Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton University 2024 Mobile Banner

    In his landmark collection of essays, Ideas Have Consequences, political philosopher Richard Weaver neatly sums up the cultural neuroses afflicting the modern condition as he observed them circa 1948. A man of immense intelligence and humanity, Weaver witnessed a world finally free of Axis horrors yet insistently embarking on a decades-long journey through unexplored terrains of human cruelty and oppression.

    I’ll come back to Weaver, but first a recap of the evidence presented within these pages. First, the Nazi scourge foreshadowed in the review of Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 wasn’t the only source of despair for the fate of the human race. As Sarah Stanley’s interview with Suzanne Scholte abundantly displays, no one group held a monopoly on the indescribable anguish inflicted on whole populations, from North Korea and Cuba to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Space permitting, Scholte, I’m certain, would’ve also recounted the Killing Fields of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot as well as brutalities committed against the people of China since the Communist takeover.

    How best to avoid repeating the past’s mistakes requires serious historical and cultural soul-searching. One requirement is for contemporary civilization to remember that totalitarianism is but one extreme form of cruelty on the spectrum of human oppression.

    The unattainable utopian urge to control people, resources and wealth manifests itself in countless ways, including the metastasizing global government agenda, as noted by Robert F. Gormon in What’s Wrong with Global Governance? Although the entirety of Gorman’s essay bears quoting, space only permits me to reiterate two key passages that reveal the global government schema: “Rule by experts, by global bureaucrats, is regarded as the ideal.” Indeed it is, and by that Gorman identifies the culprits agitating for control under the guise of such secular euphemisms as environmentalism and population control, and unmasks them as “relativists who generally reject the concept of objective moral truth, of natural law, or of the religious and spiritual dimensions of the human person.”

    In light of the totalitarian mantra “the ends justify the means,” Richard Weaver notes that humanity divorced from its divine genesis is exiled to any number of mad fates devised by humankind:

    Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his action to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.

    This has been the case every time humans “lose sight of their original source and decide to set up godheads in their own right,” writes Weaver. Think of the signs, flags and fashion apparel emblazoned with the visages of the world’s most notorious oppressors. Is it only coincidence that George Orwell concocted Big Brother to watch over the denizens of Oceania in his dystopian novel 1984? The novelist was capturing the earthbound self-deification of present and future tyrants, such as Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro and his thuggish chief hit man Ernesto “Che” Guevara as well as any number of dear and/or fearless leaders.

    This imperiousness derives from what Weaver describes as “egotism,” wherein “self-absorption is a process of cutting one’s self off from the ‘real’ reality and therefore from social harmony.” For Weaver, egotism is one form of ignorance. Whereas he recognizes inherent humility in the work of medieval philosophers and scientists, Weaver upbraids Renaissance thinkers for what he perceives as jettisoning meditation in the pursuit of knowledge, resolving itself in the unfortunate belief that, in the words of Francis Bacon, “knowledge is power.” The result of deploying that power to control others, Weaver points out, is evident throughout the modern era: “It is knowledge of the useful rather than of the true and the good, of techniques rather than of ends.”

    In other words, knowledge untethered from the humility of our respective faiths is antithetical to the free and virtuous society we work toward at the Acton Institute.

    Most Read

    Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president emeritus and the co-founder of the Acton Institute. Hereceived his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.