I recently had the unexpected experience of reading a book that appalled me; this is not a reaction I can remember having to a book before.
The book has a title I agree with: Ideas Have Consequences. Regarded as a classic text of postwar American conservatism, the book is a long jeremiad at the corruption of culture and social life stemming from the nominalism of William of Ockham (him of Occam’s Razor).
I have no problem with someone finding things to admire in medieval society and thought. But the notion that the passage of human history has, since the C14th, been a story of decline is such appalling nonsense that I am stunned any intelligent person can offer it seriously.
The Wikipedia entry on the author, Richard Weaver, tells us that he was both a Platonist and a defender of Southern culture. The former brings to mind Etienne Gilson’s observations about Platonism in his The Unity of Philosophical Experience:
Begotten in us by things themselves, concepts are born reformers that never lose touch with reality. Pure ideas, on the other hand, are born within the mind and from the mind, not as an intellectual expression of what is, but as models, or patterns, of what ought to be: hence they are born revolutionists. And this is the reason Aristotle and Aristotelians write books on politics, whereas Plato and Platonists always write Utopias (Pp54-5).
Extending that point, as Gilson says, in his God and Philosophy:
Truly to be means to be immaterial, immutable, necessary and intelligible. That is precisely what Plato calls Ideas. (p.24)
Naturally, if ideas are so wonderful, then they are more “real” than mere transitory people: to have a “true grasp” of such wonderful ideas gives on a status far beyond that of ordinary mortals. Platonic Guardians here we come. Hence the politics of “my ideas are more important than people”. Not merely in the sense of ways of making people lives better, but in the sense of disregarding the actual consequences of one’s ideas for people, of requiring people to conform to the ideas.
Willful blindness has consequences
Ideas Have Consequences does not argue, so much as assert; often in such rotund generalities that following how, if at all, it connects to reality is somewhat murky, to put it politely. There is a deep hankering for a sense of lost certainty that Weaver seems to believe reached some apotheosis in the C13th and began to be lost from the C14th onwards. For someone so clearly steeped in Western culture, Weaver has a remarkably poor sense of history. Far from being accidental, this poor sense of history appears to be necessary to protect his particular sensibility.
This hankering for lost certainties pervades the work, as in comments such as:
But the Symbolists retained a Romantic’s interest in the intimate and in the individual, with the result that their symbols came not from some ideology universally accepted but from experiences almost private (p.82).
The notion that art based on private experience is somehow decadent or otherwise problematic is based on a conception of people as problem. The work is pervaded by a sensibility deeply reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor; people have to be controlled and moulded by their betters — particularly in their beliefs. As when Weaver asks whether literacy has value (p.94), holding that truth can only be effectively conveyed by personal teaching (thereby limiting it to the elite with the leisure to undertake it). Obscurantism as self-satisfaction is not a pretty sight.
But this distrust of people goes with the horror of nominalism, for what would encourage a sense of the power of the particular more than taking people — in all their variety of experience and sensibility — seriously? Weaver again and again denounces manifestations of modern life as egotism and manifestations of a “spoiled child psychology”. Yet, behind the jeremiad seems to be a disappointed scion of a culture fallen on hard times who resents that the modern world took his social toys away.
Naturally, he hates newspapers, radio, cinema, the mass technology of communication (Pp93ff); not for him Jefferson’s preference of newspapers without government over government without newspapers. We are offered the banal observation that the great works of intellect are better than journalism (Pp98-9).
Naturally, Weaver also hates Jazz (Pp85ff); holds that music has been in decline since Beethoven while Impressionism is a similar sign of the degeneration of art (Pp83ff).
The book’s sensibility rests on a frozen concept of social order and a hostility to cultural difference and the range of human experience. Weaver may be steeped in Western culture, but he has remarkably little sense of other cultures (which, of course, then limits his sense of his own). When he suggests that the growth of landscape painting as a sign of a loss of sense of divinity (p.88), do the rich traditions of Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings make this at all a sensible judgement?
This deeply limited sense of the past leads to a poor sense of the present, and of future prospects. Thus, the growth of democracy rather contradicts his expectations of despotism (p.91) and he is deaf to any sense of the genuine moral progress that Pinker has documented. He is blind to experience beyond that of the cultured, and privileged, Western male. So, for example, he appears utterly unaware of the imposed nature of female subordination (p.178) in what he regards as their “natural” role.
Weaver dislikes machines — he is clearly unaware of the medieval fascination with them. He offers a ludicrously metaphysical analysis of the Great Depression and responses to it (p.144).
But this sense of loss certainties is itself deeply ahistorical. That, for example, Aquinas’s thought was seriously controversial when it first appeared seems to pass him by. To the extent there were social certainties, they were certitudes based in part on ignorance and often defended by brutality.
For any serious outbreak of new knowledge and capacity encourages nominalism as previous verities and categories are exposed as inadequate. Nominalism was as natural a result of the expansion in knowledge of the natural world and technological possibilities in the C12th Renaissance as it was to the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution or to the expansion in knowledge from C16th global exploration and the second Scientific Revolution it kicked off. Nominalism, breaking things down to specific manifestations, is a way of absorbing the new information and reconstructing categories better able to handle them. This is also why becoming a nexus civilisation — a civilisation newly connected to a range of other cultures — so regularly leads to artistic and intellectual flowerings; it is a positive effect of the shock of the new.
If the previous conceptualisations were such eternal verities, further knowledge and experience would confirm them. The problem is that expansion in knowledge and experience repeatedly undermined them. For such verities and categories are creations of particular historical circumstances and rely on exclusions and ignorance to make them seem unchallengeable. The more limited and specific experience/available information, the easier certainty is because the more constrained one’s experience of possibilities.
But there are also consequences for moral sensibilities and social possibilities from expanded knowledge and capacities. As the background constraints change, so do the possibilities and interactions we want to protect. Moral perspectives and social possibilities change according to constraints, possibilities and conceptions. There is nothing surprising about this.
Credence but not authority
The book encapsulates, in a particularly intense form, the difference between giving credence to the past and giving it authority. Far from being the same thing, they are, to a large degree, opposites (or, at least, antinomies). For to give authority to the past is to fail to give it full credence. To give authority to the past is choose which parts of it to give credence to. It is to impose a congenially selective sense of significance on it.
For example, how many of those opposing current claims to equal protection of the law — often on the basis of defending tradition — are beneficiaries of previous decisions that mere persistence through time is not enough? Traditions are not eternal things, they are responses to circumstances. Those responses might have been broadly based, or they might be exercises in social power. If we cannot revisit how and why they evolved, we attempt to make history the permanent possession of a given set of victors.
Due to the cognitive limitations of the human mind, reality is always going to be more complex than what the mind can grasp. The problem comes when the human mind insists on reality as conforming to those simplicities it finds congenial. The alleged respect for the past and experience usually conceals a willful refusal to inquire into the realities of that past and what experience counts, or does not.
As I have noted before, conservatives turn out to be regularly very bad at learning from history. They tend to idolise the past in much the same way that progressives idolise the future. They are just different ways of ignoring and discounting human experiences, of sacrificing giving credence to the past in order to selectively give it authority (positively or negatively).
Not that the progressivist-modernist approach of giving the past negative authority is any improvement. On the contrary, the more such a view is taken, the more disastrous and oppressive the results are likely to be, as it gives little or no credence to the past, thereby making current theory the only reference point while cutting off from consideration warnings and achievements from past experience. (Consider the way Leninism utterly disregards millennia of experience of the problems of political power.) The modernist impulse has been vastly destructive.
A form of destruction that Platonist worship of ideas feeds. Consider the society in Plato’s Republic; is it not profoundly modernist, profoundly based on imposing a theory on human possibilities with pervasive discounting of past experience and institutional learning?
But obscurantism and modernism are not our only choices, no matter how much politics tends to devolve into Bagehot‘s stupid party versus silly party. Grounding our ideas in human experience — all of it — is a great barrier to sacrificing people to ideas.
Ideas do have consequences, and Weaver’s massive discounting of human experience in the service of the authority of a past so selectively considered as to be a grotesque work of fiction is no way to understand the past, the present or prospects for the future. Weaver’s book may have helped kick off postwar American conservatism but it is also a window into its flaws and limitations.