By Richard Weaver
The following excerpt is from “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard Weaver, an American scholar from the South who taught at the University of Chicago and was a strong critic of modern society. (Biography) This book is relevant to Muslims as it explains how the modern world developed and how it is distinct from traditional societies.
Weaver argued that Western civilization is in a spiritual and intellectual decline due to its limiting of knowledge to quantity and matter which resulted in the inevitable consequences of moral relativism, social fragmentation, meaningless labor, hedonistic consumer culture, political impotence, and nihilistic warfare.
Below, Weaver explains how all of these spiritual and intellectual shifts have resulted in the rise of egotism. He traces how egotism results in social withdrawal and also engages in historical views of the ego to show how modern society is deficient in its conception of the self.
“AS ONE views modern man in his innumerable exhibitions of irresponsibility and defiance, one may discern, if he has the courage to see what he sees – which, as Charles Peguy reminded us, is the higher courage – a prodigous egotism. This egotism, which is another form of fragmentation, is a consequence of that fatal decision to make a separate self the measure of value. A figure from Neo-Platonism is suggested, and one may picture the original spirit manifesting itself in many particulars, which lose sight of their original source and decide to set up godheads in their own right.
Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his actions to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.
[Egotism Results in Withdrawal from Society]
The sin of egotism always takes the form of withdrawal. When personal advantage becomes paramount, the individual passes out of the community. We do not mean the state, with its apparatus of coercion, but the spiritual community, where men are related on the plane of sentiment and sympathy and where, conscious of their oneneness, they maintain a unity not always commensurable with their external unification.
Such withdrawal, which has been given the disarming name of enlightened selfishness and which more often than not is inspired by the desire to be “equal”, is pulverizing modern society. And there is no precept in modern ideology with which to rebuke it; for, is not this equal man a kind of king, superior to the trappings of royalty, and cannot such a one do what he will with his life?
The various declarations of independence have given him freedom from all the bondages. Yet the blight which has fallen today on all sorts of human relationship must be ascribed to this psychological and even physical withdrawal from sympathy.
Inevitably there follows an increase of selfishness. It is the simple nature of egotism to view things out of proportion, the “I” becoming dominant and the entire world suffering a distortion. Once more we are face to face with the fact of alienation from reality. No man who knows himself in his ab extra relationships can be egotistic.
But he who is cognizant mainly of self suffers an actual derangement; as Plato saw: “the excessive love of self is in reality the source to each man of all offenses; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honorable, and thinks that he ought always prefer his own interest to the truth.”
Accordingly, self absorption is a process of cutting one’s self off from the “real” reality and therefore from social harmony. I think it is worth noting, too, that Nathaniel Hawthorne, an earnest student of erring souls, concluded, after a lifetime of introspection and reflection, that egotism is the unpardonable sin. He exposed through allegory what “social-mindedness” endeavors to combat in contemporary society. Its causes must now be described.
[The Medieval View of Ego]
The split in the theory of knowledge which took place at the time of the Renaissance is enough to account for that form of ignorance which is egotism. Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas.
Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality. Dante’s In la sua voluntade e nostra pace is the final discovery. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.
[The Modern View of Ego]
An opposing 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; they 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 70 -72 of “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard Weaver)