the thought of a critical alternative, of a liberation that would not lead merely to another and darker form of the ‘state capitalism’ which supposedly ruled over East and West.

By constantly notching up the critique of American capitalism and its culture, and making only muted or dismissive references to the real nightmare of communism, those thinkers showed their profound indifference to human suffering and the unserious nature of their prescriptions.

[The] ‘alternative’ to the capitalist system and the commodity culture is Utopia. Hence his alternative to the unreal freedom of the consumer society is itself unreal– a mere noumenon [24] whose only function is to provide a measure of our defects. For Adorno to dismiss this alternative merely as the ‘totalitarian’ version of the same ‘state capitalism’ that he had witnessed in America was profoundly dishonest.

No wonder Kimball, in his Foreword, suggests that “Weaver might be described as a Socialist repelled by modernity.” Indeed, as Kimball also notes, Weaver was a “full-fledged Socialist” and secretary of the statewide Socialist Party before his “metanoia at Vanderbilt.” It seems that was less a conversion than a change of tactics or, literally, rhetoric.

Perhaps this explains his “strange respect” for Communists — “an elite group of theorists”:

Hating this world they never made, after its debauchery for centuries, the modern Communists — revolutionaries and logicians — move toward intellectual rigor…. Here are the first true realists in hundreds of years… no dodging about in the excluded middle will save Western liberalism. [25]

Indeed, there’s more than a hint of Weaver in the multiculti cult of Cultural Marxism as well. Of course, Weaver’s world would presumably be philosophically if not ethnically totalitarian (One Church to rule us all) but on the other hand, at least part of the glory of flooding the West with shoeless primitives is returning us to that non-Baconian paradise where the shoeless Africans and bat-eating Chinese frolic in their Wholeness; as David Cole has recently written:

That’s why multiculturalists aren’t mocking the Africans for their shoeperstitions the same way whites are mocked for their McNuggets. Again, if they really wanted to make this whole “invite the world” thing seem more attractive, they’d stroke a little white ego now and then by pointing out that one of the reasons we have a society that’s so attractive to outsiders is because we’re not afraid of our fucking shoes.

Cole also notes that there’s little difference between the bogus science of Africa and the bogus science of the Middle Ages:

The BMJ piece further detailed how native “doctors” and tribal ooogabooga-men spread the belief that wearing shoes “weakens the feet” and renders the wearer crippled.

And little difference between the cosmic philosophies of each: that warm and snuggly world (well, except for the horrible diseases and early death) before Bacon disenchanted it:

Farmers refuse footwear because working the fields with covered feet is seen as “disrespectful to the crops.” Yes, they actually think the crops feel dissed if the farmer’s [not] barefoot.

Meanwhile, traditionalist Iran shows the superiority of non-Baconian science: turns out that some Ayatollah in Qom already found a cure for the Coronavirus: visit the holy outbreak sites, and perfume your anus with lavender oil.

But to return to Weaver himself; the value of this little excursus lies in clues we can take from these conservative critiques of the Frankfurters and that we can apply to our understanding of Weaver. First of all, the image of the gentleman that Scruton discerns behind Adorno’s critique. In Weaver’s conception of the prelapsarian world, that role is taken — no surprise — by the philosopher.

In the Middle Ages, when there obtained a comparatively clear perception of reality, the possessor of highest learning was the philosophic doctor. He stood at the center of things because he had mastered principles. [26]

On a level far lower were those who had acquired only facts and skills. It was the abandonment of metaphysics and theology which undermined the position of the philosophic doctor, a position remarkably like that prescribed by Plato for the philosopher-king. For the philosophic doctor was in charge of the general synthesis. The assertion that philosophy is queen of studies meant more to him than a figure of speech; knowledge of ultimate matters conferred a right to decide ultimate questions.

To take over his task, the dawning modernism chose the gentleman.

Where Adorno locates his hero in the Renaissance, Weaver pushes back to the Middle Ages and even further, to Plato’s philosopher-kings; in turn, Evola will push even further back, to the dawn of the Primordial

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Tradition, where the kshatriya or warrior ruled. In each case, the one who ought to call the shots in an ideal world is someone like themselves. [27]

Since the ruler will be a philosopher, or at least a liberally educated gentleman, [28] Weaver chooses logic as his methodology, so as to demonstrate his value, as the PUA crowd would say. [29] But this method is inadequate for the study of history, as Adorno, Spengler, or Evola would point out. Weaver is unable to appreciate either the complexities of history or the views of those involved that may differ from his own.

In the first instance, Spengler, for example, would, using his method of physiognomic tact, would have disputed the idea that the medieval world was an offspring of the Classical world at all, and located nominalism and the rest of Weaver’s bêtes noires are manifestations of a unique, Faustian spirit. Here is Weaver on Luther (whose name he apparently is afraid to mention):

For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.

And here is Spengler:

The last reformers, the Luthers and Savonarolas, were urban monks, and this differentiates them profoundly from the Joachims and the Bernards. Their intellectual and urban askesis is the stepping-stone from the hermitages of quiet valleys to the scholar’s study of the Baroque. The mystic experience of Luther which gave birth to his doctrine of justification is the experience, not of a St. Bernard in the presence of woods and hills and clouds and stars, but of a man who looks through narrow windows on the streets and house walls and gables.

The mighty act of Luther was a purely intellectual decision. Not for nothing has he been regarded as the last great Schoolman of the line of Occam. He completely liberated the Faustian personality — the intermediate person of the priest, which has formerly stood between it and the Infinite, was removed.

Apart from their diametrically opposed evaluation, one notes how Spengler, although referring to what he calls “a purely intellectual decision,” provides a rich and sympathetic account of a moment of historical transformation.

Speaking of Spengler, we count also point out Alan Watts, who, in his Behold the Spirit (written in, yes, 1947 again!) builds on both Spengler and Joachim of Flores, as well as Trinitarian theology to present a tripartite account of the West’s spiritual history in which the phase of nominalism/Protestantism/scientism is an understandable and necessary movement from childhood to adolescence; while acknowledging all the problems Weaver denounces, he also sees the benefits, and looks ahead (unlike Spengler) to a new stage in which the benefits are incorporated in a new synthesis, not a return infancy. [30]

As for appreciating alternative views, one can’t help but wonder what Weaver would make of this candidate for an alternative to modern specialization of knowledge:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. [31]

Something like Watts’ attempt at synthesis is needed, because, as they say, we’re not going back again — unless Weaver’s gentleman turns out to be Ozymandias, engineering an apocalyptic end to the modern world. [32] As Scruton says, echoing Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, “the Enlightenment here to stay (a fact for which, when you think about it, we should all be grateful.)” [33]

Here again, Scruton provides the clue by analogy to the Frankfurters; both they and Weaver are Utopians.

Here is where Adorno profoundly differed from the revolutionaries of the 1960s… The [confusion stems] from Adorno’s use of the Marxist language, and from the resulting implication that he is shaping a political alternative to ‘bourgeois’ society, identifying defects that could be overcome by a Marxist revolution. [But] redemption that Adorno promised was not to be achieved by social reform: it was a personal salvation, a turning away from fantasies, on a voyage of self-discovery.

As Weaver’s book comes to an end, the reader may expect to find some suggestion of what to do about it. Building again on Scruton’s analogy to the British Arts and Crafts movement, and Leavis’ Great Tradition, one might expect something like this:

“What, finally, is the practical application, of all this? Can anything be done to halt, or even to hinder, the process I have described? I say to you that something can be done by each one of us here to-night. Each of us can resolve to do something, every day, to resist the application of manufactured standards, to protest against ugly articles of furniture and table-ware, to speak out against sham architecture, to resist the importation into more and more public places of loudspeakers relaying the Light Programme, to say one word against the Yellow Press, against the best-seller, against the theatre-organ, to say one word for the instinctive culture of the integrated village-type community. In that way we shall be saying a word, however small in its individual effect, for our native tradition, for our common heritage, in short, for what we once had and may, some day, have again. — Merrie England.” [34]

Instead, the only thing I can find, other than a defense of the “metaphysical right to property,” is this somewhat sophistical rejoinder to the “you can’t turn the clock back” objection:

In declaring that we wish to recover lost ideals and values, we are looking toward an ontological realm which is timeless. The return which the idealists propose is not a voyage backward through time but a return to center, which must be conceived metaphysically or theologically.

And a couple of observations in the last chapter:

The complete acceptance of nature and the complete repudiation of her turn out to be equally pernicious; we should seek a way of life which does not merge with her by responding to her every impulse, or become fatally entangled with her by attempting a complete violation.

Man is not to take his patterns from nature; but neither is he to waste himself in seeking to change her face. I do not think we have a contradiction here, the desideratum being a sort of respectful nonattachment.

Well, no man of sense would dispute that, Socrates. It’s not ever particularly Southern Agrarian; even those damn New Englanders could say as much:

The Transcendentalists were not so naïve as to think of nature as merely a pastoral retreat, nor did they think that it should never be touched by human hands. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized that nature should be appreciated for its beauty, but that it certainly had its uses as a commodity (also evident in Henry David Thoreau’s actions in Walden). It is telling that Thoreau knew categorically the flora and fauna around him, and sought to understand every dimension of the world writ small around him, from the minute geographic details to the very core of life itself. The Transcendentalists acknowledged the need for and uses of industry; in fact, Thoreau was fascinated by the machines of the Industrial Revolution, trains in particular. He recognized their uses. But was not willing to be held in thrall to them. The Transcendentalists cautioned people against being blinded by the constant push to industrialize at the expense of their own enlightenment or of nature. Nature has many uses; to engage in a singularly exploitative relationship with nature would be to destroy it, and, indeed, to miss the point entirely.

Emerson recognized that there was much more that man could gain through a relationship with nature beyond material gain; if man could commune with nature, he could better himself. Nature can be a commodity, but it is not limited to simply that which can be extracted from it, particularly without regard to its stewardship. Its power is something to be revered and respected, something the modern “glampers“ don’t seem understand. It does not conform to man’s expectations and desires, much as we may try to bend it to our will. Nature constitutes the understood and the unknown. It is the soul—that is, all that is outside of man, as well as something that is inside, shared with the rest of the universe. To commune with nature is to tap into this elemental, spiritual force that could lead to truly “knowing thyself.”

The Transcendentalists were realistic in their interpretations of the uses of nature, and not only acknowledged but supported them within reason, but they also urged people to look to nature for more than just something to be conquered. Nature was to be appreciated as a spiritual force as well as something that should not be plundered and destroyed wholesale as it is crucial to the survival of man. This was quite radical, as species were being slaughtered wholesale across the country, forests were being clear-cut, and the atmosphere and lands were being poisoned by unregulated output by industry.

One wonders why Weaver doesn’t apply the same approach to the modern world as a whole. Perhaps he might find that, like Harry Haller, the “Steppenwolf,” his apartment could contain both Goethe and a gramophone. [35]

The reader may think after all this that I would not recommend the book, but if so, perish the thought! There is much for the reader to enjoy in Weaver’s diatribe. As one might expect from a rhetorician (and Vanderbilt graduate), Weaver has a way with words and a taste for recondite ones that would please a Huysmans.

When he gets down to analyzing modern phenomena, he’s pretty shrewd and often downright prophetic. Discussing the “last metaphysical right remaining to us” — private property — he sounds not so much like Mises or Reagan as a kind of chimera of Stirner and Belloc:

The right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness. Property rests upon the idea of the hisness of his: proprietas, Eigentum, the very words assert an identification off owner and owned. … In the hisness of property we have dogma; there the discussion ends. [36]

The last metaphysical right offers nothing in defense of that kind of property brought into being by finance capitalism. Such property is, on the contrary, a violation of the very notion of proprietas. This amendment of the institution to suit the uses of commerce and technology has done more to threaten property than anything else yet conceived. For the abstract property of stocks and bonds, the legal ownership of enterprises never seen, actually destroy the connection between man and his substance without which metaphysical right becomes meaningless. Property in this sense becomes a fiction useful for exploitation and makes impossible the sanctification of work. The property which we defend as an anchorage keeps its identity with the individual.”

The moral solution is the distributive ownership of small properties…. Such ownership provides a range of volition through which one can be a complete person. [37]

Sounds more Bernie than Buckley. Speaking of finance capital, what would Bloomberg make of this encomium of a “Vermont farmer of the 1850’s”:

He has been properly admired for his independence, by which is meant not isolation from community life—on the contrary, he appears to have been active in town meeting and at the poll—but opportunity and disposition to decide for himself according to a rational and enduring code of values. His acres may have been rocky, but he appraised his situation and assumed direction. He rose early because the relationship between effort and reward was clear to him. There was a rhythm to his task which humanized it, each day bringing a certain round of duties, and the seasons themselves imposing a larger pattern, as when haying time arrived. At the end of a day he might remain up until nine o’clock with the weekly newspaper, not flipping through comics and sporting news but reading its political disquisitions to weigh and consider as carefully as Bacon could have desired. He observed the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with some recollection of what they signified. He remained poor, but he was not unmanned; he had enough character to say No.

As for prophecy, the famous chapter on “The Great Stereopticon” — what today we would call “the Mainstream Media” along with the academy; the Cathedral, in short — could be written today.

The separation of education from religion, one of the proudest achievements of modernism, is but an extension of the separation of knowledge from metaphysics. And the education thus separated can provide their kind of indoctrination [i.e., liberalism].

The Great Stereopticon, like most gadgets, has been progressively improved and added to until today it is a machine of three parts: the press, the motion picture, and the radio. Together they present a version of life quite as controlled as that taught by medieval religionists …. It is the function of this machine to project selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated.

And it seems their methodology hasn’t changed a bit:

Journalism, on the whole, is glad to see a quarrel start and sorry to see it end. … I have felt that the way in which newspapers raked over every aspect of Adolf Hitler’s life and personality since the end of the war shows that they really have missed him; they now have no one to play anti-Christ against the bourgeois righteousness they represent. [38]

As for politics:

The day of respect for the “loyal opposition” has gone with the day of the gentleman class. The plain truth is that [opponents of the system] are on the point of being engulfed completely, so that they cannot find means of continuance on any condition. In the past, revolutionary movements have frequently drawn strength from element in the very society that they proposed to overthrow. Such opportunity came through the existence of a measure of liberty. [Deplatforming?] In the monolithic police state which is the invention of our age, assisted as it is by technology, surveillance becomes complete. And when we add to this political fanaticism, which seems an outgrowth of our level of development, the picture grows terrifying.

Leaving aside its ideological intent, Ideas Have Consequences is an enjoyable and informative read, and not the worst guide to life in the modern world. Just don’t let it inspire you to take a more holistic, medieval approach to dealing with the Coronavirus.

Notes

[1] John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1980). The book’s title refers to an epigram from Jonathan Swift’s essay, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Compare Weaver: “We shall have occasion to observe in many connections … one of the great conspiracies against philosophy and civilization, a conspiracy immensely aided by technology…”

[2] An application of “Occam’s Razor”: one should not multiply entities beyond necessity — Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate.

[3] His account of jazz — “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism” — which even Kimball dares to suggest might be “racially tinged,” is a good example of Weaver just improvising on ignorance. (Improvising — ironic!). Here of course he joins hands with other cultural pessimists like Evola (see his “Negrified America“) and Spengler (“Jazz bands and nigger dancing are the death knell of civilization” — The Hour of Decision, 1934). Interestingly, jazz fans seem prone to similar reflections, with jazz at its pinnacle during their young adulthood; for Philip Larkin, the decline sets in with Charlie Parker in 1945, while for Stanley Crouch, Parker is a genius and the rot sets in in 1967; see my review of Crouch’s biography of Parker here.

[4] The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls (Christendom Press, 1988).

[5] Compare Wittgenstein’s discussion of “following a rule” (Philosophical Investigations, ss.138-242), where, when a series of numbers is dictated and you are asked to continue the sequence, the other chap says you’re wrong and provides a difference continuation; how could you prove you were correct in the first place? Wittgenstein thinks this proves that “following a rule” can never explain an action; C. W. K. Mundle, in his Critique of Linguistic Philosophy (Oxford, 1970), counters that all it proves is that the other guy is a lying bastard.

[6] For example, Piero Fenili has criticized Evola for “the wrong choice of traditions,” siding with the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire (i.e., Semites and German barbarians) and consequently disparaging the “true Italic tradition,” reborn in the Renaissance and leading to modern science See Joscelyn Godwin, “Politica Romana: Pro and Contra Evola” in Arthur Versluis (ed.), Esotericism, Religion and Politics (New Cultures Press, 2012). Note that Weaver makes the same selection as Evola.

[7] The choice is unusual anyway; historically, the Southern Tradition favored Aristotle over Plato, most likely because of his vigorous defense of slavery. Laird Shaw provides a handy list of some 34 unargued metaphysical claims Weaver asserts or alludes to.

[8] Reading Weaver I not infrequently recalled how in graduate school we students would parody the way Socrates was always getting the upper hand against his stick-figure opponents by dropping such remarks as “Yes, Socrates, it seems we must agree” or “Indeed, no man of sense would dispute that.”

[9] Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1953; Penguin, 1992, with Introduction by David Lodge).

[10] As an antidote to Weaver’s simplistic account of Bacon, see The Mystical Foundations of Francis Bacon’s Science by Daniel Branco (Manticore, 2020).

[11] Again, “No man of sense would dispute that, Socrates.” Weaver’s fellow Agrarian Marion Montgomery was known as “the Hillbilly Thomist,” while R. Blaine Harris, President of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies and professor at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, was known as “the barefoot Platonist.”

[12] The New Left; six critical essays; ed. by Maurice Cranston (New York: Library Press, 1971). It might be easier to find Cranston’s essay here: “Herbert Marcuse,” Encounter, vol. 32, no. 3 (1969).

[13] Like Guenon, Weaver claims that in modernity (nominalism), quality has usurped the place of quality (realism).

[14] Weaver is particularly incensed by the atom bomb, perhaps because of his university’s role in its development; he says modernity has “made criminals” out of the people who worked on the project.

[15] Weaver calls this mass-media machine The Great Stereopticon.

[16] Weaver: “Somehow the notion has been loosed that nature is hostile to man or that her ways are offensive or slovenly, so that every step of progress is measured by how far we have altered these.” Somehow?

[17] We’ll soon see the significance of the “gentleman” for Weaver.

[18] “Just went to a Southern Virginia Walmart. I could SMELL the Trump support.” — FBI hack Peter Strzok to fellow conspirator Lisa Page.

[19] It is interesting to note that although published after his retirement, it was the book that propelled him into the general public’s awareness, just as Ideas did for Weaver at the start of his career.

[20] Or maybe not: “Alasdair MacIntyre calls Marcuse a ‘pre-Marxist’ thinker, while various Soviet critics, Maurice Cranston, Hans Holz and others call Marcuse ‘anti-Marxist’ or ‘anarchist’.” Douglas Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (Palgrave, 1984).

[21] Bloomsbury, 2016; an updated version of his plain old Thinkers of the New Left (Longman, 1985). According to Amazon, the latter sells for up to $1,444.00, so if you have a copy, strike while the market is hot!

[22] Again: “Somehow the notion has been loosed that nature is hostile to man or that her ways are offensive or slovenly, so that every step of progress is measured by how far we have altered these.” Somehow?

[23] Weaver: “[Empiricism] violates the belief that creation or nature is fundamentally good, that the ultimate reason for its laws a mystery, and that acts of defiance … are subversive of cosmos.”

[24] Take that, Mr. Platonic Realist!

[25] Note the rhetorical trick: Weaver plays off the stereotype of the crude, calculating Bolshie, but we must recall that Weaver calls them “realists” in the mediaeval sense of holding that ideas are real – remember Scruton’s reference to their contempt for mere empiricism — thus they abjure Occam and are the good guys, the first in hundreds of years.

[26] This, of course, is that great figure of Tradition, the Chakravartin, the Master who sits at the center of the field, the warp and woof of the gunas, controlling all, the Unmoved Mover. We have frequently had occasion to note his role in everything from Sherlock Holmes to Mr. Belvedere to Mad Men. Whether a philosopher can be or be analogous to such a Realized Man merely by supposedly knowing the principles which operate as the causes of movement in the phenomenal world is a good questions; some have claimed this role for Hegel (see Hegel: The Man Who would Be God by Michael Faust).

[27] Evola would attribute this to each man’s “personal equation.” The notion of the gentleman plays an important role in the work of Leo Strauss, and in another interesting synchronicity Strauss took up a position at the University of Chicago the year after Weaver’s book was published by the University’s press. For more on philosopher kings, see Greg Johnson, From Plato to Postmodernism (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

[28] Weaver’s Chapter 3, “Fragmentation and Obsession,” gives an excellent account of the original notion of a liberal education -– what Cardinal Newman called “the education of a gentleman” — and would be a useful prolegomena to Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1948); new translation by Gerald Malsbary of two linked studies, Musse und Kult and Was heisst Philosophieren? with an Introduction by Roger Scruton (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998). See also Maria Popova, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism,” in Brainpickings, August 10, 2015. Again, the annus mirabilis of 1948! See also my “Protocols of the Puppies of the Alt-right.”

[29] Adorno pursues his aesthetic interests as a gentleman, while Evola demonstrates bravery (or foolhardiness) in various endeavors.

[30] A hasty oversimplification, of course; see my “Re-Kindling Alan Watts,” reprinted in Magick for Housewives: Essays on Alt-Gurus (Manticore, 2018).

[32] I mean the Watchmen character, of course. The difficulty of placing Ozzy as either a man of the Left or the Right is symptomatic of the way Weaverism shifts back and forth from mediaevalism to Marxism; see Trevor Lynch’s review of Watchmen, here and reprinted in his Return of the Son of Trevor Lynch’s CENSORED Guide to the Movies; edited by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

[33] Scruton adds “and the Frankfurters’ belief in the redemptive role of critical reflection is one form of it.” So is Weaver’s account, which no one in the Middle Ages could give or understand. This is an ongoing problem with such efforts; as Jocelyn Godwin says of Evola, “The critic of modernity is an essentially modern phenomenon.” (“Julius Evola: A Philosopher for the Age of Titans,” in Tyr 1 (2002), p. 132).

[34] Lucky Jim, again. Of course, when delivered, after a few many “arty weekends” and too many brandies, the lecturer changes sides in midstream: “‘What, finally, is the practical application of all this? Dixon said in his normal voice. He felt he was in the grip of some vertigo, hearing himself talking without consciously willing any words. ‘Listen and I’ll tell you. The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto….’ He paused and swayed; the heat, the drink, the nervousness, the guilt at last joined forces in him. His head seemed to be swelling and growing lighter at the same time, his body felt as if it were being ground out into its constituent granules; his ears hummed and the sides, top and bottom of his vision were becoming invaded by a smoky, greasy darkness. Chairs scraped at either side of him, a hand caught at his shoulder and made him stumble With Welch’s arm round his shoulders he sank to his knees, half-hearing the Principal’s voice saying above a tumult. ‘…from finishing his lecture through sudden indisposition. I’m sure you’re all . . .’” You can watch it here.

[35] “If [modern man] could still sense something greater than himself….he could remain unspoilt even in the city.”

[36] Interested readers might consult my writings on Stirner here.

[37] See numerous articles here on Counter-Currents on Distributism and Social Credit, such as Kerry Bolton’s “Breaking the Bondage of Usury.”

[38] Hitler and “European Fascism” are figures of evil throughout the book; it is somewhat ironic that Weaver never considers that the Great Stereopticon is itself responsible for his views. See Mark Weber, “Collusion: Franklin Roosevelt, British Intelligence, and the Secret Campaign to Push the US Into War,” Unz.com, February 19, 2020. Of course, this, and his opposition to the atom bomb, are consistent with his residual Socialism.

3 Comments

  1. rhondda
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    So, I bought the book for I do believe the title. You know, if you are going to create bioweapons that kill people, you really should consider if your own people will die because of it and your lack of foresight. But that is beside the point I guess, for I have not read it yet. It is intriguing.
    As an aside I do have both the new version and the old version of Roger Scruton’s Thinkers of the New Left. I had heard that they were different, but noone said what that was, so I found a cheap version of the old one which you have said is worth now over $1ooo on amazon. That is halarious. Any takers? Reminds me of a new version of a chaos magician’s book. I had the old version, but you know curiousity got the better of me. Another funny. Evola was in the old one, but not the second one. Oh, what does that mean? What does that tell you about chaos magicians?
    Seriously, I am looking forward to reading this book. I do not think he would agree with Marcuse’s idea of tolerance for that is exactly what the left is now. Intolerating anything that disagrees with their idea of tolerance. But, I could be wrong.

  2. GC Mandrake
    Posted March 4, 2020 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    [23] called to mind lines from a Wilfred Owen poem:
    “Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
    Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery”. Ah, but that we could have both…

    Also, as a bit of trivia, I recall reading somewhere that Weaver himself disliked the title of the book, which was chosen by his publisher. It may have been in an article on The Imaginative Conservative.
    Quite a tremendous essay, and I’m only halfway through.

    • James J OMeara
      Posted March 4, 2020 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Indeed, I should have noted that the Afterword by Ted Smith outlines the genesis of the book and in particular the rather bizarre marketing. Weaver wanted to call it “The Adverse Descent” or “The Fearful Descent”. He hated the IHC title, and even got into one of those faculty living room party arguments with the director of the UC Press, who had come up with it as part of the said marketing campaign. For some reason this guy was quite taken with the book’s sales potential, and ordered up about 10k copies and an aggressive marketing campaign (note the “ripped from the headlines” dust jacket above) which Weaver also hated and which backfired disastrously; the Press was nearly bankrupted, reviewers called for the University to be investigated for incompetence, the director almost lost his job. The irony, of course, is that the whole thing resembles the Great Stereopticon that Weaver deplores in the book; another example of pleading for a return to the Middle Ages in the form of a post-Guttenberg printed book.

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