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).

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The Whining of the “I’m Outraged” Crowd about North Carolina

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State seal of North Carolina

State seal of North Carolina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

North Carolina voters passed the marriage amendment with a vote of 61% in favor and 39% against. In my own county (Cumberland) the vote was 69% for and 31% against. With the cry from the Left and from many of the “intelligentsia” (notice the quotation marks), one would think that the world is coming to an end. To the elites of society, North Carolina is full of backwoods people who are not enlightened enough to support same-sex marriage. To the majority of the people of North Carolina, the “elites” are out of touch with natural law, with Christianity, and with their fundamental values, values that would have been accepted by the majority of the “elites” only forty years ago. Calm down, ye “outraged.” What has happened in North Carolina is in the state constitutions of thirty states; this is not some new thing that makes North Carolina unique. Instinctively, the majority of people now and throughout history have recognized that marriage is only between a man and a woman. “Oh, the horror,” say the elites. “An appeal to nature is a fallacy.” Really, now. To the modern and contemporary worlds, nature is considered to be infinitely malleable by human will, so it would not make sense to modernity to appeal to a stable natural law. Beliefs do not change facts. Only a man and a woman can produce a child. Appeals to the possibility of cloning do not suffice to argue against the view that in human nature, without massive technological intervention, only a man and woman can bring a child into the world. Usually it is the biological parents that rear the child, and in order for the child to have a stable home, a permanent bond, marriage, has been established by almost all known human societies. There may be differences in the number of spouses allowed and in other details, but all such arrangements are between men and women. Even an enlightened ancient Roman who was tolerant of homosexuality would be horrified at the contemporary attempt to legitimize what cannot be legitimized. Most people recognize this unless they have had this belief educated out of them by liberal and radical elites.

The reason for the vicious anger and personal attacks by supporters of same sex marriage on decisions such as the one the voters made in North Carolina is not mere disagreement. After all, people disagree over many things, but do not post a message on a blog calling the blogger a f….g a…..e, as someone posted to me a couple of weeks ago. This is an issue involving world views: one world view affirms natural law, the other denies it. There may also be a sense among some people that their actions are wrong, and it infuriates them when someone challenges their lifestyle. If they were secure in their beliefs, why would they become so angry? Who knows–judging motivations is risky, but I do know that I am proud of my adopted state of North Carolina for doing the right thing and adding the provision in the state constitution affirming that marriage is only between a man and a woman. If whiners, the outraged, and those who are the real haters wish to attack this vote (and those who supported it) with viciousness, so be it.