It’s always a delight to discover substantive thinkers whose works, while not widely celebrated, endure the acids of time. Richard M. Weaver’s thoughts endure, manifestly in his best known book, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1948; pb. ed. 1984), illuminates our culture as deftly as it did for readers who first saw it half-a-century ago. Weaver (1910-1963) taught English at the University of Chicago and stands within the Southern agrarian tradition which produced so many fine writers in that era.
Weaver wrote Ideas as Consequences “as a challenge to forces that threaten the foundations of civilization” (p. vi), fearing Western Civilization was imperiled, indeed collapsing under the assaults of nihilists who acknowledged no absolute truths, no permanent values. We have suffered a “vertical invasion of the barbarians,” a cultural catastrophe equal to that visited upon the Ancient world by the Goths and the Vandals. The great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once said “The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers.” Ortega feared we were failing in this endeavor. And so too did Weaver, who exercised his mind “looking for a place where a successful stand may be made for the logos against modern barbarism” (p. 147). At stake in this struggle is the mind itself, and its capacity to actually know the Reality designed by a Higher Mind.
As an English teacher, Weaver pondered the classic works of literature and found Shakespeare’s Macbeth most revealing, for in the late fourteenth century, illuminated by the play, Western man began to “abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals” (p. 3). In the intricate philosophical debates between realists and nominalists, dark powers (evident in the nominalists) dethroned the light of universal truth. William of Occam replaced Thomas Aquinas, skepticism replaced certainty, and the decline of the West began. “The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence” (p. 3). What’s been lost is the “power of the word,” the word which aligns our minds with the Word which was (and is) God–transcendent Truth.
For six centuries now, thinkers have increasingly taken universals such as justice to be mere names we humans paste, like post-it notes, on things. “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. 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” (p. 3). With the ancient sophists, modern man affirms that “man is the measure of all things.” Science displaced theology as the “queen” of academia, deism ousted theism, and what we call the “modern world” developed.
Against this world, so profoundly destructive to the human spirit, Weaver battles! Against those who would stamp out the mystery and beauty of reality, he insists “that philosophy begins with wonder” and that “sentiment is anterior to reason” (p. 19). Ideas and ideals, virtues and virtuous heroes, a love for one’s ancestors and descendents, a vision of the eternal good and a commitment to its acquisition, must find roots in the hearts of those who would restore our culture. Against those who endlessly insist that all men are equal and thus share all goods equally, Weaver demands the restoration of “distinction and hierarchy.” In truth, people are not equally talented, and a good society rightly recognizes the importance of hierarchies. During the past two centuries of revolutions, assorted egalitarians–Jacobins, Romantics, socialists, pragmatists, and utopian schemers–have incessantly claimed they’re committed to eliminating injustice. But in fact, Weaver contends, they generally engage in “artful self-promotion” (p. 41).
Prophetically, discerningly, Shakespeare wrote:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong
(Between whose endless jar justice resides)
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
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. (p. 39)
Against the “fragmentation and obsession” of modernity, Weaver calls us to discern timeless truths, aligned with ontological realities. Against the “egotism in work and art” so evident in men such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, Weaver urges us to selflessly sacrifice ourselves, our petty egos, for a higher end. Against “The Great Stereopticon”–Weaver’s label for the modern media which control the masses as effectively as any Medieval religionists–he urges us to study the classics, to engage in philosophical pondering and wondering, to commit ourselves to those permanent things contained in Scripture and Tradition. Plato, in his famed allegory of the cave, saw the problem clearly. We who would be his students must escape the illusions shining on various screens around us and pursue transcendental reality. Against “the child-spoiled psychology” everywhere ascendant in his day, Weaver demands a disciplined education which is designed to produce mature, well-disciplined adults. Romantic dreams of basically sinless children who need only nurture and ego massages overlook one of the clearest marks of humanity: original sin! Weaver argues, siding with Aristotle, that discipline rather than comfort, asceticism rather than amusement, must be employed to bring out the best in our youths. “Let parents, then, bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence,” wrote Plato in the Laws. Modern man, Weaver, thought, lacks piety–any healthy veneration for his ancestors, any reverence for nature, any willingness to worship God. Yet we desperately need a return to “the ancient virtue of pietas” (p. 171).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c. 1964; republished, Bryn Mawr, PA: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), a collection of essays first published a year after his death, Weaver continued his analysis of modern society and offered further proposals for its salvation.
Modernity, he thought, focuses on function rather than status, becoming rather than being, means rather than ends. “Functionalists” and functionaries, folks who think instrumentally and work pragmatically, rise to the top of society, as is evident in commercial cultures dominated by businessmen. Brushing aside questions concerning the true nature of man, and what activities are proper for him, modernists function on an essentially material level. Consequently, people tend to be valued to the extent they can enrich their society; thus the unborn and the elderly lose much of their value and can be more easily disposed of.
Modernists, intent on being “progressives,” entertain a fascination for the “latest” developments and the “finest” future possibilities. Consequently, they often demonstrate a marked disdain for history and its cultural resources. Journalistic sensationalism, not careful scholarship, shapes the public mind. An “uncritical adulation of youth” (p. 53), not an appreciation for the wisdom of age and experience, dominates the popular culture. Yet, Weaver insists, “To be human is to live extensively in two tenses, the past and the future, both of which require for their reconstruction the mind and therefore the memory” (p. 42). Memory, the persistent self-awareness which develops throughout life, enables one to know the most basic of truths: “‘this is I doing this'” (p. 44). Knowing who we are, taking responsibility for what we do, makes one fully human, truly mature.
In a chapter entitled “Gnostics of Education,” Weaver provides insightful analysis of one aspect of modernity. “It is not too much to say that in the past fifty years public education in the United States has been in the hands of revolutionaries” who have deliberately subverted “society’s traditions and beliefs” (p. 114). Followers of John Dewey, fanatical partisans with a utopian agenda–“progressive educators”–have gained control of public bureaucracies and demanded all teachers pass through indoctrinating “Education” courses. Their agenda includes the following articles of faith: 1) there is no recognized body of knowledge to be taught; 2) the focus of teaching is students, not knowledge; 3) children should be free to follow their own inclinations as to what they will study; 4) teachers must be facilitators of group activities, never authorities in a learned discipline; 5) nothing in school should make a student feel bad; 6) mental skills and values must never be elevated above physical activities; 7) language and computation should be de-emphasized, allowing for doing things with concrete objects, as Dewey proposed; 8) the true goal in education is social adjustment, fitting in with one’s society and feeling good about one’s self.
Such objectives, Weaver shows, were espoused by some ancient Gnostics. In one crucial area, basic to educational theory, “The Gnostic belief was that man is not sinful, but divine. The real evil in the universe cannot be imputed to him; his impulses are good, and there is no ground for restraining him from anything which he wants to do. . . . . By divinizing man, Gnostic thinking says that what he wants to do, he should do. Restraints upon human nature now become blasphemous; whereas in the older thinking it was action of human nature which was blasphemous when it contravened law and ethics. Thus the whole system of ethics becomes man-centered, and there is no sanction above man to which anything can be appealed” (p. 123).
Twenty-five years after Weaver died, George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson, Jr. edited a collection of his articles and published The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, c. 1987). Recurrent themes Weaver explores include: the agrarian philosophy he so loved; reflective explorations of the South’s role in American history; and ruminations on some philosophical and political currents fundamental to Southern thinkers..
The Southern agrarians, most noted for their widely-acclaimed I’ll Take My Stand, found a faithful disciple in Richard Weaver. Critical of the technological society, they embraced neither capitalism nor socialism, seeking instead a social and economic system rooted in small farms and chivalrous traditions, decentralized political power and Christian virtues. Thomas Jefferson’s words–“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts he made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue”–echoed and re-echoed throughout Southern literature. Agrarians decried the technological mindset which flowed from Francis Bacon to John Dewey–the “progressive” position that urged man to master nature and construct a perfect society, to replace the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Man.
Southern Agrarians generally championed traditional religion–the Christianity deeply rooted in their region. John Crowe Ransom’s God Without Thunder, Weaver thought, was one of the “profoundest books” ever written by an American. “In a defense of religious orthodoxy, it employed all the means of modern dialectic to show two things: what happens to religion when it is deprived of its sternness and is reduced to a mild humanitarianism; and what happens to the individual man when he sacrifices a certain free aesthetic impulse to the tyrannous demands of efficiency” (p. 36). Southerners almost instinctively opposed Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose “denial of evil is a very great heresy,” a form of Gnosticism which is rooted “in arrogance and egocentrism” and endeavors “to substitute a dream world for the structure of reality” (p. 52).
To Southerners, however, Weaver said, “The world is God-given; its mysteries are not supposed to be fully revealed; and the only possible course in the long run is to accommodate oneself to its vast pulsations. . . . . In a word, the Southerner reveres original creation” (p. 197). Northerners, on the other hand, tended to revere human ideas and artifacts, to worship within the constraints of erudition and scholarly precision, to prefer the sculpted gardens of the country estate to the uncharted wilderness of the frontier. “Essentially the Northerner is a child of the Enlightenment; and his theology is very much like Tom Paine’s; that is, his religion is to do good, and his own mind is his church” (p. 197). Weaver, in short, longed for “the old-time religion.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The first book Weaver actually wrote, The Southern Tradition at Bay, was posthumously published in 1968 (New Rochelle, N.Y: Arlington House). George Core and M.E. Bradford then edited and re-issued the book in 1989 (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway), making it more broadly available. “History is a liberal art,” Weaver said, defending his love for the discipline, “and one profits by studying the whole of it, including lost causes” (p. 372). Thus this book is devoted to one of the most famous of “lost causes”–the South, with her heritage as preserved by her writers, soldiers and preachers, by those who cared for their people and their distinctive way of life.
Weaver’s introductory essay sets the stage to the book’s underlying philosophical stance, establishing an agrarian protest against the devastation wrought by modern technology. We have, amazingly, “conquered” nature but failed to envision how that conquest would diminish ourselves in the process. What we ignored was that fact that “nature is not an opponent, as ancient systems of belief could have instructed us; it is the matrix of our being, and as such scientists we are parricides. Piety is a realization that beyond a certain point victories over nature are pyrrhic” (p. 16). So we should have learned from the legend of Prometheus and the probing ethical treatises of medieval Christian theologians.
“They sensed, apparently,” Weaver says, “the peril of these conquests, a hubris leading to vainglory, egotism, impatience, a feeling that man can dispense with all restraints. Every legend of man’s fall is a caution against presuming to know everything, and an indirect exhortation to piety; and the disappearance of belief in original sin has done more than any thing else to prepare the way for sophistical theories of human nature and society. Man has lost piety toward nature in proportion as he has left her and shut himself up in cities with rationalism for his philosophy” (p. 17). This has led to the “spoiled child” psychology so marked in modern cities. Pampered, provided for by various welfare agencies, free to evade adult responsibilities, they resemble the children of wealthy parents who need never grow up. They never learn what Robert E. Lee found to be the most important lesson of life: self-denial.
Though best cultivated in the ante-bellum American South, Weaver thought, some vestige of true civilization persisted wherever Southerners followed the conservative wisdom of Edmund Burke, for the North clearly had embraced the radicalism of Thomas Paine. In the South some traces of feudalism, with its chivalry, sustained the values basic to a good society. The values of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table–“To speak the truth, to succour the helpless, and never to turn back from an enemy”–thrived in the hearts of such aristocratic Southerners as Robert E. Lee. Still more: in the South the Christian religion pervaded public life and shaped the culture. “Reverence for the ‘word of ‘God’ is a highly important aspect of Southern religious orthodoxy. Modern discussions of fundamentalism usually overlook the fact that belief in a revealed knowledge is the essence of religion in its older sense” (p. 89).
The South failed, however, not merely to win the Civil War but to develop the kind of metaphysical worldview needed to sustain a true civilization. “No Southern spokesman was ever able to show why the South was right finally” (p. 373). Southerners engaged in legal arguments, journalistic jeremiads, and fictional forays. “The South spoke well on a certain level, but it did not make the indispensable conquest of the imagination. From the Bible and Aristotle it might have produced its Summa Theologia, but none measured up to the task, and there is no evidence that the performance would have been rewarded” (p. 273).
But even in its failure, Weaver insists, the South deserves respect. For it was “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World. It is this refuge of sentiments and values, of spiritual congeniality, of belief in the word, of reverence for symbolism, whose existence haunts the nation” (p. 375). The cause which was lost was, perhaps, the last hope for a truly spiritual civilization in North America!
# # #