Today we begin our book club discussions of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. I always look forward to the conversations our book clubs have initiated, and I anticipate some particularly good ones with this book, as long as I can continue to make sense of what he says with my pregnancy-addled brain. As hostess and as mind-function-handicapped, I will likely stick to making the summary, and just join in on the rabbit trails and commentary of others. At least with a blog post I can take 2 hours to say something that fills 5 minutes, without anyone having to suffer through the bouts where my mind cannot recall the word it wants.
So, on to that summary, and please do join in the discussion in the comments here and on the linked blog posts (and, if you blog, do please join in with your own blog posts as you are able).
Weaver opens with this line:
This is another book about the dissolution of the West.
And then he gives a basic outline of his book:
- An account of the decline based on deduction — that the decline is because of choices freely and discernably made.
- A beginning of a proposed solution; there are consequences to the ideas he intends to propound, as well.
Later he states his thesis in these terms:
cultural decline is a historical fact – which can be established – and modern man has about squandered his estate.
Then he says we have numerous difficulties hampering our ability to see our situation clearly, roadblocks that prevent many from admitting the truth:
- The progressive or evolutionary theory of history that believes history is a story of development and gains, of complexity from simplicity.
- The refusal to distinguish between better and worse, to call one time or idea better than another. The refusal to make value judgments.
- Bourgeois comforts have produced a populace “highly unreceptive to unsettling thoughts.”
- Egoism – pride – precludes the humility needed for self-criticism.
Signs of societial decay:
- Men cannot draw moral lessons or agree on values. Moral and value relativism reigns, though it is an incoherent system.
- “At the height of modern progress” [so far, I would add; I doubt scientific & technological progress is nearly over, and it clearly wasn’t when he wrote this book], whole nations are desolated by war and violence is and hatred are not curbed (this was originally written after WWII).
- Men do not read for knowledge, and even if they do, they do not arrive at understanding.
- Men rarely experience satisfaction, contentment, and happiness in their work or leisure, despite technological and physical luxuries.
The foundational idealogical shift that paved the way for irrationality, he claims, began in the fourteenth century:
It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. […] The issue ultimately invovled is whether there is a source for truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.
Certainly, one’s conception of what is truly real shapes everything else. Nominalism leads to materialism, the belief that nothing that cannot be perceived by the senses exists.
So, he claims, the path goes
denial of universals —> belief only in sense-perception as a source —> denial of the transcendent —> denial of truth —-> relativism; belief that man is the measure of all things —> amoralism; barbarism
The unexpressed assuming of empiricism is that experience will tell us what we are experiencing. […] the average man has become imbued with this notion and imagines that an industrious acquisition of particulars will render him a man of knowledge.
The gradual acceptance of nominalism led to the shift from believing that nature conforms to or imitates a transcendent model imperfectly (Plato’s forms; God the Creator as the source of logic & beauty, making a world that testifies about Himself) to a belief that it is its own law. So inquiry shifted from philosophical to scientific. Without a transcendent model to conform to, nature and humans cannot be said to be imperfect, and original sin is denied, leading to beliefs that all man needs is education or conditioning. If man is not the image of God, he is merely another animal; humanity is not special.
So, the development of nominalism led slowly but surely to deism (God created, but has no personal involvement), relativism (there are no absolutes), materialism (this world is all there is), Darwinism (humans are merely animals), Marxism (economics is the only causality), and behavorism (man can be understood & manipulated like rats in a maze).
There is no term proper to describe the condition in which he is now left unless it be “abysmality.” […] His life is practice without theory. As problems crowd upon him, he deepens confusion by meeting them with ad hoc policies.
Are our technologies merely “a splendid efflorescnece of decay”? Weaver says not to deal with this question in particulars, but by examining the point of civilization. I would begin by pointing out that creating technology (whether it be a wheel or a smart phone) is part of the dominion mandate, part of man’s design, calling, and purpose.
What do you think of his definition of happiness as “conscious vitality,” of staring down life as a strong runner surveys a race course?