Ideas and Actions

The wars of the world are first fought in the minds and hearts of the wise before they ever reach visible reality; when they do arrive, the ones who suffer most are the weak

“So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more firmly what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the Father’s love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Christian unity—we are convinced—will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. When the Son of Man comes He will find us still discussing!” — Pope Francis, Vespers, Closing of Christian Unity Week, January 25, 2015.

“’Many are the strange chances of the world,’ said Mithrandir, ‘and help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter.’” — J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

“While ideas are indeed important, a history of ideas is far from being always a history of good ideas. Good ideas may easily be lost sight of, whether willfully or by lack of publicity. It was as true in the past as it is in the present, not only that bad ideas drive out good, but that the fortune of ideas themselves is apparently often a matter of chance….” — John M. Rist, Augustine Deformed (Cambridge, 2014)

I.

Few titles have been more tellingly cited than that of Richard Weaver’s 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences. One could reverse that title with equal force to read: “Consequences result from ideas.” In this view, ideas—far from being vague, inert, neutral concepts—are the main forces in the world for stability or change, for good or bad. Yet, ideas fall in the order of “formal” causality, not “efficient” causality. That is, ideas only indicate a “what”. As such, they do not have any effect on the world unless someone decides to put them into operation.

Ideas have consequences only when they become that which some agent decides to put into effect. Someone must cause them to become the form or design of an actual deed or action. This view does not deny that all existing things implicitly have a “form” or “intelligibility” that establishes what they are. This intelligibility is what the human mind seeks to know about things outside of itself.

Beyond or outside of action in the contemplative or intellectual order, a “war” or lively examination of ideas does occur. This sorting out of the meaning of ideas takes place regarding the truth of things. As such, in the order of thought, it does not much matter whether or not anyone decides to put any particular idea into effect. This rumination about the validity and content of ideas is what the life of the mind is about. Though books are written about it and lectures given, this war of ideas is essentially invisible, lodged in the souls of those who think them.

What subsequently goes on in the visible world has its origin in the interplay of ideas that previously took place often centuries ago or in distant places. To assess the import of ideas, we need to be educated. We need a sound grounding in philosophy itself both because of our inner desire to know the truth and because we seek to know what ideas are false and dangerous so that we do not set them inadvertently loose in the world. It is true, as philosopher John Rist indicated, that bad ideas can drive out good ideas. Yet all bad or erroneous ideas are presented as if they are true. We cannot escape the effort to distinguish what is true from what is not.

The motto of the Dominican Order—Contemplata Tradere—carries a similar notion. We can only teach or “hand over” what we have first reflected on in our own souls. Both false and true ideas can be given existence, can be taught, can be thought about, can be put into effect. The contemplative side, the actual pondering of what ideas mean, recognizes that one of the major sources of the what is done in the world is always an idea, even a bad idea. Too, we should not confuse an idea with our will or our passions that incite us to take an idea outside of ourselves and put into the world in some form or other.

We are beings who cannot be explained only by our reason, but also by our wills, the immediate object of which are indeed our ideas, which in turn have some relation to what is, to what is not our intellects. An idea remains what it is no matter what will or desire is the impulse that puts it into existence. Once in existence, it has its own life as an idea now embodied in a thing, in an act, a habit or custom, or an institution.

II.

How do we arrive at good ideas to carry into effect? The first thing we need to remember is that ideas, as such, are good things. That we can and do have the power to think is a good thing. We are supposed to use, and use well, this power that is given to us by our very nature. We are not determined except in the sense that we seek what we call good or happiness in all that we do. Even thinking of bad ideas is a good thing. We cannot know what is true unless we also know what is false.

The modern demand for universal literacy and education was premised on the idea that no improvement in our souls or polities will happen unless we can and do think. But we do not educate just to be educated. We are educated, or we educate ourselves, in order to know the truth. Even the proposition that no truth exists, which under girds so much of modern life, is a claim for truth, though, not one that can escape examination for its own intrinsic incoherence. If it is a contradiction as an idea (as it is) it needs to be rejected as a truth

Yet, Aristotle taught that “ideas cause no action.” He was right, of course; Weaver’s famous phrase is, as it stands, not wholly true. Ideas only have effects in the world when someone chooses to use them as guides for action, for doing or making something. Ideas can sit dormant for centuries hidden in some obscure book or place and have no effect whatsoever in the world. It is only when they are read and used to guide action that their potential for consequences comes to being.

The ideas of Epicurus and Democritus were widely known in the Greek and Roman worlds. But their modern embodiment took shape when Karl Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation about them. Marx had nothing but contempt for ideas that did not have the consequences he thought he found in the Greek post-Aristotelian thinkers. He sought to overturn the priority of thought to action, claiming that action formed thought, not vice versa, as Aristotle had more correctly thought.

The fact that people cannot or will not come to agreement about what is true has itself caused a long controversy and concern. It has led to a despair of intellect and to efforts to find agreement by bypassing truth or reason. Love or friendliness is often proposed as an alternative. But the human mind cannot be satisfied with feeling or sentiment as a substitute for truth and the grounds on which it is based.

“Dialogue” is another proposed method of finding truth. Yet, we cannot realistically discuss differences of view if we cannot honestly state what we hold, especially if it differs from what the person we are talking to holds. “Dialogue” mostly leads to agreement not to disagree and hopefully not to fight about it. We cannot have “dialogue” when we are threatened with death, banishment, or second-class citizenship for disagreement. There are those who think that dialogue is only useful to undermine a religion or culture or polity. And dialogue can do this undermining. “Dialogue” can often become an excuse for establishing relativism as the only norm of truth. Any claim to truth is itself said to be the problem; it closes off dialogue. Hence, the validity of any given position cannot really be discussed.

III.

In the beginning, I cited a comment of Pope Francis in which he cast some doubt on the possibility of learned scholars ever coming to an agreement in this world. He seeks an alternative. He looks not to the pursuit of dialogue or scholarly discourse about truth but to a love or respect or familiar gathering that apparently can unite without agreement on truth. Only when this preliminary atmosphere happens can intellectual issues be faced.

This positon is not unlike the proposal that Jacques Maritain made in his 1951 book Man and the State. In the chapter on World Order, Maritain proposed that men could agree on certain practical points of civil life and hence live peacefully together. But, in public, they agreed not to enter into any discussion about how each different philosophy or religion arrived at these practical points. This approach was a kind of elevation of praxis over theoria. Maritain did not hold that the search for truth was unimportant. Not every explanation was feasible. The agreement to disagree and to enforce the agreement in the public order was sufficient. In retrospect, he did not reckon with some ideas that were non-negotiable.

In the case of the discussions of theologians and learned scholars, the Church herself after Vatican II set up any number of colloquia with various Protestant bodies, with differing philosophies and religions, including atheists and agnostics. It stipulated that these discussions should be largely private and among scholars so that outside publicity would not jeopardize the freedom of discussion. These dialogues are said to have born much fruit and continue to occur. However, the Church does not “create” doctrine nor does it have control over it. It is first to be obedient to what is handed down so that what is revealed can be present in each ensuing generation and different place. The life and teachings of Christ are what is to be made present in every subsequent time and place.

Usually, the modern initiative for dialogues comes from the Catholic side; it seems like a peculiarly Catholic enterprise. We want to know about others’ views, even if they are not particularly interested in our views. It was assumed that the division in religion or philosophy was largely a matter of not understanding another’s history or thought—it was an intellectual problem, not moral problem. The path to agreement could be reached by a patient working one’s way through the causes, history, and nature of the disagreements. While the present Pope does not minimize this ongoing effort, he clearly has downplayed the intellectual side of the approach of religion to the diversities that exist in the contemporary world.

One of the complaints heard sometimes about both John Paul II and Benedict XVI was that they were too “intellectual”. Ordinary bishops, clergy, and laity, it was implied, could not understand their arguments, brilliant though they were. On the other hand, it was evident that the clearest and most incisive minds in the world in their time happened to be in the papacy. The notion that there was a conflict between Catholicism and intelligence seemed simply uninformed.

These popes had a profound appreciation of the importance of teaching or thought in relation to practice. John Paul II wrote brilliantly about the basis of action. The intellectual appeal of the Catholic thought was beginning to reach many corners where mind was taken seriously. The Catholic Church, of course, has always understood that divine revelation was itself addressed to reason and through it, to all men—even the unlearned. The content of revelation had the paradoxical effect of making reason to be more itself, more reasonable.

Aristotle had long held that one’s habitual moral life, how one lived, was itself the grounding for one’s ability to know the truth. There are right and wrong ways to live. If we lead a life devoid of any sort of virtue, we probably will not know the truth. Aristotle also knew that ordinary people, who may not be able to give a sophisticated explanation of human or divine truth, could see what was true in the particulars of their own lives.

Likewise, the most dangerous citizens in any polity were sophists or attractive tyrants who had some claim to thought but of a dubious nature. One of the most difficult tasks of a good politician was to understand this danger from thought, when he was not himself a philosopher, as few were. This is why the relation between a free academy and a polity was often so tenuous. Athens, the city of philosophers, after all, did kill Socrates, the philosopher. Christ was killed under Roman law, the most rational of the classical legal codes.

IV.

Ideas that are not true are dangerous to our souls and to our polities, whether we like it or not. Chesterton said someplace that a slight change in Christian doctrine to forbid icons or statues, would, as in the Muslim world, destroy most every representative human art. The “slightly” deviant position of the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1931 that approved birth control has led, in its step-by-step logic, to a society and culture of rapidly declining populations, myriads of abortions, and the gradual undermining of the family. Aldous Huxley’s famous Brave New World is turning out to have been prophetic in so many ways.

We not only talk of “designing” our own children, of giving them genes that are not our own, but, in the name of justice and equality, of eliminating the family altogether to replace it with laboratory conceived and gestated children whose genetic origin no one knows. This trend originated in an idea already found in Plato, though he may have described it so that we would not do it.

Yes, ideas have consequences. We need to know what they are and where they go when put in effect. To know this direction is why we are given minds; to make it actually possible, we are given wills and speech. To judge whether what we do is right or wrong, we are given reason in revelation and in nature.

To conclude, I cited earlier a brief passage from Tolkien’s Silmarillon. Many strange things happen in our world. We see intelligent men and women put into effect the oddest things under the aegis of a freedom open to nothing but itself, to no given good. We see that “the wise do falter.” What to do when this happens requires us to seek a solution that the wise mostly do not anticipate or expect. But we cannot avoid what it is to be wise, or what it means when the wise betray the truth. The Tolkien tradition reminds us that the weak and ordinary can also know real wisdom and may be the real agents of providence.

The wars of the world are first fought in the minds and hearts of the wise before they ever reach visible reality. When they do arrive, the ones who suffer most from their aberrations are the weak. It is in what happens to the poor and weak, to the ordinary, that we can best perceive the consequence of ideas. Perhaps this fact is the message that Pope Francis stands for. When the Son of Man comes, will there still be faith? Will the wise still be “discussing”? Whether we will be still marrying and giving in marriage, this now realistic concern is what the relation of practice to thought has to do with intellect in our time.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.