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).

On “Guilty Pleasures”

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Estonian heavy metal group Remote Silence perf...

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I enjoy listening to classical music and jazz, especially bebop. I also enjoy listening to heavy metal music, something that I count among my “guilty pleasures.” I cannot explain the attraction, although the groups I like the most (Anthrax, Zao) tend to write more intellectual lyrics than are found in other heavy metal bands. Another guilty pleasure may relate to this interest–I love horror fiction and horror movies. Black Sabbath became successful when they tried to reach horror fans with their music, and other groups followed. From Rob Zombie to black and death metal, horror themes are found in heavy metal music. Now some people would say I should be ashamed of this guilty pleasure, and perhaps they have a point. Richard Weaver, the author of the fine book Ideas Have Consequences, thought jazz to be decadent, and he would have rolled over in his grave if he had lived long enough to have heard heavy metal music.

As for horror fiction, I prefer books of higher literary quality–not only the classic works such as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also works of fine contemporary horror writers such as Ramsey Campbell and, yes, Stephen King. Dean Koontz is not as strong, though his writing has improved over the years. I love his Frankenstein series. Now and then I don’t mind reading a trashy horror novel–or seeing a trashy horror movie. With a red face I admit I like both the movies Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. H. P. Lovecraft would have fainted if he saw how his work was adapted, but there is a campiness to these movies that eases the shock of their graphic imagery.

Another guilty pleasure is that I collect animal skulls–so far I have several dog, cat, and deer skulls, a cow skull, a horse skull, a goose skull, and perhaps more if my old brain could remember them. I do not know the source of that interest entirely–as a child I was afraid of skulls and skeletons when they appeared in horror movies or shows. I remember watching, in the late 1960s as a child, an episode of the horror soap opera Dark Shadows. Someone was sitting down and glanced up to look at a bookcase. Several skulls floated in the air. I screamed, got in trouble, and eventually was…. punished….. for insisting on continuing to watch the show. While an interest in skulls could be explained by my fear-fascination with death, such a pleasure becomes less guilty due to my fascination with form in nature. So many patterns repeat in nature, not only in different living organisms, but inanimate ones, too. That’s the excuse I give myself to feel better about this interest.

Last but not least is ghost investigations. I have no idea whether or not ghosts exist.  I do believe (and have experienced) things that are difficult to explain via conventional science. But I enjoy being in the dark, feeling like a child in the woods listening to ghost stories. It is not that I do not take this activity seriously, but I find it to be lots of fun despite the work involved.

Everyone probably has at least one guilty pleasure, something he enjoys that seems incongruent which his known character and interests. Someone who likes fine wines may have a cheap white Zinfandel now and then. A person who enjoys fine dining may enjoy the occasional splurge as a cheap, greasy fast food restaurant. I’m not convinced that these guilty pleasures are worth feeling guilty about. They reveal human beings to be interesting and complex creatures who can tie together disparate, even contradictory, interests together in their minds. If quirks and guilty pleasures do not harm a person and make this short life a little more interesting, then more power to them.

Universal Terms and Reality

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The problem of universals is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle to Boethus, Abelard, and the other medievals to the modern and contemporary periods philosophers have discussed whether universal words such as “man,” “dog,” “oak tree” or “water” exist in themselves, are mere labels for objects we group together for our convenience, or do not refer to things, but to objective similarities between things. Extreme realism, such as held by Plato, holds that universal terms such as “dog” refer to the Form “Dog” that exists in a spaceless, timeless world separate from the empirical world, and which is known by reason, not by sense experience. The opposite view, extreme nominalism, associated with Foucault and Derrida (although whether this is their actual position can be debated) holds that “dog” refers to what any society labels particular animals they wish to group together as “dogs.” There is no essence of dogness, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for dogness to which the term “dog” refers. Finally, moderate realism (the position of Abelard (perhaps–I think so), St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed Duns Scotus, asserts that universal terms refer to objective similarities between natural kinds of the same type, to a set of, say, necessary and sufficient conditions that make a dog a “dog.” The trend since William of Occam has been toward conceptualism, such as Occam’s notion of universals as labels that refer to similarities between entities that have some basis in extramental reality. He sounds like a moderate realist; some interpreters call him a “realistic conceptualist.” In his own day he was interpreted as a nominalist, and whatever his position may have been, philosophers after Occam gravitated toward nominalism. This trend accelerated the split between faith and reason that ended the Medieval synthesis. The end stage of this process is found in Nietzsche’s work, which supported nominalism in the sense that all meanings are culturally constructed and do not have an objective basis in extramental reality. Contemporary English Departments at many universities, especially in the United States, tend toward a radical nominalism and linguistic constructivism in which universal words refer to whatever fits a particular society’s interest. Even though I agree with the notion that meaning is flexible, since I accept the medieval four-fold model of meaning in Biblical interpretation, there remain limits to the scope of meanings that a word can have. Meaning occurs in context, and a particular context may both increase the number of possible meanings of a term, but it can also lower or eliminate the possibilities of other meanings. “I am going to the bank” makes sense if the person saying that also adds “to go fishing.” If he says, “I am going to the bank to withdraw money,” that eliminates the the other meaning of “bank” as “bank of a river.” Natural kind terms clearly refer to entities that are objectively similar. Sure, a beagle does not look like a Rottweiler, but they are both carnivores, they both bark, they can interbreed, and they have similar genetic codes and similar causal powers. There is no need to posit the existence of “Dogness” in any transcendent world independently of actual dogs. “Dogness” might exist in individual dogs in the sense that it refers to the set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to make a dog fall under the universal term “Dog” (or another term, such as Canis, used in another language. Thus my own sympathies are with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ moderate realism: universal terms refer to objective similarities between things that are necessary and jointly sufficient for an entity to be the kind of thing it is. Universal terms may also hint at universal ideas or patterns in the mind of God through which He created the universe and the things in it. This view, dating back to Augustine, was picked up by the Medieval philosphers such as Aquinas, and did not fade until William of Occam denied it in the fourteenth century. Moderate realism evades the problem of arbitrariness found in postmodernism as well as the over-transcendence of Plato’s world of the Forms. I am hopeful that it will be adopted by philosophers outside the Thomist school, since as Richard Weaver pointed out in his fine book, Ideas Have Consequences, nominalism helped lead to the idea that nature, including human nature, is infinitely malleable by human ingenuity. Realism, whether ultra or moderate, helps to form a stable society in which human nature and nonhuman nature are both respected. Moderate realism avoids the problems of Plato’s doctrine of participation by placing the entity to which a universal term refers “in” the individual substance. Now substance, I believe, following Fr. Norris Clarke, is “substance-as-relation,” so that the intellectual content of the object observed would “seek” (metaphorically speaking) to communicate itself as far as possible–and the observer would strive to communicate was much as possible. Through such joining of information the mind becomes “intentionally one” with the object perceived, and thereby knows it, not exhaustively–but the actual information he receives is accurate to a degree. If this is the way communication between being and mind takes place, there is no need for transcendent Forms, but there is a need for “forms” with a small “f” to guarantee stable behavior patterns among natural kinds.