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From the November/December, 1998 issue of Touchstone


Metaphysical Man by Patrick Henry Reardon

Metaphysical Man

Philosophy, Language & Richard Weaver

by Patrick Henry Reardon

In the spring of this year upwards of a hundred philosophers, jurists, literary artists, journalists, and scholars joined together at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, the important little book that so convincingly chronicled the many moral and social evils attendant on the Western mind’s loss of metaphysics: radical materialism, the dominance of quantity over quality, greed and avarice, fragmentation and obsession, egotism in work and art, the abdication of hierarchical structure, sensuality, acquisitive violence, the quest for power, radical subjectivity and selfishness, the loss of piety and justice, the corrosion of friendship, the replacement of religion by education, and then the replacement of education by mere training. All of this in one little volume and convincingly argued.

Weaver placed the blame for the present cultural crisis of the West at the doorstep of Ockham’s nominalism at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It was to that late, indeed rather recent, season in the history of thought that he traced the modern discomfort with, and distrust of, the world of spiritual intuition and transcendence.

From Ockham on, thinkers began to conclude that thoughts of transcendence were simply the products, perhaps even by-products, of the human mind itself. Universal concepts were not, in a strict sense, real. Moreover, the nominalists’ denial that the mind was capable of knowing anything real above itself was bound to lead in due course to the dissolution of metaphysics and everything else to which metaphysics gives rise, including the prescriptive authority of inherited language, the anchoring of moral imagination, and the final validation of law.

Nominalism also produced modern materialism. Nothing so turned Western man’s thoughts back to the things of earth than this sudden persuasion of his being unable to grasp anything higher. The denial of man’s ability to perceive transcendent, intellectual realities above himself guaranteed that the Western mind would thenceforth turn ever more completely toward the only reality that remained, physical reality, the world of matter. It was to Ockham’s new movement, Weaver argued, that we correctly ascribe most of the credit for Western man’s growing determination to look at matter in a completely materialistic way. Matter comes to represent the sum total of all that can be known, and also the only means by which it can be known. Nothing, it is now concluded, is knowable except matter.

The Abdication of Intellect

Once that intuition of transcendent realities—the very essence of metaphysics—was dismissed as the root of all intelligibility, the human mind was left holding only two things, and these two things gradually became the major concerns of intellectual formation: the material data inducted through the bodily senses, and the laws of logical process by which it gave shape to this material data. Henceforth, then, empirical induction (positivism) and rational synthesis would be the proper activity of the mind. Concentration on the first would lead to the criterion of truth as purely semantic correspondence, a view associated with the name Bertrand Russell in more recent times. Concentration on logical structure would lead to the criterion of truth as internal coherence, a view associated with thinkers as diverse as Descartes and Hegel. Combined simply as the mathematical study of the material world, these two preoccupations found their champions in Thomas Hobbes and more recently in the logical positivists.

What was lost in all this development was the classical notion of intellectus, the nous, as the highest, or deepest, region of the soul and the supreme, truly defining faculty of the human being. This intellectus, if one followed the line of thought laid down by nominalism, was now illusory.

Classical Christian anthropology and ascetical doctrine always maintained that the nous or intellectus, when purified by divine grace, repentance and the ascetical life, is that faculty through which man knows God. Moreover, it is through the nous that man apprehends, by “simple cognition” (a term of Saint Isaac of Nineveh), the inner principles of created things. This direct grasp of incorruptible truth, this spiritual perception of permanent and immaterial reality, is the highest act of the human soul. By it, spiritual forms are discerned in a direct and immediate manner (immediate in the sense of not mediated by a syllogism or other inferential process). This intuitive grasp of universals, transcendent forms, is what is meant by metaphysics. Metaphysics was understood as true knowledge (jnana, gnosis) and vision (veda, visio).

Consequently, the nous is the faculty that man must use every effort to purify of all selfishness and mendacity. In doing so, he becomes the “noetic man,” the man of intellect. When Saint Diodoch of Photiki said that “we share in the image of God by virtue of the intellectual activity of the soul,” he did not mean the mental trifles that preoccupied Descartes, much less Bertrand Russell. He was referring to “the very depths of the soul—that is to say, in the intellect.”

What Even the Pagans Suspected

In making such assertions, classical Christian anthropology and ascetical doctrine were responding to the deepest aspirations manifested in antiquity. The greatest pagan cultures were founded on the severely struggling and sorely tried perception that there is another world transcendent to this one and the groping, confused hope that man might somehow attain to it. Accustomed as he was to saying profound and striking things casually, almost in passing and as though they were too obvious to require insisting on, Russell Kirk remarked that belief in another and transcendent world has always been understood to be the sole legitimate foundation for any society wanting to think of itself as stable and civilized.

Plato, for instance, sensed that the soul, because it can reach out and lay hold of certain unchanging, immortal truths, must have something about it of immortality. Society for Plato was simply “the soul writ large.” The difference between man and beast, said Ovid, is that man, standing upright, finds his direction on the earth by searching the heavens above it. The human being, he wrote, that sanctius . . . animal mentisque capacius altae, takes his proper guidance from above, not from the lower world of matter to which the gaze of the animals is turned.

To such men was given the theoria (vision, not theory) that the things that are seen were not made of things that do appear. However bewildered and muddled the pagan soul became in its struggle to come to grips with its own aspirations, it constantly gave expression to this substance of things hoped for, this evidence of things not seen. The transcendent world of the undiminished forms, dimly perceived, remained the source of what Aristophanes called “the great hopes (elpidai megistai) stirred within us by Longing (Eros).” In the Republic Pindar is quoted to the effect that the human being faces old age with the companionship of “hope, which principally governs the fickle mind of mortals.”

Classical Christian anthropology has always maintained that this pagan hope is vindicated and redeemed in Christ. It has ever asserted that in the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, all of us live and move and have our being. It has ever insisted that what the pagans seek in darkness and ignorance the Christian gospel proclaims to them in the full light of the glory of God shining on the face of Christ. Early Christian apologists, like Clement of Alexandria and Arnobius of Sicca, were very conscious of addressing these metaphysical aspirations of classical paganism, citing the latter’s evidence explicitly.

Hardly a Memory

Now, here in the West, the world of metaphysics has been tragically misplaced, utterly absconded by Ockham and his later friends who took it away, and we know not where they have laid it. Indeed, that lofty realm of transcendent thought has been so lost for so long that even the memory of it has largely faded, so that we seem to find ourselves, like C. S. Lewis’s Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, confused by the fumes of oblivion in the underworld of the Green Lady, wondering whether we did not simply dream up the whole world of Aslan.

With few exceptions, such as the Neo-Thomism of men like Maritain and Adler, the twentieth-century Western philosopher stands several steps removed from the ancient understanding of metaphysics, so that on the whole he does not realize exactly what, several centuries ago, he truly did lose. Long accustomed now to viewing the pursuit of knowledge solely in terms either of logical abstraction or empirical objectivity, or some combination of both, most Western philosophers seem no longer familiar even with the essential nature of metaphysical thought as understood by the ancients. Not only have they lost the vision, they have forgotten that it truly was a vision.

Thus, even if a student does manage to take a college course entitled “Metaphysics,” he is not likely to be informed that he is not studying metaphysics at all; he is only studying, at best, various theories about metaphysics.

And even these theories may be way off base. Indeed, when they now describe what is meant by metaphysics, modern thinkers often misrepresent it altogether. An example of such misrepresentation, not all that long ago, was Rudolph Carnap, who wrote of “the deceptive character of metaphysics” and treated it as signifying only “permanent emotional or volitional dispositions.” Thus are the likes of Lao Tzu, Plato, Shankara, and Al-Ghazali condescendingly dismissed by a man with no clue as to what they were talking about.

Language & Vision

Weaver traced many of the problems of our contemporary world to this loss of metaphysics. Arguably chief among those evils, however, and certainly one to which Weaver gave most serious attention, was the undermining of language. And hence, the undermining of that heavy burden of noetic tradition that language is designed to carry. In corroding the authority of language by its denial of the real content of abstract words, nominalism was a first step in the overthrow of life-bearing tradition.

Weaver perceived clearly the relationship of language to metaphysics, and he was persuaded that the skills of rhetorical criticism were indispensable to preserving the tattered remnants of our metaphysical heritage: “[T]he embattled friends of traditional rhetoric . . . are in my opinion the upholders of our inherited society.” Consequently, the rest of my reflections will be limited to a few considerations of rhetorical criticism. I believe that our current situation with respect to English rhetoric is a great deal worse than it was fifty years ago.

A certain defining view of reality is supposed to be transmitted from one generation to the next by the direct imposition of a linguistic authority. Language is thus always traditional and hierarchical. The ancients believed that minds were shaped by words, and were thereby shaped for an intuitive perception of the real. Michael Polanyi is one of the few recent thinkers to emphasize that each generation is supposed to learn the composition of reality by an attitude of acquiescence, a kind of “obedience of faith,” the implicit acceptance of an inherited tongue.

In our contemporary culture it is taken as axiomatic and self-evident that the highest and best use of language is the communication of ideas from one mind to another. Nonetheless, there is a very big problem with this notion. If the conveying of ideas from one mind to another were the highest and best function of language, someone should point out that not all ideas are very good ideas. Indeed, this allegedly lofty view of language would include also the telling of lies and the swapping of groundless gossip, for certainly such things are ideas.

The larger problem, however, is the one posed by the question, “And just what do you mean by an idea?” If a universal idea is merely the creation of the mind itself, as nominalism holds, then the “communication of ideas from one mind to another” is really only the mutual sharing of subjectivities. Sharing ideas through language is surely a useful art; the art is called dialogue, or even dialectics, but the man who was best at that art, Socrates, regarded it only as a process which, used correctly, would lead to the vision of eternal forms. The proper “sharing of ideas” is one that leads all participants to that truth under which every idea stands to be judged. The highest function of language is not to convey ideas, but to assist in the contemplation of incorruptible truth.

In the ancient cultures, the terms for universal concepts were assumed to express an intuition of the universal forms, as exemplified in Adam’s naming of the animals. Especially with respect to those words that serve as universal terms, the authority of tradition is the starting point for the investigation of the First Principles, the catholic standards of truth—and, because standards, permanent and outside the vicissitudes of the material world.

Universal conceptual language thus has about it something of the oracular, what Hinduism calls Brahmanaspati. For the ancients, the stability of conceptual language was what guaranteed the possibility of the transmission of insight, theoria, from one generation to the next, and served to place the quest of metaphysics into a social, traditional, hierarchical context.

Nominalism, however, by reducing conceptual terms to mere “names,” constructions of the human mind itself, deprived such language of its sovereignty over the origins and structure of reflective thought. Whereas, for the men of old, words shaped minds, we now behold a cultural understanding in which minds shape words, so the words express nothing more than, at the very most, a “state of mind.” Consequently, here in the modern West it is taken as obvious that words are purely a matter of contemporary convention and exist simply that people may participate in one another’s personal persuasions. This is the phenomenon that Weaver called “presentism.” Words have become mere tools for the communication of opinions and persuasions. Alas, hardly anyone seems to notice that this is exactly the theory of language taught by Protagoras and Gorgias, and soundly refuted by Socrates.

To destroy, or deliberately to alter, inherited conceptual language is an attack on life-bearing tradition. We have largely lost the sense that metaphysics, through the medium of conceptual language, joins our minds, not only with eternal truth, but with all other minds, in all other times and places, that gaze upon the truth or seek it in love. That is to say, we have grandly forgotten that the truth is loved, sought, and known in communion with other lovers, seekers, and knowers of the truth, including the likes of Homer and Virgil.

The Ethics of Rhetoric

Complicity in this destruction of inherited conceptual language is rife even among some Christians these days, particularly those who deliberately pattern their rhetorical or literary styles on prejudices dictated by social and political trends. In fact, there are Christian writers who openly admit to this complicity.

A recent illustration, easy to hand, was provided by a serious and devout Christian author earlier this year who avowed, in the pages of a usually conservative journal, that she avoids using the word “man” in its generic, abstract, conceptual sense. She admitted: “I have long avoided [man] (and other masculine generics) in my writing” and “in ordinary speech and contemporary writing, most of us have grudgingly learned to avoid using the impolite, impolitic ‘man.’”

What renders her confession on this point more than slightly ironical is the same author’s recognition that there has arisen no sufficient substitute for this inherited abstract, conceptual word “man.” Apparently suspecting no anomaly in the circumstance, she seemed to think that the word’s meaning just somehow evaporated, slipped away during the night as it were, and nothing adequate has assumed its place. “No,” she says, “there aren’t any good equivalents.”

Now this, I suggest, is a most curious state of things. If, purely for the sake of argument, it is true that the word “man” no longer communicates its traditional conceptual meaning and, still only for the sake of argument, no other word has arisen to take its place, this implies plainly that the concept itself has been destroyed. If “man” no longer suffices to do the trick, we are the most intellectually impoverished people in history. Speaking English, we are cut off forever from the thoughts of Homer and Virgil. When we come to the word anthropos or homo, we must leave the space blank. That is to say: If “man” no longer means “man,” and nothing else means “man,” then something very big has taken its leave of this world.

The truth in this instance, of course, is quite other. There is really no doubt in anyone’s mind that the word “man,” employed in its abstract conceptual sense, still means what it always did. Well, of course it does. Were this not the case, we would not be witnessing such conspicuous efforts to get rid of it. The indictment laid to the charge of the word “man” is altogether its gender, not its meaning, which is not even slightly in doubt. That is to say, the objection to this abstract use of the word “man” has everything to do with politics and nothing whatever to do with metaphysics.

In truth, this is exactly the point distressing to my soul and my motive for concern—that any serious and devout Christian is content to acquiesce in a careless but popular “dumbing down” of the inherited tongue, ignoring the metaphysical content of a classical metaphysical term, and betraying no suspicion that the real issue here is nothing less than the integrity of the human mind. Of such insouciance do empires fall.

Metaphysical Intractability

The linguistic dilemma experienced by the aforementioned writer is even more instructive in yet another respect. If we are to take her at her guileless word (as surely we are), she imagined that her brief description of contemporary speech was a straightforward presentation of observable facts, hardly to be challenged within a rational community, indisputable to all but the idealistic or the hopelessly stubborn. (“Some of my friends,” she wrote, “are mounting the barricades on this one, because [man] is a fine and dignified word with excellent credentials, but I think that battle is over.”) Portraying herself as “a living language Philistine,” she presupposed that contemporary semantics can be adequately assessed within the limits of a sociological analysis. Alas for her cause, this is manifestly not so.

Writing from the inductive perspective of the behavioral disciplines, our author’s thought was necessarily cramped and confused by the narrowness and ambiguity characteristic of sociological discourse. She hardly stands alone in that confinement, however, for the phenomenon is widespread. Proponents of sociology and the other behavioral disciplines, believing themselves to be dealing entirely with obvious, or at least demonstrable, empirical data, are forever walking around and banging their heads on unsuspected metaphysical walls. Language is not unconditionally malleable, nor will inattention to metaphysics cause metaphysics to go away. It is a singularly intractable feature of human thought that will assert itself willy-nilly and visit the soul with an endless barrage of dialectical, non-empirical considerations.

This curious phenomenon, the confusion within the behavioral sciences because of a failure to recognize metaphysical premises or to acknowledge metaphysical inferences, was investigated by Weaver in his essay “The Rhetoric of Social Science.” The problem, said Weaver, arises from a failure to perceive the dialectics implicitly imposed on the human mind by reason of its inability to escape metaphysical questions. The questions nonetheless remain, and they will not be ignored. Whether or not the sociologist is aware of addressing such questions, he invariably does, but he can do so only by treating his empirical data as a great deal more than it really is.

Thinking himself to be speaking of the plain facts, the sociologist nonetheless keeps introducing the vocabulary of non-material dialectics. He will find himself using words like “unjust” as though injustice were visible to the naked eye, or employing terms like “underpaid” as though it had nothing to do with something so spiritual as human dignity. As Weaver wrote: “This explains why to the ordinary beholder there seem to be so many smuggled assumptions in the literature of social science.”

The Ultimate Meaning of Man

With respect to finding substitutes for the universal word “man,” here is the dilemma thus posed. Various recourses are tried, but they all fail because little or no attention is given to the subject itself. If we consider exactly what the word “man” means—if we manage to fix our minds and gaze at the content of the term—it will come as no surprise that there is no adequate substitute. “Humankind,” for example, will hardly do, because this word is taken to mean the human race in general, humanity as an a posteriori, the totality of human beings conceptually gathered by induction. That is not what we mean by “man.” Exactly the same may be said for the word “humanity,” which can be taken to mean either the quality of each human being or the sum total of the human race. It has never conveyed exactly the same sense as “man.”

Not only do Ideas Have Consequences, words have meaning, and we do well to find out what they mean before we decide to drop them in conformity to a thoughtless fashion. “Man,” as an abstract concept, has a definite meaning. It is not an idea founded on the sum total of empirical evidence. “Man” does not mean the combined total of humanity. In a logical sense, “man” is prior to humanity; humanity means either the human race or a characteristic of that race. Man is, on the contrary, the universal form according to which human beings are fashioned. “Man” is not a product of the human mind. It is, rather, an undying truth that the human mind may strive to know.

To think the concept “man” is to think abstractly; it is to perceive a form beyond time and space. It is the English language’s only equivalent of anthropos and homo. For English-speaking people the willful suppression of “man” can only be one of the final symptoms of the everlasting darkness. To drop it is the mark, not of a mere linguistic Philistine, but a metaphysical Vandal. Losing the word “man” would be an evil second only to losing the word “God.”

This is no time for compromise or shameless complicity. Becoming, if we must, what Weaver called a “community of enlightened but truculent alienation,” we Christians should resist this attack on our mother tongue with all our strength—flouting, defying, and setting at naught the new “political correctness” at every opportunity that a merciful Providence sees fit to hand us. Weaver suggested that all loyal custodians of language should be engaged in this struggle. “It is worth considering whether the real civil disobedience must not begin with our language,” he wrote.

No, it is not true that “that battle is over,” nor should it be declared “over” by someone who, by her own admission, has not been engaged in it. Were that the case, and the battle not only over but lost, we would not even be having this discussion. Such a defeat would represent the final cracking of that cranial vase of which Hesiod wrote that “Hope alone remained there.” Meanwhile, those wearing the white hats atop that noble receptacle will do well to consider yet again Richard Weaver’s assessment of the present task of thinking people with respect to language: “[T]he embattled friends of traditional rhetoric . . . are in my opinion the upholders of our inherited society.”

Most particularly as servants of the Word, it is imperative that we Christians strive manfully to defend what Cicero called the templum mentis—that inner and sacred metaphysical enclave where thought may touch heaven, and to relish the integrity of our inherited tongue, especially in those rich and honorable terms inherited from on high, those dear words where the tongue itself begins to savor the taste of eternity. Thus, I am persuaded, do we render our bounden duty to that very Logos above, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Metaphysical Man” first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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