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Waking from Darwin's Dream: Richard M. Weaver on Modern Barbarism

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, here, here, here, here, 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.