Ideas Have Consequences (Richard M. Weaver)

There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot. So few are those who care to examine their lives, or to accept the rebuke which comes of admitting that our present state may be a fallen state, that one questions whether people now understand what is meant by the superiority of an ideal.


In what Robert Nisbet called “One of the few authentic classics in the American political tradition,”  Richard Weaver unsparingly diagnoses the ills of the modern age and offers a remedy. He asserts that the world is intelligible, and that man is free. The catastrophes of our age are the product not of necessity but of unintelligent choice. A cure, he submits, is possible. It lies in the right use of man’s reason, in the renewed acceptance of an absolute reality, and in the recognition that ideas, like actions, have consequences.

As Weaver explains:

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.

For Weaver, the crucial event in western civilization was the conclusion of a medieval debate which resulted in the defeat of logical realism by the doctrine of nominalism. Nominalism amounted to the denial of transcendentals, which leads to the denial of truth, and leaves man the measure of all things.

Thus from the Middle Ages to the present day, the paradigm of learning and enlightenment has denigrated from the philosophic doctor to the gentleman to the specialist, an arc that traces the downward course from a concern with knowledge for knowing truth to a base materialism more concerned with using knowledge for power. Knowledge, for the medieval idealists, was humility. Francis Bacon destroyed that when he declared that “knowledge is power”, making the aim of knowledge domination instead of understanding.

Richard M. Weaver spent most of his career teaching at the University of Chicago. Weaver sought to preserve and defend what he considered traditional principles of the American South. He believed that the South carried on many of the positive cultural traits of the Middle Ages and lamented the disappearance of those values.


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