Palatial Porches and Dying Civilizations
I take great pains to ensure that the devilish tempo of modern life never breaches my portico. Life should always be in adante, and I like to imagine that the haint blue of the porch repels the unclean spirits of prestissimo.
A fine porch can make you feel like King Solomon, and a fine man knows his temple is incomplete without one. A porch should be a little ostentatious, just enough to summon a jovial repartee from passersby, or seduce callers-on into long conversation. For a porch does not really belong to a house, nor does it even belong to you. It is an abode all to itself; a happy limbo between nature and civilization.
That happy limbo is where I do most of my reading, usually in the evenings when life winds down, stretched out under that magical haint blue.
All things done in andante.
For the month of April, I will be re-reading Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences– a book well suited for palatial porches and dying civilizations.
Ideas Have Consequences
Richard Weaver has quickly become one of my favorite essayists in the Southern Agrarian tradition. Before things truly went to hell, I casually read his essays on rhetoric and Southern culture. I even read Ideas Have Consequences, but it did not speak to me.
Back then I found him intriguing, even after he slew a great number of my own sacred cows (finance capitalism and modern jazz being the most sacred). But after becoming disillusioned with liberalism and democracy, Richard Weaver’s words began to sound downright prophetic. And no Weaverian prophesy is more poignant than Ideas Have Consequences.
“This is another book about the dissolution of the West,” Weaver begins, only to point out that this unhappy subject is incomprehensible to most. To Weaver, the veil of ignorance shielding man from appreciating civilizational decline and human degeneracy is not merely a bitter fruit of Whig history, but the result of modern man being a “moral idiot.” And the costs of this idiocy are high:
For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.
Furthermore, Weaver insists that the disorder and decay of the modern West should be obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes. We are surrounded by moral failure:
“If you seek the monument to our folly, look about you. In our own day we have seen cities obliterated and ancient faiths stricken. We may well ask, in the words of Matthew, whether we are not faced with “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world.” We have for many years moved with a brash confidence that man had achieved a position of independence which rendered the ancient restraints needless. Now…at the height of modern progress, we behold unprecedented outbreaks of hatred and violence; we have seen whole nations desolated by war and turned into penal camps by their conquerors; we find half of mankind looking upon the other half as criminal. Everywhere occur symptoms of mass psychosis. Most portentous of all, there appear diverging bases of value, so that our single planetary globe is mocked by worlds of different understanding. These signs of disintegration arouse fear, and fear leads to desperate unilateral efforts toward survival, which only forward the process.”
Weaver published this in 1948, the same year President Truman signed the Marshall Plan and Executive Order 9981, which effectively desegregated the US Armed Forces. This was the year that Whitaker Chambers testified before Richard Nixon’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and Alger Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury. 1948 was the beginning of the Cold War, a year marked by the political and economic ascendance of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
And yet Weaver’s mordant introduction could have been easily written 73 years later for our own generation of “moral idiots.” This congruity should make us feel uncomfortable. After all, the present should be significantly better than the past, and the best is always yet to come- right? Ideas Have Consequences demystifies the uncomfortable connection.
Richard Weaver traces the West’s demise to a single point in the 14th century, with a relatively obscure Franciscan friar named William of Ockham, who pioneered a philosophy of metaphysics later known as nominalism. In describing this cataclysmic event, Weaver likens modern man to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who stumbles upon the notorious witches on the heath.
“Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.”
To Weaver, this unholy bargain with nominalism dethroned the primacy of intellect, thereby crowning and venerating the senses instead. And what followed- the denial of universals, transcendent experience, and even truth- inevitably resulted in modern man, that great moral idiot, becoming the measure of all things.
With nature’s mystery denied, the timeless suspicion- that man is indeed a fallen creature- gradually dissolved. Man’s deficiencies and even human suffering itself, came to be seen as a product of his ignorance, or worse, some kind of “social deprivation.” This is the wellspring of scientism, , presentism, and doomed political projects like social and egalitarian democracy.
This is the beginning of the end for the West.
Fraternity, Property, and Restoration
Weaver’s most profound insights are found after that first chapter (The Unsentimental Sentiment), particularly after he moves beyond modern man’s path to chaos.
During his study of distinction and hierarchy, Weaver dismisses both social democracy (caustically referred to as “scientific feeding”) and what he refers to as “equalitarianism” (a never-ending redress of injustice through “artful self-promotion”). Here Weaver draws an important distinction between equality and fraternity, and endorses the latter at the expense of the former. Equality is chimerical and disorganizing, while fraternity- ancient and arising from the depths of human sentiment- is stabilizing. Most of the egalitarian’s purported goals are more fully realized through the ancient bonds of fraternity; equality fosters envy and egotism, fraternity cultivates cooperation and loyalty through hierarchy and obligation.
In Chapter 7 (The Last Metaphysical Right), Weaver departs from his diagnosis and announces the need for a restoration; a project that hinges on what he refers to as modern man’s “last metaphysical right.”
“When we survey the scene to find something which the rancorous leveling wind of utilitarianism has not brought down, we discover one institution, shaken somewhat, but still strong and perfectly clear in its implications. This is the right of private property, which is, in fact, the last metaphysical right remaining to us. The ordinances of religion, the prerogatives of sex and of vocation, all have been swept away by materialism, but the relationship of a man to his own has until the present largely escaped attack.”
Private property. The last vestige of our preliberal inheritance, or as Weaver so eloquently pronounces, our last metaphysical right.
“Now that the middle class itself is threatened, the concept of private property loses defenders, but it is still with us, and, though we may not be happy about its provenance, here is a tool at hand. Its survival may be an accident, yet it expresses an idea. It is the sole thing left among us to illustrate what right, independent of service or utility, means.”
“We say the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness. Property rests upon the idea of the hisness of his: proprietas, Eigentum, the very words assert an identification of owner and owned. Now the great value of this is that the fact of something’s being private property removes it from the area of contention. In the hisness of property we have dogma; there discussion ends. Relativists from the social sciences, who wish to bring everyone under secular group control, find this an annoying impediment. But is it not, in truth, quite comforting to feel that we can enjoy one right which does not have to answer the sophistries of the world or rise and fall with the tide of opinion? The right to use property as something private is…a sanctuary. It is a self-justifying right, which until lately was not called upon to show in the forum how its “services” warranted its continuance in a state dedicated to collective well-being.”
Soon after, an impassioned Weaver disentangles “financial capitalism” from the more ancient concept of property, warning that Big Business and market fundamentalism are hopelessly devoted to materialism and abstract ends. For Weaver, restoration is an intrinsically moral endeavor. It is a moral solution to a moral problem.
The moral solution is the distributive ownership of small properties. These take the form of independent farms, of local businesses, of homes owned by the occupants, where individual responsibility gives significance to prerogative over property. Such ownership provides a range of volition through which one can be a complete person, and it is the abridgment of this volition for which monopoly capitalism must be condemned along with communism.
Consequences for Today
It is difficult to imagine that the America of 1948 could evoke such a response from Weaver, and yet clearly he observed the moral failings of his own time and anticipated civilizational decline. Surely he recognized that while relatively young, the post-war regime was destined to swell in both size and spite, and eventually extinguish our pre-liberal inheritance.
Our world today is no more violent and destructive than Richard Weaver’s. Liberals like to remind us of that. We should be grateful, they say. Things have never been better, and the best is yet to come. Yet in spite of our great wealth and historic emancipations, our generation has a much bleaker outlook than Weaver’s did. While that great Southern Agrarian enjoyed some applause after publishing Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, he was also largely dismissed as a cantankerous fossil- dangerously anti-liberal and anti-modern. After all, things were great in 1948, and everyone knew the best was yet to come.
We find ourselves in strangely familiar territory, and yet we are even closer to the brink. Our noose is much tighter. This is widely known and even more widely felt. But you would never know it by the way our apparatchiks and commissars blare that old, threadbare paean to progress.
Things are great, and the best is yet to come.
Who can believe it? We have eyes. Are we not surrounded by monuments to our folly? And why does this admonition from nearly a century ago still resonate? What comes next?
Richard Weaver’s ability to capture this familiar anguish speaks to the vitality of his work. With such a compelling diagnosis, the reader cannot help but entertain Weaver’s case for restoration.
Sadly, we don’t have another 73 years.
This is not an exhaustive examination of Richard Weaver’s masterpiece. I strongly encourage my readers to explore Ideas Have Consequences for themselves and share their thoughts and impressions below.