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).

Wall Street Protesters: Are their Criticisms Justified?

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Wall Street

The protests against corporate greed on Wall Street has spread beyond the borders of the United States–Italian police had to break up an unruly mob that was throwing rocks into buildings. I wonder if the buildings they damaged were owned by the corporations they despise–or whether they were family owned small businesses who were harmed by the damage.

Despite such bad behavior, I have some sympathy for the protesters. The banking industry almost singlehandedly destroyed the American economy. The repercussions could have damaged beyond repair European economies and led to a world economic collapse. When the regulatory shoe was pulled off the banks, their leaders did everything they could to get richer quickly by selling debt, dealing derivatives, and engaging in other risky behavior. The claim of some conservatives that the program that required banks to make home loans to the poor was responsible for the economic crisis is naive–bad loans were being made across all socioeconomic classes. Like most quick buck schemes, the bankers were bound to fail. Their greed devastated real people and their “punishment” was a reward–a multi-billion dollar bail out that would not have been given to most companies if they were in similar danger of going under. The banks were infamously thought “too big to fail.” Executives who failed were rewarded by the banks with huge bonuses. I can understand how the public can be angry when much of the recent federal debt is due to bailing out bankers.

The problem I have with the protesters is that they confuse capitalism with corporatism. Capitalism can flourish in a world without large multinational corporations. Small, community-based businesses in the older American of country and small towns can compete with each other but be close enough to their  communities to care for the people in them and be motivated by more than the profit motive. Local banks run by people with a stake in their communities have a better chance of being operated for motives other than mere profit. This is the world the Southern Agrarians–especially Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson, wanted to return in a country dominated by huge corporations.

Some of the protestors might have sympathy with the Agrarians–there have been moves by some on the left to approach the right–especially Ron Paul supporters–about setting up capitalism in a way that encourages the local community in  a decentralized governmental system in which there is more personal freedom, a necessary prerequisite to people having room to operate small businesses. Generally, however, protestors support the same old tired socialist and Marxist systems that have failed in the past. By setting up in advance a false dichotomy with no third way, they end up supporting a system which has caused the deaths of millions of people and which has enslaved many more. Communism leads to hard-core oppression as government goes beyond its proper bounds of power and gains the hubris to think it can reverse man’s Fall.

Corporitism leads to a softer tyranny by manipulation (through a compliant media and business community). Social pressure is used to force individuals into molds that fit the corporations’ thirst for profit.  Corporate executives also lack knowledge, for the most part, of the branches of the company they are supposed to supervise–the efficient distribution of needed goods and services to local communities will be lacking. Communities desperate for jobs may sell their souls for a bowl of corporate porridge. Local resistance to large corporations often evaporates in the face of a threat from a corporation that it will not move a plant to the area unless it receives tax breaks and other economic incentives. Local communities need the jobs, and instead of encouraging small business investment, they go for a quick fix. Local banks fail, and branches of  large corporate banks open in their place. This brings jobs and capital temporarily, but corporations have become increasingly disloyal to their initial commitments to the community and have closed U. S. plants in favor of outsourcing to Mexico, Central and South America. Banks have put speculation over fiscal responsibility. In an entity as large as a contemporary corporate, money is the name of the game, and people take a distant second-place unless strong corporate leadership changes the ethic of a corporation. But that is a difficult task in a large corporation; the larger the corporation, the more difficult a change in its fundamental moral practices becomes.

The protestors are correct in much of their critique of corporatism, but are wrong in their Marxist solution to the problem. It would be better if they read the Southern Agrarians, especially Take My Stand, and authors such as D. H. Lawrence and J. R. R. Tolkien. These works offer a tertium quid that can shortchange the greed of the moneychangers.