Review: Ideas Have Consequences

Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 (first published in 1948, link is to expanded 2013 edition).

Summary: An argument tracing the dissolution of Western society to the abandonment of philosophical realism for nominalism and what may be done to reverse that decline.

Many authors have traced the decline of the West (if there is such a thing) to the ideas that shape our culture. Few have argued that more trenchantly or been cited more often that Richard M. Weaver, an intellectual historian and professor of English at the University of Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. I’ve been aware of this book for over twenty years but just now have gotten around to it.

Weaver’s argument begins with the abandonment of philosophical realism, the existence of transcendent or metaphysical truth for nominalism, the denial of absolute universals but only the particulars of our existence. He then traces some of the ways this manifests itself. First he discusses the obliteration of the distinctions and hierarchies which constitute society for an egalitarian ideal. He then notes the fragmentation of modern societies. No longer capable of philosophy, we are reduced to facts without coherent structure. Without the transcendent, the self is the measure of value. Egotism is a word that runs through his discussion. When work is only about self-realization rather than being divinely ordained, work becomes a matter of getting the better of others rather than pursuing the common good. Art, as it becomes solipsistic, degenerates. Weaver saves his harshest criticism for the distinctly American music of jazz.

In the rejection of a transcendent metaphysic, moderns come up with a modern synthesis which Weaver calls “the great stereopticon” consisting of the trinity of the press, the motion picture, and the radio (television was just coming on the scene in 1948). These foster the fragmented, disharmonious experience of our lives, often distracting us from their banal character, a critique that seems to have anticipated Neil Postman’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death. All of this fosters in us a “spoiled child” psychology amid technological advances that believes in a material heaven easily achieved.

Weaver’s final three chapters address his proposed remedy–what must be done. First is to reassert and protect the right of private property, the only metaphysical right he believes has not yet been jettisoned in the four hundred year decline he traces. The extension of this from homes to businesses to agriculture preserves and restores volition and undercuts authoritarian tyrannies–whether capitalist or communist. He also argues for the power of the word, both poetic and logical, advocating for instruction in logic and rhetoric. Finally, he contends for restoration of “spirit of piety” with regard for nature, for one’s neighbors, and the past.

For me, what I would most criticize is his concern about distinctions and orders, that seem for him established on the basis of heredity and immutable characteristics, like gender. It felt like women, and perhaps the races must be kept in their places, an idea more in a Platonic rather than Christian metaphysic. It also makes me wonder whether Weaver would want to extend private property to all in society, or is arguing for the protection of the “haves.” I also don’t think much of his application of egotism to the arts, and especially to jazz, rooted in the laments of the blues, and the transcendent hope of the spirituals. I thought this deeply dismissive and a critique imposed from a superficial extension of his basic idea of egotism that little considers the actual work of the artists.

That said, his basic discussion of the consequences of the shift from realism to nominalism, from absolutes to relativism, particularly in the rise of fragmentation, exacerbated by the stereopticon of our media is worth our attention, prescient as it was in 1948. I find myself wondering whether his remedies of private property, the power of words, and the recovery of piety toward the earth, our neighbors, and history get us all the way back to life grounded in transcendent realities, from which he traces our decline. These seem more a holding action at best.

I also found this a challenging read in which the thread of argument gets buried in prose, sparkling at times, and obscuring at others. It felt like reading John Henry Newman–there is a great argument in here, somewhere! It’s an important work, especially for classic conservatives, that anticipates the thought of others. Just be ready for some work as you read it!

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