Modernity’s fateful encounter with weird, wayward sisters
Richard Weaver on the cultural consequences of bad metaphysics
“Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched the proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.
“One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course. . . .”
“. . . I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism. . . .”
“The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably — though ways are found to hedge on this — the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of ‘man the measure of all things.’ The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the ‘abomination of desolation’ appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.
“Because a change in belief so profound eventually influences every concept, there emerged before long a new doctrine of nature. Whereas nature had formerly been regarded as imitating a transcendent model and as constituting an imperfect reality, it was henceforth looked upon as containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior. Such revision . . . did away with the doctrine of original sin. If physical nature is the totality and if man is of nature, it is impossible to think of him as suffering from constitutional evil; his defections must now be attributed to his simple ignorance or to some kind of social deprivation. One comes thus by clear deduction to the corollary of the natural goodness of man. . . .”
“The question of what the world was made for now becomes meaningless because the asking of it presupposes something prior to nature in the order of existents. Thus it is not the mysterious fact of the world’s existence which interests the new man but explanations of how the world works. . . .”
“There is no term proper to describe the condition in which he is now left unless it be ‘abysmality.’ He is in the deep and dark abysm, and he has nothing with which to raise himself. His life is practice without theory. As problems crowd upon him, he deepens confusion by meeting them with ad hoc policies. Secretly he hungers for truth but consoles himself with the thought that life should be experimental. He sees his institutions crumbling and rationalizes with talk of emancipation. . . . He struggles with the paradox that total immersion in matter unfits him to deal with the problems of matter.”
—from Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948)
[NOTE: In 2013, an expanded edition of this classic work was released, containing a foreword by New Criterion editor Roger Kimball and an afterword by Ted J. Smith, III, relating the remarkable story of the book’s writing and publication.]
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