Ideas Have Consequences Book Club: Introduction

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Today we begin our book club discussions of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. I always look forward to the conversations our book clubs have initiated, and I anticipate some particularly good ones with this book, as long as I can continue to make sense of what he says with my pregnancy-addled brain. As hostess and as mind-function-handicapped, I will likely stick to making the summary, and just join in on the rabbit trails and commentary of others. At least with a blog post I can take 2 hours to say something that fills 5 minutes, without anyone having to suffer through the bouts where my mind cannot recall the word it wants.

So, on to that summary, and please do join in the discussion in the comments here and on the linked blog posts (and, if you blog, do please join in with your own blog posts as you are able).

The book club schedule and explanation is here.


Weaver opens with this line:

This is another book about the dissolution of the West.

And then he gives a basic outline of his book:

  1. An account of the decline based on deduction — that the decline is because of choices freely and discernably made.
  2. A beginning of a proposed solution; there are consequences to the ideas he intends to propound, as well.

Later he states his thesis in these terms:

cultural decline is a historical fact – which can be established – and modern man has about squandered his estate.

Then he says we have numerous difficulties hampering our ability to see our situation clearly, roadblocks that prevent many from admitting the truth:

  • The progressive or evolutionary theory of history that believes history is a story of development and gains, of complexity from simplicity.
  • The refusal to distinguish between better and worse, to call one time or idea better than another. The refusal to make value judgments.
  • Bourgeois comforts have produced a populace “highly unreceptive to unsettling thoughts.”
  • Egoism – pride – precludes the humility needed for self-criticism.

Signs of societial decay:

  • Men cannot draw moral lessons or agree on values. Moral and value relativism reigns, though it is an incoherent system.
  • “At the height of modern progress” [so far, I would add; I doubt scientific & technological progress is nearly over, and it clearly wasn’t when he wrote this book], whole nations are desolated by war and violence is and hatred are not curbed (this was originally written after WWII).
  • Men do not read for knowledge, and even if they do, they do not arrive at understanding.

  • Men rarely experience satisfaction, contentment, and happiness in their work or leisure, despite technological and physical luxuries.

The foundational idealogical shift that paved the way for irrationality, he claims, began in the fourteenth century:

It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. […] The issue ultimately invovled is whether there is a source for truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind.

Certainly, one’s conception of what is truly real shapes everything else. Nominalism leads to materialism, the belief that nothing that cannot be perceived by the senses exists.

So, he claims, the path goes

denial of universals —> belief only in sense-perception as a source —> denial of the transcendent —> denial of truth —-> relativism; belief that man is the measure of all things —> amoralism; barbarism

The unexpressed assuming of empiricism is that experience will tell us what we are experiencing. […] the average man has become imbued with this notion and imagines that an industrious acquisition of particulars will render him a man of knowledge.

The gradual acceptance of nominalism led to the shift from believing that nature conforms to or imitates a transcendent model imperfectly (Plato’s forms; God the Creator as the source of logic & beauty, making a world that testifies about Himself) to a belief that it is its own law. So inquiry shifted from philosophical to scientific. Without a transcendent model to conform to, nature and humans cannot be said to be imperfect, and original sin is denied, leading to beliefs that all man needs is education or conditioning. If man is not the image of God, he is merely another animal; humanity is not special.

So, the development of nominalism led slowly but surely to deism (God created, but has no personal involvement), relativism (there are no absolutes), materialism (this world is all there is), Darwinism (humans are merely animals), Marxism (economics is the only causality), and behavorism (man can be understood & manipulated like rats in a maze).

There is no term proper to describe the condition in which he is now left unless it be “abysmality.” […] His life is practice without theory. As problems crowd upon him, he deepens confusion by meeting them with ad hoc policies.

Discussion Questions

Are our technologies merely “a splendid efflorescnece of decay”? Weaver says not to deal with this question in particulars, but by examining the point of civilization. I would begin by pointing out that creating technology (whether it be a wheel or a smart phone) is part of the dominion mandate, part of man’s design, calling, and purpose.

What do you think of his definition of happiness as “conscious vitality,” of staring down life as a strong runner surveys a race course?

Your Posts

11 Responses

  1. I love that you detailed “the path” because I almost did that myself! In the end, though, I had to think of my limited time this past week and this coming week, so I went for simple. :) I am SO looking forward to this book club. Thank you for hosting it, Mystie!

  2. Kelly
    | Reply

    I blogged through IHC with Cindy in 2007, only I didn’t get to do all the chapters “because of reasons,” as Eldest Daughter says when the reasons are too complicated to go into. Those posts were when I was blogging with WordPress, so they’re not available online any more, but they’re still in my Google Reader. Maybe I’ll dust them off and repost them. I’ve been wanting to re-read the book anyway.

    I love your summaries — they’re so clear and manage to cover everything in a little space.

    • Mystie
      | Reply

      Thank you, Kelly. :)

      That’d be great if you could repost them!

  3. Pilgrim
    | Reply

    I appreciate your overview of the chapter. There were a few quotes that I really liked that I want to highlight:

    “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”. That sums it up in a nutshell for me.

    I am a huge fan of literacy and reading and was taken aback by this Nietzche quote (of course I am considering the source): “Everyone being allowed to learn to read, ruineth in the long run not only writing but also thinking”. Waver’s comment: “We have given them a technique of acquisition: how much comfort can we take in the way they employ it?” makes me think of blogging in some ways – anybody can create an audience but does this make us more thoughtful? Of course there are some blogs that are fabulous :) – but being able to broadcast to the world does not do much for quality overall. So now we not only have a technique of acquisition we have a way to broadcast without a filter.

    You comment on lack of contentment and I appreciated his contrast between “the sense of abundance felt by older and simpler societies and the sense of scarcity . . . (in) societies today”. In part he describes how this is due to the fact that labor ceases to be functional – it doesn’t produce something that you can see, use, feel. Our transformation into a “service economy” and mass production has had greater impact than just our economy.

    I think this gets back to your question about technology. In our everyday use of technology I don’t think it helps form deeper relationships. The way we use it often takes us away from nature and a sense of true productivity. It also heightens our awareness of information and stuff but that further intensifies our sense of “wanting” and dissatisfaction. Although it can be used for good – I don’t see it improving relational lives and bringing deep satisfaction to people. (This obviously is not a comment on advances in medical technology).

    As to “conscious vitality” – I think we are overwhelmed with a flood of ideas and have no sense of their origin and influence over us. The 1828 dictionary definition of conscious is “Possessing the faculty or power of knowing ones own thoughts or mental operations.” I’m pretty sure this is NOT happening on a large scale. Vitality is producing action, animation and vigor. Again, I think technology gives us a sense of “action” but it is not real “life”. We are spectators and live vicariously. I guess you could rephrase it as “thoughtful animation” and I have to say that not many would qualify for that. Most of us just follow the neighbors. I think that this type of life does bring more happiness – but it requires a type of mental effort that is not often taught and rarely seen. As I learn more about first principles and “rules” of life I think that they try to address this lack of thoughtful living.

    Look forward to the conversation! I am thinking about starting my blog up again soon.

    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      I definitely understand what you mean, Pilgrim, but I’ve read so many “Modernity is nothing but awful” books that I realized I have to start pushing back on that just like most people might have to push back on mindlessly accepting technology.

      Generally speaking, technology has created a distracted, disengaged culture, I grant that. But, because of the internet & my husband working a computer-based job, we communicate much more than we would otherwise. We email & chat electronically throughout the day every work day, sharing funny things and frustrations, without interrupting the other with a phone call. And, then, when he comes home, we don’t really have “catch-up conversation” or “how was your day” conversation, because most days, we’ve been keeping up with each other all day. Likewise, my real-life friend who now lives 4 hours away and I know more about each other’s daily lives and are more connected now that our sharing is in short bits throughout almost every day via chat than when we formerly met once or twice a week. Virtual communication doesn’t replace face-to-face conversation, but it certainly complements it when used well.

      So is the problem with the technology itself or with the users? People at the time of the printing press (or even written language as opposed to oral tradition) bemoaned its effect on the populace; how far do we have to go back to be consistent? Is it just that we haven’t adjusted to the internet & all it entails yet? Or should we take the argument all the way and also do without mass produced books?

      Can we acknowledge that technology (internet, books, artificial light, transportation — all of it) changes people, relationships, and culture without having to pick sides that it is all bad or all good? What if it was both, regardless of what technology we speak? What if each progressive technology was just another development requiring wisdom of us? Granted, wisdom right now has fallen on hard times, but I think it would be better to bemoan a loss of wisdom than gains in our mastery of the world.

      • Pilgrim
        | Reply

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I was probably a little over-emphatic because the thought of questioning the “goodness” of technology is sort of a new thought for me. I have been part of the “everything new must be good” crowd for so long that I need to take time to step back, evaluate and realize that new/ progress is not the same as good. I do agree that it is use not technology itself that is “bad” or “good”. However, as it becomes more widely available and we become less wise and discerning in general – the combination is a little dangerous.

        Your comment about people bemoaning the printing press and other technologies is well taken and it makes me think of Weaver talking about needing to notice something at the moment the downfall begins. I don’t think the Internet is a “downfall”, but I think it does usher in a new way of relating and thinking and we need to recognize and possibly even mourn the loss and change.

        I guess the only other concern I have is that with the rapid advance of technology we are losing “old ways” of doing things quickly. That is not to say that “old ways” are necessarily better but I think there should be an “adding to” not a replacement approach. I guess that is one reason I want to homeschool so that my kids can learn some of the “old ways” and not just know methods that rely on an electrical outlet or something from the grocery store.

        • I think Mystie makes a good point that it is usually the USERS and not the technology per se. I say this, though, knowing that there are certain technologies that are not in our life specifically because we do not like their impact, regardless of their content or the “wisdom” of the user. I think, for instance, of video games. The question for us is often one of time–we think there is something our children could do with that time that is more valuable in every way (spiritually, physically, etc.) than to play them. This doesn’t mean we forbid them if we are at a party and someone has a game out. It just means we choose not to invite it home.

          I do find it interesting the impact that our low-tech house has on people when they visit. These things started out as a deliberate decision for us, but they are just the way we are now, if that makes sense. But our guests often find that they sleep a lot more. Our younger guests are bored–they don’t know what to do without a gadget to entertain them. They are fascinated (or concerned!) that our milk and eggs come out of animals and not stores. And so on. I don’t think of our house as particularly peaceful (we have four children, so…) but people often remark on it, and I think what they are remarking on is really the quiet and slower pace.

          Why am I saying all of this? I don’t know. I connect to that desire for the “old ways” though. I think that a connection to the old ways is really a respect for those who have gone before. Our low tech approach has really been a choice not to add something that is not specifically needed. That is why we have a computer and a mixer but not a cell phone. If we traveled a lot or something, we might make different choices. Ah! Door bell!

  4. Okay, I was thinking about my last jumbled comment. Usually I have time to refine my thoughts a little.

    I think the tension with technology is what to we gain vs. what do we lose. Or a better question might be what sort of culture results. Do we like it? Is the CULTURE superior to what we had before? So many technologies are simply for convenience, and where do we draw the line with that? When is convenience just catering to selfishness or laziness? Now that there aren’t good things. I think of Kindles. I still have a tension inside of myself over what I consider to be “unreal” books–books that could be wiped out if I suddenly didn’t have electricity. BUT the reality is that a Kindle makes words big enough that my grandma can read again, and that is a fact that seriously enriches her life.

    I think the biggest thing I mourn is the loss of in-real-life relationships. I’m not saying I don’t have any, but I have noticed that folks that LIKE to live without family now consider Skype and email and FB and telephone to be appropriate substitutes, but in reality nothing substitutes for daily living together in proximity. But for relatives in the military or mission work, this allows MORE of a connection. It really is a mixed bag…

    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      I think stepping back and examining what you let into your life in the first place is essential, even if different families end up coming to different conclusions. The real problem is just going with the flow and adapting without thinking about it at all. It absolutely stuns me how few people actually think about why they do what they do.

  5. Kelly
    | Reply

    Late to the game, as usual! After reading Brandy’s next-to-last comment here, I started writing a comment that got so long I decided to post it at my blog instead.

    Brandy, I very much agree with what you said in your last comment above, “what do we gain vs. what do we lose.”

    • Silvia
      | Reply

      I am even later!
      I read your post and the comments and I will have to come back and read all the comments in here as well.

      I am waiting for the book but I will join. Actually I added my post to the link.

      Thanks for hosting Mystie, and congrats on your pregnancy. I cannot wait to hear you had your baby, that all is well with you and with it, and to see what you name your baby.

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