The death of character – ideas do have consequences…
Character is dead. It did not die a natural death. Its demise had been a long time coming. Moral character ceased to be possible as our culture increasingly refused to accept objective good and evil.
The death of character resulted from the working of large historical forces that had “little to do with individual moral failure.” This is the story told by James Davison Hunter in his important study of recent attempts at moral education, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil.
The story told by Richard Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences pushes the origins of the demise of character back to the 14th century. It began with the rise of “the fateful doctrine of nominalism,” best represented by the work of William of Ockham. Nominalism holds that there are no universals.
The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.
It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably—though ways are found to hedge on this—the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.” The witches [in Macbeth] spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the “abomination of desolation” appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.
Because a change of belief so profound eventually influences every concept, there emerged before long a new doctrine of nature. Whereas nature had formerly been regarded as imitating a transcendent model and as constituting an imperfect reality, it was henceforth looked upon as containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior. Such revision has had two important consequences for philosophical inquiry. First, it encouraged a careful study of nature, which has come to be known as science, on the supposition that by her acts she revealed her essence. Second, and by the same operation, it did away with the doctrine of forms imperfectly realized. Aristotle had recognized an element of unintelligibility in the world, but the view of nature as a rational mechanism expelled this element. The expulsion of the element of unintelligibility in nature was followed by the abandonment of the doctrine of original sin. If physical nature is the totality and if man is of nature, it is impossible to think of him as suffering from constitutional evil; his defections must now be attributed to his simple ignorance or to some kind of social deprivation. One comes thus by clear deduction to the corollary of the natural goodness of man.
And the end is not yet. If nature is a self-operating mechanism and man is a rational animal adequate to his needs, it is next in order to elevate rationalism to the rank of a philosophy. Since man proposed now not to go beyond the world, it was proper that he should regard as his highest intellectual vocation methods of interpreting data supplied by the senses. There followed the transition to Hobbes and Locke and the eighteenth-century rationalists, who taught that man needed only to reason correctly upon evidence from nature. The question of what the world was made for now becomes meaningless because the asking of it presupposes something prior to nature in the order of existents. Thus it is not the mysterious fact of the world’s existence which interests the new man but explanations of how the world works. This is the rational basis for modern science, whose systemization of phenomena is, as Bacon declared in the New Atlantis, a means to dominion.
At this stage religion begins to assume an ambiguous dignity, and the question of whether it can endure at all in a world of rationalism and science has to be faced. One solution was deism, which makes God the outcome of a rational reading of nature. But this religion, like all those which deny antecedent truth, was powerless to bind; it merely left each man to make what he could of the world open to the senses. There followed references to “nature and nature’s God,” and the anomaly of a “humanized” religion. …
Richard Weaver died young, age fifty-three, after teaching only eighteen years at the University of Chicago. No doubt he saw the rise of nominalism in the field of education well before his death. Some of his observations would suggest that he was prophet as well as professor: “We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it.”
Partly right, partly wrong—that’s how we’d have to judge Weaver on this prediction. Right about the amoral prediction but wrong about the inability to see it. In 1997, just forty-nine years after the publication of Ideas Have Consequences, political science professor John J. Mearsheimer disclaimed morality as part of the University’s vision in a welcoming address to incoming freshmen.
Not only is there a powerful imperative at Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, but the University also makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution. I would say the same thing, by the way, about all other major colleges and universities in this country. …
Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter. There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance. Moreover, I would bet that you will take few classes here at Chicago where you discuss ethics or morality in any detail, mainly because those kind of courses do not exist. …
I want to re-emphasize that Chicago is no different than other elite colleges on this score. The trends I described … cut across the board. I also want to emphasize that I am not saying that Chicago, or any of its peer competitors, are immoral institutions, but instead I am saying that they are essentially amoral. These schools are largely mum on ethical issues. Furthermore, I am not saying that individual faculty members don’t have strong views on the subject. My point is that collectively we are silent on the issue of morality, and instead we concentrate on teaching you to think critically. Finally, I am not saying that moral questions are unimportant and that you should pay them little attention in the years ahead. On the contrary, individuals and the societies they live in constantly run up against troubling ethical questions, and they have no choice but to wrestle with them and attempt to find the right answers. However, for better or for worse, we do not provide much guidance in sorting out those issues. That burden falls squarely on your shoulders. …
Nominalism had now been institutionalized at the University of Chicago. And the potency of James Davison Hunter’s assessment is seen in all its stark reality: “Character is dead. Attempts to revive it will yield little. Its time has passed”—its time has passed in a culture “without good and evil.”
The 1997 Aims of Education address by Dr. John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, is available online.
James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil was published by Basic Books (2001).
Dr. Robert Preston’s very helpful retrospective of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, “A Man of Vision,” was published in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone Magazine.