Yesterday was the last session of the Summer 2020 History of Conservative Thought course. This summer marks the second run of the course, and it was a fantastic class. I had three young men enrolled, all quite eager to dive into the material.
I try to avoid lengthy lectures in HoCT, giving the basic background information and scaffolding necessary to put the readings into context. I want the works to speak for themselves, and for the students to the do the heavy lifting of sussing out meaning and the author’s ideas. Each week students wrote a short essay or answered a few different guided questions, then we would come in and discuss the material.
With this summer’s group, that model worked very well, as two of the young men in particular loved to plunge into discussions and ask questions. One of the students was concurrently taking a colleague’s popular Terror and Terrorism course, which leads off each summer with the French Revolution. That always dovetails nicely with our discussion of Edmund Burke, as we read several excerpts from his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke comes on the heels of our discussion of Russell Kirk’s conservative principles, and helps frame the early portion of the course in the Burkean tradition.
In July, we left the nineteenth century and began looking at the modern conservative movement, with a heavy emphasis on William F. Buckley, Jr., and the notion of fusionism. Buckley’s National Review catches a good bit of flack on the Right these days, including from this blog, but it truly shaped conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century. Before National Review, conservatism was a disorganized, disunited hodgepodge of various ideologies, movements, and issues—it was, as Lionel Trilling put it, a “reactionary impulse,” a grumpy attitude about the way things were, but without a cohesive understanding of how to combat the dominance of New Deal liberalism.
For all its noodle-wristed hand-wringing and desperate virtue-signalling today, National Review created the modern conservative movement by giving conservatives their voice, their publication. It also gave conservatism a politically viable platform of issues that could win in national politics. That focus on nationalism certainly cuts against the Kirkean/Burkean mold of organic, ordered liberty, but it was the reality of post-war American political life.
We ended with another mid-century conservative, but one fitting far more into the spiritual and moral mold of Burke and Kirk, and far less in the neoliberal and materialist mold of Buckley-style fusionism: Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, which I consider one of the greatest books ever written. Indeed, I’m a bit of a Weaver fanboy, as he’s been featured twice on my Summer Reading Lists, first in 2016 for Ideas Have Consequences, and again in 2020 for his collection of Southern Essays.
For the course, we just read the “Introduction” to the book, which I try to read every August before school resumes. It reminds me why I teach, and what is at stake. Reading Ideas Have Consequences—first published in 1948—today reads like prophecy fulfilled. Weaver’s core focus on William of Occam as the source of modernity and its related ills might seem a bit far-fetched, but that’s merely the germ from which the analysis of modernity’s fallen view of the world grows.
The real heart of Ideas Have Consequences is the abandonment of the transcendental—of God—in favor for navel-gazing particularism, a constant focus on lower, material concerns. Unbound from any obligation to or belief in a transcendental moral order, men are left adrift in a world full of isolation, alienation, confusion, and meaninglessness.
I’ll let the rest speak for itself. Here is 29 July 2019’s “Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction“:
Tomorrow is the last day of my History of Conservative Thought class for the summer term. It was a fun course to run, though if I offer it in the future, I’m hoping to firm it up and make it a bit more organized, with some lecture slides to go along with the document readings.
To end the course, students are reading the “Introduction” to Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), one of my favorite books of all time. I reread the introduction before the start of every school year, especially if I’m teaching Philosophy, as it helps remind me why knowledge and learning are important.
They’re writing short papers about the “Introduction,” which we’ll discuss in class tomorrow. To aid them—and, hopefully, to convince you to read Ideas Have Consequences yourself—I’m briefly summarizing Weaver’s ideas in this post.
Weaver starts his book declaring that it “is another book about the dissolution of the West.” He argues that due to the “widely prevailing Whig theory of history,” modern man has come to believe that history is always proceeding in an upward direction—that is, that things are always getting better.
Weaver disagrees, of course, arguing that “modern man has become a moral idiot.” He laments that, not only are people able to agree on the facts of their situation, they are utterly incapable of recognizing their own fallen state. Despite that moral idiocy, man “has been not only his own priest but his own professor and ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.” Put another way, people have decided subjectively that they know right and wrong, independent of any transcendent moral order or God, and the results are personal and political chaos!
Weaver goes on to recount the horrors modernity and self-deification have wrought: massive wars, ruined cities, lost lives, and a general, nagging sense of powerlessness. Weaver references specifically the destruction of the Second World War (though not by name), suggesting that the optimistic Whiggish interpretation of history is, on its face, verifiably false.
So, who is to blame for this general malaise in Western civilization? According to Weaver, the “best representative of change… over man’s conception of reality” is William of Occam. Most readers will know Occam from the concept of Occam’s Razor, the notion that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
Weaver, however, focuses on Occam’s doctrine of nominalism, a doctrine that “denise that universals have a real existence.” In other words, there are no true universal, transcendent ideals—justice, mercy, grace, virtue, etc.—and no metaphysical Truth or higher power. Further, nominalism “banish[ed] the reality which is perceived by the intellect… to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses,” setting man “on the road to modern empiricism,” the idea that only that which we experience is “true.”
Weaver proceeds to take us down that road: nature comes to be seen as fully intelligible, merely a set of “rational mechanism[s]” to be uncovered and understood; man comes to believe that does suffer from original sin, but is rather a perfectible being; any flaws from which humans suffer are necessarily due to their environment, not their own choices.
Most significantly, belief in God and religion—a higher Form of Truth that binds together the cosmos—become reduced to “‘humanized’ religion,” like deism (the belief in a Creator that set the universe into motion, but who never intervenes with His Creation). These reduced religions are little more than venerable institutions with the veneer of respectability, but which succumb to the materialism of the humanist.
Soon humans lose all free will, becoming the materialist machines of nature like any other animal. Institutions crumble, which man “rationalizes with talk of emancipation,” believing himself to be free from the restrains of the benighted past.
An interesting point that Weaver makes is that, in order to feel some semblance of the old virtues—ideals that men sense they should uphold, but which they cannot understand or articulate—they fight wars with “increased frequency,” invoking ideas like justice, honor, and valor in service to materialist ends.
Of course, there are those who champion modernity. These “apostles of modernism,” as Weaver calls them, “usually begin their retort [to Weaver’s position] with catalogues of modern achievement, not realizing that here they bear witness to their immersion in particulars,” as opposed to transcendentals. That is the source of my own critique of capitalism, the best socioeconomic system that materialist modernism can offer. Weaver notes that many great civilizations have shown with effervescent splendor in their dying gasps of relevance, so merely having beautiful, ingenious stuff doesn’t mean a civilization isn’t dying.
Perhaps the best passage from Weaver’s “Introduction” is what I call “Weaver’s drunk,” located on page 15 of the 1984 paperback edition linked here. Weaver argues that the material wealth and comfort of modernity holds within it its own destruction—the more comfort we have, the less willing we are to do the work necessary to maintain it. Weaver compares this situation to that of the drunk who is so addicted to his drink, he is incapable of doing the work necessary to sustain his addiction. He may succeed for a time, but the more besotted he becomes, the less capable he is.
There are so many nuggets of wisdom and Truth in just the “Introduction” to this work, and I haven’t touched on all of them. I encourage everyone to read through the full “Introduction”—and the entire book—as soon as possible. Reading it now, some seventy-one years after its original publication, is sobering due to its prophetic nature. The situation Weaver described has not improved. It is imperative, now more than ever, that we consume Weaver’s work and begin pushing for a revival of religious belief and a traditional view of the cosmos, and our place in it.