Richard Weaver in the Age of The Virus

In the Age of The Virus, we’re beginning to reevaluate the way we live.  I’ve written quite a bit about distance learning, and photog has a piece up on his blog predicting a larger shift to remote work.  That transition would threaten micromanaging middle managers everywhere, though, and one doesn’t become a micromanaging middle manager without a knack of occupational self-preservation.

I’ve also been interested in the potential cultural impact.  Already there seems to be a minor revival in interest in gardening.  Part of that is prudent:  we need to have some food to fall back on should the supply chains face further disruption.

But I also suspect some of it is spiritual.  Modern man has become divorced from his roots in the soil—in Creation.  Modernity has liberated us from the constant fear of want, but that liberation came with a price:  we traded the liberty of the soil for the chains of comfort.  Growing a little vegetable garden, however meager, is a way to reconnect with the land, and with the beauty of God’s Creation.

Such is the contention, in part, of “Richard Weaver, the Coronavirus, and the Strenuous Life,” at The Abbeville Institute by William J. Watkins.  Longtime readers know of my love for Richard Weaver and his seminal work, Ideas Have Consequences, whose introduction I reread (nearly) annually, and which changed my intellectual life profoundly.

Watkins points out that Weaver decried the way modern man has made comfort his god.  It’s easy to see how that’s true.  Our elites are encouraging us to watch television to “do our part” to fight the coronavirus.  Our version of sacrifice is so watered-down, it involves loafing on the couch in our underwear.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we live in an age so materially wealthy, the one of the worse outcomes of a public health crisis involves watching old Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi flicks on our flat-screen televisions (which is what I did last night).  Our industrial might and scientific ingenuity will lick The Virus like a teenager licking a toilet seat.

On the other hand, we’ve become so addicted to our pleasures and comforts, we’re unwilling to do the strenuous work to maintain.  I had a long phone conversation with a friend the other night—an avid gardener, and a bit of a traditionalist himself—who made the point that our civilization was built so well, now it’s just kind of muddling along.  I said it’s like we’re coasting on the achievements of past greatness.

That will work for awhile—probably a very long while—but eventually, the people who built the system are gone; they may be already.  Then the people who know how to manage the system, but didn’t build it themselves (nor have the ability to create something to take its place), will disappear.  That’s when you get to Idiocracy, where dilapidated, failing machines prop up a shiftless and braindead population.

It’s not just a collapse of the material that concerns Watkins or myself, though.  It’s the more crucial cultural and spiritual collapses that accompany—indeed, that necessitate—the material collapse.  The familiar adage goes that hard times make strong men; strong men make easy times; easy times makes weak men; and weak men make hard times.  As a doughy American myself, I’d say we’re somewhere in the midst of that last quarter turn.  The upshot is that with hard times—which we may be seeing very, very soon—will make strong men.  But the hard times are still coming.

Watkins points out, though, that this situation could be spiritually beneficial.  Here is an excerpt from his piece about a humbling failure in his garden (emphasis added):

Maintaining my little acre is both strenuous and humbling.  By way of example, last year I planted a terrace with ambrosia cantaloupes.  Months before planting the melons I had turned over the soil using a broad fork instead of a machine, prepared the ground, and planted of cover crop of mustard to suppress weeds, build the soil, and combat pesky nematodes.  Six weeks before planting the melons, I turned the mustard under with broad fork and hoe, raked the terrace, and waited for the last frost date to pass.  After planting, I spent weeks watering, weeding, and watching the plants vine and produce. Not long before the melons ripened and unbeknownst to me, minuscule pickleworms found the terrace. The holes bored into the fruit were tiny and almost unobservable. When I did discover the attackers it was too late. The fruit was riddled with bacterial and fungal colonies that followed the pickleworms as they traveled through the melons.  This rendered the crop inedible and all my work for naught.  If ever need reminding that I am not sovereign, I simply have to think of my exertions in preparing for the crop and the diminutive pickleworm to appreciate my limitations.

Notice how Watkins did everything correctly, but with one tiny oversight, his entire crop was ruined.  That’s a hard lesson—especially if he needed those melons to survive (which, fortunately, he did not).  It would do much to destroy the participation trophy mentality of our age, in which the effort is always rewarded, regardless of the quality of the output (I’ve witnessed this phenomenon increasingly with my students, and it’s been a source of my frustration with the educational field for some time).

Watkins ends his essay with these reflections:

COVID-19 has exposed our folly in relying on false gods. We can load the Ark onto a cart, send it away, and patch Dagon up, or we can began in embrace the truth in purposeful actions, great and small, that point to timeless principles. Sheltering in place, unlike twenty-first century man’s typical frenetic life, provides time to contemplate the choices presented.   Let us hope that the evils of this pandemic will lead us back toward the strenuous life.

“Let us hope the evils of this pandemic will lead us back toward the strenuous life.”  Amen to that, Watkins.  Amen.

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