Richard Weaver’s Analysis of the Decline of Western Civilization

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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).

“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Hill of Slane ruins

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?