Ideology’s War on Wisdom

Like many who will read this I am a reader of books. I love to read. My favorite topics are theology, philosophy, history, and civics. Over the last decade I have spent seemingly countless hours pouring over legitimately countless pages of texts, both antiquarian and modern, in an attempt to both better myself and gain some understanding of the world which surrounds us.

It could readily be said that the end goal of my search has been wisdom. The wisdom to be able to able to use knowledge rightly, to truly understand what is laudable and virtuous, and then how to reach those things. How to attain the good life. A life where peace and love can be found. Where the good things can be enjoyed. What kind of world is necessary to allow that to happen for me? How do I go about building it?

Reconstructing the world is no small task; I have always realized this. But I am young, industrious, and possess a great deal of energy. The thought of big tasks does not discourage me. Rather what I have always found frustrating is the lack of truly substantive answers to the problems that lie between the world I live in and the world I want to live in. Where can these answers be found? Do they exist?

Traditionally my attempts to find these answers lay in adherence to some specific ideology. The plan was that there would be some grand scheme, some “yellow brick road,” that if I could just find, it would lead me to that place in the warmth of the sun. Being young, this was a relatively easy of a search to maintain. The call of ideology is most alluring to the mind least familiar with the complicated mechanics of reality.

From a position of two parts zeal and one part naïveté, I had always entertained the idea that there was — out there somewhere, undiscovered to myself — a particular theory of things that would, with one swift motion, untie all the knots and leave nothing undone save the application. Laboring under this burden of idealism, I continued to read and study in search of the master principle that would unlock everything.

Eventually it dawned upon me that there is no yellow brick road; no one book; no single ideology that will sort out the answer to every problem. Now this should not be understood as some postmodern rejection of absolute truth. Far from it! Rather the thing, the bump in the road, which I first groped upon as a blind man sensing some obstacle and later seized as a man in a dark room taking hold of a light switch, was that the primary thing waging war upon wisdom in the modern world has been ideology itself. If wisdom had been supplanted from her throne then the usurper was men who had “only acquired facts and skills.”[1]

The blind folly of modernity was not to be found in its adherence to the wrong ideologies but in its continual sacrifice of concrete reality upon the altar of the abstract ideal. Through the narrow vantage which rigid ideology affords, the door was flung wide open for man to reject the wisdom of the ancients, ignore the traditions of his fathers, despise the place of his nativity, and forge a new path towards the lode star of idealistic perfection. Under the acid drip of ideology, the natural bonds of life and community could give way to virtual community with those who gave mental assent to the same facts and sought the same skills as oneself.

To a generation immersed in the allurements of social media this threat is doubly dangerous. In a world of upturned faces any ideology, no matter how divorced from reality, is likely to find at least some adherents. And when common ground is afforded with twelve other men on the net, why bother trying to get along with one’s neighbor or kin?

But rubber will always meet road, and so it is with abstract ideologies. They eventually run up against something for which they have no answer. Thus, they crumble. That which is built to last must find its foundations in something deeper than ideological systems.

To reach that which is truly of substance and endurance, it is necessary to peer through fleeting forms and get at the foundational principles of a thing. Concrete reality must be embraced. Not in the Hegelian sense of worshipping what is as the fruition of all the hopes and fears of the ages, but rather with the grim realism that if ideology cannot comprehend the world as it really stands, then that ideology is worthless and an enemy of true wisdom.

Edmund Burke spoke to this over two centuries ago when commenting on the problems besetting the French Revolution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote:

All your sophisters cannot produce any thing better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.

Burke here chides the Jacobins for placing their ideological commitments before the good of the French people. He contrasts their rigid idealism with the wisdom of the English constitution. He continues:

In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.

Burke is saying that the English constitution (note that what the English refer to as their “constitution” is not a particular document but rather the general system or body of precedents by which they guide their affairs) affords a stable and consistent polity because it roots its institutions in nature. In a spirit of wisdom it is not doggedly devoted to particular forms, but rather to the concrete realities of “hearth, sepulchre, and altar.” If the particular manifestations of the system cease to be effective or become oppressive, then they will be discarded for new forms which give proper expression to the love of “hearth and altar.”

A similar example is afforded in the subject of economics. In a recent article from Chronicles Magazine, I ran across a quote which stuck with me. The author was arguing for a robust economic nationalism, and towards the conclusion of his piece he said this:

Economic nationalism is not an economic model or theory but a collection of practices, a body of knowledge evolving over time through trial and error. It is flexible and can utilize a range of tools. It can be libertarian in some contexts and more regulatory in others. It may employ free trade or protectionism, subsidies or free markets. The approach seeks to benefit the nation and sustain the culture and people that define it.[2]

As I read the author’s concluding arguments, these words stuck with me. They resonate with a certain wisdom that economists rarely display. He says that his ideas do not reflect a fast hold upon some particular system, but rather a commitment to benefiting the people and culture which is engaged in economic transaction. When he says that his principles are “a collection of practices, a body of knowledge evolving over time,” this is reminiscent of Burke’s argument that the great conservatory of English liberty was not in speculation but in the people. How far removed is this approach removed from what Dermot Quinn has styled as “the dismal science of turning human effort into quadratic equation”![3]

The problem which modern economists, or modern political theorists, or modern philosophers, etc. ad nauseam is that they do not have a collection of practices or a body of knowledge. Like the French Revolutionaries, they trust only in their speculations and in their sophistries. And like the 18thcentury “voices of virtue,” the modern cadres of would-be experts are more than willing to guillotine every piece of reality that does not comport with their latest theory.

But so it must be. For the ideologue can never really see past the end of his nose. Killing the patient is acceptable provided all the standard prescriptions were given. Where there is no vision the people perish.

The truth is that wisdom is to be found in recognizing that all of creation upholds the impress of its Creator. God has instilled an order into the nature of things, and man is wise to carefully observe and respect this order. If a stone is cast into the air, then it will, by nature, return to the ground. In the same way, men will tend to gravitate more towards hearth and altar than abstract notions of equality or fairness.

Forging systems that deny reality is akin to constructing castles of sand on the seashore. They may look interesting or  “cool,” but the reality is that the ocean will wash them away without difficulty. Modern man’s over-commitment to abstract ideologies is like a giant castle of sand. The construction materials are of poor choice, and the likelihood of withstanding high tide is slim. Reality will bring it all down.

Wisdom teaches that those things which will endure are those which correspond to the reality of the world God has made. A system which can appreciate and value men as men and women as women will produce stable and enduring families. An ideology which encourages men and women to deny their nature will erode. A civil polity or economic plan that fosters love of hearth and altar will survive through the ages. An order counterintuitive to natural affections will stumble.

Forms may change and the body of wisdom will grow as experience teaches new lessons, but prudent commitment to principle will allow for the needed flexibility without falling into the trap of postmodernism. As Robert Dabney cautioned a new generation so long ago,

It may be the son’s duty tomorrow to “bury the dead mother out of sight,” whom it was the father’s most sacred duty yesterday to endeavor to keep alive.[4]

To follow up on Dr. Dabney’s illustration: it would be murder to bury alive one’s sick mother and it would be indiscretion and cruelty to leave the cadaver unburied. The wise son will act accordingly.

The problem staring down the world I live in at present is the absence of wise sons. There are a plethora of men, acting from commitment to their ideology no doubt, burying their ill mother or perhaps administering medicine to cadavers, but the true sons of wisdom are few and far between. What is needed now is not some perfected theory, some new book on constructing culture, some speech on the reconstituting of society, but true Sons of Issachar who know the times and act accordingly. Let us all act accordingly.

Citations & References

[1] The quotation here is taken from Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences where he decries the loss of the man of principles and warns of the rise of those who have only mastered “facts and skills.”


[3] This is a paraphrase taken from Quinn’s introduction to Wilhelm Ropke’s A Humane Economy

[4]Quoted from Robert Dabney’s 1882 speech The New South, recently made available at Abbeville Institute


The Reformed Conservative aims to reunite gentlemanly virtues with scholarly conversation. Standing in the great Reformed and conservative heritage of thinkers like Edmund Burke and Abraham Kuyper, we humbly seek to inject civility into an informed conversation, one article at a time, bringing clarity out of chaos.

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