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PHC | Rhetoric | Weaver on Distinction and Hierarchy

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences



For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of mind, they would all be uniform and without distinction.


THE most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society. Rational society is a mirror of the logos, and this means that it has a formal structure which enables apprehension. The preservation of society is therefore directly linked with the recovery of true knowledge. For the success of our restoration it cannot be too often said that society and mass are contradictory terms and that those who seek to do things in the name of mass are the destroyers in our midst. If society is something which can be understood, it must have structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy; against this metaphysical truth the declamations of the Jacobins break in vain.

Perhaps the most painful experience of modern consciousness is the felt loss of center; yet, this is the inevitable result of centuries of insistence that society yield its form. Anyone can observe that people today are eager to know who is really entitled to authority, that they are looking wistfully for the sources of genuine value. In sum, they wish to know the truth, but they have been taught a perversion which makes their chance of obtaining it less every day. This perversion is that in a just society there are no distinctions.

Our course has reached a point at which the question of whether man wishes to live in society at all or whether he wishes to live in a kind of animal relationship must be raised in all seriousness. For, if the proscription against every kind of distinction continues, there is no hope of integration except on the level of instinct.

After man evolves his metaphysical dream and becomes capable of rational sentiment, he recognizes two grounds of elevation, knowledge and virtue, if these are not one, which problem need not be decided here. The good man, the man with proved allegiance to correct sentiment; has been the natural trustee of authority; the man of knowledge has been necessary for such duties as require system and foresight. With these criteria it has been possible to erect a structure which mirrors our respect for value. In proportion to their contributions to the spiritual ideal which the creation expresses, men have found lodgment on the various levels, with the essential feeling that, since this structure is the logos, their stations were not arbitrary but natural and right. This is society, in which the human being has a sense of direction; literally, it might be said, he knows "up" from "down," because he knows where the higher goods are to be looked for. It is possible for him to live on the plane of spirit and intelligence because some points of reference are fixed.

Obviously this is not a social situation in which everyone is called Joe-that anonymous name so eloquent of modern man's feeling about people. If sentiment endures, there will be real names and even honorifics. For the good of all, prerogative will attach to higher functions, and this will mean hierarchy. But hierarchy requires a common assumption about ends, and that is why the competing ideologies of our age produce confusion.

The history of our social disintegration began with the unfixing of relationships in the fourteenth century, but the effort to do away with society entirely did not become programmatic until the nineteenth, when it appeared as a culmination of the prevailing nature philosophy. Since both knowledge and virtue require the concept of transcendence, they are really obnoxious to those committed to material standards, and we have seen how insistent was the impulse to look to the lower levels for guidance. Into social thinking there now enters a statistical unit, the consumer, which has the power to destroy utterly that metaphysical structure supporting hierarchy. Let us remember that traditional society was organized around king and priest, soldier and poet, peasant and artisan. Now distinctions of vocation fade out, and the new organization, if such it may be termed, is to be around capacities to consume. Under-lying the shift is the theory of romanticism; if we attach more significance to feeling than to thinking, we shall soon, by a simple extension, attach more to wanting than to deserving. Even institutions of learning have yielded to the utilitarian standard, and former President James B. Conant of Harvard University declared in an address that the chief contribution of American universities had been the idea of equality of all useful labor.

This is the grand solution of socialism, which is itself the materialistic offspring of bourgeois capitalism. It clarifies much to see that socialism is in origin a middle-class and not a proletarian concept. The middle class owes to its social location an especial fondness for security and complacency. Protected on either side by classes which must absorb shocks, it would forget the hazards of existence. The lower class, close to the reality of need, develops a manly fortitude and is sometimes touched with nobility in the face of its precariousness. The upper class bears responsibility and cannot avoid leading a life of drama because much is put into its hands. Lightnings of favor or of discontent flash in its direction, and he at the top of the hierarchy, whether it rests on true values or not, knows that he is playing for his head. In between lies the besotted middle class, grown enormous under the new orientation of Western man. Loving comfort, risking little, terrified by the thought of change, its aim is to establish a materialistic civilization which will banish threats to its complacency. It has conventions, not ideals; it is washed rather than clean. The plight of Europe today is the direct result of the bourgeois ascendancy and its corrupted world view.

Thus the final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite. The state, ceasing to express man's inner qualifications, turns into a vast bureaucracy designed to promote economic activity. It is little wonder that traditional values, however much they may be eulogized on commemorative occasions, today must dodge about and find themselves nooks and crannies if they are to survive at all. Burke's remark that the state is not "a partnership in things subservient only to gross animal existence" now seems as antiquated as his tribute to chivalry.

Upholders of tradition habitually classify the forces menacing our institutions as "subversive activity." The description is just. There is often in the language of ordinary people a logic which, for want of philosophy, they cannot interpret; and so is there here, for it can be shown that "subversive activity" has an exact application. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a more accurate phrase. The expression means plainly an inversion by which matter is placed over spirit or quantity placed over quality. Thus it describes perfectly what it is usually employed to describe-the various forms of collectivism which rest on a materialistic philosophy. The dullest member of a conservative legislative committee, seeking the source of threats to institutions, does not fail to see that those doctrines which exalt material interests over spiritual, to the confounding of rational distinctions among men, are positively incompatible with the society he is elected to represent. For expressing such views, he is likely to be condemned as ignorant or selfish, because normally he does not express them very well. Let us therefore find him a gifted spokesman. Here is Shakespeare on the subject of subversive activity:

O, when degree is shak'd,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong
(Between whose endless jar justice resides)
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

[William Shakespeare, Troilus et Cressida]

And Milton, despite his fierce republicanism, seems to have agreed that "orders and degrees jar not with liberty, but well consist." Our legislator may find support, too, in the first book of Corinthians, in which Paul defends "diversities of operations." Paul offers the metaphysical argument:

But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.

And if they were all one member, where were the body?

[St. Paul, 1 Cor. 12.18-19]

The program of social democracy would take away this "ladder to all high designs." It would do so because high design is an extremely unsettling conception; it may involve arduous effort, self-denial, sleepless nights, all of which are repugnant to the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the goal of social democracy is scientific feeding. If one dares to visualize the millennium of the social democrats, he is forced to picture a "healthy-minded," naturally good man, provided for by a paternalistic state and seeking to save himself from extinction by boredom through dabbling in some art. Is it any wonder that social democracy has never been able to motivate its programs? De Tocqueville was too shrewd to miss the connection: "Comfort becomes a goal when distinctions of rank are abolished and privileges destroyed."

Since subversive activity is the taking away of degree, it is logical that conservatives should treat as enemies all those who wish to abolish the sacred and secular grounds for distinctions among men. The proposal of the subverters is, however, impossible in practice, and the quarrel turns out to be over principles of selection. History thus far indicates that when the reformers get their turn, they merely substitute a bureaucratic hierarchy-and this because they discover that they do not wish society to collapse at all, but to continue under their conception of man's good.

The fight is being waged on all fronts, and the most insidious idea employed to break down society is an undefined equalitarianism. That this concept does not make sense even in the most elementary applications has proved no deterrent to its spread, and we shall have something to say later on about modern man's growing incapacity for logic. An American political writer of the last century, confronted with the statement that all men are created free and equal, asked whether it would not be more accurate to say that no man was ever created free and no two men ever created equal. Such hardheadedness would today be mistaken for frivolity. Thomas Jefferson, after his long apostleship to radicalism, made it the labor of his old age to create an educational system which would be a means of sorting out according to gifts and attainments.

Such equalitarianism is harmful because it always presents itself as a redress of injustice, whereas in truth it is the very opposite. I would mention here the fact, obvious to any candid observer, that "equality" is found most often in the mouths of those engaged in artful self-promotion. These secretly cherish the ladder to high designs but find that they can mount the lower rungs more easily by making use of the catchword. We do not necessarily grudge them their rise, but the concept they foster is fatal to the harmony of the world.

The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights-that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.

It is eloquent of that loss of respect for logic to which we owe so many disasters that the French Revolution made equality and fraternity co-ordinates. In so doing, it offered a foretaste of the contemporary political campaign, which shamelessly promises everything.

Equality is a disorganizing concept in so far as human relationships mean order. It is order without a design; it attempts a meaningless and profitless regimentation of what has been ordered from time immemorial by the scheme of things. No society can rightly offer less than equality before the law; but there can be no equality of condition between youth and age or between the sexes; there cannot be equality even between friends. The rule is that each shall act where he is strong; the assignment of identical roles produces first confusion and then alienation, as we have increasing opportunity to observe. Not only is this disorganizing heresy busily confounding the most natural social groupings, it is also creating a reservoir of poisonous envy. How much of the frustration of the modern world proceeds from starting with the assumption that all are equal, finding that this cannot be so, and then having to realize that one can no longer fall back on the bond of fraternity!

However paradoxical it may seem, fraternity has existed in the most hierarchical organizations; it exists, as we have just noted, in that archetype of hierarchy, the family. The essence of co-operation is congeniality, the feeling of having been "born together." Fraternity directs attention to others, equality to self; and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism. The frame of duty which fraternity erects is itself the source of ideal conduct. Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition. It will be found as a general rule that those parts of the world which have talked least of equality have in the solid fact of their social life exhibited the greatest fraternity. Such was true of feudal Europe before people succumbed to various forms of the proposal that every man should be king. Nothing is more manifest than that as this social distance has diminished and all groups have moved nearer equality, suspicion and hostility have increased. In the present world there is little of trust and less of loyalty. People do not know what to expect of one another. Leaders will not lead, and servants will not serve.

It is a matter of common observation, too, that people meet most easily when they know their position. If their work and authority are defined, they can proceed on fixed assumptions and conduct themselves without embarrassment toward inferior and superior. When the rule of equality obtains, however, no one knows where he belongs. Because he has been assured that he is "just as good as anybody else," he is likely to suspect that he is getting less than his deserts. Shakespeare concluded his wonderful discourse on degree with reference to "an envious fever." And when Mark Twain, in the role of Connecticut Yankee, undertook to destroy the hierarchy of Camelot, he was furious to find that serfs and others of the lower order were not resentful of their condition. He adopted then the typical Jacobin procedure of instilling hatred of all superiority. Resentment, as Richard Hertz has made plain, may well prove the dynamite which will finally wreck Western society.

The basis of an organic social order is fraternity uniting parts that are distinct. We must repeat, then, with reference to our first principles, that rebellion against distinction is an aspect of that world-wide and centuries4ong movement against knowledge whose beginning goes back to nominalism. For it requires only a slight transference to say that, if our classifications of the world of physical nature are arbitrary, so, too, are those of human society. In other words, after we grant that those generalizations about the world which we necessarily make-and this is a necessity no one can really deny-do not express an objective order but only afford convenient modes, the same must be granted about society. With this conceded, inherent pattern is gone; nothing is justified that does not serve convenience, and there remains no court of appeal against subversion by pragmatism. Thus, repudiation of knowledge of what is destroys the basis of renewal. It is not fantastic but, rather, realistic to see as an ultimate result of this process the end of civilization.

It is generally assumed that the erasing of all distinctions will usher in the reign of pure democracy. But the inability of pure democracy to stand for something intelligible leaves it merely a verbal deception. If it promises equality before the law, it does no more than empires and monarchies have done and cannot use this as a ground to assert superiority. If it promises equality of condition, it promises injustice, because one law for the ox and the lion is tyranny. Pressure from the consumer instinct usually compels it to promise the latter. When it was found that equality before the law has no effect on inequalities of ability and achievement, humanitarians concluded that they had been tricked into asking only part of their just claim. The claim to political equality was then supplemented by the demand for economic democracy, which was to give substance to the ideal of the levelers. Nothing but a despotism could enforce anything so unrealistic, and this explains why modern governments dedicated to this program have become, under one guise and another, despotic.

There are other aspects to the dilemma of radical egalitarianism. A defense often employed by the more sophisticated is that democratic equality allows each to develop his potentialities. This plausible argument involves grave questions about the nature of things. It is here implied that man is like a seed, having some immanent design of germination, so that for his flowering he needs that liberty which is "freedom from." If this is the whole account, it can only mean that our determination is naturalistic and that our growth is merely the unfolding of a plan established purely by nature. One need hardly add that this conception accepts orientation from below and assumes that man's destiny is to be natural, to develop like a plant. This makes impossible any thought of discipline, which would, under these circumstances, be a force constraining what nature had intended. But all teleology rejects "freedom from" in favor of "freedom to." That men are a field of wild flowers, naturally good in their growing, is the romantic fallacy.

A kindred notion is that democracy means opportunity for advancement, or in the language of the day, "a chance to be a success." Obviously this contention presumes hierarchy. The sort of advancement contemplated by these advocates is just the kind that requires a condition of high social organization, with rewards, degrees, and everything that comes with a frank recognition of superiority. If democracy means a chance to get ahead, it means a chance to rise above the less worthy, to have station with reference to points above and below. The solution of the dilemma is that these people wish democracy not as an end but as a means. Confronted with the realities described, the democrat may confess that his democracy is only a correction for a distorted aristocracy; he does want order, but he wants the kind in which the best, the gifted and the industrious, get ahead. There must be a fence, but the wrong rail is on top.

Notwithstanding this claim that democracy is quicker to recognize native worth, every visitor to a democratic society has been struck by its jealous demand for conformity. Such spirit is an outgrowth of competition and suspicion. The democrats well sense that, if they allow people to divide according to abilities and preferences, soon structure will impose itself upon the mass. Hence the adulation of the regular fellow, the political seduction of the common man, and the deep distrust of intellectuals, whose grasp of principle gives them superior insight. This society may even pay tribute to the exemplar of easy morals; for he is the "good fellow," who has about him none of the uncomfortable angularities of the idealist.

It seems plain that the democrats are ignoring a contradiction. Had they the courage to be logical, they would do as their predecessors in ancient Greece and choose their governors by lot. An election, is after all, a highly undemocratic proceeding; the very term means discrimination. How is it possible to choose the best man when by definition there is no best? If a society wishes to be its natural self, that is to say, if it wishes to flourish wild, unshaped by anything superior to itself, it should make a perfectly random choice of administrators. Let youth and age, wisdom and folly, courage and cowardice, self-control and dissoluteness, sit together on the bench. This will be representative; this is a cross-section, and there seems no room to question that it would create that society "filled with wonderful variety and disorder" which Plato called democracy.

A footnote, however, must be added to the practice of the Greeks. There were certain officials of highest importance whom they saw fit to choose by election. These were, as might be guessed, the strat'goi, the military commanders. It was seen that since the very existence of the state depends on them and since a general must have skill, it is better her to take note of differences and admit that in time of emergency authority goes to knowledge.

Democratic leadership thus always runs into anomaly. It has been argued that, whatever the aberrations of the democratic state, in periods of crisis such as civil war and the threat of invasion, the people instinctively choose a leader of more than average stature, who will guide them through. Even if this could be proved historically, which is doubtful, it would damage the theoretical foundation of democracy. For it affirms that in time of crisis the people, whether instinctively or otherwise, defer to an elite group who know what to do; when they realize that only direction will save them, they accept it and care not who rails against dictatorship; when a high design becomes imperative, they delegate authority to the extent of placing it beyond their control.2 In the periods between they are inclined to indulge in the comfort of relaxation and disorder, which is itself a commentary on ideals. Of course, this question is inseparable from that of the end of the state, as that is, in turn, from the end of the individual being.

The writings of the Founding Fathers of the American Union indicate that these political architects approached democracy with a spirit of reservation. Though revolutionaries by historic circumstance, they were capable enough of philosophy to see these dilemmas. The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent. They therefore labored long and with considerable cunning to perfect an instrument which should transcend even the law-making body. This was the Constitution, which in the American system stands for political truth. It is not an unchangeable truth, but the framers placed special obstacles in the way of change. It was hoped that the surmounting of these would prove so laborious and slow that errors would be exposed and the permanently true recognized. In this way they endeavored to protect the populace of a republic against itself. Their action is a rebuke to the romantic theory of human nature, and this will explain why the Constitution has proved so galling to Jacobins. They regard it as a kind of mortmain, and during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt its interpreters were scornfully termed, in an expression indicative of the modern temper, "nine old men."

Edmund Burke was forced to meet the same problem when the French Revolution drove him to examine the foundations of British constitutional liberty. In the absence of a written constitution he had the difficult task of establishing the fact that the English people are bound by a transcending limitation. The long passages in the Reflections on succession of the crown has, I think, been misinterpreted; for Burke does not mean, as Thomas Paine asserted, that a single British Parliament made itself a political Adam, by whose enactment all succeeding generations were bound. He rather argues that this act was a precedent in conformity with other precedents, the sum of which binds the English people. If we are to be guided by the experience of the past, there is a perfectly real sense in which precedent is nonrepealable. And precedent was for Burke the principle of continuity and reference. The inheritance of "rational liberty" was thus Britain's protection against subversion.

It has been said countless times in this country that democracy cannot exist without education. The truth concealed in this observation is that only education can be depended on to bring men to see the hierarchy of values. That is another way of saying what has also been affirmed before, that democracy cannot exist without aristocracy. This aristocracy is a leadership which, if it is to endure, must be constantly recruited from democracy; hence it is equally true that aristocracy cannot exist without democracy. But what we have failed to provide against is the corruption of the system of recruitment by equalitarian dogma and the allurements of materialism. 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 per-feet his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, 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 ma3ority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in this world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet 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 a reverence for the good.

In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology, of which I shall say something later, has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite.  Every attempt to find a way out of these dilemmas points to a single necessity; some source of authority must be found. The only source of authority whose title is unimpeachable at all times is knowledge. But superiority in knowledge carries prerogative, which implies, of course, distinction and hierarchy. We have seen, too, that the possibility of liberty and the hope of personal improvement rest upon these, for liberty must always work in the name of right reason, which is itself a conception of the scheme of things. The conservatives of our day have a case which only their want of imagination keeps them from making use of in the proposition that levelers are foes of freedom. Where simple massness exists, everyone is in everyone else's way, and a certain perilous liberty has been traded for stultification.

The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as "progress." It is certainly to his credit that he does not wish 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. And nothing is more common than to hear him discriminate people according to this metaphysic, his term for the less worthy being unprogressive. 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.

The mere notion of infinite progress is destructive. If the goal recedes forever, one point is no nearer it than the last. All that we can do is compare meaninglessly yesterday, to-day, and tomorrow. Aristotle noted that the concept of infinity makes impossible the idea of the good. If a series of things is hierarchically ordered, it is conditioned from top to bottom and so cannot be infinite. If it is infinite, it cannot be conditioned from top to bottom, and there is no higher and lower.

Now such a look at the nature of things is imperative, for our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.