Whoever argues for a restoration of values is sooner or later met with the objection that one cannot return, or as the phrase is likely to be, ‘you can’t turn the clock back.’ By thus assuming that we are prisoners of the moment, the objection well reveals the philosophic position of modernism.Richard M. Weaver
Richard M. Weaver was born on March 3, 1910 and died on April 1, 1963. He was a scholar and author whose work remains relevant today. Had he lived to the end of the Cold War, he would not have congratulated America on its supposed victory. Communism, he knew, was part of a deeper problem; that is, a philosophical and moral problem. The West was sliding into decadence. It was spiritually disintegrating. “Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection,” noted Weaver: “his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.”
Western man has lost his metaphysical dream of the world. According to Weaver, our intuitive feeling about the nature of reality is the key. As he explained, “this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred to for verification.” And as we are about to find out in the midst of a disputed election, “Without [this] metaphysical dream it is impossible to think of men living together harmoniously over an extent of time.” The dream binds us into a spiritual community. It orients us to the world and each other. But now, as recent events indicate, there is no “metaphysical dream of the world.” There appears in its place the serial stupidities of ideology.
I am, of course, drawing quotes from a disturbing little book, written by Weaver in 1948, titled Ideas Have Consequences. The book offers dark prophecies supported by metaphysical arguments (like the one above). The West, Weaver predicted, would attempt to win the Cold War by living more comfortably than the East. The communists, he noted, believe in struggle. Therefore, Weaver hinted, communism was likely to prevail. All our economic and technological advantages would prove irrelevant in stopping communism. In fact, these advantages would bind us in a cocoon of illusion.
Even those conservatives who praise Weaver today, who echo many of his insights, are bound by this cocoon of illusion. For example, Roger Kimball’s foreword to the new expanded edition of Weaver’s book is a case in point. While praising Weaver as one of our “half-forgotten conservative sages,” Kimball remains evasively dubious with regard to Weaver’s anti-modernism. Weaver, after all, held that equality between the sexes was “decadent.” He thought modern technology was stupefying and degrading. Kimball dares not affirm these points. He does not think, as Weaver, that modernity is damned. Science, says Kimball, has shaped our world. Kimball then asks: Is it not hubris, on Weaver’s part, to “think we could dispense with that world in an effort to live ‘strenuously, or romantically’?”
But Weaver is not arguing that we should “dispense with that world.” He is saying that world will dispense with itself. Ideas, after all, have consequences. Therefore, Kimball misses the point of Weaver’s disturbing little book. Modernity’s “spiritual disintegration” is not occurring in some remote madhouse. It is all around us, in politics and the marketplace. It permeates everything and its destructive effects are inescapable. Weaver says that a decadent civilization may appear to prosper, but we shouldn’t be fooled by appearances. Civilization is going away.
Weaver knows that modernity is going to implode. We are going to be forced to live strenuously whether we want to or not. It is not a question of volunteering to give up our distracting technologies, our decadence, and the comfortable lies that rule over us. In the long run, we will have no choice. We will have to give it up.
At the same time, no political program could have arrested the moral and cultural decline of the last seven decades. Ours is a culture that denies its decadence. Look at the chicanery on every side. For every problem we have a false solution. Stewed in lies as we are, the rule of law is breaking down. We are now passing from an era of prosperity based on borrowed money to an era of outright spoliation.
Weaver’s little book is disturbing because he knew all this was coming. He foresaw that all our pundits, our political fixit men, would be deadenders. We lack the grit to confront our problems. Inevitably, however, our problems will force us back to the truth. Weaver knew that a culture built on false notions must collapse. After all, we have been organizing our own collapse for many years. Yet, even so, there will be survivors. There will be a future. And in that future, men will live more strenuously.
It is odd, is it not, that those who deny the permanent things – who deny the primacy of spirit – should imagine that the world of science and technology is permanent. But nothing here, in the material world, is permanent. And as modernity is based on the most material of all material conceptions of existence, it is the least permanent thing of all. To say, as Kimball does, that Weaver’s imagined world is “an uninhabitable domicile” is therefore an odd inversion; for Kimball’s “world shaped by science” is a runaway train, going faster and faster – either jumping the tracks or smashing up at the end of the line.
Weaver introduces Ideas of Have Consequences with the following sentence: “This is another book about the dissolution of the West.” We are inclined to pass over the word “dissolution” because we don’t want to go there. We cannot imagine that this world of ours, “made by science” as Kimball says, is doomed to fail. We believe too fondly in modern man’s “successes.” Yet a spiritual collapse has already occurred. We are already going backward, blunder by blunder – and we are likely to go all the way back to the Middle Ages if not to the Dark Ages.
Why are we going back? Because civilization is an ethical proposition and moral nihilism has overtaken us. Our problem, says Weaver “is getting men to distinguish between better and worse.” This is not a problem we can solve with smartphones. We cannot fix it through social media. These technologies would hardly impress Weaver, who wrote, “There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.”
How did this come to pass? Weaver has a remarkably concise answer. Around the late fourteenth century Western Man abandoned belief in the existence of transcendentals; that is, we abandoned our belief in truth, beauty and goodness. This came about through a “seemingly innocent form of attack upon universals.” The result was a creeping subjectivism that would lead us to moral anarchy. At the same time, a process of de-spiritualization began. Finally, during the last century, man turned to politics for salvation by way of liberalism, communism and National Socialism. But there is no salvation in political ideologies.
According to Weaver, the denial of universals leads to the cult of empiricism. It leads to the denial of truth and to a general intellectual breakdown. Our intellectuals, in fact, are incredibly corrupt. Even science has been corrupted by them; for science is now the province of political hacks who do not know what the word “science” means. Worse yet, language itself has begun to break down.
“The practical result,” argued Weaver, “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….” Goodbye truth, Beauty and goodness. Everything that is “higher,” everything that is noble, is debunked.
After this fashion modern man was reduced to an abysmal state. And that is where we are today. Man craves truth, noted Weaver, yet he is told to live “experimentally” (without a moral compass). This has led us to “a long series of abdications.” Here is the acme of our decadence, attended by denials and self-congratulations — with lies on top of lies. “To establish the fact of decadence,” wrote Weaver, “is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact … we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism.”
Hysterical optimism? Do you want to convince me that things are getting better, not worse? Consider how ready we are to blot out the truth: (1) by denouncing truth as “pessimism”; or (2) by denouncing the truth as “impractical”; or (3) by dismissing the truth because it doesn’t do that kissy-kissy thing that tickles your ego.
What Weaver is saying, in the end, is that truth is our only source of salvation, though we are ready to revolt against it. The most important truths come as warnings. “It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself,” noted Weaver. If we miss the chance then presented, our self-imposed blindness will paralyze us. “Thus in the face of the enormous brutality of our age we [will] seem unable to make appropriate response to perversions of truth and acts of bestiality.”
Look at what is happening in our country. We have seen illegalities ignored, lies embraced as truth, criminals rewarded and the righteous denounced. An election has been stolen. The Constitution is no longer the Supreme Law of the Land. Civilization, noted Weaver, “has been an intermittent phenomenon; to this truth we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by the insolence of material success.”
Weaver’s disturbing little book can be read in a few hours. It offers us a more realistic glimpse at our situation. It challenges our false optimism. It points to our philosophical mistakes. Here is an intellectual corrective. Here is medicine for the soul. Here is clarity.