That which will be is to some extent the cause of that which is. What is going to happen tomorrow is already to some extent the cause of what is happening today; indeed, of what has happened yesterday. We are not merely the products of the past; we are also the creators of the future . . .
— John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past
Richard M. Weaver famously declared that “ideas have consequences.” His book of that title presents an argument that is somewhat more nuanced than the way in which the phrase has been used by decades of conservatives since; but both Weaver and those he inspired have largely seen the role of ideas in history as linear, a matter of cause and effect. Hold a certain set of ideas (an ideology), and you will act—or, at least, be more likely to act—a certain way. Ideas, in this view, are motives, pushing us along; change the dominant ideas of a culture, and you will change the future.
There’s something attractive, even comforting, in this understanding of the grand, sweeping role that ideas play, even though—or perhaps, to some extent, because—it denies personal moral agency. At its worst, it’s the conservative equivalent of the most simplistic form of Darwinism. If everything that has happened and is happening can be reduced to broad historical trends tied to one particular cause, then none of us can be held personally accountable for being carried away in that stream; and conversely, if we can spread the right ideas far and wide, that stream not only can but will be diverted.
But the role that ideas play in shaping human action and the course of history is more complex and more personal than the popular understanding of the phrase “ideas have consequences.” As John Lukacs often wrote, “Men do not have ideas; they choose them.” There’s nothing deterministic or mechanical about those choices. As Lukacs writes in Historical Consciousness, “in historical life events are not only ‘pushed’ by the past but ‘pulled,’ too, by the future; desires, aspirations, expectations, perceptions, premonitions, purposes, all play their parts . . . ”
Desires, aspirations, expectations, perceptions, premonitions, purposes: These words aren’t the language of mechanical causality, nor words that would normally remind us of the phrase “ideas have consequences”; they are, instead, words that we associate with free will, with moral agency, with personal beliefs and actions rather than impersonal historical trends.
Every action is a moral action; and that includes our choice of ideas. The elevation of opinion—“that’s just your opinion; it’s not what I believe”—as the chief currency of intellectual life is, at root, an avoidance of our duty to conform our lives to what is true.
“[W]e are products, and creators, of the past,” Lukacs writes, “and also creators, and products, of the future.” The central word here is we: With respect to both the past and the future, we remain—both mankind as a whole, and each of us personally—at the center of history.
Such a recognition is not only liberating, freeing us from the grip that determinism holds on the mind of modern man, but also profoundly Christian, returning free will to its central role in the life of every person. And that brings with it a deep responsibility to choose our ideas, and to act on them, with care.
Every action is a moral action; and that includes our choice of ideas. The elevation of opinion—“that’s just your opinion; it’s not what I believe”—as the chief currency of intellectual life is, at root, an avoidance of our duty to conform our lives to what is true. Pope Benedict XVI called this the “dictatorship of relativism”; but it is a dictatorship imposed not from without but embraced from within, because conforming our lives to the truth is harder than not doing so. “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free”; but freedom comes with moral responsibilities that bondage allows us to shirk.
Weaver believed that the great intellectual break in the history of mankind was the rise of nominalism and the abandonment of the classical and Christian insistence that everything that exists takes part in a reality beyond this world. There are only things we call horses; there is no essential horse-ness. Yet from the standpoint of epistemology, our understanding of how we know what we know, the world of the forms was always an abstraction, a conclusion we reached through our empirical study of the world around us rather than a realm we accessed directly. The nominalists insisted that there were only horses because we can never directly experience horse-ness.
Yet, pace Weaver, the more important intellectual shift occurred somewhat later, when we began to apply the concept of mechanical causality in science to human thought and action. When men longed for heaven, their desires and aspirations could pull them forward; when they cast their eyes down to earth, they made themselves no better than the animals, acting on base instinct and physical necessity—yet seeing in this slavery to the material a kind of freedom from the need to seek the truth and to act on it.
What we need today is a new teleology, a recognition of the end for which man was created, and a desire to live our lives with that end in sight.