The power and purpose of language. Richard Weaver on the cultural dangers posed by the mass media
Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard M. Weaver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 190 pp. $6.95, paperback. Language Is Sermonic: Richard M. Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric, edited by Richard L. Johannesen, Rennard Strickland, and Ralph T. Eubanks. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press. 230 pp. $6.95, paperback. At the end of World War II, an unknown professor of English contemplated the situation in the West in a book called ``Ideas Have Consequences,'' and in reviews of that book the power of his analysis was acknowledged by Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Crowe Ransom, among others.Skip to next paragraph
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Today Richard Weaver's critique, as developed in that book and in succeeding books and articles, can help us come to terms with what has happened since the war.
Reading Weaver leads me to speculate. In place of the prewar world order symbolized by Empire, we now have the ersatz order of the Global Village. But the electronic version of world unity is a false comfort to the naive that is easily exploited by the cynical: e.g., terrorists.
Furthermore, the habits of thinking based on books are irreversibly being replaced by a mania for so-called information.
By shifting the emphasis from the ear to the eye, as the ancients would say, the video culture tilts the balance of communication toward information as glimpse. And now, with this model in mind, reporters talk about ``sound bites''; they used to be called quotes. The video culture is gradually pushing out the book culture, and some folks are concerned.
Weaver helps us understand why. ``There is ground,'' he wrote in 1949, ``for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.'' According to Weaver, the idiocy comes from banishing ``the reality which is perceived by the intellect'' to make room for ``that which is perceived by the senses.''
It was a theme that lasted a lifetime. Weaver's career as a teacher of English and, through publication in professional periodicals, a teacher of teachers of English, bears witness to this one complex idea: The evidence for man's intellect is language, and language is rooted in the imagination, not in facts. (He quotes Shelley: ``Language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination and has relation to thoughts alone.'')
After his first book, which ranged widely over the topics of democracy, private property, and the media, Weaver specialized in recovering the ancient concept of rhetoric, or the harmonious engagement of language's several powers, logical and emotional. In place of the modern, mathematical, value-free model of discovery and truth, Weaver argued the case for language, language as revealed by the great poets, philosophers, and statesmen.
Lincoln and Churchill, among others, supplied him with examples.
Of the linguistic philosopher or, we would include now, the minimalist poet and novelist, who would try to strip language of feeling and attitude, Weaver says: ``His great mistake is the failure to see that language is intended to be sermonic. Because of its nature and of its intimacy with our feelings, it is always preaching.''
To paraphrase the symbolist poet St'ephane Mallarm'e, ``Say `flower' and you are in the presence of an ideal!''