Richard Weaver

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Richard Malcolm Weaver, Jr (March 3, 1910April 1, 1963) was an American scholar who taught English at the University of Chicago. He is primarily known as a shaper of mid- 20th century conservatism and as an authority on modern rhetoric.

Quotes[edit]

  • Man is an organism, not a mechanism; and the mechanical pacing of his life does harm to his human responses, which naturally follow a kind of free rhythm.
    • “Individuality and Modernity,” Essays on Individuality (Philadelphia: 1958), p. 66.
  • Part of life has a public orientation, but part of it does not. He has a private self that looks inward, and he should be able to feel with some distinctness the difference between public and private roles. It strikes me that those eighteenth century individuals who wrote letters to the newspapers signed “Publius” or something like that, were giving expression to this difference. When the writer appeared before the public in the common interest, he was conscious of stepping outside of his private considerations and entering into another capacity, of assuming a posture. The rest of the time he was his own man, which his thoughts and feelings reserved for himself.
    • “Individuality and Modernity,” Essays on Individuality (Philadelphia: 1958), p. 72.
  • From the viewpoint of my general purpose, I had come to believe that one way to achieve the education which leads to understanding and compassion is to take some period of the past and to immerse oneself in it so thoroughly that one could think its thoughts and speak its language. The object would be to take this chapter of vanished experience and learn to know it in three if not four dimensions. That would mean coming to understand why certain actions which in the light of retrospect appear madly irrational appeared at that time the indisputable mandate of reason; why things which had been created with pain and care were cast quickly on the gaming table of war; why men who had sat in the senate chamber and debated with syllogism and enthymeme stepped out of it to buckle on the sword against one another. Almost any book of history will give you the form of such a time, but what will give you the pressure of it? That is what I particularly wished to discover.
    • "Up from Liberalism” Modern Age Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter 1958-1959), pp. 24, col. 2-25, col. 1.
  • I am now further convinced that there is something to be said in general for studying the history of a lost cause. Perhaps our education would be more humane in result if everyone were required to gain an intimate acquaintance with some coherent ideal that failed in the effort to maintain itself. It need not be a cause which was settled by war; there are causes in the social, political, and ecclesiastical worlds which would serve very well. But it is good for everyone to ally himself at one time with the defeated and to look at the “progress” of history through the eyes of those who were left behind. I cannot think of a better way to counteract the stultifying “Whig” theory of history, with its bland assumption that every cause which has won has deserved to win, a kind of pragmatic debasement of the older providential theory. The study and appreciation of a lost cause have some effect of turning history into philosophy. In sufficient number of cases to make us humble, we discover good points in the cause which time has erased, just as one often learns more from the slain hero of a tragedy than from some brassy Fortinbras who comes in at the end to announce the victory and proclaim the future disposition of affairs. It would be perverse to say that this is so of every historical defeat, but there is enough analogy to make it a sober consideration. Not only Oxford, therefore, butevery university ought to be to some extent“the home of lost causes and impossible loyalties.” It ought to preserve the memory of these with a certain discriminating measure of honor, trying to keep alive what was good in them and opposing the pragmatic verdict of the world.
    • "Up from Liberalism” Modern Age Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter 1958-1959), p. 25, cols. 1-2.
  • For my part, I spent three years reading the history and literature of the Civil War, with special attention to that of the losing side. The people who emerged were human, all-too-human, but there was still the mystery of the encompassing passion which held them together, and this I have not yet penetrated. But in a dozen various ways I came to recognize myself in the past, which is at least an important piece of self-knowledge.
    • "Up from Liberalism” Modern Age Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter 1958-1959), p. 25, col. 2.

Ideas have Consequences (1948)[edit]

  • The man of culture finds the whole past relevant; the bourgeois and the barbarian find relevant only what has some pressing connection with their appetite.
  • Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which his soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and –consuming animal.
    • p. 6.
  • In the popular arena, one can tell … that the average man … imagines that an industrious acquisition of particulars will render him a man of knowledge. With what pathetic trust does he recite his facts! He has been told that knowledge is power, and knowledge consists of a great many small things.
    • p. 13.
  • One of the strangest disparities of history lies between the sense of abundance felt by older and simpler societies and the sense of scarcity felt by the ostensibly richer societies of today. Charles Péguy has referred to modern man’s feeling of “slow economic strangulation,” his sense of never having enough to meet the requirement which his pattern of life imposes on him. Standards of consumption which he cannot meet, and which he does not need to meet, come virtually in the guise of duties.
    • pp. 14-15.
  • The case of the Baconians is not won until it has been proved that the substitution of covetousness for wantlessness, or an ascending spiral of desires for a stable requirement of necessities, leads to a happier condition.
    • pp. 14-15.
  • Man is constantly being assured that he has more power than ever before in history, but his daily experience is one of powerlessness. … If he is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial.
    • p. 16.
  • When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is prior to reason.
    • p. 19.
  • That it does not matter what a man believes is a statement heard on every side today. … What he believes tells him what the world is for. How can men who disagree about what the world is for agree about any of the minutiae of daily conduct? The statement really means that it does not matter what a man believes so long as he does not take his beliefs seriously.
    • p. 23.
  • It is characteristic of the barbarian … to insist upon seeing a thing “as it is.” The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it; the relation is one of thing to thing without the intercession of the imagination. Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy. Where the former wishes representation, the latter insists upon starkness of materiality, suspecting rightly that forms will mean restraint.
    • p. 24.
  • The member of a culture … purposely avoids the relationship of intimacy; he wants the object somehow depicted and fictionalized. … He is embarrassed when this is taken out of its context of proper sentiments and presented bare, for he feels that this is a reintrusion of that world which his whole conscious effort has sought to banish. Forms and conventions are the ladder of ascent. And hence the speechlessness of the man of culture when he beholds the barbarian tearing aside some veil which is half adornment, half concealment.
    • p. 26.
  • Today we have media … which actually specialize in the kind of obscenity which the cultivated, not the prurient, find repugnant. … It is contended that such material is the raw stuff of life, and that it is the duty of the organs of public information to leave no one deceived about the nature of the world. The assertion that this is the real world begs the most important question of all. The raw stuff of life is precisely what the civilized man desires to have refined, or presented in a humane framework, for which sentiment alone can afford the support. … One of the great conspiracies against philosophy and civilization, a conspiracy immensely aided by technology, is just this substitution of sensation for reflection.
    • pp. 28-30.
  • The disappearance of the heroic ideal is always accompanied by the growth of commercialism. There is a cause-and-effect relationship here, for the man of commerce is by the nature of things a relativist; his mind is constantly on the fluctuating values of the marketplace, and there is no surer way to fail than to dogmatize and moralize about things.
    • p. 32.
  • Those who based their lives on the unintelligence of sentimentality fight to save themselves with the unintelligence of brutality.
    • pp. 33-34.
  • There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being … then education of the mind and the passions will take precedence over all else. The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority.
    • p. 49.
  • The prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire enough wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic virtues. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires reverence for the good.
    • p. 49.
  • The average man of the present age … does not want to be a sentimentalist in his endeavors; he wants some measure for purposeful activity; he wants to feel that through the world some increasing purpose runs. … But since his metaphysic calls only for magnitude and number, since it is becoming without a goal, it is not a source of distinctions in value. It is a system of quantitative comparison. Its effect therefore has been to collapse the traditional hierarchy and to produce economic man, whose destiny is mere activity.
    • p. 51.
  • In proportion as man approaches the outer rim, he becomes lost in details, and the more he is preoccupied with details, the less he can understand them.
    • p. 53.
  • The most important thing about the gentleman was that he was an idealist. … He was bred up to a code of self-restraint which taught resistance to pragmatic temptation. He was definitely a man of sentiment, who refused to put matters on a basis of materialism and self-aggrandizement.
    • p. 54.
  • In the countries of Europe, one after another, the gentleman has been ousted by politicians and entrepreneurs, as materialism has given rewards to the sort of cunning incompatible with any kind of idealism.
    • p. 55.
  • It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of the ruler.
    • p. 56.
  • … contempt for the degradation of specialization and pedantry. Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed.
    • p. 56.
  • The former distrust of specialization has been supplanted by its opposite, a distrust of generalization. Not only has man become a specialist in practice, he is being taught that special facts represent the highest form of knowledge.
    • p. 59.
  • Since liberalism has become a kind of official party line, we have been enjoined against saying things about races, religions or national groups, for after all, there is no categorical statement without its implication of value, and values begin divisions among men. We must not define, subsume, or judge; we must rather rest on the periphery and display “sensibility toward the cultural expressions of all lands and peoples.” This is a process of emasculation.
    • p. 59.
  • The theory of empiricism is plausible because it assumes that accuracy about small matters prepares the way for valid judgment about large ones. What happens, however, is that the judgments are never made. The pedantic empiricist, buried in his little province of phenomena, imagines that fidelity to it exempts him from concern with larger aspects of reality.
    • p. 60.
  • Fanaticism has been properly described as redoubling one’s effort after one’s aim has been forgotten, and this definition will serve as a good introduction to the fallacy of technology, which is the conclusion that because a thing can be done it must be done. The means absorb completely, and man becomes blind to the very concept of ends.
    • p. 60.
  • It has been remarked that when one passes among the patients of the psychiatric ward, he encounters among the several sufferers every aspect of normal personality in morbid exaggeration. … As one passes through the modern centers of enterprise and of higher learning, he is met with similar autonomies of development. … The scientist, the technician, the scholar, who have left the One for the Many are puffed up with vanity over their ability to describe precisely some minute portion of the world. Men so obsessed with fragments can no more be reasoned with than other psychotics.
    • p. 62.
  • The conclusion, so vexatious to democracy, that wisdom and not popularity qualifies for rule may be forced upon us by the peril in atomic energy.
    • p. 65.
  • The domination of becoming produces another sort of fragmentation, which may be called “presentism.” Allen Tate has made the point that many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in the to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.
    • p. 67.
  • The very possibility that there may exist timeless truths is a reproach to the life of laxness and indifference which modern egotism encourages. … Ideas which have their reference to the periphery or individuum, to the particular in space and time, are false and stand in the way of integration.
    • p. 68.
  • Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation. … An opposite conception comes in with Bacon’s “knowledge is power.” If the aim of knowledge is domination, it is hardly to be supposed that the possessors of knowledge will be indifferent to their importance. On the contrary, they begin to swell; the seek triumphs in the material world (knowledge being meanwhile necessarily degraded to skills) which inflate their egotism and self-consideration. Such is a brief history of how knowledge passes from a means of spiritual redemption to a basis for intellectual pride.
    • p. 72.
  • In Greek fable, as in Christian, it is asserted that there is a forbidden knowledge which brings nothing into world but woe. Our generation has had ample demonstration of what that knowledge is. It is knowledge of the useful rather than the true and the good, of techniques rather than of ends.
    • p. 72.
  • In the absence of truth there is no necessity, and this observation may serve as an index to the position of the modern egotist. Having become incapable of knowing, he becomes incapable of working, in the sense that all work is a bringing of the ideal from potentiality into actuality. … The modern worker does not, save in rare instances, respond to the ideal in the task.
    • p. 73.
  • Before the age of adulteration it was held that behind each work there stood some conception of its perfect execution. It was this that gave zest to labor and served to measure the degree of success. To the extent that the concept obtained, there was a teleology in work, since the laborer toiled not merely to win sustenance but to see this ideal embodied in his creation. Pride in craftsmanship is well explained by saying that to labor is to pray, for conscientious effort to realize an ideal is a kind of fidelity. The craftsman of old time did not hurry, because the perfect takes no account of time and shoddy work is a reproach to character. But character itself is an expression of self-control, which does not come of taking the easiest way. Where character forbids self-indulgence, transcendence still hovers around. When utilitarianism becomes enthroned and the worker is taught that work is use and not worship, interest in quality begins to decline. … There is a difference between expressing one’s self in form and producing quantity for a market with an eye to speculation. Péguy wished to know what had become of the honor of work. It has succumbed to the same forces as have all other expressions of honor.
    • pp. 73-74.
  • The bourgeoisie first betrayed society through capitalism and finance, and now labor betrays it by embracing a scheme of things which sees profit only, not duty and honor, in work. This view will seem hopelessly unrealistic to those who do not admit that sentiment toward the whole is the only ultimate means of measuring value.
    • p. 75.
  • The leader may be chosen by the people, but he is guided by the right; and, in the same way, we may say that the worker may be employed by anyone, but that he is directed by the autonomous ideal in the task.
    • p. 76.
  • Much of the effort of modern politicians is devoted to convincing us that men serve best when they are serving one another. But the one consideration which would make this true is left out; service to others is the best service when the effort of all is subsumed under a transcendental conception. Material gratification does not provide this.
    • p. 77.
  • The idea that work is something apportioned out by men leaves people discontent with their portion and dubious about whether work is a good thing at all. … The ancient injunction to labor fades when we regard our work as cut out for us by men, who, by present dogma, are no better than ourselves. That curious modern hypostatization “service” is often called in to substitute for the now incomprehensible doctrine of vocation. It tries to secure subordination by hypothesizing something larger than the self, which turns out, however, to be only a multitude of selfish selves. The familiar change from quality to quantity may again be noted; one serves not the higher part of the self (this entails hierarchy) … but merely consumer demand. And who admires those at the top of a hierarchy of consumption? Man as a consuming animal is thus seen to be not enough.
    • p. 77.
  • When masses of men reach a point at which egotism reigns so blandly, can their political damnation be far off? They have rejected their only guaranty against external control, which is self-discipline, taught and practiced.
    • p. 91.
  • Modern man … when he looks at his daily newspaper … sees the events of the day refracted through a medium which colors them as effectively as the cosmology of the medieval scientist determined his view of the starry heavens. The newspaper is a man-made cosmos of the world of events around us at the time. For the average reader it is a construct with a set of significances which he no more thinks of examining than did his pious forbear of the thirteenth century—whom he pities for sitting in medieval darkness—think of questioning the cosmology. This modern man, too, lives under a dome, whose theoretical aspect has been made to harmonize with a materialistic conception of the world. And he employs its conjunctions and oppositions to explain the occurrences of his time with all the confidence of the now supplanted discipline of astrology.
    • pp. 93-94.
  • Plato was disturbed by written discourse because … if an individual goes to it with a question in his mind, it “always gives one unvarying answer.”
    • p. 95.
  • There is much to indicate that modern publication wishes to minimize discussion. … For one thing, there is the technique of display, with its implied evaluations. This does more of the average man’s thinking for him than he suspects. For another, there is the stereotyping of whole phrases. These are carefully chosen not to stimulate reflection, but to evoke stock responses of approbation or disapprobation. Headlines and advertising teem with them, and we seem to approach a point at which failure to make the stock response is regarded as faintly treasonable. … Journalism becomes a monstrous discourse of Protagoras, which charms by hypnotizing and thwarts that participation without which one is not a thinking man.
    • pp. 96-97.
  • Modern publication wishes to minimize discussion. … Phrases … are carefully chosen not to stimulate reflection, but to evoke stock responses of approbation or disapprobation. Headlines and advertising teem with them, and we seem to approach a point at which failure to make the stock response is regarded as faintly treasonable.
    • pp. 96-97.
  • Nothing is more certain than that whatever has to court public favor for its support will sooner or later be prostituted to utilitarian ends. The educational institutions of the United States afford a striking demonstration of this truth. Virtually without exception, liberal education, that is to say, education centered about ideas and ideals, has fared best in those institutions which draw their income from private sources. They have been able … to insist that education be not entirely a means for breadwinning. This means that they have been relatively free to promote pure knowledge and the training of the mind. … In state institutions, always at the mercy of elected bodies and of the public generally, and under obligation to show practical fruits for their expenditure of money, the movement toward specialism and vocationalism has been irresistible. They have never been able to say that they will do what they will with their own because their own is not private. It seems fair to say that the opposite of the private is the prostitute.
    • pp. 136-137.
  • In former times, when the honor of work had some hold upon us, it was the practice of a maker to give his name to the product … But, as finance capitalism grew and men and property separated, a significant change occurred in names: the new designations shed all connection with the individual and become “General,” “Standard,” “International,” “American.”
    • p. 141.
  • It is likely … that human society cannot exist without some source of sacredness. Those states which have sought openly to remove it have tended in the end to assume divinity themselves.
    • p. 146.
  • The word is a sort of deliverance from the shifting world of appearances. The central teaching of the New Testament is that those who accept the word acquire wisdom and at the same time some identification with the eternal.
    • p. 149.
  • One of the most important revelations about a period comes in its theory of language, for that informs us whether language is viewed as a bridge to the noumenal or as a body of fictions convenient for grappling with transitory phenomena.
    • p. 150.
  • In recognizing that words have power to define and to compel, the semanticists are actually testifying to the philosophic quality of language which is the source of their vexation. In an attempt to get rid of that quality, they are looking for some neutral means which will be a nonconductor of the current called “emotion” and its concomitant of evaluation.
    • p. 152.
  • The semanticists are exactly wrong in regarding language as an obstruction or series of pitfalls. Language, on the contrary, appears as a great storehouse of universal memory, or it may be said to serve as a net, not imprisoning us but supporting us and aiding us to get at a meaning beyond present meaning through the very fact that it embodies others’ experiences.
    • p. 158.
  • The whole tendency of empiricism and democracy in speech, dress and manners has been toward a plainness which is without symbolic significance. The power of symbolism is greatly feared by those who wish to expel from life all that is nonrational in the sense of being nonutilitarian
    • p. 160.
  • The trouble with the contemporary generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.
    • p. 176.
  • For modern man, … pride reveals itself in impatience, which is an unwillingness to bear the pain of discipline. … In effect his becomes a deification of his own will; man is not making himself like a god but is taking himself as he is and putting himself in the place of God.
    • p. 183.

The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953)[edit]

  • Beneath the surface of repartee and mock seriousness, [Plato’s Phaedrus] is asking whether we ought to prefer a neuter form of speech to the kind which is ever getting us aroused over things and provoking an expense of spirit.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 5.
  • Any utterance is a major assumption of responsibility, and the assumption that one can avoid that responsibility by doing something to language itself is one of the chief considerations of the Phaedrus.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 6.
  • The eulogy of the non-lover in the speech of Lysias … stresses the fact that the non-lover … does not commit extreme acts under the influence of passions. Since he acts from calculation, he never has occasion for remorse. … The non-lover demonstrates his superiority through prudence and objectivity. … We must now observe how these points of superiority correspond to those of “semantically purified” speech, … the kind of speech approaching pure notation in the respect that it communicates abstract intelligence without impulsion. It is a simple instrumentality, showing no affection for the object of its symbolizing and incapable of inducing bias in the hearer. In its ideal conception, it would have less power to move than 2 + 2 = 4, since it is generally admitted that mathematical equations may have the beauty of elegance, and hence are not above suspicion where beauty is suspect. But this neuter language will be an unqualified medium of transmission of meanings from mind to mind, and by virtue of it minds can remain in an unprejudiced relationship to the world and also to other minds. … Instead of passion, it offers the serviceability of objectivity … It distrusts any departure from the literal and prosaic.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” pp. 6-7.
  • The complete man, then, is the “lover” added to the scientist; the rhetorician to the dialectician.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 21.
  • The eloquent Lysias, posing as a non-lover, had concealed designs upon Phaedrus, so that his fine speech was really a sheep’s clothing. Socrates discerned in him a “peculiar craftiness.” One must suspect the same today of many who ask us to place our faith in the neutrality of their discourse.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 22.
  • In any piece of rhetorical discourse, one rhetorical term overcomes another rhetorical term only by being nearer to the term which stands ultimate. There is some ground for calling a rhetorical education necessarily aristocratic education in that the rhetorician has to deal with an aristocracy of notions.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 23.
  • Neuter discourse is a false idol.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 24.
  • Since we want not emancipation from impulse but clarification of impulse, the duty of rhetoric is to bring together action and understanding into a whole that is greater than scientific perception.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 24.
  • The realization that just as no action is really indifferent, so no utterance is without its responsibility introduces, it is true, a certain strenuosity into life.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 24.
  • Rhetoric in its truest sense seeks to perfect men by showing them better versions of themselves, links in that chain extending up toward the ideal.
    • “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” p. 25.

Life Without Prejudice (1965)[edit]

  • A hundred years ago—or even a couple of generations ago—you do not encounter the sort of waving of the bloody shirt of prejudice that greets you on all sides now. Men did not profess such indignation that other men had differing convictions and viewpoints. They rather expected to encounter these, and to argue with them as best they could.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 1.
  • Practically all traditional distinctions, whether economic, moral, social, or aesthetic, are today under assault as founded on a prejudice.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 4.
  • The Communist … chooses some feature of an order where there is a potential resentment, or he may choose some feature about which people are simply soft-headed—that is to say, confused or uncertain. It may be the existence of rich men; it may be the right to acquire and use property privately; it may be the idea of discipline and regard in education; it may be some system of preferential advancement which produces envy in the less successful. His most common maneuver … is to vilify this as founded upon “prejudice.” The burden of his argument usually is that since these do not have perfectly rationalized bases, they have no right to exist.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 5.
  • The modern Communist, looking upon this world with its interesting distinctions and its prolific rewards and pleasures, may be compared to Satan peering into the Garden.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 5.
  • Those who are guilty of the argumentum ad ignorantiam profess belief in something because its opposite cannot be proved … In the realm where “prejudice” is now most an issue, it normally takes a form like this: you cannot prove—by the method of statistics and quantitative measurement—that men are not equal. Therefore all men are equal. … You cannot prove—again by the methods of science—that one culture is higher than another. Therefore the culture of the Digger Indians is just a good as that of Muncie, Indiana, or thirteenth-century France.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 6.
  • A prejudice may be an unreasoned judgment, he [Hibben] pointed out, but an unreasoned judgment is not necessarily an illogical judgment. … First, there are those judgments whose verification has simply dropped out of memory. … The second type of unreasoned judgments we hold is the opinions we adopt from others … The third class of judgments in Professor Hibben’s list comprises those which have subconscious origin. The material that furnishes their support does not reach the focal point of consciousness, but psychology insists upon its existence.
    • “Life without prejudice,” pp. 8-9.
  • It may be true that only those minds which are habituated to think logically can safely trust their intuitive conclusions, on the theory that the subconscious level will do its kind of work as faithfully as the conscious does its kind.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 9.
  • There is … a good deal of empirical evidence for saying that rationalistic men are more intolerant than “prejudiced” men. The former take the position that their judgments are reasoned conclusions, and why should one swerve or deflect from what can be proved to all reasonable men? Such are often the authors of persecutions, massacres, and liquidations. The man who frankly confesses to his prejudices is usually more human and more humane. He adjusts amicably to the idea of his limitations. A limitation once admitted is a kind of monition not to try acting like something superhuman. The person who admits his prejudices, which is to say, his unreasoned judgments, has perspective on himself. … When H. L. Mencken wrote his brilliant series of essays on men, life, and letters, he gave them a title as illuminating as it was honest—Prejudices. What he meant … was that these were views based on such part of experience as had passed under his observation. There was no apology because some figures were praised and others were roundly damned, and there was no canting claim to “objectivity.” Mencken knew that life and action turn largely on convictions which rest upon imperfect inductions, or sampling of evidence, and he knew that feeling is often a positive factor.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 10.
  • When Boswell confessed to Johnson that he feared some things he was entering in his journal were too small, the latter advised him that nothing is too small for so small a creature as man. This is good evidence that Johnson had achieved what I referred to as perspective, which carries with it a necessary humility. And while some may be startled to hear Mencken called a modest man, I can infer nothing but a real condor and humility from those bombastic and ironical allusions to himself which comprise much of the humor of his writings. The tone he adopted was a rhetorical instrument; he had faced his limitations.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 11.
  • The man of frank and strong prejudices, far from being a political and social menace and an obstacle in the path of progress, is often a benign character and helpful citizen. The chance is far greater, furthermore, that he will be more creative than the man who can never come to more than a few gingerly held conclusions, or who thinks that all ideas should be received with equal hospitality. There is such a thing as being so broad you are flat.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 11-12.
  • Life without prejudice, were it ever to be tried, would soon reveal itself to be a life without principle. For prejudices, as we have seen earlier, are often built-in principles. They are the extract which the mind has made of experience.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 12.
  • Try to imagine a man setting out for the day without a single prejudice. … Inevitably he would be in a state of paralysis. He could not get up in the morning, or choose his necktie, or make his way to the office, … or, to come right down to the essence of the thing, even maintain his identity.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 12.
  • The conservative realizes that many orthodox positions, once abandoned in panic because they were thought to be indefensible, are quite defensible in only one gives a little thought to basic issues. Surely one of these positions is the right of an individual or society to hold a belief which, though unreasoned, is uncontradicted.
    • “Life without prejudice,” p. 13.
  • Cultural freedom is in special danger today because so much of our life has been politicized. … With governments which are popular and free, but which allow political sanction to pressures building up against certain types of cultural expression, … the pressure … moves to condemn on grounds which are social and political, and its desire is for uniformity, standardization, consolidation, and all the other features of Gleichschaltung, as it moves to protect from criticism and even from realistic depiction something over which people have become politically excited. In our American experience, these pressures have been largely social.
    • “The Importance of Cultural Freedom,” p. 20.
  • There are some despotic governments so filled with a feeling of insecurity that they regard the free life of culture as a threat to their existence. … On the other extreme is the kind of popular government which is so distrustful of all forms of distinction that it sees even in the cultivated individual a menace to its existence. Such states are likely to maintain a pressure which discourages cultural endeavor, although the pressure may be exerted through social channels.
    • “The Importance of Cultural Freedom,” p. 23.
  • No one can take culture seriously if he believes that it is only the uppermost of several layers of epiphenomena resting on a primary reality of economic activity.
    • “The Importance of Cultural Freedom,” p. 25.
  • In his effort toward revivification of this sense [the sense for great art], the modern artist has not infrequently retired into himself; he has accepted isolation or even alienation. … Sometimes the good has to go underground. … The “revolutionary” artist … has had the aim of saving himself from the surrounding forces of sentimentality and vulgarity. … It is impossible to make a deal with these forces, and we should not be surprised if in striking back the artist has done so in ways even intended to be offensive. He has sometimes shown defiance and contempt toward those who would deny his level of seriousness.
    • “The Importance of Cultural Freedom,” pp. 30-31.
  • Most [people] see education only as the means by which a person is transported from one economic plane to a higher one.
    • “Education and the individual,” p. 42.
  • Education is a process by which the individual is developed into something better than he would have been without it. … The very though seems in a way the height of presumption. For one thing, it involves the premise that some human beings can be better than others.
    • “Education and the individual,” p. 43.
  • The most likely way to kill a tradition is to over-formalize it, which is to carry it on in the same way after everyone has ceased to defer to it. The way to revive it is to show that it has grown out of and is still related to our most cherished values. But this requires radical insight and the stripping away of many things which are mere accretions.
    • “The Importance of Cultural Freedom,” p. 29.
  • The aristocratic mind … is anti-analytical. It is concerned more with the status of being than with the demonstrable relationship of parts.
    • “Two Types of American Individualism,” The Modern Age, Spring 1963, p. 127.
  • If one benighted class of men begins by assuming that whatever is, is right, [contemporary radicals] begin by assuming that whatever is, is wrong. Had we to decide between these two—and I hope I make it clear that I do not think we have to decide thus—the latter would appear more blasphemous than the former because it makes a wholesale condemnation of a creation which is not ours and which exhibits the marks of a creative power that we do not begin to possess. The intent of the radical to defy all substance, or to press it into forms conceived in his mind alone … is an aggression by the self which outrages a deep-laid order of things.
    • “Up From Liberalism,” p. 142.

Language is Sermonic (1970)[edit]

  • One of the first major steps in the direction of modern skepticism came through the victory of Occam over Aquinas in a controversy about language. The statement that modi essendi were replaced by modi significandi et intelligendi, or that ontological referents were abandoned in favor of pragmatic significations, describes broadly the change in philosophy which continues to our time. From Occam to Bacon, from Bacon to Hobbes, and from Hobbes to contemporary semanticists, the progression is clear: ideas become psychological figments, words become useful signs.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 36.
  • To one completely committed to this realm of becoming, as are the empiricists, the claim to apprehend verities is a sign of psychopathology. Probably we have here but a highly sophisticated expression of the doctrine that ideals are hallucination and that the only normal, sane person is the healthy extrovert, making instant, instinctive adjustments to the stimuli of the material world.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 37.
  • In recognizing that words have the power to define and to compel, the semanticists are actually testifying to the philosophic quality of language which is the source of their vexation. In an attempt to get rid of that quality, they are looking for some neutral means which will be a nonconductor of the current called “emotion” and its concomitant evaluation.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 37.
  • The young come to us creatures of imagination and strong affection; they want to feel, but they don’t know how—that is to say, they do not know the right objects and the right measures. And it is entirely certain that if we leave them to the sort of education obtainable today for extra-scholastic sources, the great majority will be schooled in the two vices of sentimentality and brutality. Now great poetry, rightly interpreted, is the surest antidote to both of these. In contrast with journalists and others, the great poets relate the events of history to a pure or noble metaphysical dream, which our students will have all their lives as a protecting arch over their system of values.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 51.
  • There is a sentimental poetry, and it will have to be exposed (not censored. certainly; for to omit criticism of it would deprive us of our fairest chance to combat the sentimental rhetoric of the student’s environment).
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 52.
  • The discipline of poetry may be expected first to teach the evocative power of words, to introduce the student, if we may so put it, to the mighty power of symbolism, and then to show him that there are ways of feeling about things which are not provincial either in space or time.
    • “The Power of the Word,” pp. 52-53.
  • Poetry offers the fairest hope of restoring our lost unity of mind.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 53.
  • Drill in exact translation is an excellent way of disposing the mind against that looseness and exaggeration with which the sensationalists have corrupted our world. If schools of journalism knew their business, they would graduate no one who could not render the Greek poets.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 53.
  • Until the world perceives that “good” cannot be applied to a thing because it is our own, and “bad” because it is another’s, there is no prospect of realizing community.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 54.
  • In dialectic the student … will get training in thinking, whereas the best that he gets now is a vague admonition to think for himself.
    • “The Power of the Word,” p. 55.
  • We cannot be too energetic in reminding our nihilists and positivists that this is a world of action and history.
    • “Letter to R. T. Eubanks, January 19, 1961, p. 56.
  • Man … feels lost without the direction-finder provide by progress.
    • “Ultimate Terms in Contemporary Rhetoric,” p. 93.
  • Now, with the general decay of religious faith, it is the scientists who must speak ex cathedra, whether they wish to or not.
    • “Ultimate Terms in Contemporary Rhetoric,” p. 93.
  • It is not that things give meaning to words; it is that meaning makes things “things.” It does not make things in their subsistence; but it does make things in their discreteness for the understanding.
    • “Relativism and the Use of Language,” p. 121.
  • All of us have had the experience of finding a particularly felicitous phrase in poetry and of feeling: “This is what the world really means; he has hit it closer than anyone has ever hit it before.”
    • “Relativism and the Use of Language,” p. 123.
  • If we share to a large extent in the mutuality of spirit which makes meaning possible, we are receptive to true meanings; if we do not, we may accept wrong or perverted ones. And since there is no way of getting outside the human imagination to decide otherwise what a word should mean, we are compelled to realize that the most imaginative users of language are those who are going to have the greatest influence upon vocabulary in the long run.
    • “Relativism and the Use of Language,” pp. 123-124.
  • One type of critic today tends to attack language as a means of communication on this very ground — the ground that words are conventional in their meaning and are therefore falsifying. The point of the criticism is that a convention is something abstracted and, therefore, untrue, a generalized sign of the thing itself, which we use because we are unable or unwilling to render the thing in itself in its fullness. A word in this conception is nothing but a stereotype, and “stereotype” is here an expression of disparagement, because it is felt that “typing” anything that is real distorts the thing by presenting it in something less than its full individuality and concreteness. Let us suppose that I make reference to a tree standing in my yard. The term “tree” does not designate the object with any degree of particularity. It does not tell whether the tree is young or old, low or tall, an oak, pine, or maple. The term is, therefore, merely a utility symbol, which I employ in communicating because in my laziness or incompetence I cannot find a fuller and more individualizing way of expressing this tree. If I were really communicating, the argument goes, I would reject the falsifying stereotype and produce something more nearly like the picture of the tree. But if the analysis I have offered earlier is correct, these critics are beginning at the wrong end. They are assuming that individual real objects are carriers of meaning, that the meaning is found in them as redness is found in an apple, and that it ought to be expressed with the main object of fidelity to the particular. What they overlook is that meaning does not exist in this sense, that it is something that we create for purposes of cognition and communication, and that the ideal construct has the virtue of its ideality. Hence it appears that they misconceive the function of the word as conventional sign or “typifier.” For if it is true that the word conveys something less than the fullness of the thing signified, it is also true that it conveys something more. A word in this role is a generalization. the value of a generalization is that while it leaves out the specific feature that are of the individual or of the moment, it expresses features that are general to a class and may be lacking or imperfect in the single instance.
    • “Relativism and the Use of Language,” pp. 124-126.
  • This is what has happened to the word “liberalism.” In the nineteenth century, this word referred to an ideal of maximum individual liberty and minimum state interference, to put it generally. Today, it is being used to refer to something like the ideal of the welfare state, which involves many restrictions upon liberty. Now if those who use the word thus could be brought into a semantic disputation, I think they would argue that the new meaning is justified because the old meaning is no longer possible. And if we pushed them to explain why it is no longer possible, I think they would answer that “circumstances have changed.” I would want to ask them next what changed circumstances have to do with an ideal construct. What they have done is to take the old term “liberalism,” whose meaning polarized around a concept of personal liberty, and to use this to mean something like philanthropic activity through the machinery of the state. The two ideas are manifestly discrete, but they have used the word for the second idea because it carries with it some of the value connotations of the old one. The second idea is, according to them, the only context in which a benevolent man can now operate. In fact, however, liberalism in the old sense is still there as a viable ideal if the mind is disposed to receive that ideal. When they say that the old meaning is no longer possible in the circumstances, what they are really indicating is that they prefer the new circumstances. Then they make the substitution, in disregard of the transcendental basis of language. I believe that this is a very general truth. When a person blames a change of meaning upon changed facts, he is yielding to the facts and using them to justify a change that should not be made except by “ideal” consent. He is committing the fallacy of supposing that the reason for such change can lie outside the realm of discourse itself — that meaning must somehow tag along after empirical reality. All of this seems to reflect a purely materialist or “physicalist” view of the world. But if one believes that physical reality is the sole determinant of all things, including meanings, one collapses the relationship between what is physical and what is symbolic of meaning and value. it is another evidence of bow the modem mind is trying to surrender its constitutive powers to the objective physical world.
    • “Relativism and the Use of Language,” p. 132-133.
  • Many of us who read the literature of social science as laymen are conscious of being admitted at a door which bears the watchword “scientific objectivity” and of emerging at another door which looks out upon a variety of projects for changing, renovating, or revolutionizing society. In consequence, we feel the need of a more explicit account of how the student of society passes from facts to values or statements of policy.
    • “Concealed Rhetoric in Scientistic Sociology,” p. 139.
  • The scientistic sociologist wishes people to feel that he is just as empirical and thoroughgoing as the natural scientist, and that his conclusions are based just as relentlessly on observed data. The desire to present this kind of façade accounts, one may suspect, for the many examples and the extensive use of statistical tables found in the works of some of them. It has been said of certain novelists that they create settings having such a wealth of realistic detail that the reader assumes that the plot which is to follow will be equally realistic, when this may be far from the case. What happens is that the novelist disarms the reader with the realism of his setting in order that he may “get away with murder” in his plot. The persuasiveness of the scene is thus counted on to spill over into the action of the story. In like manner, when a treatise on social science is filled with this kind of data, the realism of the latter can influence our acceptance of the thesis, which may, on scrutiny, rest on very dubious constructs, such as definitions of units. Along with this there is sometimes a great display of scientific preciseness in formulations. But my reading suggests that some of these writers are often very precise about matters which are not very important and rather imprecise about matters which are. Most likely this is an offsetting process. If there are subjects one cannot afford to be precise about because they are too little understood or because one’s views of them are too contrary to traditional beliefs about society, one may be able to maintain an appearance of scientific correctness by taking great pains in the expressing of matters of little consequence. These will afford scope for a display of scholarly meticulousness and of one’s command of the scientific terminology.
    • “Concealed Rhetoric in Scientistic Sociology,” pp. 148-149.

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