The following is a synopsis of the second chapter of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences prefaced and intermingled with some thoughts from this reader. That’s the thing about a great book, it’s thought provoking. This is the third in a series of posts about this important book. Interested readers can find the first here and the second here.
Ironically, the value intrinsic in human beings is only defensible on a metaphysical level. But metaphysics are an anathema to those who seek to erase all distinctions between people. When the Declaration of Independence says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” It isn’t because Thomas Jefferson was naive. It’s obvious that people have differing abilities, strengths, weaknesses and physical characteristics. What Jefferson was implicitly referring to is the value of a human being. It is only by asserting that we are all the same by some measure that it makes sense that we are entitled, possessors of the same basic rights. Yet, if we look to purely empirical methods, it’s obvious that by any objective human measure, some people are worth less (or perhaps even worthless).
It is the notion of something that transcends physical realities, it is only in the realm of the ideal, the metaphysical, that there can be a logical evaluation that would postulate that Charles Manson is of equal value to the President of The United States … or anyone.
For if we deal with things solely in the physical now, this is clearly absurd. So, then if there is a difference between the physical and the metaphysical, how can these differences be reconciled? The secret lies in recognizing what is important, and defining what is truly good, or “the good.” We cannot force the world into unnatural patterns, but we can strive toward the metaphysical good, recognizing that “the good” may conflict with our inclinations as selfish human beings, and may motivate us to act in seemingly irrational ways – such as in acts of selflessness and service. But such motivations have to be acted upon by individuals. Charity at the point of a gun is not charity, but theft. This is a key difference between advocates of so-called progressive views and those opposed to them. The former would force everyone to do what they deem to be the “right” thing, presumably out of some greater knowledge or group-think. Someone with the philosophically opposite position acknowledges free will and human value and starts with himself, recognizing that the best he can do is lead by example.
Self-control is difficult, and often unpleasant. This is what Christ was referring to when he spoke about the mote in another’s eye and the beam in one’s own. It’s much easier to impose rules on someone else – do as I say, not as I do. The reality is that in this realm, we aren’t all equal. Some are better, some are worse. Consequently, whether explicit or implicit, there is such a thing as hierarchy. That’s what happens when you introduce the notions of better and worse. There will be corresponding socioeconomic differences and different roles for people to fill. Garbage men don’t generally do brain surgery. But both surgeons and trash collectors have an important function. Surgeons earn a lot more than the guys that drive the trash truck. Society has placed a higher value on the former than the latter. They aren’t equal.
But in the metaphysical realm, the inherent value of a human being starts at the same place for all of us. What we do and how we conduct ourselves is something that we will have to answer for to our Creator. There may also be consequences here on earth, but our actions here are really only important on an individual basis in how they relate to the metaphysical. In other words, the effect our actions have on our soul.
Now, Weaver didn’t say this, but it may have been some of what he had in mind when he wrote the second chapter of Ideas Have Consequences entitled Distinctions and Hierarchy. This book and his subsequent Visions of Order is a practical analysis of what works, what doesn’t, and why. Weaver doesn’t proselytize for a particular religion, but does explain the important role religious, metaphysical belief has on making things work. And so it is from a practical perspective that Weaver states:
If society is something which can be understood, it must have structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy; against this metaphysical truth the declamations of the Jacobins break in vain.
Society has structure, it has form. The distinctions and roles within society are what make it a society.
Perhaps the most painful experience of modern consciousness is the felt loss of center; yet, this is the inevitable result of centuries of insistence that society yield its form. Anyone can observe that people today are eager to know who is really entitled to authority, that they are looking wistfully for the sources of genuine value. In sum, they wish to know the truth, but they have been taught a perversion which makes their chance of obtaining it less every day. This perversion is that in a just society there are no distinctions. Emphasis WWTFT
Our course has reached a point at which the question of whether man wishes to live in society at all or whether he wishes to live in a kind of animal relationship must be raised in all seriousness. For, if the proscription against every kind of distinction continues, there is no hope of integration except on the level of instinct.
And this is the real question. Do we want to live in a society or do we want to be reduced to creatures of instinct and appetite?
There are two ways in which people are different than animals – knowledge and virtue.
This is society, in which the human being has a sense of direction; literally, it might be said, he knows “up” from “down,” because he knows where the higher goods are to be looked for. It is possible for him to live on the plane of spirit and intelligence because some points of reference are fixed. Emphasis WWTFT
In such a world there are distinctions. Weaver points out; that we aren’t all named “Joe.” He might just as easily have said that we aren’t all given a number instead of an equally anonymous name. In other words, we aren’t all just “regular Joes.” as the saying goes. This implies that there are differences. Similarly, there is a reason for highlighting the differences with things like honorifics and titles to distinguish people who have accomplished something. A doctor is entitled to be addressed as Dr., for instance. He has earned that right. It’s only common sense.
For the good of all, prerogative will attach to higher functions, and this will mean hierarchy. But hierarchy requires a common assumption about ends, and that is why the competing ideologies of our age produce confusion.
But the left wants to do away with all of that and seeks to eliminate distinctions entirely. The Progressive views them as an evil to be eradicated. The irony is that like Congress’s refusal to adhere to its own legislation the Progressive elitist contends that he is on a higher plane and should be accorded special exemptions – because he is uniquely on a higher plane. One has only to look at Al Gore’s lifestyle to see how these people never practice what they preach.
Since both knowledge and virtue require the concept of transcendence, they are really obnoxious to those committed to material standards, and we have seen how insistent was the impulse to look to the lower levels for guidance. Emphasis WWTFT
Remember, the notion of a metaphysical reality is obnoxious to the Progressive. It implies that there is accountability and perhaps, heaven forbid, a moral standard that exists beyond their control. There is a prevalent impulse to avoid judgment at all costs. If it feels good do it. If it smacks of moral judgment, it is to be roundly castigated, shunned and denigrated. Weaver’s prescience is impressive. He would not have been surprised by this story that came out of San Antonio.
Gay rights activists and select officials in the city are looking to revamp the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance to include “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity.” So, what does this mean, exactly?
The new text, if adopted, could essentially ban citizens who have shown a bias in these areas from serving on commissions and in local government posts. Meaning: If you oppose homosexuality and have shown that opposition in “word or deed” that you could be precluded from holding these positions.
No one should exercise judgment or express a moral opinion. Holding a religious belief on certain behaviors might hurt someone’s feelings. Weaver puts it succinctly.
…if we attach more significance to feeling than to thinking, we shall soon, by a simple extension, attach more to wanting than to deserving.
But Weaver’s point is a practical one, rather than a dogmatic stand on morality. What Weaver is talking about is the systematic degradation of societal norms and the consequences that entails. Weaver’s big point of contention is with a spoiled middle class who is fixated on the material, fears losing it, and will do anything to keep their stuff.
Loving comfort, risking little, terrified by the thought of change, its aim is to establish a materialistic civilization which will banish threats to its complacency. It has conventions, not ideals; it is washed rather than clean.
Any expectation of ideals like a higher good threaten that status and position. If you have to stand for something, it generally means you’re willing to risk something.
Again, this is a little bit off the point of Weaver’s chapter, but his words promote tangential reflections. Weaver’s discussion pertains more to a society fixated on material enjoyment above all other considerations. It is not an indictment against capitalism, but against putting things above principles.
…. knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite. The state, ceasing to express man’s inner qualifications, turns into a vast bureaucracy designed to promote economic activity. It is little wonder that traditional values, however much they may be eulogized on commemorative occasions, today must dodge about and find themselves nooks and crannies if they are to survive at all.
Going back to the San Antonio story, we can see what Weaver was referring to here ….
The dullest member of a conservative legislative committee, seeking the source of threats to institutions, does not fail to see that those doctrines which exalt material interests over spiritual, to the confounding of rational distinctions among men, are positively incompatible with the society he is elected to represent.
Is it any wonder that the leftists in San Antonio are trying to ban such people from participating in local government? Just as the “dullest” conservative recognizes the inherent incompatibility of his beliefs with those of the society-destroying Progressive, the Progressive resents the implicit indictment present in the example of a moral life. It is much more comfortable to claim high-minded belief in equality of opportunity, while advocating for equality of outcome.
The fight is being waged on all fronts, and the most insidious idea employed to break down society is an undefined equalitarianism. That this concept does not make sense even in the most elementary applications has proved no deterrent to its spread, and we shall have something to say later on about modern man’s growing incapacity for logic.
And thus the much-lauded god of equality becomes an end unto itself.
Such equalitarianism is harmful because it always presents itself as a redress of injustice, whereas in truth it is the very opposite. I would mention here the fact, obvious to any candid observer, that “equality” is found most often in the mouths of those engaged in artful self-promotion. These secretly cherish the ladder to high designs but find that they can mount the lower rungs more easily by making use of the catchword. We do not necessarily grudge them their rise, but the concept they foster is fatal to the harmony of the world. Emphasis WWTFT
Why does Weaver say that the concept is fatal to the harmony of the world? The reason is simple, because in fostering envy the bonds of fraternity in a society are fractured.
Equality is a disorganizing concept in so far as human relationships mean order. It is order without a design; it attempts a meaningless and profitless regimentation of what has been ordered from time immemorial by the scheme of things. No society can rightly offer less than equality before the law; but there can be no equality of condition between youth and age or between the sexes; there cannot be equality even between friends. The rule is that each shall act where he is strong; the assignment of identical roles produces first confusion and then alienation, as we have increasing opportunity to observe. Not only is this disorganizing heresy busily confounding the most natural social groupings, it is also creating a reservoir of poisonous envy. envy. How much of the frustration of the modern world proceeds from starting with the assumption that all are equal, finding that this cannot be so, and then having to realize that one no longer falls back on the bond of fraternity!
One has only to read the headlines to see what Weaver was referring to when he explains that a government promises equality of condition promises injustice because, “equality before the law has no effect on inequalities of ability and achievement.” In order to “fix” this problem the government must resort to force.
The claim to political equality was then supplemented by the demand for economic democracy, which was to give substance to the ideal of the levelers. Nothing but a despotism could enforce anything so unrealistic, and this explains why modern governments dedicated to this program have become, under one guise and another, despotic.
Weaver well understands the reason why the United States is a republic and not a democracy. He explains that while democracy is not all it’s cracked up to be for those who want something other than mob rule, it is also no panacea for those worshiping at the altar of equality. If success is a measurable quantity, then for it to mean anything at all it must be held in comparison to lack of success. Logically, this means that it is a good and it is a demonstrably better thing to be successful than not to be successful.
A kindred notion is that democracy means opportunity for advancement, or in the language of the day, “a chance to be a success.” Obviously this contention presumes hierarchy. The sort of advancement contemplated by these advocates is just the kind that requires a condition of high social organization, with rewards, degrees, and everything that comes with a frank recognition of superiority. If democracy means a chance to get ahead, it means a chance to rise above the less worthy, to have station with reference to points above and below…. Emphasis WWTFT
The democrats* well sense that, if they allow people to divide according to abilities and preferences, soon structure will impose itself upon the mass….
The writings of the Founding Fathers of the American Union indicate that these political architects approached democracy with a spirit of reservation. Though revolutionaries by historic circumstance, they were capable enough of philosophy to see these dilemmas. The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it is an expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent. They therefore labored long and with considerable cunning to perfect an instrument which should transcend even the law-making body. This was the Constitution, which in the American system stands for political truth.
It [the Constitution] is not an unchangeable truth, but the framers placed special obstacles in the way of change. It was hoped that the surmounting of these would prove so laborious and slow that errors would be exposed and the permanently true recognized. In this way they endeavored to protect the populace of a republic against itself. Their action is a rebuke to the romantic theory of human nature, and this will explain why the Constitution has proved so galling to Jacobins.
Weaver’s point is that people are more than animals. There is more to life than physicality. People exist in two realms, the physical and the metaphysical. While the Progressive emphatically denies the latter, it ironically seeks to impose artificiality on the former by destroying the natural structure. It is all about recognizing what is important and what is not.
Now such a look at the nature of things is imperative, for our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives.
*Note the use of the lower case “democrats,” not meaning Democrats but those espousing democracy. This is the same distinction the founders used when speaking of republicans as those in favor of a republic. Please excuse the pedantry, but clarity is more important than avoiding it.