The events of the mid-20th century shook the world and shattered the optimism that came with the end of the “war to end all wars” and the economic boom of the 1920s.
World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bombs dropped on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Great Depression, the massive government expansion of the New Deal, and the rise of totalitarian communism all shook the very foundations of what so many believed was the inevitable course of history.
Following World War II, many sought to understand the new world they inherited, and some set out to reinforce what good they could find left amid the turmoil. One of the most consequential of these people was Richard M. Weaver.
A quiet English professor at the University of Chicago, Weaver grew up in North Carolina. As a young man, he was a socialist, but as he studied philosophy, rhetoric, and American letters, he moved in the direction of the right and became one of the most important of the early conservative traditionalists to write after World War II. His avowed goal was to diagnose the diseases of the modern world and attempt to salvage what he could of the civilization that had been so wrecked by the 20th century.
In 1948, Weaver published his most influential book. He wished to call it “The Fearful Descent,” but his publisher decided it should be called “Ideas Have Consequences.” That broader and more approachable title stuck. Today, it can serve as an essential reminder that when new ideas and values seem to be thrown out without even a consideration, they could bring about radical and dangerous consequences for other ideas, institutions, habits, and customs we also value.
Too many of us blame all our societal troubles on some recent development or people—be they the Clintons, or feminism, or the 1960s, or the National Rifle Association, or Donald Trump, or Hollywood. But Weaver’s mind reached back deep into intellectual history to find the origins of modern problems. To wit, he traced our troubles to a very unsexy and unpolitical source—William of Occam, the 14th-century Franciscan friar and British thinker credited with the birth of “nominalism.”
As Weaver conceives of it, our modern troubles began with Occam’s attack on universal truths, which has led to a relativism and denial of truth that threatens the very foundations of a civilized society.
He put it this way, “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 necessarily to the political state.”
Weaver said that 70 years ago, but the tune from the debate between Occam and Weaver echoes even more powerfully across society today—from gay marriage and “gender fluidity” to the rights to private property and religious conscience.
Weaver’s book is broken into two parts—the first tracing the history of the decline of the West due to the ideas spun off from the original attack on universal truths, and the second providing some idea of a means toward the restoration of order.
How might we begin to undo the damage? First, by defending the individual’s right to private property, because in holding to his or her own property, a person may find some means of defending his or her privacy, fighting for truth, and may find some refuge from an encroaching state. In other words, property gives us a place from which we may take a stand.
Second, he argues, we must reclaim language from those who have reduced it to sentiments, twisted it for political usage, and scrubbed it of common meaning with which we can seek truth and discuss our differences.
Third, to counter the selfish egoism of modern man, we must return to a state of piety—piety toward nature, toward our neighbors, and toward the past. There is much wisdom for modern America to be found in Weaver’s diagnosis and in his prescriptions.
Beyond the specifics of this important and challenging work, Weaver’s title reminds us that ideas can be powerful things to toy with—as likely to bring great damage as to serve progress.
Whether or not we read Weaver’s great work again in the 21st century (and we would profit from it), we should at least use it to encourage us all to think—seriously think—about the potential consequences of new ideas, and to think about them, not only through the lens of temporary politics and our own emotions, but in terms of the long-term health of civilization itself.
The events of the 20th century should ever remind us all of how close to the edge civilization resides and how consequential bad ideas can be.
Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell chair in leadership at the University of Louisville, where he is also director of The McConnell Center. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including his young adult novels published as “The Remnant Chronicles.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.