Ideas Have Consequences Book Club: Ch. 4 – Egoism in Work & Art

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  • egoism: the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest; Ethics. the view that morality ultimately rests on self-interest.
  • hypostatized: to treat or regard (a concept, idea, etc.) as a distinct substance or reality.


So by “egoism,” Weaver is referring to the belief or at least practice of defining good and right according to one’s own personal interest rather than anything transcendant or at least outside oneself (like societal obligation and duty). Worse yet, “personal interest” usually means one’s own economic advantage, which Weaver again blames on the rise and establishment of the middle class.

Egoism removes purpose & meaning from work

Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his action to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by [a despotic state].

Under the worldview of the medievals, growth in knowledge was also a growth in humility. Under the modern worldview, knowledge is power; therefore, “the possessors of knowledge will be [hardly] indifferent to their importance.” So now, instead of leading to humility, knoweldge leads to pride even as knowledge is being degraded into skills and trivia rather than understanding.

Knowledge today is

of the useful rather than of the true and the good, of techniques rather than of ends.

Whereas in the medieval mind, labor was a form of worship, of character, and of integrity, in the modern world it is a commodity; it is now all of economics with no trace left of the concept of honor. Men now see “profit only, not duty and honor, in work.”

The situation deteriorates because the idea that work is something apportioned out by men leaves people discontent with their portion and dubious about whether work is a good thing at all.

In the modern world, we conceive of ourselves as primarily consumers rather than workers. We work because that is how we gain the means to consume. But it is the consuming that defines our identity or status, work is the curse that makes consumption possible. Thus, motivation to work is increasingly nonexistent. There is no satisfaction, honor, and identity in a job done well for its own sake, or for integrity’s sake.

When each becomes his own taskmaster and regards work as a curse which he endures only to gain means of substistence, will he not constantly seek to avoid it?

Egoism destroys art

  • Egoism in literature: Romanticism shifts the attention from a form or a mythic story to the average story of any man rather than Everyman. After Weaver wrote, what he decries becomes even more apparent in stream-of-consciousness novels. No form, no meaning, just egocentric ramblings and “raw experience.”

  • Egoism in music: Weaver outlines “a declime which extends from the fugues of Bach to the cacophonous arrangements of modern jazz. He really rips into jazz, which “afford[s a] maximum opportunity for subjective and egotistic expression.

  • Egoism in painting: Paintings of the classical and Christian eras centered on myth, on story, on themes central and transcendent. Then it declines to portraits of individuals to scenery for the sake of scenery, to Impressionism (more emotive than ideal). Then Impressionism degenerates into abstraction.

The broad character of the movements we have been following represents a psychic urge to collapse all order, a technical effort to get something without tolerating a medium, which is but another exhibition of the passion for immediacy.

This art that abhors discipline and form, says Weaver, is “progress” for “those who neither have a sense of direction nor want responsibility. It comes of believing that man’s destiny is not to perfect himself, but to “lean back in sensual enjoyment.”

Integrity & Transcendence in Work

My mind was buzzing with connections between Weaver’s discussion of work and the homemaker’s housework. Talk about devalued work in our culture. Do we do best to minimize it or are we simply missing what it really is?

I want to devote an entire post to that; but it might take me awhile to get to it.

Your Posts

11 Responses

  1. Dana

    I applaud you, Mystie, for leading this discussion ~

  2. Anna

    Is he saying that the decline starts with Bach, or that Bach’s music was the climax and then music started to “degenerate”?While I love Bach, I’m having a hard time swallowing that everything that came after was merely subjective and egotistic. There’s much truth and beauty in Mozart’s symphonies or Vaughn Williams’ choral works, for example. And in painting, does a Constable landscape not reflect the beauty of God’s creation? I’m also curious why literature should focus on form or mythic stories when the Bible gives us stories of individuals who are very much average people. Granted, they were a part of the larger story of redemption, but they were real people, not mythological gods. Also, God has given us our senses in part for enjoyment. Our sinful natures corrupt and get in the way of what He intended, but we don’t want to fall into the error of Gnosticism and say that all sensual enjoyment is wrong. Anyway, I hope I don’t sound like I’m attacking you, but a lot of thoughts and questions popped into my head when I read this. I guess maybe I need to get the book so I can understand better where he’s coming from. :D

    • Brandy @ Afterthoughts

      I think maybe the issue here is that he is looking behind the art itself to the philosophy which underlies it. I agree than when I look at Mozart or Beethoven on the surface, I have a hard time saying they are inferior to Bach, even though they are different. But when he ties the *difference* that Beethoven brought into music (dynamism) to his sympathy for the French Revolution and Romanticism, well…it certainly *does* give one pause.

      I think it is easy to look at *today’s* art and music and say that, for the most part, it is in every way inferior to that in, for instance, the time of Bach. So, given that, we *do* have to trace the decline back to some point. The question is where and when and how it happened; Weaver takes it all the way back to Nominalism and William of Occam; I know other philosophers have pinpointed other places in time. Weaver’s point in regard to art is that up until the time of Bach, there was more of a maturing process going on that underpinned any change we saw in the arts; after that, changes were characterized as a decline because they signified a wandering from certain truths.

    • Mystie Winckler

      I have some of the same concerns about his theory as you point out here. While the leaders of various movements may have had a bad philosophy they were trying to embody, I think that doesn’t necessarily mean it was all bad.

      I have a hard time believing that the only allowable good art has to be of the mythic. God reveals his nature in nature, so how can a landscape or a still life be inferior, much less wrong?

      There is probably something to jazz, as well. While there may have been movers and shakers in the jazz movement who were trying to communicate and embody anarchy and rejection of tradition, jazz does have its own rules and structure. I think as a thing develops, it can’t help but conform to the True if it’s going to continue. So, we can relax and reject bad philosophy while not restricting ourselves to Gregorian chants. :)

  3. Dana

    Stopping by to add more links… looks like I wrote several around the topics covered in Chpt 4

  4. Geoff Paulson

    Wait, Jazz and Impressionism are being used as examples of declining art?

    • Mystie Winckler

      Yes, they are, because they were done out of a rejection of forms and rules and structure and meaning.

      • Geoff Paulson

        If they were done out of a rejection of forms and rules, whose forms and rules? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

        • Mystie Winckler

          Guess you’ll have to read the book. :)

  5. Pilgrim

    Loved the comments about work. Still trying to wrap my mind around the essences that Brandy highlights. I also realized just how sad my fine arts education truly is. I guess that’s why we homeschool – so that we can learn all that we missed and pass it on to our kiddos. Really helping me to better apprehend some of the pre-modern ideas about life and education.

  6. Brandy @ Afterthoughts

    Hmmm…tried to add a link to my quotes collection for the chapter, but it’s not showing up. Maybe later it will appear?