MEET THE REAL RICHARD WEAVER: Richard Weaver (1910-1963), a farmer and English professor at the University of Chicago, is best known for his book Ideas Have Consequences. When the stock market crash of 1929, triggered the "Great Depression", it seemed to most Americans that socialism was the only remedy potent enough to "save free enterprise from itself." Ideas Have Consequences is credited with providing inspiration for those lonely souls who remained opposed to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal after World War II. Thus, it earned him the title "Father of the American Conservative movement." About a decade after the book was published in 1948, Weaver looked back with some amazement at its success, but remained pessimistic about meaningful reform. "The tendency to look with suspicion upon excellence, both intellectual and moral, as ‘undemocratic’, "shows no sign of diminishing." he lamented.
Historical context. Animated by a vision of political Darwinism, policy makers of the early 20th Century sought power in order to direct the forces of evolution via social engineering. The stage was set in 1913, a year that witnessed the inauguration of the Federal Reserve System, the federal income tax and the direct election of Senators (17th Amendment) - a triple blow to freedom in the United States.
The United States embarked on its long experiment with neo-socialism as the alleged antidote to the stock market crash of 1929. For the first time in American history, Franklin Roosevelt harnessed the raw power of coercive taxation to redistribute wealth, and a spiritually sluggish populace became hooked on the politics of envy. Roosevelt seized on the crisis of World War II to accelerate the trend toward centralization of power. This was a global conflict in which all sides abused previously accepted rules of civilized warfare, punctuated with Allied use of an atomic weapon on a civilian population to end the war (1945). Ideas Have Consequences appeared in 1948 as a penetrating critique of the new barbarism.
Summary of Weaver's teaching. Although not an evangelical Christian believer, Richard Weaver stands as a modern-day prophet against the bankruptcy of modernism. Weaver traced the decline of the West to the abandonment of transcendentals in the late 1400s. Specifically, he pointed to William of Occam as the man "who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism", and to him we could add accomplices such as Aquinas, Descartes and Bacon. Recall that the antithesis of nominalism is philosophical realism, which emphasizes universals as the source of ultimate truth, as in Plato's "forms".
Flowing from this new philosophical paradigm, Weaver indicts social cancers like our loss of social form and modesty, our mendacity or worldliness, our equation of fact and truth, our egalitarianism, and our mindless specialization of knowledge. The model for erudition has degenerated from the Doctor of Philosophy in the Middle Ages, to the Gentleman of the Enlightenment, to today's intellectually stunted, technical specialist.
Implications for subsequent history. Weaver has been credited with laying the intellectual foundations for the American Conservative movement. Trenchant though his analysis may be, Weaver falls short in recommending "the right use of man's reason" as the antidote for the social and spiritual ills of the West. He points to "the renewed acceptance of an absolute reality", but fails to identify Christianity as the ultimate source of that reality.
Egalitarianism produces a radical leveling in a supposed classless society. As a consequence Weaver demonstrated how the demise of social aristocracy and form leads to a relaxation of taboos, scatology and eventually a culture of pornography. These were the dynamics that accompanied the French Revolution and have become increasingly characteristic of American culture.
Even Weaver did not foresee the attacks upon private property that characterized the latter days of 20th Century America, although the very pervasiveness of the property tax in America should have been ample warning in 1948. Weaver held forth private property as a bastion of liberty that had not yet in his day felt the corrosive effects of government intrusion. At the turn of the 20th Century even that bastion was seen to be crumbling via the mechanism of bureaucratic rule making, federal set-asides and outright confiscation. Abuses of individual rights are typically excused with contrivances such as environmental protection or protecting the people from drug runners. As in the days of the Norman conquest, the king's forests belong to him alone and the penalty for "killing the king's deer" is now very steep.
Biblical analysis. The dominion mandate was given to the family, not to civil government (Gen. 1.28). Although he does not couch it in biblical terms, Weaver is correct in chastising the civil magistrate for hindering that assignment by asserting an unbiblical dominion over families. The Bible certainly defends a hierarchical social structure, which requires submission to superiors and kindness to inferiors (Eph 6:1-9). The leveling tendency inherent in the Democratic spirit is foreign to Scripture. Moreover, the Bible forbids government intrusion on the property rights of individuals: "The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property…." (Ezek 46:18).
Corrective or Prescriptive Actions: There is much to learn from Weaver's critique of the Western cultural malaise, but diagnosis is only half a remedy. Conservatism, by failing to address underlying spiritual maladies, can only exacerbate the disease. Nothing short of a thoroughgoing biblical Reformation can effect the necessary cure.