Richard Weaver introduces Ideas Have Consequences (1948) by explaining that at the root of “the dissolution of the West” is modern man’s denial of universal truth and his progressive assumption that “the most advanced point in time represents the point of highest development.” Enlightenment thought attacked transcendental truth via the battering rams of nominalism, empiricism, rationalism, scientism, and so on. Deism was only another step towards materialism, followed by a “shift from speculative inquiry to investigation of experience [that] has left modern man so swamped with multiplicities that he no longer sees his way.” In his typically provocative fashion, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “Everyone being allowed to learn to read, ruineth in the long run not only writing but also thinking.”
Spring-boarding off Nietzsche’s assertion, Dr. Weaver laments that though people now have access to more information than ever before, worryingly few properly employ that gift for the acquisition of actual wisdom. Like Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Dr. Weaver writes that “one of the great conspiracies against philosophy and civilization, a conspiracy immensely aided by technology, is just this substitution of sensation for reflection.” Indeed, he notes that in the modern age people tend to believe that “man [has] achieved a position of independence which rendered the ancient restraints needless,” but the diversion from absolute truth has actually abandoned men to the doldrums of uncertainty. In Dr. Weaver’s incisive opinion, the forces assaulting modern man’s mind have rendered him both neurotic and impotent, “cribbed, cabined, and confined in countless ways.” Through Ideas Have Consequences, Dr. Weaver points out contemporary cultural ruin while also offering rays of hope and a message that proves increasingly relevant today.
Dr. Weaver’s Argument: Dissolution via Fragmentation
Tracing cultural disintegration through government, the media, education, art, and more, Dr. Weaver advances a compelling argument that modern society is broken. Like Russell Kirk in The Roots of American Order, Dr. Weaver decries the recession of the American aristocracy which had served as a buttress against Jean Jacques Rousseau’s general will. After all, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx had emphasized equality for all, “a disorganizing concept” according to Dr. Weaver. Like Francis Fukuyama and cognizant readers of Rousseau, Dr. Weaver recognizes democracy’s deficiencies, knowing that granting the “will” of all the people will eventually lead to totalitarianism, especially when the “citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind.” Thankfully, the founders’ institution of checks and balances served as “a rebuke to the romantic theory of human nature,” but one wonders how long such barriers can last.
Regarding education, Dr. Weaver writes that people “have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship.” Instead of producing well-rounded individuals, modern education’s “specialization develops only part of a man,” and in Dr. Weaver’s forthright language, “a man partially developed is deformed.” Furthermore, instead of acquiring wisdom, “the public is being taught systematically to make this fatal confusion of factual particulars with wisdom… The acquisition of unrelated details becomes an end in itself and takes the place of the true ideal of education.” While many may balk at such assertions, Dr. Weaver’s point stands that “It should be plain from the foregoing that modern man is suffering from a severe fragmentation of his world picture. This fragmentation leads directly to an obsession with isolated parts.”
Entertainment and the media further continue to reinforce this fragmentation, and like Dr. Postman, Dr. Weaver asks “Is it not a travesty of all sense to hear reports fraught with disaster followed by the comedy-variety with its cheap wit and arranged applause”? Indeed, “the metaphysicians of publicity have absorbed the idea that the goal of life is happiness through comfort.” As he concludes, “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.”
Reasons for Hope
While Dr. Weaver’s tone is often negative, he also writes that private property, language, and liberal education offer reasons for hope. Generally speaking, in America, “unorthodox utterance” cannot lead to government seizure of private property, and appropriate use of language leads to recognition of connections in knowledge and the attainment of wisdom. As Dr. Weaver more ably describes, “command of language will prognosticate aptitude. Facility with words bespeaks a capacity to learn relations and grasp concepts; it is a means of access to the complex reality.” Language is indeed necessary not only for quality thought, but for the maintenance of order. After all, “stable laws require a stable vocabulary, for a principal part of every judicial process is definition.” Additionally, recognizing connections is vital for liberal education which serves to “promote pure knowledge and training of the mind,” helping people avoid the “collective amnesia.” Indeed, Dr. Weaver continues that “It has been well said that the chief trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.” In contradistinction to modern egotism, wisdom inculcates piety, the “discipline of the will through respect.”
While Dr. Weaver’s points vocalize worries familiar to many Westerners, critics of the book consistently question his sweeping historical conclusions. For example, The Journal of Philosophy’s reviewer identifying as J.R.E. helpfully summarizes that “Many of [Dr. Weaver’s] statements which purport to describe present conditions are excellent and enlightening. In parts, at least, he proves himself a good observer. His attempts at explaining the cause of our present dilemma show him to be a well-read but peculiarly biased historian.” While Dr. Weaver is indubitably guilty of occasional sweeping generalizations, his discernment remains incisive enough to merit serious reading and discussion over fifty years after his writing. While Dr. Weaver can certainly come off as a cranky, hard-nosed pontificator on contemporary culture, I suggest that “sermonizing” is Dr. Weaver’s biggest strength, his work serving as a homily for the modern intellectual.
Dr. Weaver’s argument is more than a critique of progressivism. Dr. Weaver argues that progressivism already saturates the culture, but also that reasons for hope remain. Yet, should society continue on its negative path, “Perhaps we shall have to learn the truth along some via dolorosa.” Dr. Weaver’s gritty, strong-willed voice comes across as that of a gentleman who cultivated and stood by strong opinions for most of his life. Though he only lived fifty-three years, his analysis of American culture proves worthy of further contemplation.
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