Ideas Have Consequences" and Biased Reason
In 1948 the University of Chicago Press first published a little book by Richard M. Weaver entitled Ideas Have Consequences which
met a response far beyond anything anticipated by the author. The book was written in the period immediately following the second World War, and it was in a way a reaction to that war—to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought....
It is a work of philosophy to the extent that it tries to analyze many features of modern disintegration by referring them to a first cause. This was a change that overtook the dominant philosophical thinking of the West in the fourteenth century, when the reality of transcendentals was first seriously challenged....
The book was intended as a challenge to forces that threaten the foundations of civilization . . .4
The book was published in paperback format in 1976 and required or collateral reading in colleges for many years. This writer first read it for a course named "Business and Society" in the late 1970s. Interestingly enough it was assigned in the name of fairness by a scholarly professor who was both a political conservative and a determined atheist, and who thought it represented the classical conservative Christian position. However, Ideas Have Consequences is seriously, even irremediably flowed from the biblical Christian perspective.
It is true that Weaver makes a number of subsidiary points Christians can accept. On the first page he castigates the theory of history asserting that
the most advanced point in time represents the point of highest development, aided no doubt by theories of evolution which suggest to the uncritical a kind of necessary passage from simple to complex. Yet the real trouble is the appalling problem of getting men to distinguish between better and worse.2
Weaver deplores the loss of man's faith in a reality transcending the senses, and with that loss the abandonment of the doctrine of original sin. He stresses the importance of form for culture, rightly stating that "unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance."3 He scathingly condemns the invasion of privacy and the scandal-mongering and tendentious reporting of the news media (already long before the advent of television). For example, he quotes the British educator and literary critic Matthew Arnold who wrote after a tour of the United States in 1888 that "if one were searching for the best means to efface and kill in a whole nation the discipline of self-respect, the feeling for what is elevated, he could do no better than take the American newspapers."4 Weaver calls the media obscene because it displays for sensation-hungry masses, and for material gain, "scenes of intense private grief," and adds, "The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost."5 This is true enough, but Weaver does not say that human personhood is founded upon the biblical creation of man in God's own image and likeness. Prominent Christians who unlike Weaver speak openly, explicitly and unabashedly as Christians share his hostility toward today's perverted "news reporting." C. S. Lewis, for instance, loathed the daily press, in particular articles aimed at the subversion of intellectual public opinion leaders. The great Russian Christian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivered a devastating condemnation of the Western news media in his prophetic June 1978 commencement address at Harvard.6
Weaver correctly states that modern education has shifted from the medieval ideal of preparing man for immortality to the materialist-utilitarian goal of preparing him to live successfully in this world. Modern education is failing "because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice . . . without which there is no training in intellectual discipline."7 The need for a source of authority is imperative in modern egalitarian, inherently anarchistic society. Weaver points out that the modern notion of infinite material progress has produced "economic man, whose destiny is mere activity."3 Furthermore, modern excessive specialization in work and research has led to an impoverished and limited world vision, the evil of scientism, and the fragmentation and relativism of modern philosophy. Weaver sees it as the cause of the decline of a "liberally educated class" in Western culture today.
Christians can agree most with Weaver's discussion of modern egotism in work and art, "a consequence of that fatal decision to make a separate self the measure of value."9 Here is one of the rare places where Weaver does not hesitate to speak of sin "The sin of egotism always takes the form of withdrawal"10 from the community. Learning in the Middle Ages, on the other hand, led to humility according to Weaver, culminating in "Dante's In la sua voluntode e nostra pace [which] is the final discovery."4 ~ This quote ("In His will is our peace") is the closest Weaver comes to explicit Christianity and its faith in the personal, sovereign God and Creator of Scripture in the entire book. This chapter is reminiscent of the theme of Francis Schaeffer is incomparable and unashamedly Christian How Shall We Then live? Occasional praiseworthy statements and quotes are also strewn through the book's last chapters where Weaver suggests means to rescue Western civilization.
With so much that is laudable, it is all the more sad, yet absolutely crucial, to single out those essential features of the book which Bible-believing Christians must reject. To begin with, Weaver "tried, as far as possible, to express the thought of this essay in secular language."12 The implicit rationale for this approach is to facilitate dialogue with "secular" thinkers (that is, unbelievers). This inherently dishonest method is based upon the fallacy, dating back to ancient pagan-Greek thought, that man's "natural reason" furnishes a genuinely objective or neutral ground for "Socratic-style" discussion through which "truth" may be found. However, according to the Bible man's reason along with man himself is fallen, and it is therefore biased in favor of unbelief and rebellion against God and true, God-created reality. Today even unbelievers themselves admit that there is no such thing as "unbiased" human thought. Accordingly, Socratic dialogue can only produce consensus, not truth.
In addition, the disguised "secular" mode of reasoning with unbelievers simply breaks down in the end. Weaver himself admits that "there are points where it has proved impossible to dispense with appeal to religion."13 The believing Christian cannot say what he really wants and feels it his duty to say in strictly secular language. He literally cannot help pointing ultimately to the Almighty, All-Knowing, lust, merciful and loving personal God of the Bible "in Whose will is our peace." Because this is so, unbelievers (like this writer's professor) are not fooled by a Christian's assumed secularism. Neither are they mollified or seduced into acceptance of that "transcendental reality" Weaver defends.
On occasion Weaver refers to the biblical record of the Fall and to Greek myths in the same breath: "In Greek fable, as in Christian, it is asserted that there is a forbidden knowledge which brings nothing into the world but woe."14 Consistent with this contempt for the inerrancy and supreme authority of Scripture affirmed by all faithful Christians, Weaver does not include a reading of the Bible (or even of the early, universally esteemed Church Fathers, for that matter) in his proposals for reversing the cultural decline of the West. Instead he recommends the study of "literature and rhetoric...Iogic and [Socratic] dialectic" to popular education, as well as of foreign languages including Latin and Greek, in order to renew people's appreciation of words as "means of effecting order." Again, the basis of the importance of the correct use of language in Biblical creation is only as it were smuggled in at the end: "If the world is to remain cosmos, we shall have to make some practical application of the law that in the beginning was the word"15 Why does he omit all mention of the fact that this is a quote from John 1:1, and that this "Word" at the beginning "was with God, and was God"? As it stands, the statement is fuzzy and falsely "spiritual," an impression left by much else in the book and the one sure result of mixing "secularism" with "transcendentals."
Throughout the book there is an unwarranted hostility toward the middle class, commerce and "bourgeois complacency." Weaver's favorite is the medieval doctor of philosophy, comparable to Plato's philosopher kings, followed by the "gentleman" who in turn was superseded by virtual anarchy as the modern "specialist" rose to prominence. For Weaver, "speculative wisdom" or philosophy is somehow higher and nobler than science and technology. This is the elitist attitude of ancient Greece, especially Plato, presumably Weaver's favorite philosopher. He certainly prefers him to the more this-worldly Aristotle:
The way was prepared for the criteria of comfort and mediocrity when the Middle Ages abandoned the ethic of Plato for that of Aristotle. The latter's doctrine of rational prudence compelled him to declare in the Politics that the state is best ruled by the middle class. For him, the virtuous life was an avoidance of extremes, a middle course between contraries considered harmful. Such doctrine leaves out of account the possibility . . . that virtues like courage and generosity may be pursued to an end at which man effaces himself
Here the conception of Plato—expressed certainly, too, by Christianity stands in contrast.... A life accommodated to this world was what [Aristotle] proposed for his son Nicomachus
In Thomism, based as it is on Aristotle, even the Catholic Church turned away from the asceticism and the rigorous morality of the patristic fathers to accept a degree of pragmatic acquiescence in the world.16
Although Weaver devotes an entire chapter to private property as supposedly "the last metaphysical right," he does not really embrace it as good, does not see private enterprise as its extension, and has no good words whatever for commerce and industrial expansion as expressions of man's creativity. He totally overlooks the biblical concept of property as stewardship under God. His ideal world is that of medieval Europe with its rigid social hierarchy, its institutionalized inequality and poverty, and, expressly, its limitation of individual opportunity and material progress.
In his justified criticism of contemporary social fragmentation, utilitarianism and materialism he overlooks the different but also very real fallacies besetting the Middle Ages. Among them were the imbalance between "nature" and "grace," supposedly separate realms, and the related effort to reason from "nature"-based and supposedly universally accepted premises to the other worldly, transcendental world of "ideas," and even God. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned from motion observed in this world to an Aristotelian "unmoved mover," which he then called "God." In fact all of his celebrated five proofs for God's existence are arguments from this world's contingency upon an other, higher, transcending world, which is not by logical necessity the personal God of Scripture. St. Thomas also postulated the reality of universals (a concept taken from Plato's "Ideas"), whereas William of Ockham, the chief philosopher of the "nominalist" school, ascribed true reality only to particulars. Ockham's view prevailed, a fact in which Weaver sees the root cause of modern materialism empiricism. Be that as it may (a separate book would be needed for adequate discussion), the faith of the Middle Ages relied primarily upon the reasoning of men (Weaver's "doctors of philosophy") as though the living God and Creator of the universe could be, or could assent to be merely the postulate of men's intellectual speculations. From the biblical Christian perspective, however, our faith "should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (I Corinthians 2:5), and therefore the defender of the Christian faith must act "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" rather than "with enticing words of man's wisdom" (I Cor. 2:4). God, of course, knew, converted and kept His own, true faithful in all ages, including the Middle Ages with their unbiblical appeal to "man's wisdom"; this writer is convinced St. Thomas Aquinas was God's true and faithful son. Nevertheless the very notion that man's reason and philosophy can validly undergird true Christian faith is but "wood, hay, stubble" built upon the true foundation, "which is Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 3:11, 12). Significantly, St. Thomas himself grieved on his deathbed because he felt all his work was but "straw" in God's sight.
Weaver, alas, also builds with "wood, hay and stubble" in his veritable adulation of human reason as the panacea for man's ills. In addition, and this is the fatal flow of Ideas Have Consequences, his foremost concern is not the glory of God and truth. These are but means to his real end, which is the rescue of civilization. On this point he never dissembles; he tells us already in his foreword that his book was meant to be "a challenge to forces that threaten the foundations of civilization." On this aim, of course, he can have dialogue with unbelievers. But Bible-believing Christians can never agree to the use—the exploitation—of the lord and Creator of all things as the mere servant of civilization (though it is terribly true that only He can sustain and save it). It would be to make civilization a god above God. It would be to violate the First Commandment. To do so is to insure that civilization, now become an idol, is destroyed by our One and Only True God Who cannot share His majesty and glory with the flowed works of fallen men. When the civilization of Rome was at stake, Christians knew better than to place its preservation above the God of Scripture—and so
they helped a new and more glorious civilization rise from Rome's ashes.
The fallacies of Ideas Have Consequences are shared by many critics of Western society today. For example, in his 1987 best-seller The Closing of the American Mind philosophy professor Allan Bloom, like Weaver, deplores the decline of liberal education in today's college curricula and the specialization, fragmentation, and career-directed utilitarianism of students. His remedy, like Weaver's, is a return to the "Great Books," that is, the writings by Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers, so life, ethics, values and goals may be examined under their superior reason and guidance. Similarly Mortimer Adler has achieved fame in education with his "Paideia Proposal" recommending the reading of the "Great Books" as well as use of the "Socratic method" in the high schools of America. Anything but the absolute reality created, sustained and ruled by the God of Scripture!
In conclusion, while Bible-believing Christians can find much that is acceptable in books such as Ideas Have Consequences, they must reject the dishonesty of "secular language"; the notion that man's reason is somehow not fallen and can find neutral ground for dialogue with unbelievers; any and all forms of denial of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture; attempts to substitute men's philosophical formulations for God Himself and His Word; and the idolatry of the works of men's own hands and minds, including civilization. Ostensibly classical, "conservative" education without God cannot save and restore our nation or culture any more than the tried-and-false "progressive" education. As a matter of fact, the two are but branches from the same root, man's apostate reason exalting itself against the Creator Who alone has the power and wisdom to guide and prosper him.
1 Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (The University of Chicago Press, 1948, Midway Reprint 1976), Author's Foreword, v, vi.
2 Ibid., p. 1.
3 Ibid., p. 25.
4 Ibid., p. 28.
5 Ibid., p. 29. The inhuman exploitation of the stunned grief of this writer's daughter by TV photographers at the scene where one of her children had just been killed in an accident brought this point unforgettably home to us all. The horror is that journalists are actually taught and encouraged to gather their "news" in this obscene manner!
6 See Creation SOCIQI Science and Humanities Quarterly. V: 1 (Fall 1982), pp. 24-25.
7 Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, p. 50.
8 Ibid., p. 51.
9 Ibid., p. 70.
11 Ibid., p. 72.
12 Ibid., p. 185.
14 Ibid. p. 72, and p. 182.
15 Ibid., p. 168, p. 167
16 Ibid., p.119.