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Rediscovering Conservatism: The Evolutionary Heresy of Richard M. Weaver

Somewhat unlike its current form, conservatism in its modern-day inception was about ideas and their consequences. It was primarily a philosophical dissection of what ails our culture. So Richard M. Weaver put it in the famous title of his 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. A professor of English at the University of Chicago, a Southerner who looked back on the lost culture of the South as the Western world’s last surviving “non-materialist” civilization, Weaver was a Darwin critic. That fact comes out again and again in his books. In his view, Darwinism was among the chief ideas roiling the culture and with the most disastrous results. In this series, we are in the process of taking a glance back at Weaver’s important but neglected work. (Part I is here.)

Anyone who wants to know what conservatism really means needs to understand Weaver. He compared the role of a conservative critic to a doctor diagnosing an illness. It is not enough to want to treat the symptoms — in this case, of our demoralized, dispirited, relativist culture. You must understand the genesis of the disease. He traced that back to the medieval debate won by William of Occam on what might seem an obscure philosophical point — the reality of abstract universal concepts apart from the sensory objects comprehended by those concepts — that, however, had far-reaching consequences.

Occam’s nominalism, as it’s called, carried within it the seeds of materialism, the denial of reality to anything the evidence of whose existence can’t come to us through the senses. In the Introduction to Ideas Have a Consequences, Weaver succinctly describes the course of intellectual evolution that lead to Darwinian evolutionary theory and onward to contemporary relativistic liberalism. Charles Darwin himself only rode the crest of this wave. Others rode with him. With the rise of materialism, writes Weaver, “it soon became imperative to explain man by his environment.” This

was the work of Darwin and others in the nineteenth century (it is further significant of the pervasive character of these changes that several other students were arriving at similar explanations when Darwin published in 1859)….

Biological necessity, issuing in the survival of the fittest, was offered as the causa causans, after the important question of human origin had been decided in favor of scientific materialism.

What does it matter? In the process of disintegration was a “world picture,” as Weaver called it, including man’s image of himself.

Once, before William of Occam lit the fuse that blew up the bomb, Western culture was blessed by a unified vision, a “metaphysical dream,” that satisfactorily explained man to himself. For us today, post-Darwin, it’s hard to fully appreciate what was lost. We cannot see the world and our place in it, at least not readily, through the eyes of our ancestors. This is why studying ancient religious writing can be such a strange and refreshing thing to do. Strange because the vision there really isn’t ours, which is one reason that modern attempts to express ancient spirituality frequently come across as strained, posturing, or naïve. Refreshing because you can, for a little while, imagine yourself into that better, purer alternative reality.
The impact of this vision’s disintegration remains with us in practical psychological terms. Weaver draws our attention to the prevalence of mental distress of all kinds across the culture:

[O]ne must take into account the deep psychic anxiety, the extraordinary prevalence of neurosis, which make our age unique. The typical modern has the look of the hunted. He senses that we have lost our grip upon reality. This, in turn, produces disintegration, and disintegration leaves impossible that kind of reasonable prediction by which men, in eras of sanity, are able to order their lives.

And that was only in 1948! Imagine if he could see how messed up we are today. As of 2010, the National Institutes of Health estimate that in a given year 1 in 4 American adults “suffer[s] from a diagnosable mental disorder,” while almost 1 in 10 suffers from a mood disorder and close to 1 in 5 from an anxiety disorder.

It’s interesting that Weaver published his best-known book within two years of Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl’s equally famous little book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), that makes much the same point. Unlike his fellow Viennese, Freud and Adler, who explained human beings respectively as being driven by a search for pleasure or for power, Frankl traced the roots of neurosis to a frustrated search for meaning in life. Meaning is exactly what the modern worldview makes so hard to discover.
Weaver stressed repeatedly that the most important thing about a person is the picture he’s built up in himself of what the world is and how it works — the “nature of things.” He observed, “[I]f we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.”

Weaver looked more deeply than Frankl, though. At least as I understood him, and perhaps this is unfair, the latter had in mind creating meaning in life, adding it. Suffering could be a source of meaning but so, perhaps, could stamp collecting. A serious person knows that purpose or meaning that is merely created or added is ultimately, so Weaver points out, nothing more than sentimentality. The goal of conservatism was to reclaim and restore to men and women a non-materialist world picture that allows for transcendent purpose and objective meaning — to be found or discovered, not “created.”

In my next post, we’ll take a further look at the costs of a widespread materialist world picture as Weaver identified them.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.