Salvo 01.24.2024 5 minutes

The Consequences of Cultural Sickness

Inside old ruined abandoned historical mansion in Gothic style

Richard Weaver described the mechanism of American decay.

The recent implosion of Harvard President Claudine Gay is a sign of the times. Her plagiarism struck against the core principles of any institution of higher learning, but even more damning was her answer during House testimony regarding student protests about Israel. When asked if calls for worldwide intifada violate Harvard’s code of conduct, she replied, “that type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me,” but doubled down that free speech respects all opinions, even “objectionable, offensive, and hateful” speech like calls to genocide. Her response, in addition to contradicting Harvard’s actual history of enforcement of its code of conduct, lacks the understanding of what underpins the right of free speech and the purpose of a university to prepare students to live in a free society.

Gay’s response is indicative of a larger culture of relativism that sends our civilization further into moral chaos and confusion. Philosophers familiar to the readers of these pages, such as Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, and Hadley Arkes, have long noted and explained the root of the crisis of the West and the consequences of the problem of modernity. One thinker less known in these pages is Richard Weaver.

Weaver, the author of Ideas Have Consequences, chronicled the decline of the West in terms of the advent of relativism. The nominalism of William of Ockham, Weaver argued, destroyed metaphysical realism and the idea of transcendental forms, leading to relativism, materialism, utilitarianism, statism, and the undifferentiation of mass culture. Weaver’s thesis that “ideas have consequences” left no aspect of the modern world untouched; even jazz music was critiqued as part of “egotism in work and art.”

For Weaver, the crisis of the West “flowed from a falsified picture of the world which, for our immediate concern, results in an inability to interpret current happenings.” Ultimately, it is a crisis of education. We have taught the wrong things, namely bad ideas, which have created our own demise. The fullness of Weaver’s argument is too comprehensive to be explained here, but everything from the scientism and presentism of our age, the sexual debauchery and decay of moral standards, and the bureaucratization and standardization of much of American life are all explained in light of the death of “transcendentals.”

One key aspect in Weaver’s analysis is his idea of culture. In his subsequent book Visions of Order, he points out how culture qua culture centers around a fundamental idea that must exclude all others. However, if nominalism destroys fundamental ideas, culture is then doomed. Multiculturalism, for example, is rather anti-culture, and yet is a necessary consequence of nominalism. Likewise, Weaver’s critique of the “average Joe” stems from the same idea: once transcendental ideas are discarded, culture loses its definition and all the people of a culture lose their definition as well. For Weaver, “society and mass are contradictory terms,” and the embrace of relativism means the collapse of distinction and natural (and to some extent artificial) hierarchy, and all of the concomitant varieties of excellence, norm, and station needed for cultural health.

The goal of education is acculturation. As Weaver put it, “Education comprises instruction, of course, but it goes beyond instruction to a point that makes it intimately related with the preservation of a culture.” The youth of any given moment are barbarians, for, as Weaver explains, they are too young to have memories. Memory gives the continuity of identity and thus the continuity of culture. The sense of presentism that grips our age and our educational institutions strips us of memory, and thus strips us of our culture, making it easier to forget, destroy, and rewrite; hence the constant move to “revise our history” in light of present “value judgments.”

For Weaver, this failure ultimately ties back to nominalism and the death of transcendental ideas, but he also likened “progressive” theories of education back to the Gnostics of the second century, who believed that man is by nature good and that the evils of the world were for man to correct. As he wrote, “with regard to man himself, the Gnostics taught a doctrine of perfectionism. Man did not require salvation, for he was already in a state of ‘Messianic blessedness.’”

The modern analogue to the Gnostics were the American Transcendentalists of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who likewise taught of the innate goodness of man and the possibility of perfection in the universe. Since man was already good, he was not in need of education as formation in culture or toward his moral improvement, but rather education had to be a means of advancing the perfection of man as he is in the service of progress, the overcoming of the deficiencies and limitations of nature. Weaver argued that progressive educators like John Dewey took up the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau and sought to install a bureaucratic educational apparatus to effect their political agenda of pure democracy and the overthrow of all authority and hierarchy.

They have largely succeeded, as departments of education and college education departments have been setting educational standards and teaching principles of education along these very lines. Not only do they assume ideas of the innate goodness of children and their equality with teachers, wherein “the teacher is just ‘one of the boys,’” but they also propose a set of criteria and teaching goals such as “action civics” and “teaching for social justice,” where teachers help actively facilitate students’ ideas—invariably the progressive ideas of the teachers reflected back from their own students—of social change toward more democratic, egalitarian goals. The dominance of the Left in nearly every major institution of American life is evidence of the success of this project, and is the consequence of a culture gripped in relativism.

However, Weaver’s analysis was ultimately a hopeful one. His works sought to show that a revival of culture and freedom was possible. To those who argue “we cannot turn back the clock,” Weaver replied that “the believer of truth…is bound to maintain that the things of highest value are not affected by the passage of time.” “Going back” for Weaver meant “returning to center,” and recovering spiritual or intellectual truths in an age of materialism.

How will this recovery of transcendentals be accomplished? If civilization took a wrong turn by embracing and teaching bad ideas—an avoidable error—then we can learn from such mistakes and cast bad ideas into the darkness. If bad ideas have bad consequences, the corollary is that good ideas have good consequences. It will require us to recreate a culture built upon the right ideas and then have those ideas be taught and propagated. Our educational institutions need to recover a robust culture of liberal education to prepare citizens to live in a free society. Harvard and America’s other institutions have shown that they are not up to this task.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, where I work, is up to this task. After Weaver died, ISI created the Richard M. Weaver Fellowship in his honor to help graduate students studying in the humanities pay for their studies so that they could then teach future generations of students the principles, virtues, and ideas that have animated our civilization and way of life. The Weaver Fellowship has placed hundreds of professors across the academy, including Claremont Institute co-founder and President of Hillsdale College Larry Arnn, among many others. Graduate students who intend to teach can apply for the Weaver Fellowship here until February 2, and I highly encourage them to join us in facing the cultural crisis of our time.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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