There are a few moments, perhaps, in a person’s life when he is privileged to discover a book that overwhelms by its brilliance. The truths it imparts are profound and timeless, plus stylistically impeccable in their presentation. I recently discovered such a work. While listening to Professor Gregory L. Schneider’s lectures on the history of American conservatism, he referred to a volume of which I am embarrassed to say I was entirely unfamiliar. It was entitled Ideas Have Consequences, written by Professor Richard M. Weaver, and first published in 1948. Nobody had so much as mentioned the book to me during my academic training. It should have been required reading in secondary school as well as in the seminaries and universities I attended. But no such luck. 

Professor Weaver taught English at the University of Chicago. When he wrote the book, America had not long before emerged from the Second World War, wearing the victor’s robe. The country was embarking upon an era of material prosperity unparalleled in the history of the world. Yet our author was deeply troubled and dismayed by the path that America and the West were taking. “What was he,” a critic might jeer, “a woebegone neurotic?” Hardly. Professor Weaver noticed that the consequences of ideas, some of which had been germinating in the West for centuries, were infecting the life of the nation with a vengeance and debilitating its culture.  His words now resemble fulfilled prophecies. 

He begins with the philosophical notion of universals. For centuries, Platonic realism had held sway over Western thought. One can classify Plato and Einstein as “human beings” because they both participate in a reality called “humanity.” This reality is an eternal form, which transcends the material world perceived through the senses.  Since the various configurations of matter constantly change, they cannot render knowledge.  One gains knowledge only as the intellect apprehends the timeless and immutable forms in which the ephemeral world participates.  Essence then, for Plato and other metaphysical realists, precedes existence. 

In the fourteenth century, William of Occam challenged Plato’s theory of knowledge. William argued that universals are not eternal forms, but exist in name only. The thing which we label a “horse” is a horse simply because we have named it that. A universal is therefore post rem, or after an existent thing. So, for William, existence precedes essence.   

This classic philosophical confrontation is one that, as Professor Weaver contends, resulted in a victory for William’s nominalism and a devastating defeat for Western civilization.  The vortex of truth shifted from the ideas of the intellect to the data of sense experience. Knowledge became fixated upon matter and efficient causes. Scientific inquiry gradually predominated and, as our author explains, “dazzled all but the most thoughtful . . . ” Speculative thought was soon under attack. 

Being totally immersed in the senses, the West lost sight of the eternal and of absolutes. The natural man and his physical appetites became the primary center of interest. This, according to Professor Weaver, is attributable to the fact that barbarians want to perceive everything as it is and that there is nothing within them to spiritualize the content of their perception.  He consequently approaches “a condition in which . . . [he] shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure . . . [his] descent.” To put it another way, “our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases with their degradation.” 

What are some of the symptoms of this “descent” and “degradation”? Since we have turned our backs on absolutes, we live in a world of vast uncertainties, where all is relative.  Truth can be anything one desires it to be. Professor Weaver observes in this context that the hero can never be a relativist, because his stance is a resolute one. I found myself wondering why it should be at all puzzling that American heroes exist for the most part now only in the military.  Can the reason be that the military has an absolute regimen of discipline, dress, and hierarchy of command, and that it constitutes a society largely insulated from our own? 

Not only truth, but also quality, exists now in the eye of the beholder.  Powerful and poignant literature is largely dismissed in favor of what Professor Weaver terms the “Great Stereopticon,” consisting of the press, the motion picture, and the radio. Journalists are, as many thoughtful people recognize, usually gossips that specialize in writing "obscene" stories under lurid, and often false and misleading, headlines. Hollywood’s motion picture industry is a study in commercialism and mindlessness. Radio and television advertise soap and broadcast combat fatalities in more or less the same tone. 

The soul of modern man, Professor Weaver maintains, has been shaped such that it “craves orgiastic disorder.” Maybe the one thing that dates the author’s book is the judgment that “jazz is the clearest sign of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.”  It “needs no intelligence, only feeling.” It is difficult to disagree with the observations that jazz, when compared to the music of Mozart and Bach, comes up shamefully short. Yet as “the Negro’s spontaneous manifestation of feeling linked up with Western man’s declining faith in the value of culture,”  jazz is still light-years ahead of the cacophonous sounds of hard rock and the moral degradation of “gansta’ rap.” 

With the inability to recognize quality has also come a monstrous egalitarian wave, which has flooded Western civilization with virulent venom. Because we have been fed and have digested the lie that all people are equal, it follows that everyone should not only enjoy the same rights and privileges, but should also have the same social status and an equal share of the wealth. This utopian view is reflected in the political nonsense that everyone deserves benefits such as healthcare, a university education, and a viable income, all of course without regard to whether he has lived his life in a responsible and meritorious way. The cry for equality has torn at the fabric of excellence and accomplishment, which society requires in order not only to thrive, but also to survive. 

Professor Weaver’s observations and reflections were prescient, years ahead of their time. Think for a moment about where we as a nation are at present – religiously, morally, educationally, politically, and culturally.  The best word to describe our current condition is “debauched.” Let it be remembered throughout time, that there was one who warned us!

If you want to understand why this country is in the mess it is, then may I encourage you to read and study the little book, Ideas Have Consequences. Any amount of time spent with it will be a rich reward.

March 19, 2014