I am in the midst of reading Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver. It is quite thought provoking. The basic premise, if I’ve understood it properly, is that the rejection of universals in favor of data derived solely from concrete experience is the source of societal decline. This decline, he posits, began in the Fourteenth century and was epitomized by the writings of William of Occam and his doctrine of nominalism.
Written in 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, he certainly had a front seat look at societal degradation. Even so, I suspect he would agree that society has sunk even further since then.
I was discussing this with my wife last night and she laughed off the notion that society is any more degenerate than the last generation and so on. She correctly noted that every generation thinks so. This is, of course, true enough, but consider that the United States is a nation at war (with all the killing and destruction that entails) and almost no one seems to even notice that fact, so divorced have we become to the horror of violence and warfare that we barely take notice of it. It has become background noise, assimilated into the daily lives of every American, and accepted as the norm, unremarkable in any way. I contend that if that is not a sign of degradation – and one worse than existed in 1948 – then we have arrived at a point in time where the degradation is so advanced that we are incapable of recognizing it for what it is.
Weaver talked about this phenomenon. He noted that minor degradations are much more readily noticed early in the process than later. He writes:
Such is the task [of overcoming mankind's "hysterical optimism" that every change is progress], and our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility with their degradation. Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens. It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself; and this, I suspect, explains why medieval thinkers were extremely agitated over questions which seem to us today without point or relevance. If one goes on, the monitory voices fade out, and it is not impossible for him to reach a state in which his entire moral orientation is lost. Thus in the face of the enormous brutality of our age we seem unable to make appropriate response to perversions of truth and acts of bestiality. Multiplying instances show complacency in the presence of contradiction which denies the heritage of Greece, and a callousness to suffering which denies the spirit of Christianity. Particularly since the great wars do we observe this insentience. We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.
Without fixed points of moral truth, widely agreed upon throughout society, there is no way to maintain the order that makes society cohere. When people lose the capacity to name good good and evil evil, or good good and better better, there is nothing to direct society toward any goal, much less to the good of society (whatever that is). The impulse toward radical equality at the expense of fraternity, for the two cannot coexist despite Gallic slogans to the contrary, cements in place this leveling of all men and the negation of the notion that one man might deserve to be placed in a place of authority over any other for the good of both.
William Butler Yeats captures the essence of Weaver’s thesis, I believe, in a few justly famous lines, in his poem The Second Coming:
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Weaver wrote about how all problems in today’s world tend to be reduced to questions of economics. Because there is no transcendent measure which all agree to, some other measure must be adopted. We see rampant today the Benthamic standard of greatest good for the greatest number in operation. Questions are reduced to benefit/cost relationships and are decided in isolation from any notion of metaphysical propriety.
I believe this impulse is most plainly seen in the rise of the school of Law and Economics, where the law – that tool that should most closely align and implement the common good – is made subject to analyses reporting the economic effects of a particular decision. Whereas lawmakers in some distant past may have relied upon a common metaphysical notion of the good life in crafting a law, the Law and Economics crowd would disregard any normative intent on the part of the lawgiver and replace it with a utilitarian assessment of economic effect and rule accordingly. If the law maintains the moral order, it is purely accidental and a happy coincidence. Where the law is cut adrift from any mooring rooted in moral rectitude, how can society long survive?
As I mentioned, I have read only part of Weaver’s book (about half of it so far), but it seems to me that the prescription for what ails our society must be to reestablish the priority of transcendence, of universal truths and Truth. We must crush the “hysterical optimism” that all change is progress and exercise prudence in selecting changes that conform to societal good and those that are harmful. This requires the placement of leaders and teachers of well-formed and correct moral sentiment as well as advanced learning.
Whether a society so advanced in its own decline can be pulled from its own wreckage is debatable. It is no idle question what, if anything, conservatives seek to conserve. For it seems in the face of a bestial society that there is precious little left worthy of preservation. And, therefore, it seems that any prescription likely to succeed in saving society is one that must radically transform it, to lift it from the abyss, and to orient it toward transcendent Truth.