Ideas Have Consequences

Written By Will Schultz

Ideas Have Consequences was a 1948 book by conservative intellectual Richard M. Weaver. Weaver, an English professor at the University of Chicago, argued that culture, society, and truth itself were disintegrating in the modern age. His book was a tremendous influence in the history of American conservatism.

Weaver, born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1910, turned to socialism in college. However, he came under the influence of the conservative scholar John Crowe Ransom while studying at Vanderbilt University. Eventually Weaver abandoned the “liberal clichés” of his youth. After receiving his doctorate from Louisiana State University, Weaver began teaching English at the University of Chicago. It was at Chicago that he was inspired to write Ideas Have Consequences. While meditating on the causes of World War II, Weaver realized that modern man was a “moral idiot.” He decided to write a book explaining this problem. He finished Ideas Have Consequences—originally titled The Fearful Descent—in 1947, and it was published early the next year.

Ideas Have Consequences opened with the gloomy line “This is another book about the dissolution of the West.” Weaver believed humans had become “moral idiots” because they had abandoned their belief in absolute truth. Without this truth, the ideas of “good” and “evil” lost all meaning. Weaver also criticized the Western belief in equality. He argued that some people are, in fact, better than others, and that every society needs a ruling class. Weaver suggested several ways to restore order to the world. First, he believed that everyone should be guaranteed some small amount of property. Property, he wrote, was a “metaphysical right” that allowed people to live in freedom. Second, he called for a renewed study of language, literature, and poetry. Finally, he wanted to restore the virtue of piety. Together, these changes would unify the shattered world.

To Weaver’s surprise, Ideas Have Consequences quickly sold out its first printing of 7,500 copies. The book inspired strong reactions; as Weaver himself said, “People seem to be for or against it violently.” One reviewer called it a “pompous fraud” and “essentially evil.” But another praised Weaver as an “inspired moralist.” Conservatives now consider the book a classic. National Review editor Frank S. Meyer described Ideas Have Consequences as the origin “of the contemporary American conservative movement.” Though Weaver died in 1963, his book remains in print even today.