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Searching for Transcendentals & True Knowledge:
The Enduring Legacy of Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences

1,947 words

There are great thinkers, and then there are great thinkers whose prescience is so acute that they seem to operate on a precognitive, almost prophetic level. Included among the latter category is Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963). Weaver was a professor of English at the University of Chicago when the humanities were taken seriously, and nowhere were they taken more seriously than at UC in the two decades following the end of the Second World War. Although most often associated with the Southern Agrarians, Weaver spent most of his career in the North; and while his works often dealt with the particularities of Southern culture, Weaver’s goal was to discern the basis of true knowledge rooted in the perception by the intellect of a transcendental metaphysics.

Weaver’s best known and most influential book is Ideas Have Consequences (1948). This book had a profound impact on several generations of the post-War Right and was greatly admired by traditional and paleo-conservatives from Russell Kirk to Pat Buchanan.

In the first paragraph of the book, Weaver states his thesis with the clarity and succinctness we would expect from a master rhetorician:

This is another book about the dissolution of the West. I attempt two things not commonly found in the growing literature of this subject. First, I present an account of that decline based not on analogy but on deduction. It is here the assumption that the world is intelligible and that man is free and that those consequences we are now expiating are the product not of biological or other necessity but of unintelligent choice. Second, I go so far as to propound, if not a whole solution, at least the beginning of one, in the belief that man should not follow a scientific analysis with a plea of moral impotence. [1]

Although Weaver makes no explicit acknowledgment, the influence of Giambattista Vico pervades the book. The world — that is, human society and human institutions — is intelligible because these institutions are created by man. As such, Weaver is implicitly mirroring the philosophical basis of Vico’s philosophy: Verum et factum conventuntur (the true and the made are interchangeable). [2] From here, Weaver follows the deductive course of his logic. Humans created human society, humans have chosen unwisely and made a mess of things, and humans have the capacity to correct their mistakes.

That’s a lot to unpack in one paragraph. Although many consider Weaver to be a pessimist, he shows the way out of our current dilemma while staying focused on the reality that the solution will be difficult. Reality, that is, the avoidance of Cartesian abstractions that are contrary to human nature and providence, is also a legacy that Weaver inherited from Vico whose most famous aphorism is “the order of ideas must follow the order of things.” Weaver, however, doubts if modern man has the capacity to discern ideas or even things:

So few are those who care to examine their lives, or to accept the rebuke which comes of admitting that our present state may be a fallen state, that one questions whether people now understand what is meant by the superiority of an ideal. One might expect abstract reasoning to be lost upon them; but what is he to think when attestations of the most concrete kind are set before them, and they are still powerless to mark a difference or to draw a lesson? [3]

What is it, then, that is the cause of modern man’s inability to understand or to discern the truth? Simply put, according to Weaver: “It is the appalling problem. . . of getting men to distinguish between better or

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worse.” [4]

What Weaver describes here is the inability to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad, better or worse. In 1948, the inability to discriminate was the result of a faulty educational system that had no metaphysical core; in 2020, the act of discrimination is one punishable by law. We have gotten to our present condition by a wrong turn taken by Western civilization in the 14th century, identified by Weaver as when the West abandoned belief in the existence of transcendentals and embraced the nominalism of William of Occam:

It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. [5]

As Weaver describes it, the ultimate result of nominalism is the denial of truth. If there is no reality that exists outside of the senses then there can be no truth. Truth in nominalist terms becomes “truth” in quotation marks, a matter of subjective interpretation unmoored to reality, a mere phantasm of contingency and solipsism. Nominalism’s denial of truth ultimately wreaks havoc on mankind’s ability to think:

Logic became grammaticized, passing from a science which taught men vere loqui [true speaking] to one which taught recte loqui [correct speaking] or from an ontological division by categories to a study of signification, with the inevitable focus upon historical meanings. Here begins the assault on definition: if words no longer correspond to objective realities, it seems no great wrong to take liberties with words. From this point on, faith in language as a means of arriving at truth weakens, until our own age, filled with an acute sense of doubt, looks for a remedy in the new science of semantics. [6]

We see in the above quotation an explanation of the origins of the theory wars of the 1980s and 19990s in academia in which Derridean deconstruction all but destroyed the fields of comparative literature, philology, and rhetoric. More ominously, Weaver’s depiction of the shift from vere loqui to recte loqui — or to put it more demotically, the shift from truth to “truth” — explains in large part the origin of political correctness, which is not based on truth but on ever-shifting personal neuroses and political sensitivities.

The loss of logical thinking as a means to discern the truth has the potential to keep the means of self-correction hidden from mankind:

We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent. . . Added to this is the egotism of modern man, fed by many springs, which will scarcely permit the humility needed for self-criticism. [7]

For Weaver, modern man inhabits the same state of being as that of the spoiled child. The right to pursue one’s happiness has been debased into the demand that one’s happiness must be secured immediately and must be guaranteed by the state. Modern man has been completely severed from any connection between effort and reward. Bourgeois comfort has replaced heroic struggle and virtue. Rights are not earned but taken as a given:

The truth is that he [modern man] has never been brought up to see what it is to be a man. That man is the product of discipline and forging, that he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow — this concept left the manuals of education with the advent of Romanticism. This citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind. [8]

This infantilization of modern man is reinforced by what Weaver termed “The Great Stereopticon,” consisting of the press, motion pictures, and radio. Today we would call this the “Media,” but the concept is essentially the same. Whatever degeneracy the globalist overlords are spouting — whether it is white genocide, race mixing, or drag queen story hours — is promoted by every type of print, voice, and visual media. The Great Stereopticon is also a prototype for Curtis Yarvon’s concept of “The Cathedral,” in which media, churches, and the educational system work together to promote the accepted globalist narrative.

What, then, does Weaver propose as a solution to the dissolution of Western civilization? It is a three-fold process that can be roughly outlined as a return to metaphysics, logos, and piety. A return to metaphysics is a return to belief in the transcendental truth that exists prior to and outside of human preferences. For the religious, this could be termed as revealed knowledge; for the non-religious, we can call this reality. Logos is Greek for word, but the concept of logos goes far beyond the printed page. Logos in its complete sense is the ordering of existence, the logic to which the universe adheres at both microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. Truth presupposes order; order presupposes hierarchy; hierarchy presupposes difference; difference presupposes justice, since justice is the receiving on one’s just dues based upon the truth.

Weaver posits a tripartite division of piety: piety towards nature; piety towards our neighbors (that is, everyone else); and piety towards the past. Piety towards nature is more than mere environmentalism. It also includes a piety towards human nature and a respect for gender differences. With just one sentence, Weaver is able dismiss all of the fashionable nonsense of feminism: “No longer protected, the woman now has her career, in which she makes a drab pilgrimage from two-room apartment to job to divorce court.” [9] Piety towards our neighbors is a respect for differences. Weaver makes an interesting and original distinction between individualism and personality:

Individualism, with its connotation of irresponsibility, is a direct invitation to selfishness, and all that this treatise has censured can be traced in some way to individualist mentality. But personality is that little private area of selfhood in which the person is at once conscious of his relationship to the transcendental and the living community. [10]

Of course, difference of opinion, diversity of thought — the only diversity that really matters — is something that the Great Stereopticon and the Cathedral cannot abide. In words that sound as if they were written during the Great Deplatforming of 2018 rather than 1948, Weaver states:

The contempt with which modern dictatorships and bureaucracies reject difference and dissent is but a brutal aspect of the same thing [the enforcement of sameness, that is, equality, and a rejection of personality]. Deviation from the proletarian norm bids fair to become the heresy of the future, and from this heresy there will be no court of appeal. [11]

Piety towards the past is defined by Weaver as crediting the past with substance. Weaver died in 1963, and it is doubtful that even as insightful as he was he could have imagined the recent figurative trashing of American history and the literal trashing of American historical monuments:

Most modern people appear to resent the past and seek to deny its substance for either of two reasons: (1) it confuses them, or (2) it inhibits them. If it confuses them, they have not thought enough about it; if it inhibits them, we should look with a curious eye upon whatever schemes they have afoot. [12]

Once again, Weaver succinctly summarizes the current dilemma. Our enemies have too much confusion and not enough inhibition. Ideas Have Consequences is a wonderful guide to begin the process of redressing this imbalance.

Notes

[1] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 1.
[2] Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), p. 45.
[3] Weaver, Ideas, pp. 1-2.
[4] Ibid., p. 1.
[5] Ibid., p. 3.
[6] Ibid., p. 7.
[7] Ibid., pp. 10-11.
[8] Ibid., pp. 114-115.
[9] Ibid., pp. 179.
[10] Ibid., p. 181.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p. 176.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Jud Jackson
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Excellent article.

    Since Weaver rejects nominalism, I gather he is a Realist. Is he a Realist in the mode of Plato (the Forms are in a Kind of Heaven) or Aristotle where the universal combines with the particular?

    • Quintilian
      Posted March 3, 2020 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Weaver was a Platonist.

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