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Egotism in Work and Art – Ideas Have Consequences

The following is a synopsis of the fourth chapter of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences   intermingled with some thoughts from this reader. This is the fifth in a series of posts about this important book.  Interested readers can find the others here:

  1. Modern Man Has Become a Moral Idiot
  2. What is Sentiment?
  3. Distinctions and Hierarchy
  4. Wisdom Does Not Lie On The Periphery

The fourth chapter of Ideas Have Consequences was one of the more difficult for this reviewer.   Weaver’s thesis here is that man’s egotism is reflected in the evolution of work and art.   This evolution, is not, in Weaver’s view a positive one.   But before jumping in, Weaver develops his argument by returning to his theme of the importance of transcendency.

Weaver’s contention is that selfishness breeds a life without meaning.  He argues that man has lost the willingness to differentiate between good and bad, better and worse, positive and negative.    In this chapter Weaver touches on the importance of being able to accept that there are natural hierarchies, and that essentially says that despite the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rights of man and equality, this is bunk.  There is a natural order of things, and man’s attempt to place himself at the top of this hierarchy ultimately is a denial of that hierarchy, since if all men are equal, and there is nothing above man, there is no hierarchy.  There is only the here and now, nature, and potentially the greater good as embodied by the state. For Weaver, human beings are more than creatures that respond to instinct and venality.

The split in the theory of knowledge which took place at the time of the Renaissance is enough to account for that form of ignorance which is egotism. Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path to self-depreciation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality.

To put it another way, if man is a god, and all men are gods, and all men are equal, there is no god.  This concept destroys the concept of hierarchy.    For if we are equal …

…is not this equal man a kind of king , superior to the trappings of royalty, and cannot such a one do what he will with his life? The various declarations of independence have given him freedom from all the bondages. Yet the blight which has fallen today on all sorts of human relationship must be ascribed to this psychological and even physical withdrawal from sympathy.

Again, to  paraphrase the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, no one is.”

Here this reader is compelled to qualify some of Weaver’s arguments.  Perhaps what Weaver is referring to is as much about the interpretation of “the various declarations of independence,”  as to what they actually say.  In this reviewer’s view, the American Declaration of Independence differed in one substantial way from others, in that the equality it spoke of was one of worth bestowed by a Creator who holds a higher place in the natural hierarchy of reality.  This was understood by the Founders.  The phrase “endowed by their Creator” is not a denial of hierarchy, it is an affirmation of man’s place and the source of his value.  This is in extreme contrast to the motive force behind the French Revolution, where the emphasis was on Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.    This improper ascendancy of self and simultaneous destruction of a belief in something greater than self has a variety of consequences.  The French Revolution tried to replicate the American Revolution by replacing this hierarchy with one where the state is the only authority.

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 some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human. Emphasis WWTFT

It turns out that “merely human” isn’t enough.  In such a state of affairs, human beings withdraw from the greater community otherwise unified by a belief in greater things than self-interest.

When personal advantage becomes paramount, the individual passes out of the community. We do not mean the state, with its apparatus of coercion, but the spiritual community, where men are related on the plane of sentiment and sympathy and where, conscious of their oneness, they maintain a unity not always commensurable with their external unification.

Here Weaver, as in his earlier book on rhetoric, turns to Plato:

But he who is cognizant mainly of self suffers an actual derangement; as Plato saw: “the excessive love of self is in reality the source to each man of all offenses; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honorable, and thinks that he ought always prefer his own interest to the truth.”

If there is no ideal of what it is to be “just,” “good,” or “honorable,” and these are merely the products of consensus or worse, individual minds,

Inevitably there follows an increase of selfishness. It is the simple nature of egotism to view things out of proportion, the “I” becoming dominant and the entire world suffering a distortion. Once more we are face to face with the fact of alienation from reality. No man who knows himself in his ab extra relationships can be egotistic. But he who is cognizant mainly of self suffers an actual derangement; as Plato saw: “the excessive love of self is in reality the source to each man of all offenses; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honorable, and thinks that he ought always prefer his own interest to the truth.” Emphasis WWTFT

Here Weaver contrasts medieval and enlightenment thinking.

An opposing conception [to pre-enlightenment philosophy] comes in with Bacon’s “knowledge is power.” If the aim of knowledge is domination, it is hardly to be supposed that the possessors of knowledge will be indifferent to their importance . On the contrary, they begin to swell; they seek triumphs in the material world (knowledge being meanwhile necessarily degraded to skills) which inflate their egotism and self-consideration. Such is a brief history of how knowledge passes from a means of spiritual redemption to a basis for intellectual pride.

The argument continues as Weaver lays out the consequences of each step in this evolution, and shows how even science became a study of the particulars, rather than of the essence of things.   If there is no interest in the Truth,

In the absence of truth there is no necessity, and this observation may serve as an index to the position of the modern egotist. Having become incapable of knowing, he becomes incapable of working, in the sense that all work is a bringing of the ideal from potentiality into actuality. We perceive this simply when his egotism prevents realization that he is an obligated creature , bound to rational employment. The modern worker does not, save in rare instances, respond to the ideal in the task.

And this is the logical conclusion Weaver come to.  The result of abandoning hierarchies has been to turn the sole focus of work to be means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves, as a form of worship.

Before the age of adulteration it was held that behind each work there stood some conception of its perfect execution . It was this that gave zest to labor and served to measure the degree of success. To the extent that the concept obtained, there was a teleology in work, since the laborer toiled not merely to win sustenance but to see this ideal embodied in his creation. Pride in craftsmanship is well explained by saying that to labor is to pray, Emphasis WWTFT

There are consequences to abandoning the ideal,

… when egotism becomes dominant and men are applauded for looking to their own interest first, statesmanship and philosophy must leave the picture.

When workers forget the value of the work they produce, and put the value on the labor that went into the work to the exclusion of the other, there is a supreme disconnect.

We know how to reward the carpenter qua carpenter; we do not know how to reward the egotist who comes with assertions of how much he is worth.

Weaver makes the same points with respect to music, literature, and painting.  This reader found it much easier to follow Weaver’s thought process with respect to craftsmanship and labor, than with regard to art.  It is not that, intellectually, Weaver’s arguments are well-constructed and seem sound, it is more a combination of the deficiencies in this reader’s education and  that it would seem that there is a degree of subjective valuation in music and art that is more difficult to perceive.

Weaver starts with an examination of literature, the decline of which he traces this back to time of the French Revolution:

The great changes affecting the literature of our time began with those subterranean forces which erupted in the French Revolution.  … In opposition to the orthodox view of human nature, which acknowledged original sin and preached the necessity of education and restraint , it taught that man has a natural moral sense which can be relied on not only to recognize virtue but to delight in it. The important consequence for literature was the sanctioning of impulse, which now became the subject of endless and varied exploitation. Emphasis WWTFT

It is this sanctioning of impulse that Weaver documents in literature, art, and music.  In his discussion of literature, he explains the transition from comedic satire, which at its core admits of the existence of good and evil “and makes distinctions among human beings accordingly,”  to sentimental comedy.  Distinctions are judgements –  that which is good is better than that which is evil. If there is no such thing as evil, and people are generally good, then it is simply a matter of correcting their errors to appeal to their better natures.

In a world where all men are naturally good, the erring one is merely misled; confront him with the consequence of his ways and he reforms, as did the hero in the sentimental comedy.

Weaver indicts the expressionists who appeal to self absorption,

… explorations of the individual consciousness, with self-laceration and self-pity. The sensitive individual turned inward and there discovered an appalling well of melancholy and unhappiness, which was attributed to the perverse circumstances of the world.

The next literary movement was a rigid adherence to form, which was an attempt to instill meaning by rigid devotion to something.

Form has become obsessive. Confinement to form is one means of evading those heavier responsibilities which must be related to one’s total awareness or his view of man’s destiny.

This ultimately proved to be as meaningless as maudlin romanticism.  The next stage was an exploration of symbolism,

Concurrent with this attempt to escape bankruptcy through brilliance of form was another which sought to escape it through imagination.  …. Symbolism is a reaction against the deification of the material world, because the symbol is always a sign of things that are not compresent in time and space. The symbol by its nature transcends and thus points to the world beyond the world. So the Symbolists were reaching for the outer reality, which to the simple early Romantics was but a vague presence. They found that experience did not interpret itself, and they were driven to difficult feats of intellection and representation in their effort to convey the significant reality.

Man cannot provide something that is outside of himself, no matter how he tries.

Once finished with his comments on literature, Weaver turns to music.

Here we discover a decline which extends from the fugues of Bach to the cacophonous arrangements of modern jazz. The degenerative influences upon music parallel closely those upon literature, with the difference of a slight time lag. The eighteenth century remained a strongly classical period wherein music expressed the aristocratic and international qualities of the social order.

The progression away from the ideal to the particular is theoretically clear, but does not necessarily resonate, given the examples Weaver used to illustrate his point.

The portents of change came with Beethoven, whose sympathy with the French Revolution must not be overlooked. A great architect in music, Beethoven, nevertheless, through the introduction of dynamism and of strains of individualism pointed the way which the succeeding century was to take.

It is hard for this reader to see a degenerative influence in Beethoven.  Nevertheless, Weaver persists,

… composers sought effects, designed contrasts and imitations, strove for climaxes, as, like their literary contemporaries, they turned to the expression of bizarre or perverse feeling.

According to Weaver the changes which took place in music shifted attention away from glorification of a higher good to focus on mere effect and sensation, in an appeal to the masses and an attempt to deny the hierarchy of class.

Especially significant was the steady decay of symphonic form, which effectually mirrored the progressive dissolution of the class system.

To sum up the evolution of music in the west,

Thus three broad stages may be recognized in the decline of music in the West. In its highest form this music was architectural; it then became thematic ; and, finally, before the incidence of certain present-day reactions, textural. It hardly needs pointing out that this is a movement away from the autonomous and integrated ideal toward a collection of fragments which afford maximum opportunity for subjective and egotistic expression.

Weaver reserves some of his harshest criticism for jazz.

Jazz was born in the dives of New Orleans, where the word appears first to have signified an elementary animal function. It was initially a music of primitivism; and we have the word of one of its defenders that “jazz has no need of intelligence ; it needs only feeling.”

Again, intellectually, this reader can follow and understand the argument, but it is somewhat difficult  to reconcile with subjective feeling (this reader has to admit that he likes some jazz, although that doesn’t invalidate Weaver’s arguments).

Jazz, by formally repudiating restraint by intellect, and by expressing contempt and hostility toward our traditional society and mores, has destroyed this equilibrium. That destruction is a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness. Jazz often sounds as if in a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement.

However, Weaver’s arguments become more understandable when looking at them using present day examples such as the evolution of music to its present state of atonal banality in some instances, to screamed vitriol in others.  For if jazz represented “grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness,” then what does rap music represent?

If there is no more to life than sensation, instinct and reaction, then this progression is logical.

The primitive and the bored sophisticate are alike impatient for titillation.

Weaver doesn’t just describe phenomena, he also explores the consequences,

By dissolving forms, it has left man free to move without reference, expressing dithyrambically whatever surges up from below. It is a music not of dreams— certainly not of our metaphysical dream— but of drunkenness. The higher centers have been proscribed so that the lower may be uninhibited from executing their reeling dance. Here, indeed, is a music to go with empiricism, and it is only natural that the chief devotees of jazz should be the primitive, the young, and those persons, fairly numerous, it would seem, who take pleasure in the thought of bringing down our civilization.

Once again, one has to wonder at Weaver’s prescience, because while his analysis might be hard to reconcile with the examples given, they make more sense with subsequent musical evolutions.

Having finished with literature and music, Weaver moves on next to art, a subject in which this reader is sadly unqualified.   But if Weaver’s arguments are hard to follow, using the examples that Weaver was working with, one can certainly see his view more clearly today.  For instance, one should be able to evaluate whether a crucifix in a jar of urine constitutes anything other than an attempt to garner shock value.

To sum up, Weaver explains the loss to mankind in stark terms,

… man’s destiny in the world is not to perfect himself but to lean back in sensual enjoyment.

When masses of men reach a point at which egotism reigns so blandly, can their political damnation be far distant? They have rejected their only guaranty against external control, which is self-discipline, taught and practiced. If they no longer respect community and direct their efforts according to a common understanding, they fall out.

And once again Ideas Have Consequences,

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.

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