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Ideas Have Consequences 2016

A reader is diving once again into the 1948 conservative classic Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard Weaver. This paragraph from Chapter Three jumped out at him:

The [Southern] gentleman was left to walk the stage an impecunious eccentric, protected by a certain sentimentality but no longer understood. Europe, after the agony of the first World War, turned to the opposite type for leadership, to gangsters, who, though they are often good entrepreneurs, are without codes and without inhibitions. Such leaders in Europe have given us a preview of what the collapse of values and the reign of specialization will produce.

Adds the reader: “Welcome Trump. Welcome Hillary for that matter.”

Total pseud that I am, this morning I was on the treadmill and watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation on YouTube. Ever seen it? It’s fantastic. You can watch it with your kids, though young ones will be bored. I’m on Episode 6, which covers the Reformation. At around the 30:00 point in the episode, Clark — not a religious man himself, but a high aesthete — discusses how the Reformation unleashed destructive passions that devastated religious images. As the camera pans over defaced images of saints in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, Clark says:

There wasn’t much religious about it. It was an instinct, an instinct to destroy anything comely, anything that reflected a state of mind that ignorant people couldn’t share. The very existence of these incomprehensible values enraged them.

In that episode, which I’ve embedded below, Clark uses concepts invented by H.G. Wells to explain the clashing worldviews in the Reformation. He says that Wells believed early history involved a clash of “communities of faith and obedience” and “communities of will.” Wells distinguishes them like this:

For thousands of years the settled civilized peoples, who were originally in most cases dark-white Caucasians, or Dravidian or Southern Mongolian peoples, seem to have developed their ideas and habits along the line of worship and personal subjection, and the nomadic peoples theirs along the line of personal self-reliance and self-assertion.

Clark brings up the Wells categories to assert that the Reformation unleashed the passions of the “communities of will” of Germanic Northern Europe, against the “communities of faith and obedience” of Latin Southern Europe.

(Interestingly, Clark leaves out the words “faith and” in his mention of Wells’s categories. As Joseph Pearce points out in his critical review of Civilisation, Clark at the time of the program was a highly cultured unbeliever, and that greatly influenced his take on civilization. Then again, the subtitle of the series is “A Personal View.” Anyway, Clark was received into the Roman Catholic Church on his deathbed, Pearce reports.)

I’ll need to look more into what Wells meant, but these categories may be useful to us today to make sense of our own time. We are plainly and overwhelmingly a community of will — and that’s why we are destroying the possibility for civilization to endure. The Benedict Option is about a return to a community of faith and obedience — faith in and obedience to a religious and metaphysical order independent of ourselves. It would have been news to the Reformers, of course, that they were inaugurating a community of will over and against a community of faith and obedience. But the seeds of voluntarism had been planted at the end of the Middle Ages by Scotus, Ockham, and other Catholics. What we are living through now is the final outworking of those ideas.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKu5z29ko6U]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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