Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Review: Ideas Have Consequences

I have read a variety of "big books" on the state of Western Civilization: its origins, its moments of greatness, and its moments of decadence and decay. Perhaps the most convincing book on the "fall" of Western Civilization is Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, which puts the source of the West's loss of confidence in the Great War of 1914-18. However, Richard M. Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences is the first one I've encountered that put Western Civ on the wrong track at the start of the Renaissance and the turn from medieval scholasticism to modern materialism.

Weaver's essential complaint about the West's state of culture (he was writing in 1948) was that we made an error in turning away from Platonic "forms" and toward more Aristotelian realism. This might require a little explanation, as Platonic forms are rarely taught today. Plato, philosophic student of Socrates, believed that the universe existed on two planes, the material world we actually lived in, which was corrupt and imperfect, and a superior world of perfect forms, of which the real world was merely a pale reflection. For example, in Plato's two-tier universe, concepts such as horses, beauty, chairs, trees, or men as they exist in our daily lives are but imperfect knockoffs of true, ideal Horses, Beauty, Chairs, Trees, or Men. For Plato, these forms were more "real" than the world in which we lived, and thus more worthy of emulating or admiring. The genius of St. Paul the Evangelist was to embrace Platonic forms as a way of explaining the Christian Heaven to Greek Gentiles.

In the Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome, the Christian Church gave birth to Western Civilization by more fully articulating the merger between Greek and Christian thought. The primary scholars of the time were Christian popes, bishops, fathers, monks, professors, or students of the same, and their primary concerns were primarily philosophic, moral, and religious. Weaver believes the West made a crucial error by shifting its emphasis from such questions and toward a world view in which "man is the measure of all things."

The first half of Ideas Have Consequences therefore demonstrates how this shift from philosophy to materialism led to greater and greater emphasis on the physical realm to the detriment of religion, nature, and ultimately man himself. Weaver sees science as a move away from a synthesized and balanced view of the world toward one where specialization causes people to learn more and more about smaller and smaller parts of reality (in the Platonic sense). In short, Weaver laments the movement from Truth with a capital T toward mere facts. He believes that shared truths enable better communication between individuals and nations, and that the collapse of the Christian Western order that began with the Renaissance led inevitably to the devastation of the Second World War 400 years later.

Weaver, like Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot also laments the loss of gentlemanly aristocracy and the rise of egalitarian democracy. Weaver and Kirk both see the French Revolution of 1789 as a tragedy for Western Civilization because it called for an end to acceptance of hierarchy of any kind: political, moral, or (later) economic. The loss of a liberally educated class of gentlemen expected to cultivate the arts and a measured response to matters of politics, meant that the masses no longer had a group of individuals worthy of looking up to, emulating, or obtaining wisdom from. America, of course, has been the home of the radical egalitarian ideal since the time of Andrew Jackson, and Weaver and Kirk perceived that the last aristocrats of the old gentlemanly sort were put to the flame and the sword in the Civil War. From then on, everyone was expected to be an equal, and political authority became more problematic: "You're no better than anyone else, Mac. Who says you have a right to be in charge?"

In addition to the rise of egalitarian democracy, Weaver lectures against the dangers of materialism as applied to the state. If the bourgeois ideal is material comfort, then the democratic state's primary purpose is to ensure stability and eliminate any tendency toward moral considerations. He likens the middle class of the West to spoiled children who are incapable of recognizing duty, honor, or hard work. He sees the public translating "the right to...the pursuit of happiness" as "the right to happiness," which is to be furnished by the state. And, of course, in the spirit of egalitarianism, no one can be more comfortable than his neighbors, so if some individuals are more comfortable than others, their goods must be taken from them in the form of socialism to ensure material comfort for all.

To combat this rising tide of radical egalitarianism, Weaver proposes a program centered first upon a vigorous, philosophical defense of private property, which he describes as the "last metaphysical right" the middle class has left to it after taking away religion and hierarchy (of station or ideals). He also calls for educational emphasis on poetry and Socratic dialectic rather than semantics or specialization. He is calling emphatically for a return to an integrated world view for the spiritual health of the individual, and a turning away from materialism, which he sees as interfering with or opposed to the integrated individual.

As I read this book, I found myself wondering about its implications for space advocacy (it's an occupational hazard, I confess). Clearly, we would not have put men on the Moon without dramatic advances in the study of the natural world. And yet even at the time of the event, writers like Norman Mailer were complaining about the flat, unemotional, unspiritual nature of the enterprise and the men embarking upon it. Attempts to tie our spiritual selves to the material action of flying to the Moon were met with a lawsuit by an atheist, perhaps illustrating Weaver's point. There is also this problem: as affluent as America might have been in 1969, it has become even more so now. The spoiled children Weaver described in 1948 have come into their own as obese materialists who believe government owes them a living and who reject the notions of sacrifice or hard work--notions that will be critical to building permanent establishments in space or on other worlds. The "New Space" entrepreneurs have generated more excitement than NASA's revived human space program because space tourism offers a more egalitarian possibility of access, whereas NASA will most likely continue its tradition of sending up hyper-competent, non-egalitarian Astronauts. Many space advocates are actively hostile to religion. Would they welcome a return to religion-based verities, even if students educated in such a moral-material synthesis build the first permanent habitations on the Moon or Mars?

Regardless of how Weaver's solutions are implemented in space, they still bear contemplating here on Earth, especially as we have at least two presidential candidates who are socialists in all but name and a nation where welfare costs outweigh any other single expense. Is there still room for religion, let alone private property, integrated liberal (in the old sense of broad) education, and Platonic/Christian ideals? One can sit back and wonder, or one can take action. Cultural revival requires the efforts of active, involved individuals. And if one believes Weaver, those involved individuals must also be willing to give up on some of their material comforts and conveniences to achieve the revived morality he seeks.

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