On The Nature Of Things

I’ve been reading Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. Written in 1948, it is a profoundly reactionary book, a revolt against the modern world. And when I say “modern”, I mean something more than you might imagine: Mr Weaver traces the cracking open of the abyss all the way back to William of Ockham and the birth of nominalism — the idea that there is nothing more to the things in this world than the things themselves. In this, Weaver argues, our culture began a move from the transcendent to the particular; from the purpose of labor to the fruits of labor; from the eternal to the merely present; from a lofty hierarchy of order, with its apex in Heaven, to undifferentiated rubble on a darkling plain.

I’ve highlighted many passages. Here are some (I’ve bolded some that seem to me particularly relevant today):

— The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses.

— His decline can be represented as a long series of abdications. He has found less and less ground for authority at the same time he thought he was setting himself up as the center of authority in the universe; indeed, there seems to exist here a dialectic process which takes away his power in proportion as he demonstrates that his independence entitles him to power.

— The unexpressed assumption of empiricism is that experience will tell us what we are experiencing.

— Civilization has been an intermittent phenomenon; to this truth we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by the insolence of material success.

The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.

— If society is something which can be understood, it must have structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy…

— [T]he goal of social democracy is scientific feeding. If one dares to visualize the millennium of the social democrats, he is forced to picture a “healthy-minded,” naturally good man, provided for by a paternalistic state and seeking to save himself from extinction by boredom through dabbling in some art.

— [E]qualitarianism is harmful because it always presents itself as a redress of injustice, whereas in truth it is the very opposite.

Since liberalism became a kind of official party line, we have been enjoined against saying things about races, religions, or national groups, for, after all, there is no categorical statement without its implication of value, and values begin divisions among men. We must not define, subsume, or judge; we must rather rest on the periphery and display “sensibility toward the cultural expression of all lands and peoples.” This is a process of emasculation.

— The very possibility that there may exist timeless truths is a reproach to the life of laxness and indifference which modern egotism encourages.

— Here begins modern labor’s history; in conflict with an exploiting and irresponsible bourgeoisie, it found no alternative but to avail itself of the bourgeois philosophy and strike back. Accordingly, workers’ organizations accepted in their practice the idea that labor is a commodity when they began the capitalist technique of restricting production in the interest of price… Labor which is bought and sold by anonymous traders cannot feel a consecration to task. Its interest becomes that of commercialism generally: how much can be had for how little? … The bourgeoisie first betrayed society through capitalism and finance, and now labor betrays it by embracing a scheme of things which sees profit only, not duty and honor, in work.

— That curious modern hypostatization “service” is often called in to substitute for the now incomprehensible doctrine of vocation. It tries to secure subordination by hypothezising something larger than self, which turns out, however, to be only a multitude of selfish selves.

An ancient axiom of politics teaches that a spoiled people invite despotic control. Their failure to maintain internal discipline is followed by some rationalized organization in the service of a single powerful will. In this particular, at least, history, with all her volumes vast, has but one page.

— [T]he metaphysicians of publicity have absorbed the idea that the goal of life is happiness through comfort. It is a state of complacency supposed to ensue when the physical appetites have been well satisfied. Advertising fosters the concept, social democracy approves it, and the acceptance is so wide that it is virtually impossible today, except from the religious rostrum, to teach that life means discipline and sacrifice.

In summary, the plea that the press, motion picture, and radio justify themselves by keeping people well informed turns out to be misleading. If one thinks merely of facts and of vivid sensations, the claim has some foundation, but if he thinks of encouragement to meditation, the contrary rather is true. For by keeping the time element continuously present—and one may recall Henry James’s description of journalism as criticism of the moment at the moment—they discourage composition and so promote the fragmentation already reviewed. We have seen in other connections how specialization is hostile to all kinds of organization, whether that organization is expressed as image, as whole, or as generalization. In the last analysis this reveals itself as an attempt to prevent the simultaneous perception of successive events, which is the achievement of the philosopher. Materialism and success require the “decomposed eternity” of time for their operation, and this is why we have these hidden but persistent attacks on memory, which holds successive events in a single picture. The successive perception of successive events is empiricism; the simultaneous perception is idealism. Need we go further to account for the current dislike of long memories and for the hatred of the past?

— The man of culture finds the whole past relevant; the bourgeois and the barbarian find relevant only what has some pressing connection with their appetites.

Having been taught for four centuries, more or less, that his redemption lies through the conquest of nature, man expects his heaven to be spatial and temporal, and, beholding all things through the Great Stereopticon, he expects redemption to be easy of attainment. Only by these facts can we explain the spoiled-child psychology of the urban masses. The scientists have given him the impression that there is nothing he cannot know, and false propagandists have told him that there is nothing he cannot have. Since the prime object of the latter is to appease, he has received concessions at enough points to think that he may obtain what he wishes through complaints and demands. This is but another phase of the rule of desire. The spoiled child has not been made to see the relationship between effort and reward. He wants things, but he regards payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold for it. His solution, as we shall see, is to abuse those who do not gratify him.

— After man has left the countryside to shut himself up in vast piles of stone, after he has lost what Sir Thomas Browne called pudor rusticus, after he has come to depend on a complicated system of human exchange for his survival, he becomes forgetful of the overriding mystery of creation. Such is the normal condition of the déraciné. An artificial environment causes him to lose sight of the great system not subject to man’s control.

— After a people have repudiated ideals, they respond to the prick of appetite as an animal to a goad, but this, for reasons already outlined, does not take the place of systematic labor toward a suprapersonal goal. In becoming pragmatic, they become ineffectual. De Tocqueville, alert to discern the effects of different social ideals, noted this well: “In ages of faith, the final end of life is placed beyond life. The men of those ages, therefore, naturally and almost involuntarily accustom themselves to fix their gaze for many years on some immovable object toward which they are constantly tending; and they learn by insensible degrees to repress a multitude of petty passing desires in order to be the better able to content that great and lasting desire which possesses them. . . . This explains why religious nations have often achieved such lasting results; for whilst they were thinking only of the other world, they had found out the great secret of success in this.”

— Nothing is more certain than that whatever has to court public favor for its support will sooner or later be prostituted to utilitarian ends.

This is all just a sampling. There is much, much more on Weaver’s table, and it is rich stuff, not to be wolfed down. (Indeed, the idea that the West really began to go off the rails as far back as the beginning of the fourteenth century may be, for some, completely indigestible.) The book is a potent reactionary manifesto, and, especially given my own flirtations with nominalism, it has given me a lot to think about. I should have read it years ago.

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  1. crow says

    A man after my own heart :)
    Thank you.

    Posted November 23, 2016 at 3:35 am | Permalink
  2. This was very good. Thank you.

    Posted November 25, 2016 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  3. cecilhenry says

    Very compelling.

    Will have to look into this writing further.

    Posted November 27, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Gordian says

    Ideas Have Consequences was his later attempt to publish after his “The Southern Tradition At Bay” was rejected by publishers. He’s taking the earlier work and abstracting it to the level of Western rather than Dixie culture and civilization. Definitely read both of these books together to get his full meaning, and be careful with his later works, since Weaver becomes a National Review conservative toward the end of his life.

    Posted November 30, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Gordian. It’s on my list.

    Posted November 30, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink