The power and purpose of language. Richard Weaver on the cultural dangers posed by the mass media

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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.

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.

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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!''

Language is sermonic: the phrase suits perfectly as the title of the Weaver reader now in paperback. Taken from Weaver's books and speeches, and adorned with passages from letters to one of the editors, ``Language Is Sermonic'' is a cause for rejoicing.

It's a comfort to know that someone foresaw what some wit recently called our Media Ages. In ``Ideas Have Consequences,'' there's a chapter not excerpted in ``Language Is Sermonic'' that gets to the heart of the problem.

In that chapter, called ``The Great Stereopticon,'' Weaver wrote, ``What person taking the affirmative view of life can deny that the world served up daily by press, movie, and radio is a world of evil and negation? There is iron in our nature sufficient to withstand any fact that is present in a context of affirmation, but we cannot remain unaffected by the continued assertion of cynicism and brutality. Yet these are what the materialists in control of publicity give us.''

Weaver traced the view of man projected by the great stereopticon (the mass media) back to a decision -- made for us, perhaps, by our choice of media -- to view reality as a sequence of facts or vivid impressions. Since his time, TV has joined the media that make up the great stereopticon, and so Weaver's analysis is even more important.

Weaver concludes that chapter by saying, ``What humane spirit, after reading a newspaper or attending a popular motion picture or listening to the farrago of nonsense on a radio program, has not found relief in fixing his gaze upon some characteristic bit of nature? . . . Out of the surfeit of falsity born of technology and commercialism we rejoice in returning to primary data and to assurance that the world is a world of enduring forms which in themselves are neither brutal nor sentimental.''

For Weaver, one of the enduring forms is language itself. In ``The Power of the Word,'' Weaver said, ``The point at issue is explained by a fundamental proposition of Aquinas: `Every form is accompanied by an inclination.' ''

Like the leaf that finds the light, our language, if we let it, bears witness to our inclination toward the Good.

Richard Weaver should be required reading in the Global Village.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. Excerpt from Weaver's `Language Is Sermonic'

[There] is no reason to despair over the fact that men will never give up seeking to influence one another. We would not desire it to be otherwise; neuter discourse is a false idol. . . .

Since we want not emancipation from impulse but clarification of impulse, the duty of rhetoric is to bring together action and understanding into a whole that is greater than scientific perception. The realization that just as no action is really indifferent, so no utterance is without its responsibility introduces, it is true, a certain strenuosity into life, produced by a consciousness that ``nothing is lost.'' Yet this is preferable to that desolation which proceeds from an infinite dispersion or feeling of unaccountability. Even so, the choice between them is hardly ours to make; we did not create the order of things, but being accountable for our impulses, we wish these to be just.

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