Cover of "Ideas Have Consequences"

Cover of Ideas Have Consequences

Richard Weaver (1910-63) did more than anyone to point out the sources of the anomie infecting Western Civilization. A professor at the University of Chicago who was associated with the Southern Agrarians, Weaver understood the pernicious influence of nominalism on the modern world. He traced the origin of modernity to William of Occam’s view that universals are not real—the only thing that is real are individual things. Names are labels given by convention only to individual things that we group together depending on what use we are making of them.

To be fair, Occam did believe there were objective similarities between things so that it is not arbitrary that we call a dog a “dog.” However, his denial of real universals and his view that God determines what is good and true and beautiful rather than those universals being part of the divine nature prepared the way for full-fledged nominalism.  The result has been devastating to Western society.

Modern science has brought electricity and the technology I am using now as I write using the word processor loaded onto my computer. Science, however, has brought us a mixed bag of goods—and evils. Machine guns, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, napalm, and chemical weapons are products of modern science. A nuclear war would destroy civilization, perhaps leaving behind a few stragglers struggling to survive. Science has brought great power as it “put nature of the rack” and demanded its secrets, as Roger Bacon, a nominalist and one of the first true moderns, stated.

Weaver recognized that once real universals (and thus real forms or real natures) are denied, then the world will be conceptualized as fluid, with human will having the ability to change human nature and human society. Gender becomes another social construction rather than an essential aspect of human nature with clear boundaries. Society is considered infinitely malleable by human effort, so that broad government social programs are thought to reorder society to better meet the human good. Too bad that stable human nature that nominalist deny exists continually spoils the meddling of self-proclaimed saviors of society. Eugenics again raises its ugly head with the new eugenics, based on contemporary genetic engineering techniques, strives to make better bodies. Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, recognizes that the limits of gene manipulation, especially gene interaction, will make it practically impossible to perfect human beings. Yet scientists and do-gooder social reformers strive to make human beings in their own idealized image, ignoring the practical realities and limitations of human nature. For example, reformers wanted women to serve on ships with men. Putting men and women in close quarters had the result any farmer or construction worker could foresee—pregnancy. This has become a significant problem for the United State Navy. Males and females are sexual beings, and all the political correctness in the world will not change that fact.

Evacuating universals from the world effectively evacuated any connecting links between God’s rationality and the world—all that is left is either God’s bare will or no God at all with the chance mutations of Darwinism driving human nature. Human beings, no longer seeing themselves as having a common nature that other human beings have, behave as isolated individuals. Selfishness then takes over, with its attendant family breakups—technological isolation, in which family members or friends rarely visit one another in their homes—becomes the norm. Bereft of any meaning that transcends the self, human beings seek pleasure as an escape from the inevitability of death. When they find that empty, they suffer anomie and fail to find any pattern in the world that makes sense.  As Camus noted, suicide seems the only rational option and the only real philosophical problem. Camus’ solution is like Sartre’s—we make our own subjective meaning in life in the absence of any objective patterns.

But the subjective meaning Sartre seeks ultimately does not satisfy. People naturally seek  to know reality and want to know that their lives have meaning due to something transcending them rather than  an illusory view of reality existing only in their thoughts. As St. Anselm recognized,  subjective meaning is not enough.  Meaning must be true to reality that transcends the self. Nominalism denies such meaning.

Some of Weaver’s criticisms ring hollow today. He criticizes jazz as if it came from Hell itself. Yet outside of free jazz and acid jazz there is a great deal of formal structure (with room for freedom and improvisation) in jazz. He did not like the emphasis on the soloists, but that is not unique to jazz—besides, the soloist requires the entire group for him to bring out his best effort. Other than this small caveat, I highly recommend Weaver’s 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences, for his analysis of the decline of Western civilization and his call for a return to metaphysical realism (a belief that universals have some extramental reality).

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