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Tracing the “Abomination of Desolation”: Richard M. Weaver’s Forgotten Conservative Vision

David Klinghoffer

The vision that first inspired the contemporary conservative movement back in the 1940s and ’50s would be unrecognizable to many conservatives today. In Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), the book that sociologist Robert Nisbet credited with “launch[ing] the renaissance of philosophical conservatism in this country,” you will not find a single reference to the then sitting President of the United States (Truman). It’s not really a political book at all. It is not about setting or opposing a legislative agenda. It is about correcting a faulty and widespread materialist “world picture” of which Darwinism forms a crucial ingredient. We are reconsidering and appreciating Weaver in this series. (See Parts I and II, here and here.)

With “Darwinism … lurking in the background,” writes Weaver, “Politics, arts, everything, came under the rule; man was primarily a food- and shelter-finding animal.” From this erring self-image, people derived almost all the disastrous political and cultural trends of our modern times. Having in mind Marx and other socialist thinkers, Weaver wrote that “[t]he social philosophers of the nineteenth century found in Darwin powerful support for their thesis that human beings act always out of economic incentives, and it was they who completed the abolishment of freedom of the will.”
In Marx, as in Freud and by implication in Darwin, man is the product of irresistible material forces in nature. From this followed a number of corrosive conclusions. That man is morally impotent, ultimately without moral responsibility, for one. Weaver traced the descent of Western ideals of what a person could be. In the Middle Ages, an ideal was the “philosophic doctor,” a man who possessed the learning and wisdom to identify accessible, transcendent, universal truths that formed the basis of ethical behavior. When belief in universals waned — the beginning of the end, thought Weaver — the idea of the philosophic doctor was replaced by that of the gentleman.

Being a gentleman is a good thing, of course, but it suggests someone unable to explain the basis of his idealism down to its “deepest foundations”: such a person “had lost sight of the spiritual origin of self-discipline.” Weaver was a devoted Southerner who returned from his post at the University of Chicago every summer to his ancestral home in Weaverville, North Carolina, to plow the family farm with a mule. He admired the South, among other reasons, for preserving the ideal of the gentleman longer than other modern societies did. The problem with the gentlemanly ideal lay in its inherent instability. It could not justify itself even to itself, and so increasingly passed away.

Weaver prophetically showed what would come after that. The materialist, Darwin-driven culture would be characterized by

  • class and other resentments, since “if our classifications of the world of physical nature are arbitrary, so, too are those of human society”;
  • a general bitterness, since the “loss of belief results in some form of bitterness. Ancient cynicism, skepticism, and even stoicism, which were products of Greek religion, each concealed a bitterness. There is bitterness in the thought that there may be no hell; for…if there is no hell, there is no justice”;
  • a demoralized conception of work, since “service to others is the best service when the effort of all is subsumed under a transcendental conception. Material gratification does not provide this”;
  • a deadening sensuousness, since “[t]he heresy is that man’s destiny in the world is not to perfect himself but to lean back in sensual enjoyment”;
  • and an unwillingness to defend our decadent culture from enemies, since the “withering-away of religious belief, the conviction that all fighting faiths are due to be supplanted,…turns thoughts toward selfish economic advantage. The very attainment of this produces a softening; the softening prompts a search for yet easier ways of attaining the same advantage, and then follows decline.”

All this followed from what might seem like a highly obscure victory in a medieval intellectual battle over William of Occam’s “denial of universals.” Weaver traces the course of the “abomination of desolation” from such subtle beginnings to a “new doctrine of nature,” no longer imitating a transcendent reality but “containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior” — Darwinism in a nutshell — leading ultimately to “a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.”
Which is where we find ourselves today. How did Weaver know, and the classical conservative tradition after him, that Darwinism wasn’t itself a true description of how nature works and constitutes itself? He makes his case for intelligent design in another book, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time, published posthumously in 1964. We’ll see what he has to say in following posts in this series.