Thursday, December 13, 2007

Book Review: Ideas Have Consequences by Richard M Weaver

This is a very interesting book. I highly recommend reading it. I found myself thoroughly disagreeing with most of it, but there is very little I could actually refute. The author's viewpoint is internally self-consistent and many readers may find it appealing.

Chapter 1 begins, "Every man participating in a culture has thre levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world". The title reflects the author's thesis that this metaphysical dream often has more influence over one's actions than do the specific ideas. An illustrative quote which I found astonishing: "The Schoolmen understood that the question, univeralia ante rem or univeralia post rem, or the question of how man angels can stand on the point of a needle, so often cited as examples of Scholastic futility, had incalculable ramifications, so that, unless there was agreement upon these questions, unity in practical matters was impossible."

He blames what he considers to be the decadence of the modern (1948) world on a shift in this metaphysical dream: "Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which his soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and -consuming animal".

Weaver acknowledges that the modern world has vastly more material productivity and knowledge of specific facts than the older world, but he considers these to be of comparitively little value. He asserts that although we know more specific facts, our understanding of things in general has atrophied. He considers the shift in attitude from one of duties to one of gain vs. loss to be of much greater significance, and quite harmful.

Weaver goes on to discuss how art has been corrupted by the idea that there is no reality beyond that perceived by the senses, how the sensible idea of equality before the law has been distorted to obliterate sensible distinctions between classes of persons (young and old, men and women), and many other topics. He covers quite a lot of ground in under 200 pages. A 21st century summary may make him sound like a senile coot raving about kids today, but reading the actual book he sounds quite sensible if not persuasive.

The last three chapters are about areas in which Weaver saw hope, although I'm sure he would have been appalled by what has happened since then. They are about how there remained respect for the concept of property as a metaphysical right, how words might again be regarded as having meaning as opposed to being merely symbols, and about repect for the virtues of piety and justice.

I think Weaver is correct that metaphysical beliefs do have consequences in human action, and rejection of belief in the transcendental probably was a necessary precursor for Nazism and Communism, and is at least partially responsible for the social ills that plague us today. But I doubt that it can be helped. So far as I can tell there is no transcendental, and if there were we could not have any reliable knowledge of it.

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