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“: