TBT^2: Back to School with Richard Weaver

Today marks the first day of school for the 2020-2021 school year:  The Year of The Virus, if we were to affix a Chinese Zodiac-style name to it.  It’s going to be the most unusual school year any of us have ever experienced, I imagine.  Please keep teachers, students, administrators, and staff in your prayers.

As I’ve noted often, I reread at least the introduction to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences every school year.  The introduction offers a strong diagnosis of modernity’s ills, and it reminds me why teaching is so important—not just the accumulation of random facts into worldly knowledge, but to inculcate deeper knowledge and virtue—what we might call “wisdom.”

Here is “TBT: Back to School with Richard Weaver“:

Every year I try to reread the introduction to Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver’s masterful work of analysis and prophecy.

With school starting back in just FOUR DAYS—may God have mercy on us all—it seemed germane to bring back this post from 2018, itself a contextualization of a Facebook post from 2014.

Here is “Back to School with Richard Weaver“:

Every year, I try to sit down and re-read at least the introduction to Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, probably the most powerful book I’ve ever read.  I tend to undertake this re-reading around the time school resumes, as it helps remind me why I teach.

In addition to Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver wrote some of the most eloquent essays on the South—and what it means to be Southern—in the twentieth century.  In 2014, I posted the following quotation on Facebook; I will allow it to speak for itself[:]

I’m undertaking my annual baptism in the works of Richard Weaver to focus my philosophical thinking for a rapidly approaching school year, and, as always, I’m presented with an embarrassment of riches. Few thinkers cram so many nuggets of truth into so little space. Every paragraph of Weaver’s writings yields insights that speak to the very heart of humanity.

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TBT: Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction

Yesterday was the last session of the Summer 2020 History of Conservative Thought course.  This summer marks the second run of the course, and it was a fantastic class.  I had three young men enrolled, all quite eager to dive into the material.

I try to avoid lengthy lectures in HoCT, giving the basic background information and scaffolding necessary to put the readings into context.  I want the works to speak for themselves, and for the students to the do the heavy lifting of sussing out meaning and the author’s ideas.  Each week students wrote a short essay or answered a few different guided questions, then we would come in and discuss the material.

With this summer’s group, that model worked very well, as two of the young men in particular loved to plunge into discussions and ask questions.  One of the students was concurrently taking a colleague’s popular Terror and Terrorism course, which leads off each summer with the French Revolution.  That always dovetails nicely with our discussion of Edmund Burke, as we read several excerpts from his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke comes on the heels of our discussion of Russell Kirk’s conservative principles, and helps frame the early portion of the course in the Burkean tradition.

In July, we left the nineteenth century and began looking at the modern conservative movement, with a heavy emphasis on William F. Buckley, Jr., and the notion of fusionism.  Buckley’s National Review catches a good bit of flack on the Right these days, including from this blog, but it truly shaped conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century.  Before National Review, conservatism was a disorganized, disunited hodgepodge of various ideologies, movements, and issues—it was, as Lionel Trilling put it, a “reactionary impulse,” a grumpy attitude about the way things were, but without a cohesive understanding of how to combat the dominance of New Deal liberalism.

For all its noodle-wristed hand-wringing and desperate virtue-signalling today, National Review created the modern conservative movement by giving conservatives their voice, their publication.  It also gave conservatism a politically viable platform of issues that could win in national politics.  That focus on nationalism certainly cuts against the Kirkean/Burkean mold of organic, ordered liberty, but it was the reality of post-war American political life.

We ended with another mid-century conservative, but one fitting far more into the spiritual and moral mold of Burke and Kirk, and far less in the neoliberal and materialist mold of Buckley-style fusionism:  Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, which I consider one of the greatest books ever written.  Indeed, I’m a bit of a Weaver fanboy, as he’s been featured twice on my Summer Reading Lists, first in 2016 for Ideas Have Consequences, and again in 2020 for his collection of Southern Essays.

For the course, we just read the “Introduction” to the book, which I try to read every August before school resumes.  It reminds me why I teach, and what is at stake.  Reading Ideas Have Consequences—first published in 1948—today reads like prophecy fulfilled.  Weaver’s core focus on William of Occam as the source of modernity and its related ills might seem a bit far-fetched, but that’s merely the germ from which the analysis of modernity’s fallen view of the world grows.

The real heart of Ideas Have Consequences is the abandonment of the transcendental—of God—in favor for navel-gazing particularism, a constant focus on lower, material concerns.  Unbound from any obligation to or belief in a transcendental moral order, men are left adrift in a world full of isolation, alienation, confusion, and meaninglessness.

I’ll let the rest speak for itself.  Here is 29 July 2019’s “Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction“:

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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.

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TBT: The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding

My high school American history classes are getting into the American Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, or the War for Southern Independence, or whatever you’d like to call it—this week, so we’ve been talking about beginnings a good bit.  The Civil War had deep roots that go back not just to the 1840s or 1850s, and not even to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Indeed, the fundamental division dates back to the English Civil War in the 1648, when the Puritan Roundheads under Oliver Cromwell ousted and beheaded Charles I, and established the English Republic (which—the English having little taste for radicalism or dictatorships, fortunately collapses in 1660 with the restoration of the Stuart monarchs).  Loyalists to the king and the monarchical order were the aristocratic Cavaliers.  Those same Puritans of East Anglia settled heavily in Massachusetts following the Pilgrims’ famous landing at Plymouth Rock, and the Cavaliers—in body and spirit—dominated the tidewater plantations of the South.

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Lazy Sunday XXIII: Richard Weaver

I’ve been fan-boying a great deal lately about Richard Weaver.  He’s one of my favorite authors, even though I’ve read comparatively little of his work.  Weaver died during the prime of his academic career, but before his premature death he managed to bequeath a rich heritage of scholarly works about literature, religion, and his beloved Dixie.

As I’ve written again and again, I always enjoy rereading the introduction to Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and hope to reread the entire book again soon.  The introduction sums up the modern West’s maladies starkly and clearly, tracing their origins to the nominalism of William of Occam.

I found one podcast in which two conservative commentators summarize and discuss the book, chapter-by-chapter; it’s a good, quick overview if you’ve got fifty minutes in the car:

That said, while I reference Weaver quite a bit, I actually have not written as many posts about him and his work as I thought.  Nevertheless, while I’m in the midst of my annual Weaver Fest, I thought it would be the perfect time to give the great academic his own Lazy Sunday:

1.) “Capitalism Needs Social Conservatism” – a #TBT post from the TPP 2.0 era, this post was part of a series on social conservatism, which I dubbed the “red-headed stepchild” of modern conservatism.  The post is more inspired by Weaver than it is about him, but I mention the paradox of prosperity near the end when I discuss Weaver’s drunk.

That’s my phrase for a metaphor Weaver employs near the end of the introduction to Ideas Have Consequences in which he compares modern society to a drunk.  The more inebriated and alcoholic the drunk becomes, the less capable he is of doing the work necessary to feed his addiction.  So it is with modern man—the more he luxuriates in excess and comfort, the less willing he is to do the uncomfortable work necessary to sustain his opulence.

2.) “Back to School with Richard Weaver” – the subject of last Thursday’s TBT, this little piece was from a 2014 Facebook post in which I quoted from “The South and the American Union,” an essay from Weaver’s Southern Essays.  It contrasts the Southerner’s “Apollonian” worldview of fixed limits and “permanent settlement” to the ceaseless striving and progression of the Northern, “Faustian” worldview.  It’s a fascinating dichotomy that, while controversial, certainly rings true to Southerners like yours portly.

3.) “The Portly Politico Summer Reading List 2016” – my classic, original reading list; naturally, Ideas Have Consequences tops the list!  As I wrote at the time, if you’re going to read just one book this summer, make it Ideas Have Consequences!

4.) “Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction” – I wrote this little summary for my History of Conservative Thought course.  It’s my quick rundown to help breakdown the main ideas from the introduction to high school juniors.  Hopefully it worked!

Well, that’s it.  Enjoy Weaver Fest 2019!  It’s back to school for me tomorrow.

–TPP

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

TBT: Back to School with Richard Weaver

Every year I try to reread the introduction to Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver’s masterful work of analysis and prophecy.

With school starting back in just FOUR DAYS—may God have mercy on us all—it seemed germane to bring back this post from 2018, itself a contextualization of a Facebook post from 2014.

Here is “Back to School with Richard Weaver“:

Every year, I try to sit down and re-read at least the introduction to Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, probably the most powerful book I’ve ever read.  I tend to undertake this re-reading around the time school resumes, as it helps remind me why I teach.

In addition to Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver wrote some of the most eloquent essays on the South—and what it means to be Southern—in the twentieth century.  In 2014, I posted the following quotation on Facebook; I will allow it to speak for itself[:]

I’m undertaking my annual baptism in the works of Richard Weaver to focus my philosophical thinking for a rapidly approaching school year, and, as always, I’m presented with an embarrassment of riches. Few thinkers cram so many nuggets of truth into so little space. Every paragraph of Weaver’s writings yields insights that speak to the very heart of humanity.

Here’s an excerpt from “The South and the American Union,” an essay from _The Southern Essays of Richard Weaver_, published posthumously in 1987. It might clarify a few things for some of my Yankee friends who have expressed a certain bafflement with Southern mores and attitudes…:

“The Southern world-outlook was much like that which [Oswald] Spengler describes as the Apollonian. It knew nothing of infinite progressions but rather loved fixed limits in all things; it rejected the idea of ceaseless becoming in favor of ‘simple accepted statuesque becomeness.’ It saw little point in restless striving, but desired a permanent settlement, a coming to terms with nature, a recognition of what is in its self-sustaining form. The Apollonian feeling, as Spengler remarks, is of a world of ‘coexistent individual things,’ and it is tolerant as a matter of course. Other things are because they have to be; one marks their nature and their limits and learns to get along with them. The desire to dominate and proselytize is foreign to it. As Spengler further adds, ‘there are no Classical world-improvers.’ From this comes the Southern kind of tolerance, which has always impressed me as fundamentally different from the Northern kind. It is expressed in the Southerner’s easy-going ways and his willingness to things grow where they sprout. He accepts the irremediability of a certain amount of evil and tries to fence it around instead of trying to stamp it out and thereby spreading it. His is a classical acknowledgment of tragedy and of the limits of power.

“This mentality is by nature incompatible with its great rival, the Faustian. Faustian man is essentially a restless striver, a yearner after the infinite, a hater of stasis, a man who is unhappy unless he feels that he is making the world over. He may talk much of tolerance, but for him tolerance is an exponent of power. His tolerance tolerates only the dogmatic idea of tolerance, as anyone can discover for himself by getting to know the modern humanitarian liberal. For different opinions and ways of life he has no respect, but hostility or contemptuous indifference, until the day when they can be brought around to conform to his own. Spengler describes such men as torn with the pain of ‘seeing men be other than they would have them be and the utterly un-Classical desire to devote their life to their reformation.’ It happened that Southern tolerance, standing up for the right to coexistence of its way of life, collided at many points with the Faustian desire to remove all impediments to its activity and make over things in its own image. Under the banner first of reform and then of progress, the North challenged the right to continue of a civilization based on the Classical ideal of fixity and stability….”

There are so many great passages I could cite (“Man [to the Southerner] is a mixture of good and evil, and he can never be perfected in this life. The notion of his natural goodness is a delusive theory which will blow up any social order that is predicated upon it. Far from being a vessel of divinity, as the New England Transcendentalists taught, he is a container of cussedness.”), for almost all of Weaver is quotable.

The New Great Awakening

I just wrapped up the last session of my History of Conservative Thought course.  We spent the last day unpacking the “Introduction” to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (you can read my summary here).  We also discussed tax policy (an unexpected and pleasant pre-class discussion) and spending, and completed the “Debt Fixer” simulation from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Towards the end of class, I also briefly touched upon the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency.  I spoke extemporaneously, and largely touched upon the “forgotten men and women” theme—that is, that legions of voters perceived themselves to be overlooked, ignored, or even denigrated by the political and cultural arrangements of our time, and latched onto Trump’s candidacy as the best vehicle for expressing this sense of alienation.

At the top of my mind was a series of posts from my good e-pal photog, proprietor of the excellent blog Orion’s Cold Fire.  photog has a long post up entitled “The Great Awakening” that details the slowly dawning realization that millions of Americans were bamboozled by their political elites.  I highly encourage you check it out.

That essay comes on the heels of another photog post, one of his “American Greatness Post of the Day” features.  That feature links to a long essay by Matthew Boose, “The Great Excluded and Our Nationalist Future,” which casts our current political and cultural battles as one between the champions of multiculturalism versus the traditional American patriots.  The former believe America is “open to everyone”—except, of course, the benighted conservative Americans of flyover country—while the latter believe there is more to America than a set of abstract principles, and that our borders and traditions mean something.

photog and I both exist in “the thin space between the lumpen masses of the civic nationalists and the bomb-throwing bad-thinkers of the Post America far right,” as he aptly puts it.  We don’t accept the full-blown claims of the far/Alt-Right that America is doomed and our national heritage is irredeemable, nor do we think that one’s race is a determining factor in one’s ability to be a part of the American experiment.

But we also no longer believe that just getting the policy right will solve our problems.  As Weaver diagnosed in Ideas Have Consequences, our problems run deeper, to the level of ideas, but also to the metaphysical.  As Michael Knowles has said multiple times, our essential questions are not truly political, but are theological; that is, they are questions about who we are, what we believe, and what our place in the universe is.

Thus, we have another Great Awakening in American political and cultural life, a period during which we reexamine these fundamental questions.  For too long the radical, progressive Left has dominated how these theological questions are approached and considered.  The time has come for the Right to take its message to the people, and to restore a more traditional, satisfying, and godly sense of man and his place in Creation.

Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction

Tomorrow is the last day of my History of Conservative Thought class for the summer term.  It was a fun course to run, though if I offer it in the future, I’m hoping to firm it up and make it a bit more organized, with some lecture slides to go along with the document readings.

To end the course, students are reading the “Introduction” to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), one of my favorite books of all time.  I reread the introduction before the start of every school year, especially if I’m teaching Philosophy, as it helps remind me why knowledge and learning are important.

They’re writing short papers about the “Introduction,” which we’ll discuss in class tomorrow.  To aid them—and, hopefully, to convince you to read Ideas Have Consequences yourself—I’m briefly summarizing Weaver’s ideas in this post.

Weaver starts his book declaring that it “is another book about the dissolution of the West.”  He argues that due to the “widely prevailing Whig theory of history,” modern man has come to believe that history is always proceeding in an upward direction—that is, that things are always getting better.

Weaver disagrees, of course, arguing that “modern man has become a moral idiot.”  He laments that, not only are people able to agree on the facts of their situation, they are utterly incapable of recognizing their own fallen state.  Despite that moral idiocy, man “has been not only his own priest but his own professor and ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.”  Put another way, people have decided subjectively that they know right and wrong, independent of any transcendent moral order or God, and the results are personal and political chaos!

Weaver goes on to recount the horrors modernity and self-deification have wrought:  massive wars, ruined cities, lost lives, and a general, nagging sense of powerlessness.  Weaver references specifically the destruction of the Second World War (though not by name), suggesting that the optimistic Whiggish interpretation of history is, on its face, verifiably false.

So, who is to blame for this general malaise in Western civilization?  According to Weaver, the “best representative of change… over man’s conception of reality” is William of Occam.  Most readers will know Occam from the concept of Occam’s Razor, the notion that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

Weaver, however, focuses on Occam’s doctrine of nominalism, a doctrine that “denise that universals have a real existence.”  In other words, there are no true universal, transcendent ideals—justice, mercy, grace, virtue, etc.—and no metaphysical Truth or higher power.  Further, nominalism “banish[ed] the reality which is perceived by the intellect… to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses,” setting man “on the road to modern empiricism,” the idea that only that which we experience is “true.”

Weaver proceeds to take us down that road:  nature comes to be seen as fully intelligible, merely a set of “rational mechanism[s]” to be uncovered and understood; man comes to believe that does suffer from original sin, but is rather a perfectible being; any flaws from which humans suffer are necessarily due to their environment, not their own choices.

Most significantly, belief in God and religion—a higher Form of Truth that binds together the cosmos—become reduced to “‘humanized’ religion,” like deism (the belief in a Creator that set the universe into motion, but who never intervenes with His Creation).  These reduced religions are little more than venerable institutions with the veneer of respectability, but which succumb to the materialism of the humanist.

Soon humans lose all free will, becoming the materialist machines of nature like any other animal.  Institutions crumble, which man “rationalizes with talk of emancipation,” believing himself to be free from the restrains of the benighted past.

An interesting point that Weaver makes is that, in order to feel some semblance of the old virtues—ideals that men sense they should uphold, but which they cannot understand or articulate—they fight wars with “increased frequency,” invoking ideas like justice, honor, and valor in service to materialist ends.

Of course, there are those who champion modernity.  These “apostles of modernism,” as Weaver calls them, “usually begin their retort [to Weaver’s position] with catalogues of modern achievement, not realizing that here they bear witness to their immersion in particulars,” as opposed to transcendentals.  That is the source of my own critique of capitalism, the best socioeconomic system that materialist modernism can offer.  Weaver notes that many great civilizations have shown with effervescent splendor in their dying gasps of relevance, so merely having beautiful, ingenious stuff doesn’t mean a civilization isn’t dying.

Perhaps the best passage from Weaver’s “Introduction” is what I call “Weaver’s drunk,” located on page 15 of the 1984 paperback edition linked here.  Weaver argues that the material wealth and comfort of modernity holds within it its own destruction—the more comfort we have, the less willing we are to do the work necessary to maintain it.  Weaver compares this situation to that of the drunk who is so addicted to his drink, he is incapable of doing the work necessary to sustain his addiction.  He may succeed for a time, but the more besotted he becomes, the less capable he is.

There are so many nuggets of wisdom and Truth in just the “Introduction” to this work, and I haven’t touched on all of them.  I encourage everyone to read through the full “Introduction”—and the entire book—as soon as possible.  Reading it now, some seventy-one years after its original publication, is sobering due to its prophetic nature.  The situation Weaver described has not improved.  It is imperative, now more than ever, that we consume Weaver’s work and begin pushing for a revival of religious belief and a traditional view of the cosmos, and our place in it.