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Richard Weaver, The Coronavirus, And The Strenuous Life – OpEd

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In Ideas Have Consequences (1948), Richard Weaver described comfort as the god of modern man. Even in our post-modern times, mass man continues to kneel at the altar of comfort though he occasionally does obeisance to lesser gods such as equality and wokeness. Weaver’s writings challenged man to exchange the ease promised by technological advancement for a strenuous and romantic life that existed in non-materialist societies of days gone by. Specifically, Weaver pointed to the Old South as “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World” and touted its virtues.

Mass man has shown little inclination to heed Weaver’s advice, but the coronavirus panic of 2020 is shaking people. Indeed, the god of comfort does not look so vigorous today. Comfort resembles the Philistine fertility god Dagon who had the Ark of the Covenant placed at his feet in the temple located in Ashdod. (1 Samuel 5:1-5) The Philistines had captured the Ark after the Israelites, without consulting Jehovah, impiously attempted to use it as some sort of magic box to give them victory in battle. Dagon did not fare well when alone at night with the Ark and was found by his priests toppled from his throne and later decapitated. One can assume the look on the faces of the pagan priests who found the mistreated Dagon to be akin to that of so many Westerners confined to high-rise apartments and surrounded by supplies of toilet paper and packaged meals snatched up as shelter-in-place orders issued.

The appropriate response of the remnant to mass man and his shaken faith in the god of comfort should be one of compassion. As Weaver noted, mass man has been taught from the cradle a false interpretation of life in which he is promised that “progress is automatic.” Consequently, “he is not prepared to understand impediments” arising and blocking his manicured path. Liberalism long ago rejected the Christian Faith and its pledge of trials in this world. What is left of the Church often embraces the so-called prosperity Gospel and its promise of earthly mansions and high-end automobiles if one simply has enough faith. Liberalism defies any outside force to interrupt the march of progress on which society has come to depend and expect. “[Mass man] has been told in substance that the world is conditioned, and when unconditioned forces enter to put an end to his idyl,” Weaver observed, “he naturally suffers frustration.”

Weaver pointed to the “Great Stereopticon” as shielding man from truth in the world. By this he meant the mass media, which in his day was radio, Hollywood, and newspapers. Much like a white noise machine for an insomniac, the Great Stereopticon drowns out the sound of reality and puts its charge to sleep with the artificial. In our time, the Great Stereopticon has only grown stronger with the internet and multiple 24-hour cable news networks. Events are “refracted through a medium which colors them as effectively as the cosmology of the medieval scientist determined his view of the starry heavens.” Our night sky, through coordinated efforts that Weaver could not imagine, is cloudless with satellites crisscrossing and guaranteeing instantaneous communications, video gaming, and mindless entertainment.

Man’s dalliance with the god of comfort, Weaver postulated, began when urban living eclipsed rural life. “After man has left the countryside to shut himself up in vast piles of stone, after he has lost what Sir Thomas Browne called pudor rusticus, after he has come to depend on a complicated system of human exchange for survival, he becomes forgetful of the overriding mystery of creation.” Living in such an artificial environment of the city encourages man to believe that nothing is beyond his control. Such an environment, amplified by the noise of the Great Stereopticon, gives a false sense of assurance.

Assurance of continual comfort and the promise of ever increasing technology have been shattered by COVID-19. Mass man, much like the Philistine priests, is presented with a choice: Acknowledge that his trusted god is nothing more than a deaf and mute idol, or send the evidence of his god’s weakness away and continue life as usual. The Philistines chose the latter course. They placed the Ark in a cart drawn by two cows and sent it back to the people of Israel. Afterwards, they continued with their false religion as if nothing had happened.

According to Weaver, mass man must rediscover piety if he is to diverge from the course of the Philistines. “I would define piety,” Weaver wrote, “as an attitude of reverence or acceptance toward some overruling order or some deeply founded institution which the mere individual is not to tamper with.” In other words, man must rediscover the transcendent and its place in a healthy society.

Piety for Weaver was a matter of discipline and encompassed three points: nature, neighbors, and the past. With nature, Weaver encouraged man to stop trying to mold creation into something at odds with the Creator’s work. Man should be a good steward of creation and its resources, but he must not confuse stewardship with regimentation, the latter allowing him to alter natural purposes and uses of creation for the fancy of his own mind. The urbanite, according to Weaver, is the most likely to be at enmity with nature inasmuch as he tried to abandon her “by taking flight from country to city.” We can find great value in conforming our lives to the rhythm of nature, Weaver averred, rather than fighting with nature to bring compliance with our notions of comfort.

Regarding our neighbors, Weaver urged a return to the code of chivalry “which was a most practical expression of the basic brotherhood of man.” Weaver saw value in the tradition of chivalry because “it took formal cognizance of the right to existence not only of inferiors but also of enemies.” Mass man has the urge to destroy what is different and to homogenize those around him. Although “diversity” is a mantra for our times, it is actually a form of Newspeak that requires a Procrustean conformity with the tenets of Liberalism. In a chivalric society, man recognizes the right of his enemy to live in whatever misguided manner so long as the enemy limits his activity and experiments to his own person and territory.

Finally, Weaver saw “[a]wareness of the past as an antidote to both egoism and shallow optimism. It restrains optimism because it teaches us to be cautious about man’s perfectibility and to put a sober estimate on schemes to renovate the species.” Our projections for the future are speculations and guesswork, whereas the past is tangible and real. A society that embraces its past is a society grounded in reality. And purposefully embracing reality mutes the voices of the Great Stereopticon and the siren song of an easier and better way.

Of course, a culture is much like a battleship; it does not turn quickly and reflection is recommended before tugging on the wheel. One should not expect mass man to abandon his cities and suburbs overnight and exchange them for a bucolic existence. But he can take incremental steps and experience something of the life his ancestors knew. Such reform will and should be modest at first. A slow walk in the right direction is far superior to a continued gallop in towards the edge of a cliff.

I’ll use myself as an example. Although I work 9 to 5 in an office tower, spend far too much time hunched over a computer and pushing paper around a desk, my own appreciation for piety is augmented by gardening. Not so many years ago, a garden was a ubiquitous feature in homes across the South. More and more people, however, depend on grocery store chains for all facets of their diet. I’m blessed with an acre of land on which I tend and grow blackberries, figs, and an assortment of vegetables depending on the season. Rarely do we sit down to dinner without one or more items on the plate coming from our garden.

Maintaining my little acre is both strenuous and humbling. By way of example, last year I planted a terrace with ambrosia cantaloupes. Months before planting the melons I had turned over the soil using a broad fork instead of a machine, prepared the ground, and planted of cover crop of mustard to suppress weeds, build the soil, and combat pesky nematodes. Six weeks before planting the melons, I turned the mustard under with broad fork and hoe, raked the terrace, and waited for the last frost date to pass. After planting, I spent weeks watering, weeding, and watching the plants vine and produce. Not long before the melons ripened and unbeknownst to me, minuscule pickleworms found the terrace. The holes bored into the fruit were tiny and almost unobservable. When I did discover the attackers it was too late. The fruit was riddled with bacterial and fungal colonies that followed the pickleworms as they traveled through the melons. This rendered the crop inedible and all my work for naught. If ever need reminding that I am not sovereign, I simply have to think of my exertions in preparing for the crop and the diminutive pickleworm to appreciate my limitations.

Gardening—if one can manage the pickleworms—also produces an abundance. Each year we have more fruit and vegetables than we can eat or preserve (freezing or canning). Sharing with neighbors, and expecting nothing in return, is another joy of working in the soil. We all relish a good meal and the addition of fresh, locally grown produce makes any plate seem more inviting. Sharing homegrown food with another tells them that you see value in them. These small acts of kindness build community and relationships in a world where atomization has become the default.

While gardening connects me with neighbors, it also connects me to the past. I plant mostly heirloom seeds, i.e., seeds that has been passed from one generation of gardeners to another and valued for reasons such as flavor, hardiness, or productivity. Some heirloom seeds have been passed down for hundreds of years. By following the same patterns of my grandparents and great grandparents and even using many of the same seed varieties, I honor them and their methods of providing.

I don’t mean to imply that a garden is the pathway to piety or the antidote to the worship of comfort. For me it is a reminder of the beauty of the old ways and the fulfillment that sweat and honest labor can bring. It is but an example of how one simple and ancient exercise can focus us on the Permanent Things.

COVID-19 has exposed our folly in relying on false gods. We can load the Ark onto a cart, send it away, and patch Dagon up, or we can begin to embrace the truth in purposeful actions, great and small, that point to timeless principles. Sheltering in place, unlike twenty-first century man’s typical frenetic life, provides time to contemplate the choices presented. Let us hope that the evils of this pandemic will lead us back toward the strenuous life.

This article was also published in Abbeville Institute Mon. March 30, 2020 

William J. Watkins, Jr.

William J. Watkins, Jr.

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution, Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy, and Patent Trolls: Predatory Litigation and the Smothering of Innovation. Full Biography and Recent Publications

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