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Metaphysical Man: Philosophy, Language & Richard Weaver

Patrick Henry Reardon

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In the spring of this year upwards of a hundred philosophers, jurists, literary artists, journalists, and scholars joined together at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences, the important little book that so convincingly chronicled the many moral and social evils attendant on the Western mind's loss of metaphysics: radical materialism, the dominance of quantity over quality, greed and avarice, fragmentation and obsession, egotism in work and art, the abdication of hierarchical structure, sensuality, acquisitive violence, the quest for power, radical subjectivity and selfishness, the loss of piety and justice, the corrosion of friendship, the replacement of religion by education, and then the replacement of education by mere training. All of this in one little volume and convincingly argued.

Weaver placed the blame for the present cultural crisis of the West at the doorstep of Ockham's nominalism at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It was to that late, indeed rather recent, season in the history of thought that he traced the modern discomfort with, and distrust of, the world of spiritual intuition and transcendence.

From Ockham on, thinkers began to conclude that thoughts of transcendence were simply the products, perhaps even by-products, of the human mind itself. Universal concepts were not, in a strict sense, real. Moreover, the nominalists' denial that the mind was capable of knowing anything real above itself was bound to lead in due course to the dissolution of metaphysics and everything else to which metaphysics gives rise, including the prescriptive authority of inherited language, the anchoring of moral imagination, and the final validation of law.

Nominalism also produced modern materialism. Nothing so turned Western man's thoughts back to the things of earth than this sudden persuasion of his being unable to grasp anything higher. The denial of man's ability to perceive transcendent, intellectual realities above himself guaranteed that the Western mind would thenceforth turn ever more completely toward the only reality that remained, physical reality, the world of matter. It was to Ockham's new movement, Weaver argued, that we correctly ascribe most of the credit for Western man's growing determination to look at matter in a completely materialistic way. Matter comes to represent the sum total of all that can be known, and also the only means by which it can be known. Nothing, it is now concluded, is knowable except matter.

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

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Posted: 13-Nov-05

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