“Ideas have consequences” is among the most enduring slogans of the conservative movement.
Introduced by the title of Richard M. Weaver’s 1948 book, the phrase became a synecdoche for conservatives’ belief that the catastrophes of the twentieth century—including the world wars, the rise of communism, and the Holocaust—had been permitted, or even caused, by the corruption of aesthetics, epistemology, theology, and political theory. According to historian George Nash, “this was the message of the proliferating critiques of liberalism in the early postwar years. Liberalism, with its cult of the suspended judgment, was flabby and confused; it had too long allowed itself to be seduced, even raped, by totalitarian ideologies. In its relativistic, bend-over-backward, secular, scientistic, pragmatic way, it was…undermining a civilization in which it no longer believed.”
Some so-called New Conservatives traced the rot to the critique of natural rights by Victorian-era intellectuals. Weaver’s diagnosis was distinctive in locating the crucial mistake much earlier. Weaver contended that “Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient cause of other evil decisions” all the way back in the fourteenth century. In his judgment, “the defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.”
Russell Kirk recalled that Weaver wanted to call the book in which he developed this argument “The Fearful Descent.” Sensing that this title would not exactly thrill the public, the director of the University of Chicago Press insisted on Ideas Have Consequences. Biographer Joseph Scotchie reports that Weaver hated the change and threatened to cancel the book’s publication. But Weaver’s editor had good marketing instincts. “Ideas have consequences” so perfectly encapsulated Weaver’s contention that philosophical argument is the motor of history that it remains familiar even as Weaver himself has sunk into obscurity.
Perhaps Weaver was wise to prefer the less catchy formulation, though. The degeneration of “ideas have consequences” into a cliché reflects, and may even encourage, a dangerously reductive tendency in conservative thought.
Arguments by philosophers do influence the course of human events. But they are not the only things that matter—and not always the most important.
Weaver was aware of the limitations of his own claim. He explicitly acknowledged that Ideas Have Consequences could be criticized for deriving vast and complicated effects from a single and rather abstruse cause. But he thought the criticism worth accepting in order to defend human freedom against deterministic philosophies of history, especially Marxism. It was with such philosophies in mind that Weaver insisted “that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.”
Note the qualifications that Weaver, a most careful writer, packs into these sentences. He asserts that conscious policies are not mere rationalizations of unperceived influences and that conceptions of human destiny have large but not unobstructed power. He does not claim that “unaccountable forces” have no influence on politics or that “basic ideas” are the source of all human actions . In Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver aimed to show that we are not subjects of an historical process over which we have no control. The unforgettable title, however, implies a pessimistic alternative to the linear, unitary, and ultimately freedom-denying ways of thinking that Weaver opposed.
Despite Weaver’s stipulations, the idea that modern history is an inexorable movement toward collapse derived from a specific intellectual error that acquired a powerful role in conservative thought.
In the decade that followed the appearance of Ideas Have Consequences, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin (with whom Weaver studied at Louisiana State University) published even more influential accounts of the decline of the West. Weaver had presented the “nominalist” critique of universals as the original sin of modernity. For Strauss, the fatal turn occurred nearly two centuries later, with Machiavelli’s encouragement to pursue the “effectual truth” rather than the Greek ideal of theoretical wisdom. For his part, Voegelin contended that the problem emerged more than a millennium before the nominalists, with the “gnostic” pursuit of perfect understanding.
As their correspondence indicates, Strauss and Voegelin differed on many issues, including the role of Christianity in these developments. Both, however, offered readers a similar message: that the horrors of the modern age were, if not inevitable, then predictable consequences of bad ideas introduced long ago.
Writing as a critic of historical reductionism, I do not want to be reductive in my interpretations of important books. Read carefully and with due attention to the milieus in which they appeared, books like Ideas Have Consequences, Natural Right and History, and The New Science of Politics do not substitute intellectual determinism for economic determinism. Nevertheless, the sweeping rhetoric and extraordinary learning that these works display makes their limitations difficult to perceive. Combined with the psychological appeal of “secret histories” that place readers among a small elite who perceive the real sources of otherwise bewildering events—essentially, the gnostic temptation that Voegelin feared they helped propagate a version of the distortion that they were written to oppose.
The temptation to combat theories of progress with deterministic theories of decline survives in recent conservative polemics against liberalism. Although some of their challenges are well-founded, many critics suggest that the last several hundred years have been an ever-faster plunge down a slippery slope that begins with Francis Bacon and concludes with Justice Anthony Kennedy. According to Patrick Deneen, the dysfunction of our political institutions and corruption of civic and family life are the result of a “political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later.”
As I argued in a review of Deneen’s important book Why Liberalism Failed, this claim gives too much importance to ideas. A constitutional government—let alone a whole society—is more than the plaything of its philosophers and writers. If historiography that ignores intellectual influences is deaf to the theories that inspire and justify our actions, then one that emphasizes them to the exclusion of other causes is blind.
Ideas do have consequences, but modern history is more than a fearful descent.
Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at the George Washington University, where he is executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom. He is also literary editor of Modern Age. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect positions of the George Washington University or the Loeb Institute.
Complement with Sam Goldman on the dilemma that nationalism causes for conservatives, Ralph McInerny's quick guide to philosophy, and Jessica Hooten Wilson on the 10 books you need to read before graduation.
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