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Richard M. Weaver, Conservative Intellectual Icon and Darwin-Doubter

This article ran as a series of posts at Evolution News & Views, May 14-26 2010.


What has conservatism come to? John Derbyshire, an inveterate Darwin booster and atheist, has an online diary entry up at National Review Online trying to explain to himself why, since life develops so readily and spontaneously from non-life, the universe nevertheless seems so strangely silent. SETI detects no hint of communication floating to us through the vacuum of space from elsewhere. Derbyshire tries to set things right between reality and himself through a series of ad hoc solutions — the details of which don’t matter. What’s interesting is to observe that when conservative intellectuals talk about the Darwin problem, and that is rare, this is pretty much all you are likely to get.

It didn’t use to be this way. The great institution-builders of the generation that’s now almost entirely passed were frank Darwin-doubters or warmly supportive of such doubts. One thinks of William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus — pretty much covering the spectrum of conservatism in its several flavors. The last of these, Father Neuhaus, provided one of the blurbs on the back of Phil Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, no less. Other elders open to doubts about Darwin — like Kristol’s wife Gertrude Himmelfarb and essayist Joseph Epstein — are thankfully and very much still with us but seem different in spirit from those of us who come after.

Given all this, it may come as a confirmation or as a shock, depending on your perspective, that the series of books that set down the foundation of modern conservatism are not only shot through with evolutionary heresy, but make a case for intelligent design and show clearly the central place of the evolution issue in the broader conservative vision. I’m referring to Richard Weaver‘s work, which I am going to make the subject of a series of six posts.

Though Weaver (1910-1963) would have had his hundredth birth on March 3, I wasn’t aware of any centenary celebrations for him. His name, however, came up recently in a New York Times article covering an intramural spat among conservatives. A few conservative intellectuals have expressed public outrage at the way paranoid populists have lately taken over the leadership of what was once a highly philosophical and cerebral movement. This is the same movement that educated Ronald Reagan, so the continuing intellectual and spiritual health of conservatism is a question of urgent concern. The Times report noted rightly:

Ever since Richard M. Weaver wrote his bracing conservative manifesto in 1948, Ideas Have Consequences, the title phrase has been a guiding maxim for the movement. But conservatives like [David] Frum worry that the type of ideas Weaver was referring to are in short supply these days.

I don’t know if it was the reporter or former Bush speechwriter David Frum who brought Weaver in, but the reference caught my attention. Ideas Have Consequences appeared three years before William Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale, and seven years before the launch of National Review. Frank Meyer, a founding senior editor of NR, called the book “the fons et origo [source and origin] of the contemporary American conservative movement,” a judgment echoed in George H. Nash’s standard history, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. Iconic conservative publisher Henry Regnery identified it as one of three books providing “the intellectual basis for the modern conservative movement.” (The others were Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.)

The New York Times is right that Weaver’s famous title phrase has provided a kind of mantra for philosophical conservatives. But what “ideas,” exactly, are we talking about and what “consequences”?

§

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.”

§

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”;
  • 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”;
  • 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”;
  • 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.

§

While today it would be more common to speak of a person’s “worldview,” philosopher Richard Weaver (1910-1963) spoke equivalently of a “world picture,” a “metaphysical dream,” or an integrative “vision.” I like vision or dream best, since they conjure something more than a dry-bones philosophical perspective that can be adopted or discarded easily if you change your mind about things. Just as you can be woken involuntarily from a good dream, or you may be unable to wake from a bad one, so too with a vision that explains to you how the world works — what’s above, what’s below, what came before you and what will come after. Once shattered, it is not easily reconstructed.

In this series we are discussing Weaver’s philosophy, a pillar of modern conservatism that stresses, in a way that may surprise many conservatives, the corrosive effects of Darwinism on Western culture. (See Parts I, II, and III, herehere, and here.) Whether a person is a liberal or a conservative, religious or secular, he needs a vision — and we all have one. It’s impossible to relate to the world without it. The problem comes if the vision you walk around with in your head is artificially foreshortened (like that of materialism) or, what’s far more common with modern people, including religious ones, fractured in the way a schizophrenic’s personality is fractured.

Weaver taught English at the University of Chicago but he’s best known for a trilogy of slim philosophical books: Ideas Have Consequences (1948), The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), and the posthumous Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. For anyone who has followed the Darwin debate, his discussion is surprisingly contemporary. It holds up well. In Ethics of Rhetoric, for example, he’s got a chapter deconstructing the legal tactics evident from a transcript of the Scopes trial: “Dialectic and Rhetoric at Dayton, Tenn.”

Weaver could have had in mind the uses that are so often made of the 2005 Dover case. He writes about how “the truth of the theory of evolution or any scientific theory can never be settled in a court of law.” At Dayton, the Scopes defense was to try to defend evolution’s truth rather than showing that the defendant hadn’t done what he was accused of doing, namely breaking the law of the state of Tennessee.

In another chapter, “Ultimate Terms in Contemporary Rhetoric,” he chided people who employ phrases like “Science says…” The formulation “depends upon a bland assumption that all scientists meet periodically in synod and there decide and publish what science believes.” He observes that such thinking reflects, pathetically, “the deeply human feeling that somewhere somehow there must be people who know things ‘as they are.'” Once, religion was “the depository of such knowledge, but now, with the general decay of religious faith, it is the scientists who must speak ex cathedra, whether they wish to or not.”

Even conservatives and religious folk now commonly look to “science” to fulfill that role and expect their religion to fall in line with whatever the mythological unidentified “scientists” say.

In Visions of Order, Weaver explains why even a layman who is a serious and thoughtful person has a right to question prevailing scientific opinion and, in particular, on the matter of Darwinian theory. Man, he explains, has periodically gone through “dark nights of the mind” in which he seemed to understand less about himself than previous generations did. Darwin was helping to draw down another such “dark night.” What “man tells himself he is”: this is an all-important determinant of culture, of what man does and “may even predetermine what he can do.” Weaver writes:

The dominant mood has been to accept what “science says” as an ipse dixit and then to see what, if anything, can be salvaged after its pronouncements have been conceded. It is my conviction that we do not have to fall back so far. We can offer defense and even attack at some of the outer works….[W]e can show that some of the scientific claims are not scientifically based or are not rationally argued.

The future quality of our culture will be a function of whether man’s self image may or may not be “saved.” Weaver identified a prime threat in “Darwin’s theory of the descent of man,” the effect of which was to “place man squarely in the animal kingdom” so that “[m]ore than likely what this revelation inspires in the average consciousness is the thought, ‘Well, if we are animals, let’s be real ones.'”

With regard to evolution, a layman may hesitate to venture any criticism:

The amount of study given the theory has been so extensive, the alleged proofs are from so many sources and are so massive in appearance, and the evolutionists have so much “liberal” opinion on their side that the average person who is still reluctant to accept its implications feels that he may as well shrug in hopelessness and say, “I surrender.”

Surrender is of course the stance advocated by most mainstream conservative and religious thought today. More on the details of Weaver’s critique of Darwin in my next post.

§

Richard M. Weaver, who died at age 53 in 1963, effectively launched modern philosophical and political conservatism in the United States. Everyone cites one of his titles, Ideas Have Consequences, but too few bother to read his actual works. In reading him now I’m struck by what a brilliant ally he would have made in the current debate over Darwinism. Though a philosopher and a professor of English stationed at the University of Chicago, he anticipated not only the major outlines of contemporary thinking about why the evolution debate matters. He also foresaw the outlines of the scientific critique of Darwinian theory. I’ve been writing about him the past week in this series (whose Parts I through IV are hereherehere, and here.)

In Visions of Order, he noted three plausibility problems with Darwin’s theory. First, it is “a form of the question-begging fallacy.” Darwinism is the best explanation of how life got to be as it is only if you take a materialist world picture for granted:

It demands an initial acceptance of the doctrine of naturalism before any explanation is offered. Specifically, when the biologist is faced with the fact of the enormous differentiation and specialization in nature, he says that these were caused by the proximate method which nature would use, assuming that nature is the only creative force that exists….Again and again in the literature of evolution one finds that things are viewed as “necessary” because they come from this assumed natural cause rather than as proved because they come from a known cause. In other words the fact that things have come into being is used as evidence that nature must have used the evolutionary process to bring them into being.

Second, he cites evolutionary biologist Theodore Dobzhansky on the weird way mutations seem to occur before they are actually needed by the Darwinian process:

What this suggests is a kind of preadaptation, with the species being armed far in advance for some crisis it will meet in the future….But this is the kind of providence that might suggest to our total awareness an inscrutable purpose.


Third, as an “insuperable” obstacle to believing in Darwinism, he notes “the mystery of the origin of language.” Human language is inescapably metaphorical, whereby things are designated by verbal symbols. But the intervening symbol “detaches the word from the thing.” How could a naturalistic evolutionary scheme, that can get a grip only on physical things, produce a language of non-material symbols and metaphors? The father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, who can’t be imagined sympathizing with anything else Weaver had say, would nevertheless go on some years later to express parallel doubts about the ability of natural selection to account for the existence of human language.

It was as if Weaver had in mind the ambitions of the contemporary intelligent design movement when he called for “some genius of thought who will bring all these concepts together and show how that unique condition of entropy which is man owes its existence to something more than a blind swirl of protoplasm.”

He could have had the advocates of theistic evolution in mind when he wrote immediately after, “We hear smooth words to the effect that there is no real conflict between science [as understood by Darwinists] and religion….There is no real conflict anywhere when one side gives up. The question still at issue is whether the facts and the logic dictate so complete a surrender as has been urged on one party.”

Take that, Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, BioLogos Foundation, et al.! I will wrap up and suggest some concluding thoughts on Weaver and conservatism in my next post.

§

Once upon a time, political and philosophical conservatism was less concerned with practical, day-to-day politics and much more directed to developing a critique of modern civilization, seeking to save the culture from barbarism. In this series of posts, of which this is the final entry, we have been looking at the thoughts of Richard Weaver on Darwinism as a contributing factor in the drift to cultural decay. (You will find earlier entries, Parts I through V, herehereherehere, and here.)

Today, the most broadly respected deans of conservative political reflection — George Will or Charles Krauthammer — are dependable Darwin defenders and enemies of Darwin doubters. So much for the icons of our day. It was not so when the movement was launched by Weaver with his book Ideas Have Consequences in 1948.

Weaver saw and clearly expressed the cultural costs of a Darwin-directed “world picture,” or vision or “metaphysical dream,” and he suggested the outlines of a scientific critique of evolutionary theory. Unlike Krauthammer or Will — but more like Buckley, Kristol, or Neuhaus — he would have grasped and appreciated the importance of the project that seeks to topple Darwinism.

The primary role of a conservative, in his view, was not to defeat Democratic officeholders or oppose liberal legislation. It was, somehow, to recover the integrated dream or vision that predominated until modern times. That is a thing that matters, or should matter, not only to conservatives but to everyone. Weaver saw that the fractured vision of modernity is bad for your mental health. That is why neurosis, despair, anxiety, depression, hysteria and the like were so common in his day and all the more so in ours.

To restore health to the patient, the object of conservatism was to restore “piety” — not any particular religious orientation but the feeling of respect and awe for history, tradition, ancestors — and for nature. Regarding nature, “The prevailing attitude…is that form of heresy which denies substance and, in so doing, denies the rightfulness of creation.” Modern man is a “parricide. He has taken arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration.”

Something of the integrity, the obviousness, the plausibility of religion has been shattered and replaced by false gods. Even if you think you inherited or acquired for yourself such an integrative vision of “piety,” be wary and don’t fool yourself. Living as we all do, conservatives and religious folks included, under the influence of the fractured dream of Darwin — and Marx, Freud & Co., the curse of nineteenth-century materialism — we may for now simply be unable to see matters of faith as our ancestors did. Weaver spoke of a “dream,” and a dream is something from which it’s not easy to wake up. You may think you have woken, while in fact you continue to dream.

Waking from one dream and seeking to reenter another is interestingly just the image given by the Hebrew Bible in a Psalm that captures the ambiguity of redemption. “When the Lord will return the exiles of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter, and our tongue with songs of joy” (126:1-2). The language supports the interpretation either that the dream was before they were redeemed, or that it is redemption itself.
C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory” puts it in terms of spells. “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am,” he wrote,

but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

Escaping the materialist vision is not just a general philosophical program. It’s certainly not a merely political one. It is a personal challenge, of grave importance and very far from easily done, for every one of us.