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Modern Man Has Become a Moral Idiot – Notes From Ideas Have Consequences

Richard Weaver

Reviewed by:
On June 6, 2013
Last modified:March 29, 2014


Ideas Have ConsequencesIf things go according to plan, this will be the first in a series of posts on the book Ideas Have Consequences written by Richard Weaver in the late 1940’s.

So who in the heck in Richard Weaver?

Richard Malcolm Weaver, Jr (March 3, 1910 – April 1, 1963) was an American scholar who taught English at the University of Chicago. He is primarily known as an intellectual historian, political philosopher and a shaper of mid- 20th century conservatism and as an authority on modern rhetoric. Wikipedia

This reviewer discovered Weaver as a consequence of his being mentioned repeatedly over the years by Marcia, and most recently because he was quoted extensively by the speaker at his daughter’s commencement address.

Ideas Have Consequences is such dense book, that it would be impossible to review it in the normal mode. Indeed even treating each chapter as an entity unto itself may not be sufficient. And so, consider this a multi-part review.

So we’ll start with the introduction, in which Weaver laments that the very nature of what he seeks to explain may not be acceptable to the people that most need to understand it. If no one is willing to make any kind of judgment about what is good and what is not, about what is better and what is worse, then it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion whose outcome will result in anyone coming to a conclusion different from where they started.

This difficulty is due in part to the prevailing Whig theory of history, with its belief that the most advanced point in time represents the point of highest development….

It is the appalling problem, when one comes to actual cases, of getting men to distinguish between better and worse. Are people today provided with a sufficiently rational scale of values to attach these predicates with intelligence? There is a ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.

And so Weaver begins by acknowledging that the very thing he labors against on a philosophical perspective also puts him at a disadvantage from the standpoint of logic. There are no rules to this game – or more precisely, the other side refuses to acknowledge them.   It is not that both sides are not on a level playing field, it is that one side refuses to admit that a field exists.

Although the book is entitled Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver might just as easily have called it Ideals (And Lack of Them) have Consequences. Even in the course of reading this book, this reviewer was forced to recognize the extent to which he is a product of the environment that Weaver describes – hence the glossary below.

Ideas Have Consequences is a philosophical treatise of what happens when we deny the reality of the abstract ideal. In other words, does the concept of an absolute (not a word Weaver uses) or Universal truth exist? Is there a metaphysical reality? The metaphysical nature of things that Weaver refers to throughout the course of his book refers to the study of first principles. Weaver contrasts the belief in the metaphysical with the insistence that it is mere superstition.

It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of 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. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. …. (emphasis WWTFT)

The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably—though ways are found to hedge on this—the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.”

If the only reality is that which can be perceived by the senses, and there is literally nothing other than nature, then one begins to understand many of the theories and conclusions of the so-called Progressives. In reality in which nature is the beginning and the end of every inquiry, there is no need to ask the big questions that have forever plagued philosophers: Why am I here? What was the world made for?

The question of what the world was made for now becomes meaningless because the asking of it presupposes something prior to nature in the order of existents. Thus it is not the mysterious fact of the world’s existence which interests the new man but explanations of how the world works.

And so, science quickly becomes elevated to a new form of god.

At this stage religion begins to assume an ambiguous dignity, and the question of whether it can endure at all in a world of rationalism and science has to be faced. One solution was deism, which makes God the outcome of a rational reading of nature. But this religion, like all those which deny antecedent truth, was powerless to bind; it merely left each man to make what he could of the world open to the senses.

This was the origin of the concepts of deism in references to Nature and Nature’s God. It was a feeble attempt to retain God in the mix, without any of the attendant strings.

This soon gave way to materialism. Wherein, man was to be defined solely in terms of his environment.

After it has been granted that man is molded entirely by environmental pressures, one is obligated to extend the same theory of causality to his institutions. The social philosophers of the nineteenth century found in Darwin powerful support for their thesis that human beings act always out of economic incentives, and it was they who completed the abolishment of freedom of the will. The great pageant of history thus became reducible to the economic endeavors of individuals and classes; and elaborate prognoses were constructed on the theory of economic conflict and resolution.

Thus the various -isms came into being, capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Instead of a higher purpose, eternal consequences and transcendent truth, where man was created in the image of God, where the stakes being played for were his very soul, man was reduced to being

… replaced by man the wealth-seeking and-consuming animal.

The potential for nobility and purpose was reduced to the basic instinct of survival.

In Weaver’s view, man now walks over an abyss of meaninglessness.

There is no term proper to describe the condition in which he is now left unless it be “abysmality.” He is in the deep and dark abysm, and he has nothing with which to raise himself. His life is practice without theory. As problems crowd upon him, he deepens confusion by meeting them with ad hoc policies.

Surely this must sound familiar to anyone paying even a modicum of attention to what is happening in the nation’s capital. The desperate desire to solve every conceivable problem by passing ever more redundant, often useless, and frequently harmful legislation. The familiar refrain is a desperate plea that we must “do something.” However, all the while man continues to insist that transcendental truth does not exist. Modern man has freed himself from the shackles of judgment and any authority outside of himself. Therefore everything is relative. If everything is relative, then even words may not have absolute definitions.

If words no longer correspond to objective realities, it seems no great wrong to take liberties with words. From this point on, faith in language as a means of arriving at truth weakens, until our own age, filled with an acute sense of doubt, looks for a remedy in the new science of semantics.

It is no longer surprising then to hear a president quibble about the definition of the word “is.” This is perhaps what Weaver was referring to at the beginning of his introduction. How can progress be made in honest debate if there are no ground rules, no solid shared understanding?

All of this leads to some interesting things to think about that this reviewer had never considered. Perhaps the enlightenment wasn’t necessarily an entirely positive thing for mankind.

This story of man’s passage from religious or philosophical transcendentalism has been told many times, and, since it has usually been told as a story of progress, it is extremely difficult today to get people in any number to see contrary implications. Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact—which can be established—and that modern man has about squandered his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism.

As we become steadily more inured and desensitized to what Weaver refers to as “the enormous brutality of our age,”

… we seem unable to make appropriate response to perversions of truth and acts of bestiality. Multiplying instances show complacency in the presence of contradiction which denies the heritage of Greece, and a callousness to suffering which denies the spirit of Christianity. Particularly since the great wars do we observe this insentience. We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent. (Emphasis WWTFT).

The progressive is determined to believe in an ever more sophisticated and better man as time progresses. He cannot admit that man is not perfect or perfectible. To do so would imply that there is an ideal, a standard by which man is judged, which is outside of the physical world. So instead, he dogmatically insists that man is on the road to an ever-brighter future. Consistent with the belief that man is a creature of his environment, progressives seek to continually improve that environment and, ergo, improve man.

Hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil.

In view of these circumstances, it is no matter for surprise that, when we ask people even to consider the possibility of decadence, we meet incredulity and resentment. We must consider that we are in effect asking for a confession of guilt and an acceptance of sterner obligation; we are making demands in the name of the ideal or the suprapersonal, and we cannot expect a more cordial welcome than disturbers of complacency have received in any other age. On the contrary, our welcome will rather be less today, for a century and a half of bourgeois ascendancy has produced a type of mind highly unreceptive to unsettling thoughts. Added to this is the egotism of modern man, fed by many springs, which will scarcely permit the humility needed for self-criticism.

In denying the reality of the abstract ideal, man has lost the capacity to make value judgments for fear of having them applied to himself. And thus it is at the end of the introduction that Weaver returns to the assertion:

It is the appalling problem, when one comes to actual cases, of getting men to distinguish between better and worse.

Glossary of Terms

NOTE: Some of the concepts that Weaver discusses require a vocabulary steeped in philosophical terms all of which, most people, like this reviewer, may not initially grasp. Consequently, it may be helpful to define terms periodically. Apologies to all for whom this is unnecessary pedantry – this reviewer is merely taking a cue from his own deficits.

nom·i·nal·ism n. [PHILOSOPHY] the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality, and that only particular objects exist; properties, numbers, and sets are thought of as merely features of the way of considering the things that exist. Important in medieval scholastic thought, nominalism is associated particularly with William of Occam. Often contrasted with REALISM

(2010-04-01). The New Oxford American Dictionary (Kindle Locations 560206-560217). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

re·al·ism n. [PHILOSOPHY] the doctrine that universals or abstract concepts have an objective or absolute existence. The theory that universals have their own reality is sometimes called Platonic realism because it was first outlined by Plato’s doctrine of “forms” or ideas. Often contrasted with NOMINALISM.

(2010-04-01). The New Oxford American Dictionary (Kindle Locations 686098-686101). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

ma·te·ri·al·ism n. 1 a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. 2 [PHILOSOPHY] the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

(2010-04-01). The New Oxford American Dictionary (Kindle Locations 504398-504410). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

met·a·phys·ics plural n. [usu. treated as sing.] the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.

<SPECIAL USAGE> abstract theory or talk with no basis in reality: his concept of society as an organic entity is, for market liberals, simply metaphysics. Metaphysics has two main strands: that which holds that what exists lies beyond experience (as argued by Plato), and that which holds that objects of experience constitute the only reality (as argued by Kant, the logical positivists, and Hume). Metaphysics has also concerned itself with a discussion of whether what exists is made of one substance or many, and whether what exists is inevitable or driven by chance.

(2010-04-01). The New Oxford American Dictionary (Kindle Locations 515327-515352). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.




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