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Wisdom Does Not Lie on the Periphery

This is the fourth in a series of posts about this important book.  Interested readers can find the first here,  the second here, and the third here.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats

Ideas Have ConsequencesThe third chapter of Weavers seminal work, Ideas Have Consequences deals with yet another aspect of modern mans systematic abandonment of the classical search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Weaver’s books are about society, and what makes it tick.  Denial of anything above the imagination of the human mind leaves man untethered and left to float wherever the currents of self-deception take him.  Weaver argues that purposeless pursuit of specialized knowledge, is of no value, and leads to the fragmentation of society.

Weaver is not opposed to learning and study.  The knowledge to which Weaver refers is that of the specialist, who refuses to look at the big picture. The more man becomes obsessed with specialized knowledge instead of the reason for things, the less meaning he is able to attach.  The believer in transcendency focuses instead on the important questions.  In other words the specialist is in danger of losing the forest for the trees, or as Weaver explains,

The acquisition of unrelated details becomes an end in itself and takes the place of the true ideal of education.

In contrast to this are the increasingly anachronistic philosophical few who steadfastly insist that there is a plane of existence beyond the empirical.  If mankind loses sight of this, he loses the ability to put his empiricism into a meaningful context, like the Indian parable of the three blind men and the elephant.

They are making the ancient affirmation that there is a center of things, and they point out that every feature of modern disintegration is a flight from this toward periphery. It is expressible, also, as a movement from unity to individualism. In proportion as man approaches the outer rim, he becomes lost in details, and the more he is preoccupied with details, the less he can understand them.

Since the Enlightenment, western society has been on a centrifugal path progressing farther and farther from the belief in Transcendent Truth. Each stop farther away from the center abandoned a different set of core principles.  An early stop along this path to the periphery was the age of chivalry. The notion of what it meant to be a gentleman could not long survive without a reason behind it.  In essence, this was mere rote imitation of the behavioral characteristics which arise from a focus on a Supreme Good. But a belief in concepts like chivalry and respect while divorced in some degree from the Transcendent, at least maintained the concept of an ideal.

Gentlemen did not always live up to their ideal, but the existence of an ideal is a matter of supreme importance.

Without an ideal there is nothing left to answer the question “Should this be done?”  Instead, all focus is directed at the “How?”

… the fallacy of technology, which is the conclusion that because a thing can be done, it must be done.  The means absorb completely, and man becomes blind to the very concept of ends; indeed, even among those who make an effort at reflection, an idea grows that ends must wait upon the discovery of means.

Today, we are increasingly beset by technocrats fixated on more and more specialized knowledge. In many ways it’s easier not to ask the larger questions, but take comfort in the mastery of a specialized skill and either let someone else worry about the big picture, or equally likely, deny that the big picture exists. Those with hyper-specialized skill are prone and even encouraged by modern society, to engage in completely unrealistic self-appraisals. This results in an egoism that derives a false conclusion of competence in larger matters, based on the knowledge of small things.  The masses become more and more likely to believe that being “smart” in one area bestows a right to speak dogmatically in areas completely outside the realm of the “expert’s” knowledge.  Thus scientists feel comfortable in making grand pronunciamentos on matters of social policy.

In Weaver’s view, such specialized knowledge does not qualify one for leadership.

Science is therefore not a pursuit for such a one. Because it demands an ever more minute inspection of the physical world, it makes an ideal of specialism, and one may recall Nietzsche’s figure of the scientist who spends his life studying the brain structure of the leech. Is it necessary to press further the point that, when such matters come to be pursued as knowledge, the task of synthesis approaches impossibility?

The theory of empiricism is plausible because it assumes that accuracy about small matters prepares the way for valid judgment about large ones.

When a person abandons the notion of Transcendent Truth, one is forced to provide one’s own version of it.  In the words of Bob Dylan, “You gotta serve somebody.”

So the scientist, having lost hold upon organic reality, clings the more firmly to his discovered facts, hoping that salvation lies in what can be objectively verified.

In Weavers work on rhetoric, he describes the difference between a rhetorical or symbolic description of the nature of things, and a purely “factual” dialectic.  Society has abandoned the grandeur of transcendent knowledge and has instead opted to “major in minors.”  This has disastrous effects for modern man.

Having been told by the relativists that he cannot have truth, he now has “facts.” One notes that even in everyday speech the word fact has taken the place of truth; “it is a fact” is now the formula for a categorical assertion. Where fact is made the criterion, knowledge has been rendered unattainable . And the public is being taught systematically to make this fatal confusion of factual particulars with wisdom.

Science tells us that the human body is composed largely of water, with small amounts of gold, copper, iron, and various other elements.  Somehow the combination of these bits of organic and inorganic materials, in just the right percentages and combinations, make a living human being. Like the elements in a body, individual facts are just building blocks, but do not possess a life of their own.

Education is more than the acquisition of disjointed facts.  A properly educated human being has facts at his disposal, to be sure, but also knows how to analyze what he is seeing in the light of Transcendent Truth.  If this seems like a bold assertion, consider the whole field of medical ethics.

It is technically possible to clone human beings and harvest their organs.  What stops us from doing this is some sense of morality.  But if morality is purely relative and there is no higher good, and certainly no such thing as a soul, we are reduced to other means of determining what is proper.

The supposition that facts will speak for themselves is of course another abdication of intellect.

It is not only true intellect that is being left behind.  It is also the motive force that is expressed as a passion for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.  In place of this passion, we are told that there is no good, no better, no worse.  Indeed, the only definition in life, the only things left upon which to cling, are isolated particulars.

We are developing a phobia toward simple predication. Sensing that even expository statement is a form of argument and that argument implies the existence of truth, we shrink back by clinging to our affirmation of particulars. They seem innocuous. Any extension beyond, toward center, may involve grave duties.

The highest good is perversely the lack of critical judgement.  In this brave new world everything is equally valid.  Or to quote the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, no one is.”  This bland neutrality flies in the face of common sense.

Since liberalism became a kind of official party line, we have been enjoined against saying things about races, religions, or national groups , for, after all, there is no categorical statement without its implication of value, and values begin divisions among men. We must not define, subsume, or judge; we must rather rest on the periphery and display “sensibility toward the cultural expression of all lands and peoples.” This is a process of emasculation.

This dumbing down and tyranny of technocrats against the ideal, results in a society composed of frightened sheep looking for leadership.

But when he has long been absolved of the duty of thinking, he may be seized with a sense of helplessness and panic when the necessity of it is thrust upon him. In such circumstances it is quite natural for him to turn to some member of the managerial elite, who in the industrial age of society is himself a specialist.

prometheusFreed of such responsibility is indeed liberating, and all manner of atrocities may be committed without argument.

Visitors to Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich reported hearing scientists say, “What have I to do with politics? I am a technician .” It is impossible that such people should feel a sense of guilt. To give these or any modern people a sense of guilt, it would be necessary to go back and explain the sin of Prometheus. 

The world has willfully narrowed responsibility.

Morality and character require effort.  One does not achieve success without effort.  The fruits of ones labor are inherently desirable, but the toil required to obtain them is an acquired taste.  The Left promises the reward without the effort. This is the subtle evil inherent in the Left.  Sadly, they may even subliminally realize this.  The response to the mere suggestion of something transcendent will not fail to produce the most strident of responses in a modern liberal, because,

The very possibility that there may exist timeless truths is a reproach to the life of laxness and indifference which modern egotism encourages.

Weaver refers to the morality and character referenced above as “aristocratic virtues,” and challenges the assertion that they are inaccessible to society as a whole.

Now the question of whether it is possible for everyone to be a philosopher, if we are willing to go back to essentials, is a part of the larger question of whether everyone can participate in the aristocratic virtues. This is the problem of wisdom and self-control, and there have existed societies in which a far larger proportion of the people had access to general responsibility, which acted as a counterpoise to these psychopathic tendencies. Let us look, for example, at preindustrial America. The feature of that society which contrasts most strongly with our own was the distribution of centers of influence and authority. We might take as a single instance a Vermont farmer of the 1850’ s, certainly not one to give himself airs, yet a vessel of some responsibility and, to that extent, an aristocrat by calling. He has been properly admired for his independence, by which is meant not isolation from community life— on the contrary, he appears to have been active in town meeting and at the poll— but opportunity and disposition to decide for himself according to a rational and enduring code of values. His acres may have been rocky , but he appraised his situation and assumed direction. He rose early because the relationship between effort and reward was clear to him. There was a rhythm to his task which humanized it, each day bringing a certain round of duties, and the seasons themselves imposing a larger pattern, as when haying time arrived. At the end of a day he might remain up until nine o’clock with the weekly newspaper, not flipping through comics and sporting news but reading its political disquisitions to weigh and consider as carefully as Bacon could have desired. He observed the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with some recollection of what they signified. He remained poor, but he was not unmanned; he had enough character to say No.

As Weaver points out, though they may not have been philosophers, many more people once participated in the “aristocratic virtues” in the United States, than do so now.  Hence, it becomes clear why there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Left to denigrate or forget the past. This past provides a sharp contrast to the choices being made today and stands as a signpost directing us in an opposite direction.

It is apparent, moreover, that those who are in rebellion against memory are the ones who wish to live without knowledge; and we can, in fact, tell from their conduct that they act more than others on instinct and sensation. A frank facing of the past is unpleasant to the tender-minded, teaching as it does sharp lessons of limitation and retribution. Yet, the painful lessons we would like to forget are precisely the ones which should be kept for reference. Santayana has reminded us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and not without reason did Plato declare that a philosopher must have a good memory.

We don’t all have to be philosophers but if civilization is to  endure it must be based on more than science and moral ambiguity.  Just as Weaver observed that chivalry faded because it was detached from its source, Will Herberg perceived the tenuous nature of what he called “our cut flower culture.”

The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as “humanistic” ethics, has resulted in our “cut flower culture.” Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.

1 comment

1 Leslie { 04.04.14 at 5:31 pm }

This is excellent.

[Reply]

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