Book Review: Ideas Have Consequences

As indicated in my first post, the blog’s first few posts will feature material which I have already written. This post was originally written as an assignment for a Christian Philosophy class. Ideas Have Consequences was one of the most enjoyable books I read during my seminary career, and hopefully the review below will inspire readers of the blog to check out this classic work that was far ahead of its time.

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Image courtesy wikepedia.org

In his political-philosophical classic, Ideas Have Consequences, former University of Chicago English professor Richard M. Weaver seeks to diagnose the root cause of the social maladies which had arisen at the time of the book’s publishing directly following the Second World War.  In addition to proposing a diagnosis of the problems, he also posits a three-part corrective.  Weaver’s thesis may be ascertained from the outset of the book. Weaver’s thesis is “that the world is intelligible and that man is free and that those consequences we are now experiencing are the product not of biological or other necessity but of unintelligent choice” (p. 1). Accordingly, an idea foundational to Weaver’s line of argument is that “the denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience” (p. 4). Such a denial, in Weaver’s estimation, leads inevitably to traceable and predictable societal degradation.

As was just mentioned, Weaver develops his argument in two main parts. Part one includes the introduction through chapter six. Beginning with the introduction, Weaver sketches a broad philosophical history, laying the groundwork for arguments made in following chapters. Chapters one through six trace various stages, expressions and consequences of social degeneration which come as distinct consequences of the choices made and beliefs held by society. Part two consists of the last three chapters of the book in which Weaver proposes measures which he believes will act as correctives to the social degradation that has already taken place, as well as act as a preventative to the looming repercussions which have not, as yet, been realized.

In the course of his argument, Weaver exposes a causal chain of ideas that have led unavoidably to a downward spiral of moral and philosophical decay. Man’s ability to know the truth based on universals must be accepted from the outset. A failure to accept universals has led to a society which despises distinctions and truth claims. Men are thus focused merely on what can be empirically observed. A resulting selfishness has pervaded society, expressing itself in music, art, literature, employment, and other areas. This selfishness is buttressed by a desensitizing media machine, leaving an entire generation unfit for rightly ordered living. The remedy, says Weaver, is practice of the right to private property, the power and sufficiency of language, and selfless piety.

Weaver’s case is compelling and his thesis is supported throughout. His book stands not only as a fine piece of literature, but more importantly as a keen diagnosis for the root illness of a society with a diverse array of symptoms.  Weaver’s notion that universals are the necessary philosophical foundation for a rightly ordered society finds ample justification.  It finds justification not only in Weaver’s day, but in ours as well.

Weaver’s book is not entirely without shortcomings. Some of his deductions about the nature and motivation of cultural minutia seem, at times, contrived. His forceful and lengthy rejection of jazz music as barbarous, for instance, while very entertaining, finds itself discredited by the silly claim that syncopated rhythm is merely a outworking of egotistical man’s wish to gain that for which he has not worked. Nevertheless, Weaver’s sharp eye for the causal relationships of ideas gives him a perspective that transcends the limitations of an immediate historical context and makes his work applicable in our own modern societal landscape. Much of the social decay that Weaver sought to address in the middle of the twentieth century has since been exacerbated, making his work more relevant and recommended than ever.

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