May 1, 1986 | Lecture on Political Thought
IDEAS, ACTIONS, AND CONSEQUENCES
By Morton C. Blackwell In my childhood I noticed the letters IES prominently displayed in our Episcopal Church: in stained glass, on woven altar cloths and elsewhere. Curious, I asked my father what IHS meant and w as told it stood for Latin words*meaning "In this sign."
Much later I learned that in 312 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine crushed a rival for his throne in the Battle of -the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber river. Before this famous battle Constantine repl aced with the Cross the traditional Roman eagle on the standards of his legions and painted Christian symbols on the shields of his men. Thereafter, Constantine, and his successors who ruled the .Eastern Roman Empire for more than a thousand years., flow banners including the Cross and the words In Hoc Signo Vinces,, "In this sign you shall conquer."
In the Latin church, the letters IHS came in time also to mean lesus Hominum Salvator, or Jesus, Savior of Man. The Jesuit order, founded in 1540, adopted IHS as its insignia. in our time the letters IHS are seen weekly,in church by millions of Christians in many denominations. Many of these millions have no idea what IES stands for although,, if presied,, they might acknowledge that IHS has some religious significance.
But there is more to the story of IHS than this. Classical scholars know that IHS,, as a Christian symbol, was originally from the Greek, in which iota (1), eta (H), sigma ( ) are the first three letters of Jesus (iota, eta, sigma, omicron, upsilon, sigma), which abbreviation looks very much like IHS. A peculiarity of Greek writing is that the letter sigma could be rendered in two fdrms,, the 11sigmatall form, much like our letter 'IS." and the I'lunatell form, much like our letter IIC.11 Thus the abbreviation of the name of Jesus in Greek could be spelled in English IHC.M orton C. Blackwell is President of The Leadership Institute. For the first three years of the Reagan Administration he was Special Assistant to the President on the White House staff and the President's liaison to conservative organizations. Mr. Blackwell spoke at The Heritage Foundation on September 18, 1985. ISSN 0272-1155. Copyright 1986 by The Heritage Foundation.
In twenty-five years of conservative activism I have read or heard reverently repeated innumerable times a short sentence,, "Ideas Have Consequences." Cons ervative intellectuals and would-be. intellectuals are so enamored of the words,, "Ideas Have Consequences,,11 that by now probably each day someone at The Heritage Foundation receives correspondence in which these words are written. The theme "Ideas Have Consequences" so often crops up in conservative books, speeches, and scholarly articles that I have for several years mentally catalogued each usage I see or hear under the heading IHC. No meeting of the Philadelphia Society or of the Intercollegiate Stud i es Institute is complete unless someone solemnly intones the words, "Ideas Have Consequences." The words appear often in the-pages of National Review and in virtually every other conservative journal, including i@any with little pretense of intellectualit y . There are now more than sixty independent conservative campus publications in the United States. Because I conduct Student Publications Seminars, I see many of these campus efforts. Virtually every one explicitly affirms that "Ideas Have Consequences,," often stressing the point in the premier issue. For example, the review of a Xichael Novak book in the Xay 1983 issue of Student Xagazine, published at the University of Colorado, included this sentence: "No one doubts the truthfulness of the insightful t i tle of Southern Agrarian Richard Weaver's famous essay,, 'Ideas Have Consequences."' Perhaps the law student who wrote that review of Novak's book was also familiar with Richard X. Weaver's 1948 book, Ideas Have C6nsecuences. But the fact that he enclosed the title in quotation marks (proper for an assay) rather than italicizing it (proper for a book) raises some questions as to whether or not he knew what he was writing about. In any case,, the reviewer made no further reference to Weaver,, having perform ed the conservative's obligatory genuflection to the well-known symbol IHC.
The proposition,, "Ideas Have Consequences,," has.attained talismanic status with young conservatives. I would not be surprised to learn that some budding conservative,, having ado pted it as his mantra, now sits quietly several minutes each day, contemplating this "insightful title." From time to time I venture to question young conservatives who have quoted, in writing or in speech, the title of Weaver's most famous work. Alas, th e great majority of those who cite the title have never held in their hands any book by Richard X. Weaver.
What then accounts for the frequency of.the references? It is, I believe.'a manifestation of hubris. The young person of conservative inclination, po ssessed of a growing vocabulary and having gained some familiarity with conservative writings, readily concludes he is now capable of elevated thoughts beyond the reach of all but a tiny elite.2
Perhaps he finds, as I first did twenty-five years ago, t he praise of Richard M. Weaver in The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk. But more likely he reads the magical book title in a conservative journal. "Ideas Have Conseauences.. Eurskal With this I will conquerill How satisfying it is to be one of those who really make things happen by thinking great thoughts and formulating great ideas.
If this common inculcation with the symbol I call IHC merely increased the sense of.self-worth among young conservatives, the fascination with IHC would do little harm to the conservative cause. Unfortunately, the temptation is often overpowering to take IHC: literally.
If ideas. in and of themselves, really do-have consequences, then being right, in the sense of being correct, is sufficient. If you know you are right, particularly if you believe you can prove you are right, then your ideas inevitably will prevail.
For a young person.with intellectual aspirations, this is heady stuff. Entranced by the implications of IHC, he concludes he need no longer work in society with me re mortals in their ordinary plans of existence. He feels himself elevated above them. The logic of IHC requires that they conform eventually to his ideas. Thousands of young conservatives,, caught up in the romance of IHC, fancy themselves young Platos. In a way-they are, as shall be explained below. But the world does not treat them as they expect and as they believe they deserve. Public policy battles, for example, do not often turn an the question of who is provably right.
Confronted with the failure of his ideas to have their merited consequences, many a young conservative becomes embittered. Some, in the words'of the late Warren Nutter, "retreat to the citadel to save the books." others become opportunists and quiet cynic s. With great inner agony, some resign themselves to impotence in a world that does not function as it "should." Too few discover how to make their ideas effective.
For a number of reasons, it would not be fair to blame Richard Weaver for the problems asso ciated vith-his magically titled book. He was a professor of rhetoric, which can be defined as ideas Artfully presented. A master rhetorician, Weaver knew full well that ideas do not necessarily have consequences.
Although it is dangerous to suggest how-d eceased persons would respond to current questions, I am confident Weaver would affirm that "Ideas Have Consequences" is a rhetorically contracted enthymeme, an enthymeme being a syllogism with one of the elements missing but understood.3
Expanding Weaver's enthymeme, we can got the following syllogism.:
\u239\'95 Ideas can motivate people to act.
\u239\'95 Actions have consequences.
\u239\'95 Therefore ideas can have consequences.
without understanding Weaver's true meaning,, some conservatives, mostly young, often give t he symbol IHC a dangerously misplaced, almost religious devotion. A noble confidence in the truth of their ideas makes them-prideful and vulnerable to the temptations of IEC, which can lure them into the voluntary paralysis of a life of contemplation.
For anyone who makes the effort to read the difficult but highly rewarding Richard Weaver, his meaning is brilliantly clear. In Ideas Have ConseGMences, he actually wrote: "The youth is an intellectual only, a believer in ideas, who thinks that ideas can ove rwhelm the world. The mature man passes beyond intellectuality to wisdom.... Does this sound like a man who believes that ideas are efficacious without something-more?
Elsewhere in Ideas Have Consequences., he wrote:'"Orqanization always makes imperative counterorqanization. A force in being is a threat to the unorganized,, who must answer by becoming organized themselves."
Weaver warned powerfully against rootless, mechanistic manipulation, against knowledge "of techniques rather than of ends." His deserv ing target was the destructive tendency of modern'men to lose our sense of purpose as we rapidly accumulate knowledge of how to do things. But it is a gross misreading to suggest he argued against action' It would be fair to say he held that actions based on the right ideas will have desirable consequences. He quite correctly gave absolute priority to ideals, but recognized the duty of philosophically sound people to take actions.
In 1958 Weaver wrote an essay entitled "Up from Liberalism,," a title he gra ciously later authorized William P. Buckley, Jr., to use also for his delightful book. Russell Kirk calls that 1958 essay Weaver's intellectual autobiography. In it Weaver wrote,, "Somehow our education will have to recover the lost vision of the person a s a creature of both intellect and will. It will have to bring together into one through its training the thinker and the doer, the dialectician and the rhetorician." This statement should enlighten those who take IHC only at its simplistic, literal value.4
The intellectual's dismay at the untidy nature of political life' is by no means new. Very late in life the philosopher Plato wrote in his Seventh Epistle: For both the written laws and the unwritten laws of good conduct were gradually destroyed,, and the state of things became worse and worse at an astonishing pace, so that 1, who at first had been very eager to go into politics',, finally felt dizzy when I looked at it and when I saw things carried in all directions in utter-confusion. I did still not gi v e up watching for a possible improvement of .these conditions and of the whole government; but, waiting all the time for an opportunity to do something, I finally had to realize that all the states of our time without exception are badly administered.' If Plato was dizzied by politics and withdrew almost entirely from personal participation, we should not be surprised that so many conservative intellectuals and aspiring intellectuals now find comfort in the proposition that Ideas Have Consequences. They ca n believe themselves thereby absolved of the awkward responsibility for personal actions.
The world of politics is invariably imperfect and replete with compromises. How tempting it is to shield our principles from degenerating contact with such untidiness . Never mind that we simultaneously insulate the real world from the ennobling effect of practical contact with our principles. Now, however, we should know better. Our conservative political and intellectual mentor Edmund Burke did not teach us: "All tha t is necessary to triumph over evil is for man to have enough good ideas." Quite the contrary,, Burke's most famous words were: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Leonardo da Vinci had marvelous ideas, many of wh i ch had no consequences. For 130 years after his death his famous notebooks were hidden. only when made available through wide publication did his speculative drawings of worm gears, iins grinders, submarines, and airplanes cause man to act, to try to buil d working models based on his ideas. By the 20th century we had actually built successful machines Leonardo only imagined. For Leonardo, though, the classic case is the bicycle. Late in the 19th century,, just after the modern bicycle had been invented,, s o meone in the Spanish National Library in Madrid peeled from its backing paper (to which it had been glued for hundreds of years) one of the pages of Leonardo's original notebook. On the reverse of the sheet was Leonardo's drawing of a pedal-and-chain-driv en bicycle5
almost identical to recently "invented" models then in use all over the world.
In one of his too few surviving lette3es, Whittaker Chambers told how he had just burned several hundred pages of a book manuscript he had been working on. For t hose of us who consider Chambers one of the great masters of our English language, the loss is tragic and irreparable. Those ideas are lost and will not have consequences. Intellectual giant Ludwig von Mises,, in the chapter on "The Role of Ideas" in Huma n Action,, said,, "Thinking is to deliberate beforehand over future action and to reflect afterwards upon past action. Thinking and acting are inseparable." Particularly in our day we cannot afford to concentrate on either ideas or actions to the neglect o f the other. The prideful conservative intellectual who avoids association with less elegant men of action may doom his cause.- Chambers understood this and wrote:
I do not ask of the man who lets me slip into his foxhole whether he believes in the ontolog ical proof of God,, whether he likes me personally, or even whether, in another part of the forest, at another time, he lobbed a grenade at me. I am interested only that for the duration of the war, he keep his rifle clean and his trigger finger nerveless against a common'enezy. I understand that that is all he wants of me.
The reason for the increasing success of conservative ideas in recent years is not that our ideals are much more correct now than those we held, say, in the Goldwater era. We prosper in many ways because we have begun to study the political process and to work together to implement our new knowledge. In our day we need still more conservatives who are first philosophically sound and then technologically proficient and movement oriented. We must teach young intellectuals that a flattering and seductive talisman which they do not fully understand will not guarantee them success. They must not rely on victory falling into their deserving hands like rips fruit off'a tree. They have to earn i t.
Good ideas have desirable consequences only if we act intelligently for them. We owe it to our philosophy to study how to win.6