So, I finally got around to reading Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver. Considered a conservative classic, I’ve been hearing great things about it since I was in college. Despite the buildup of a decade and a half, this book more than exceeded my expectations. It’s amazing how prescient this book is examining developments in contemporary society, even though it was published sixty years ago. It really brings home how long this process of our decline has been developing.
In fact, Weaver traces the decline to the acceptance of William Occam’s doctrine of nominalism, which denied the existence of universals. An absence of universals, of course, makes a truly united society or community impossible, as there can be no common beliefs or creed upon which unite. Early in the book, he makes a distinction between truth and fact. Facts are true, but in no way tell us anything of important or eternal value. A way of thinking about this is that it is a fact that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the human condition.
He often decries an increasing selfishness in Western culture seeing examples of that run through many segments of society. He claims music took on an increasing selfishness since Beethoven who, Weaver claims, was too fond of the French Revolution. This continued on through jazz which was overtly sexual and focused on a self-centered definition of love. (I can’t imagine what he would think of rock’n’roll and even more recent music.) Television and, to a lesser extent, radio encourage this selfishness by focusing on the material possessions and encouraging consumerism. Science for its own sake, divorced from morality, also comes under attack.
City living and corporatism come under attack as well as they reduce men to mere cogs in a machine, rather than a more rural or agrarian lifestyle in which man can find greater fulfillment in working more directly for himself and producing directly for his own needs.
He makes a convincing case that our society is too focused on pleasing the individual’s physical or material needs, while working to deny the existence and the eternal or transcendent, much less acknowledge man’s need for them and the importance they play in our individual and societal life.
What continually surprised me is how Weaver could have such a Catholic outlook on life, without actually being Catholic. Even more amazing, he spent a great deal of time with the early conservative movement, which was very Catholic in makeup. The leaders of the movement, largely Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr. were very Catholic, as were others very active like Brent Bozell. Yet, with such a Catholic outlook on life, and being surrounded by Catholics, he apparently never converted, which is a great mystery to me.
By the second page of the introduction, I assumed him to be Catholic. At the end of the paragraph continuing from the first page he writes:
For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.
It’s hard not to see a condemnation of Protestantism, where each Christian is left to his own devices to determine what the Word of God is for himself. He further claims that the perfect society was medieval Europe. How someone like that never became Catholic is beyond me.
But aside from that, this book is a great read and a truly important one. Despite the build-up it had been given over the years, it exceeded my expectations and really gave me something to think about. It’s a must-read.