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Originally published: 1948
187 pages
Chapter 35


Richard M. Weaver

Richard Weaver's attempt to sort out modern society is perhaps the most difficult book to comprehend in the First Principles stable. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one relates to his insistence that a common understanding of man's ignorance (even in the middle of the twentieth century) is the essential starting point for any discussion of man's future. Ignorance, of course, represents a void. And comprehending a void is somewhat more difficult than addressing something-anything-more concrete.
     In an attempt to lift the fog that blocks both the present and what is to come, Weaver asks the reader to think in a broad manner, not just observe. The concepts he presents are philosophical and require expanding one's horizon to fully understand his meaning. As a result, even many reviewers and commentators who tackle Weaver's analysis and admonitions do not always agree on what they see or what he says. However, having observed the opportunity for confusion and the potential complications, Ideas Have Consequences is still more than worth any labor devoted to its consumption.
     To understand Weaver's approach, we can start with a specific instance of his fidelity to both precision and comprehension by investigating a solitary concept: discrimination. Discrimination is a word with many meanings. The negative connotations-suggestive of when human beings become bullies or racists-are invariably ugly. The positive connotations, which recall our attempts to separate what is good from what is better and strive for what is best, refer to some of life's


beautiful moments. In Ideas Have Consequences Weaver investigates the upside of discrimination.
     His core psychological comprehension is perhaps his most interesting: we Americans sometimes look upon excellence, which is the result of applied discrimination, with suspicion. We wonder whether excellence might somehow be undemocratic, or even unfair. This misunderstanding is usually the result of those who confuse our egalitarian passion (equal opportunity) with equalitarian expectations (equal results), and concentrate more on the latter than the former.
     Writing after World War II, Weaver sees a small hope amid the massive physical and moral destruction of the war. His oblique optimism rests on the idea that critical, discriminating thinking is the necessary starting point for achievement in any endeavor, and is especially needed in making something positive out of the insanity of the world war just concluded. To be of value, such thinking has to proceed methodically from initial facts or premises to logical conclusions. Weaver's initial inquiry reflects author Karl Popper's maxim: "First, get the question right" (Chapter 39).
Weaver writes to dispel notions that transcendentalism, which calls for most things to be explained mystically, has any significant impact in the everyday world of human existence. Transcendentalism is important, he notes, but not as an explanation for temporal things (e.g., why the stoplight turns from red to green). In Weaver's opinion, mixing transcendental sentiments with real-world problems
often causes fallacious thinking. An example of this might be combining too literally the temporal social safety net and biblical injunctions to care for the poor.
     Weaver sees the degeneration of thought, action, and accountability, and the concomitant rise of materialism, as the causes of an increasingly amoral society. To Weaver, integrity in the system of relationships and accountability among individuals and organizations is of paramount importance to an ordered society. Without systemic integrity, hollow terms such as "situational ethics" become common coin. Society moves from entertaining a concept such as situational ethics, to testing it, to finally accepting it-to society's moral confusion and increasing detriment. The prime caustic example is the ethical carnage caused by former President Bill Clinton, who by his very actions denied that leadership, morals, and personal responsibility apply to all, regardless of their position. Although the electorate now apparently readily forgives the egregious personal misconduct of those who openly and


freely confess it, this hardly repairs the damage done by such wrongdoing to the social web of trust in a moral society. In Weaver's view, it is patent that both ideas and actions have consequences.
     Interestingly, while watching the explosion of commerce in the late 1940s, Weaver foresaw the future ubiquity of the media and its power to confuse as well as educate. He feared that the inability or unwillingness of people to sort through unmanageable amounts of information and misinformation (and even disinformation) would cause them to defer necessary decisions. Those decisions might then end up being made for them by others.
     In 1948 (curiously the same year in which George Orwell published his uncanny futuristic novel 1984) Weaver appreciated how the amount of available information (the ultimate quantity of which he had only a hint) confused or simply overwhelmed people. For Orwell's characters the solution was information control, which easily led to thought control. For Weaver, who lived and wrote in a real world, individual effort and fortitude were the tools necessary to get through the information muddle, so that first principles would not easily become masked. The minutiae and the fragmentation of whole paradigms had a tendency to obscure the truth. Weaver sought to clear away the obstructions simply by paying attention. Intellectual muscle, not magic, would bring clarity to confusion.
     Weaver strives to unmask the integrity hidden inside the insidious growth of information; he seeks to rediscover the ideas that are foundational to our society, ideas that ought to guide our actions. He simply calls for the intellectual integrity that allows us to both understand what is good-and better and best-and then suggests that we set a course rooted in principle to get us there. Weaver ultimately sees no separation between morality and integrity and the everyday realities of our individual lives. How we live reflects the ideas in which we believe. As evidenced in both our experience and millennia of history, we ignore this logical relationship at our peril.
     Skirting metaphysics and any direct appeal to religion, Weaver takes his bearings from a point of accepted and common understanding, namely, that each human being has an innate sense of what is right and how people ought to behave. At an early age, this precious understanding emerges from a sense of wonder that Weaver esteems as the spur driving human beings to think, assess, and then decide (discriminate). In the modern age, when our choices are supposedly unlimited, we can feel paralyzed by the stunning amount of information


with which we have to deal-and the details and trivializations offered as substance. Eventually, we lose a sense of certainty in our ability to make judgments and set a course of action or a mode of behavior. Weaver puts it directly:

               We live in an age that is frightened by the very idea of certitude. . . .

     The loss of nerve as we face repeated demands for our immediate attention discounts reflection, destroys contemplation, and defames common sense. We become disengaged or-still worse-puppets who are manipulated by others. Our sense of wonder disappears as we are cowed by the need to make too many decisions based on a confusion of conflicting information. As noted by other authors (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America [Chapter 8] and Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order [Chapter 4]), this confusion and information overload leads not to anarchy, as might be expected of people cut lose from expectations and purpose, but to an essential totalitarianism. The totalitarianism shows forth in cultural, political, and social arenas as citizens cede their responsibility for exercising critical assessment and judgment. This is where political correctness gains a toehold.
     Weaver also looks at sentiment-his term to denote our feelings for one another, and for both past and future generations-as the way human beings connect with life. Lives lived purely in response to stimuli are mostly sterile and meaningless; a life must have points of reference to have any inherent value. Problems can arise when we recognize that our freedom allows us to abuse our freedom-to be free of even responsibility. We ultimately become free to ignore anything of value in human relations. When this happens, Weaver writes that we risk descending not into chaos, but loneliness-or worse, pointlessness. Weaver aims to bring us back to one another through shared values. Such values frame the sentiments that we have for one another; they help us to refrain from abusing our personal freedoms, and each other.
     Weaver's next step involves analyzing how cultural and other authority emerges. He recognizes that any value system giving structure to a society must allow for a social hierarchy to maintain that structure. The essence of hierarchy is nothing other than a further effect of discrimination-the making of choices as to who will lead or make decisions, in concert with the people. That hierarchy is useful, and


ultimately inevitable in a free society where inequality is unavoidable, is another recurrent theme in First Principles. Many authors deal with the effects Weaver's observations offer regarding hierarchical social relationships, but the core point is that a social entity cannot exist without hierarchical control-no matter how much the politically correct equalitarians might otherwise contend.
     Granted, the idea of constructing various hierarchies conflicts with a naive notion of equality and unfettered freedom (which, of course, is the definition of anarchy). In the wrong hands, adherence to a hierarchical model could be termed anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic, and even anti-intellectual, but it actually has no sinister implications. Much time has been devoted to this concept by many authors over the course of the last three centuries. This is because of the number of negative possibilities that can eventuate when the necessity to have someone in charge in any social configuration is realized. As Russell Kirk observes in The Roots of American Order, the first element of society is order, and the first elements of order are law and hierarchy. In simplistic theory, a just society is one in which there are no levels of distinction among individuals. However, a classless, leaderless society cannot work except in a most primitive setting. Even then, it won't work well, and it won't work for long. Human nature does not allow that.
     Human beings are not and cannot be made equal, nor would they want perfect equality given the full measure of what that would entail. Likewise, it is simply not possible for each of us to treat every other person in equal measure. We would not choose the first person in line to pilot our
airplane, perform our surgery, handle our lawsuit, run our country, or be our best and perfect friend. In terms of making qualitative choices, discrimination is only natural.
     The core of Weaver's comprehension of human relations is the idea of individual dignity irrespective of personal capability or achievement. This dignity, Weaver stresses, can be maintained only through respect of and adherence to personal integrity. Discipline learned in this fashion spills over into social integrity-with all the positive effects of that transition. When Ideas Have Consequences is digested whole, it is seen that the entire thrust of Weaver's effort leads to an understanding of the importance of those first principles enunciated throughout the entire American experience-from the Declaration of Independence forward. The discipline to effect such understanding, and an active realization of the correlation between first principles and the real


world, are responsibilities that devolve not on "the people"-but on each of us individually. To complete that circuit is not easy-it requires paying close attention to all that life represents. Yet, Weaver argues not only that it can be done, but that we all can do it-if we take the time to understand the importance of the whole.
     In his recitation, Weaver is sometimes as pessimistic in 1948, when he ponders the future of America as a nation, as the communists and socialists of that time were optimistic about achieving their aims. Their goals seemed to be within their grasp. To some, socialism still seems potentially desirable, until one recalls that human beings vary so much in makeup, personality, and in their reaction to the human condition from which we all suffer, that an equalitarian solution is unworkable. That brings one full circle to Weaver's title premise-ideas do have consequences. Actions do, as well. It is the combination, and the integrity of our application of these two realities, that makes progress possible.
     As knowledge was dispersed and wisdom often disappeared in the mass, Weaver's observation that what we know should tell us what we don't know, led him to call for an understanding of the humility knowledge brings. Unfortunately for mankind, in spite of the obvious validity of Weaver's concern, we may have ended up at the opposite end of the spectrum, being guided or even ruled by our pride in possessing so much information.
     Weaver's thoughts from 1948 are antithetical to modern society's superficiality, and time has proven that his observations are probably more valid now than they were sixty years ago. Although many today believe that whatever is, is right, Weaver knew better-he knew in his heart of man's fabulous ability to careen off course. He contended that a ubiquitous relativism, to justify any personal philosophy, was essentially a disbelief in truth. Denying the existence of truth makes us skeptical of any notion of certitude and leads to a counterfeit interpretation of life's value and meaning. The shallowness of modern society's glut of information has eroded our confidence in determining the truth and acting upon it. Weaver believed in truth. Probably most importantly for Weaver, truth leads to morality-the two characteristics that must underpin our existence. He recognized our fear of sharing his belief, and he saw that we will come to ruin unless we discern truth and the existence of truth, and act accordingly. These are the consequences of which he warned


About the Author
Richard Weaver was not a politician; he was a teacher, an observer and, above all else, a writer. His roots lay in the South; he spent much of his life studying that region and attempting to explain its ways. After successive degrees from the University of Kentucky (BA), Vanderbilt University (MA), and Louisiana State University (Ph.D.), he taught English at the University of Chicago and wrote poetry, essays, and criticism. His investigations into rhetoric, culture, and composition were his
professional milieu. He studied his surroundings and believed, whether he always stated it directly or not, in George Santayana's aphorism that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. As might be expected of such an intellectual, Weaver was reclusive and focused his attention on those matters that inspired him. He was born in 1910 and died in 1963.

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