Contra Mozilla

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Comfort and the Middle Class

I've been reading through Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (finally!). It is a good read--the man taught rhetoric, so it is well-written, generally--and quite thought-provoking. There are some passages which read as odd, or even "cranky" at times, and not merely because they challenge some of the underlying assumptions upon which our modern society is built.

However, I have found that there is one long-lasting distraction through this book, which is that Weaver had a serious axe to grind against the Middle Class. He can't seen to make it more than a few pages before returning to the common theme, which is that the great ills of society ought all to be laid at the feet of the Middle Class (he does, in fact, use the term "bourgeoisie" on numerous occasions) to to those who have capitulated to it.

He does this to the extreme of complaining that one great turning point of civilization away from the good was during the late Middle Ages when the educated society turned its attention from Plato to Aristotle:
"The way was prepared for the criteria of comfort and mediocrity when the Middle Ages abandoned the ethic of Plato for that of Aristotle. The latter's doctrine of rational prudence compelled him to declare in the Politics that the state is best ruled by the middle class. For him, the virtuous life was an avoidance of extremes, a middle course between contraries considered harmful.... 
Here the conception of Plato--expressed certainly, too, by Christianity--of pursuing virtue until worldly consequence becomes a matter of indifference, stands in contrast. Aristotle remains a kind of natural historian of the virtues, observing and recording them as he observed techniques of the drama, but not thinking of a spiritual ideal. A life accommodated to this world and shunning the painful experiences which extremes, including those of virtues, entail was what he proposed for his son Nicomachus. 
One could anticipate that this theory would recommend itself to the Renaissance gentleman and later to the bourgeoisie when their turn came. In Thomism, based as it is on Aristotle, even the Catholic church [sic.] turned away from the asceticism and the rigorous morality of the patristic fathers to accept a degree of pragmatic acquiescence in the world."

Here Weaver seems like the ascetic who believed that asceticism is necessary for all people, all the time--he rails against any modern comforts, and the middle class consumers of them. At times, this feels like a breath of fresh air--we could all use a little asceticism in our lives--but elsewhere he appears to fall into the tap of appearing to argue that modern comforts are bad simply because they are comforts.

At his best, Weaver makes arguments which might be said to compliment--or be complimented by--those in Joseph Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture (to name one work), as comforts and convenience and riches do have certain spiritual drawbacks. Where modern "convenience" enslaves us to the devices which make it possible, and where "comfort" and "relaxation" and "amusement" distract us from contemplation, leisure, or wonder, these former are for the worse. But they do remain secondary goods, and the problem is desiring them inordinately, or desiring them above the latter, "primary" goods. Weaver at times seems to lose sight of this in his eagerness to embrace "sentiment" and "ideal", to say nothing of the spiritual and philosophical.

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