Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
Random header image... Refresh for more!
Make a blogger happy, come back. Sign up for email post alerts!

What is sentiment? Observations on Ideas Have Consequences (Chapter 1)

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.  For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. 2 Timothy 3: 1-5

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

Ideas Have ConsequencesThe first chapter in Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, is entitled Unsentimental Sentiment.  In it Weaver attempts to explain the importance of style and sentiment in contrast with the modernistic notions of “reason.”  (Style in this instance refers to cultural norms of decency, while sentiment is belief in the abstract ideal of the good.)

Weaver contends that sentiment is a prerequisite to reason.

We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest.

Furthermore, it is the sentimental ideal which gives life meaning and purpose, in the context of society.

This poetry of representation, depicting an ideal world, is a great cohesive force, binding whole peoples to the acceptance of a design and fusing their imaginative life.

Weaver is referring to the belief in something greater than the simple tactile experience of life.  He refers to that which is mysterious and wondrous, sensed but not perfectly understood.  In short, he is talking about that which transcends physical existence.  Something toward which man can strive, but never fully grasp, a sort of metaphysical dream.

Dreams of this sort have little apparent, immediate practical application, but without them, human beings are little different than animals.

When a man chooses to follow something which is arbitrary as far as the uses of the world go, he is performing a feat of abstraction; he is recognizing the noumenal, and it is this, and not that self-flattery which takes the form of a study of his own achievements, that dignifies him.

This is the difference between simply “feeling” and realizing what one ought to feel.  Throughout this book Weaver seeks to make the case for the value of the ideal.  He argues against those who seek to boil life down into the ephemeral now, the purely empirical, or short term stimulus.

The task of the creators of culture is to furnish the molds and the frames to resist that “sinking in upon the moral being” which comes of accepting raw experience. Without the transcendental truth of mythology and metaphysics, that task is impossible.

To the modern progressive, there is an innate desire to denigrate or belittle those who would believe in something metaphysical, something greater, something potentially humbling.  Lip service is OK, but woe be to the true believer.

… it does not matter what a man believes so long as he does not take his beliefs seriously. Anyone can observe that this is the status to which religious belief has been reduced for many years. But suppose he does take his beliefs seriously? Then what he believes places a stamp upon his experience, and he belongs to a culture, which is a league founded on exclusive principles.

brat The modern progressive despises that which he does not understand, and that which makes him appear small.   This is the real crux of the issue.  To suggest that there is an ideal against which one may be measured is profoundly uncomfortable to those whose sole focus is a hedonistic presentism.  A true believer striving toward an ideal is a threat and an implicit accusation because of the contrast it poses.

Weaver refers to this contrast as one between barbarism and refinement.  The barbarity takes shape in the desire for immediacy in all things.  Instant gratification is all.

Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy.

Admitting that some things are veiled and even the suggestion perhaps that some things should be veiled means restraint.  If man is the sole arbiter of his destiny, and there is no ideal, then there is reason for restraint.

Many cannot conceive why form should be allowed to impede the expression of honest hearts. The reason lies in one of the limitations imposed upon man: unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance.

The reason that Weaver equates the uninhibited desire for immediacy in all things with barbarism, is because of the destructive nature of those who desire it.  Not only can they not stand the contrast, but they seek to destroy it as some sort of sick fulfillment.  … in breaking some restraint they feel that they are extending the boundaries of power or of knowledge.

Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away.

There are consequences to breaking norms, destroying traditions, and eliminating cultural restraints.  Ironically, a consequence of destroying restraints is a loss of perception.  The ability to distinguish between good and bad deteriorates as each successive norm is shattered.

Barbarism and Philistinism cannot see that knowledge of material reality is a knowledge of death. The desire to get ever closer to the source of physical sensation—this is the downward pull which puts an end to ideational life.

profanityRelated to this infatuation with the sensate and the continuous desire to break norms is  the destruction of the concept of obscenity.  Nowhere has this been made more manifest than in the mainstream media.  There is a short-term gain to be had from exploiting the shock value of progressively stretching the limits of decency.

This failure of the concept of obscenity has been concurrent with the rise of the institution of publicity which, ever seeking to widen its field in accordance with the canon of progress, makes a virtue of desecration. In the nineteenth century this change came visibly over the world, bringing expressions of concern from people who had been brought up in the tradition of proper sentiment. Propriety, like other old-fashioned anchorages, was abandoned because it inhibited something. Proud of its shamelessness, the new journalism served up in swaggering style matter which heretofore had been veiled in decent taciturnity.  Emphasis WWTFT

Without decency, there is no room for privacy.  Privacy, is after all a boundary. It is a line that describes a limit, ownership, individual sovereignty and respect.

The rise of sensational journalism everywhere testifies to man’s loss of points of reference, to his determination to enjoy the forbidden in the name of freedom. All reserve is being sacrificed to titillation. The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home. The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man. Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.

Weaver’s prescience is amazing.  The patterns emerging in his time predated the internet, cable television, and mass consumption of media.  Yet he recognized how technology aids and abets the destruction of cultural norms.

We shall have occasion to observe in many connections that one of the great conspiracies against philosophy and civilization, a conspiracy immensely aided by technology, is just this substitution of sensation for reflection. The machine cannot be a respecter of sentiment, and it was no accident that the great parade of obscenity followed hard upon the technification of our world.

Is it any wonder that, as many have observed, the internet is driven by porn?

Destroying ideals has consequences for a society.

It is inevitable that the decay of sentiment should be accompanied by a deterioration of human relationships, both those of the family and those of friendly association, because the passion for immediacy concentrates upon the presently advantageous. After all, there is nothing but sentiment to bind us to the very old or to the very young. Burke saw this point when he said that those who have no concern for their ancestors will, by simple application of the same rule, have none for their descendants. 1


Some form of sentiment, deriving from our orientation toward the world, lies at the base of all congeniality. Vanishing, it leaves cities and nations mere empirical communities, which are but people living together in one place, without friendship or common understanding, and without capacity, when the test comes, to pull together for survival.

It is the ideal that provides the common understanding, the common ground upon which civilization stands.  It is this unifying belief system which allows the different segments of society to interact peaceably.

… the metaphysical community, suffused with a common feeling about the world which enables all vocations to meet without embarrassment and to enjoy the strength that comes of common tendency.

Without a strong cultural belief, Weaver warns,

Without this grand source of ordering, our intensities turn to senseless affection and drain us, or to hatreds and consume us. On the one hand is sentimentality, with its emotion lavished upon the trivial and the absurd; on the other is brutality, which can make no distinctions in the application of its violence. Ages which have borne reputations for cruelty are more to be regarded than those renowned, as ours is coming to be, for brutality, because cruelty is refined and, at least, discriminates its objects and intentions. The terrible brutalities of democratic war have demonstrated how little the mass mind is capable of seeing the virtue of selection and restraint. The refusal to see distinction between babe and adult, between the sexes, between combatant and noncombatant—distinctions which lay at the core of chivalry—the determination to weld all into a formless unit of mass and weight—this is the destruction of society through brutality. The roar of the machine is followed by the chorus of violence; and the accumulation of riches, to which states dedicated themselves, is lost in a blind fanaticism of destruction. Those who based their lives on the unintelligence of sentimentality fight to save themselves with the unintelligence of brutality.

The only redemption lies in restraint imposed by idea; but our ideas, if they are not to worsen the confusion, must be harmonized by some vision. Our task is much like finding the relationship between faith and reason for an age that does not know the meaning of faith.

1.“People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”  Edmund Burke, Reflections on the War in France

1 comment

1 Marcia { 07.22.13 at 8:44 pm }

Patrick Moynihan had a term for what Weaver describes. He called it “defining deviancy down.” He wrote, “By defining what is deviant, we are enabled to know what is not, and hence to live by shared standards.”


Leave a Comment