The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for. That is the dire peril in the present trend toward statism. If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors, rather than to give up what is intangible but precarious, it will not long be found at all.
—Richard Weaver, 1962
In the great pantheon of half-forgotten conservative sages, the southern writer Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963) occupies an important, if curious, niche. I say “writer,” but that is an imprecise designation. By trade, Weaver was a professor of rhetoric. He is even the author of a textbook on the subject. One friend said that Weaver was “a rhetor doing the work of a philosopher.” It might be more accurate to say that he was a critic doing the work of a prophet. Prophets as a species tend to specialize in bad news; they rarely return from the mountain reporting that the management has concluded that everything down below is just fine.
Weaver was no exception to this rule. He made his reputation as a latter-day Isaiah, bearing admonitory tidings to an inattentive populace. Above all, perhaps, he was an acolyte of what he lovingly called “lost causes.” The fact that a cause had lost, he argued, did not necessarily rob it of nobility; it did not mean that we could not learn something from the ideals that inspired it; it did not even mean that, ultimately, it was really lost. For what is lost might also be regained. It might serve not only as a reminder but also as a model, a new goal. In the “longer run,” as Weaver put it, what seemed lost might eventually prove victorious.
Such, anyway, were among the explicit rationales that Weaver offered about the value of lost causes. An additional attraction, I suspect, lay in the romance of defeat. “Things reveal themselves passing away”: Weaver liked to quote that Yeatsian line. I believe he cherished the passing away as much as the accompanying revelation.
Exhibit A in Weaver’s dossier of lost causes—the cynosure to which he ritually returned, which he never really left—was the post-bellum American South. Its literature, manners, and aspirations were the subject of Weaver’s dissertation, completed under Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana State University in 1943 but published, in revised form, only in 1968, five years after Weaver’s death. The Southern Tradition at Bay is a brilliant, complex, cranky work, part literary criticism, part social commentary, part hortatory injunction. “From the bleakness of a socialist bureaucracy,” Weaver wrote in his peroration, “men will sooner or later turn to something stirring: they will decide again to live strenuously, or romantically.” That was the ideal. The route to realizing it was to be found in the “Old South,” which Weaver proposed as a co-conspirator in the pursuit of his strenuous, romantic oppositions.
As one of Weaver’s biographers, Fred Douglas Young, notes, The Southern Tradition at Bay was less a dissertation than “an apologia.” Most of Weaver’s mature themes make their appearance in the book. Indeed, several critics have pointed out that Weaver’s later work is essentially an elaboration and application of ideas he first formulated there. Weaver begins by laying out a constellation of four distinctively Southern, almost universally besieged, virtues: the feudal concept of society organized by an interlocking hierarchy of duties, filiations, and privileges; the code of chivalry; the ancient concept of the gentleman; and religion or at least “religiousness,” which may have “little relation to creeds” but, prodded by “a sense of the inscrutable,” “leaves man convinced of the existence of supernatural intelligence and power, and leads him to the acceptance of life as mystery.”
But that scaffolding describes only one level of Weaver’s argument. For every lost cause there is a victorious alternative. Weaver was interested in analyzing, elaborating, advocating what he took to be the virtues of the Old South; even more, he was interested in criticizing the forces that had undermined those virtues. The enemy, he thought, was not so much Grant’s and Sherman’s armies as the spirit that moved them. It was “science and technology.” It was centralized government. It was the ethic of “total war.” It was affluence, materialism, and the love of comfort. In a word, it was modernity. Hence the lessons of American’s premier lost cause: “The mind of the South,” Weaver wrote, is “conspicuous for its resistance to the spiritual disintegration of the modern world.” Is such resistance futile? Never mind. Resistance itself is glorious: strenuous, romantic, precisely because—perhaps one should say “even if”—futile.
Later, Weaver came to acknowledge that the South’s resistance in modern America had all but collapsed. But yesterday, in the 1940s, it still seemed like a magnificent ruin: “a hall hung with splendid tapestries in which no one would care to live.” They may be inhospitable. They may be strange and even rebarbative. Nevertheless, Weaver concludes, they offer essential existential wisdom: “from them we can learn something of how to live.” The Old South, he declared (and the italics are his) was “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World.”
Students of the period will instantly recognize The Southern Tradition at Bay as an homage to, an extension of, the spirit of the Southern Agrarians whose famous manifesto I’ll Take My Stand had been published in 1930. Many of the movement’s founding members—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson—were among Weaver’s mentors and friends. There is a lot of elegy in such writing, and not a little bitterness. Whatever the sins of the South, had not its punishment been excessive? The South had not so much been defeated as crushed by the Union armies: that was bad enough. Even worse were subsequent efforts to obliterate or efface Southern identity, to transform even its virtues into vices, its heroisms into crimes. “In short,” Weaver put it tartly in a later essay, “the South either had no history, or its history was tainted with slavery and rebellion and must be abjured.” Weaver, like the Agrarians, abjured the abjuration.
A rich mixture, this. What should we make of it? In a way, the work of Richard Weaver is not unlike the Old South he memorialized. It, too, is a splendidly appointed but, for most of us, an uninhabitable domicile. Still, it is one we cannot simply repudiate without diminishment. Weaver’s work is a heady, sometimes an impossible stew. But it is one from which we can learn “something of how to live” or (what is almost the same thing) something of how not to.
Weaver the man was—or became—almost as eccentric as his work. Born in North Carolina, he was the first of four children. His father, an outgoing man who owned a livery stable, died when Richard was only six and his mother was expecting her last child. The family eventually resettled in Lexington, Kentucky, where his mother managed Embry and Company, a millinery business owned by her brother. Although Weaver became a formidable debater, he was a shy, bookish boy: his sister Polly remembers him sequestered in his bedroom for hours on end with the family typewriter. He blossomed socially in college, though his intellectual vocation seems to have settled upon him only gradually. In an autobiographical essay called “Up From Liberalism” (1958), Weaver recalls that in his undergraduate years at the University of Kentucky earnest professors had him “persuaded entirely that the future was with science, liberalism, and equalitarianism.” By the time he graduated, in 1932, the Great Depression had swept the country and Weaver, like many others, had evolved into a full-fledged socialist. He served as secretary of the campus socialist party and, during Norman Thomas’s presidential campaign, rose to be secretary of the statewide socialist party.
His metanoia began at Vanderbilt where he came under the mesmerising spell of John Crowe Ransom, the “subtle doctor” to whom he dedicated The Southern Tradition at Bay. What one might call the “localness” of Ransom’s teaching—his agrarian emphasis on the importance of place, the genealogy of art and thought—began to wean Weaver from the centralizing imperatives of socialism. After taking a master’s degree in 1937, he spent a restless few years teaching, first in Alabama, then Texas. It was while driving across the Texas prairies in 1939, he recalled later, that he had a revelation: “I did not have to go back to this job … I did not have to go on professing the clichés of liberalism, which were becoming meaningless to me. . . . At the end of that year I chucked the uncongenial job and went off to start my education over, being now arrived at the age of thirty.”
Weaver now switched into high intellectual gear. At LSU he studied not only with Cleanth Brooks but also with such commanding figures as Robert Penn Warren and the literary historian Arlin Turner. Summers found him at Harvard, the Sorbonne, or the University of Virginia pursuing his studies. He finished his dissertation in 1943 and, recommended by Brooks, landed a job at the University of Chicago.
Weaver’s entire career unfolded at the University of Chicago. He taught there from 1944 until his early death, from heart failure, in 1963 at the age of fifty-three. Weaver was dutiful—he always insisted on keeping his hand in teaching introductory courses when most senior staff fobbed off that chore on junior colleagues—but he was never happy in Chicago. One biographer speaks of his “hermetically sealed existence” there. He had colleagues, but few if any close friends. He never married. He lived alone in a small apartment with his pipe, his books, and a nightly beer for company. In the summer, he would go south to stay with his mother in the house he had bought her. He traveled there by train—he boarded an airplane only once in his life, to lecture in California—and he always instructed his mother to have the garden plowed by horse or mule, not—abomination of desolation—by a tractor.
There was more than a little irony in Weaver’s situation. The great Henry Regnery, who published Weaver’s book The Ethics of Rhetoric in 1953, summed it up with his customary aptitude. How odd that a man who repudiated the modern world and all its works should spend virtually his entire career “at a university founded by John D. Rockefeller, where, not long before he arrived, the first chain reaction had taken place … and in the city where fifteen years before there had been a great exposition, ‘A Century of Progress,’ celebrating achievements of science and technology.” As Regnery noted, being so out of place must have been a powerful goad to Weaver’s ire, and hence to his work.
Weaver’s star rose dramatically in 1948 when Ideas Have Consequences was published by the University of Chicago Press. He instantly went from being just another disgruntled prof to being a sort of academic celebrity. He had a knack for telling people what they didn’t want to hear in such a way that they craved to hear it. “This is another book,” he began mournfully, “about the dissolution of the West.” It was Weaver’s constant theme. Ideas is a brief book, fewer than 200 pages. But it crackles with passion and extensive, if sometimes imperfectly digested, erudition. Its success, or perhaps I should say its notoriety, astonished everyone, not least its author.
Paul Tillich—then at the height of his fame—spoke for one contingent when he declared the book “brilliantly written, daring, and radical. . . . It will shock, and philosophical shock is the beginning of wisdom.” Others were less admiring. Writing in The Antioch Review, one critic denounced Weaver as a “pompous fraud” and his book as a retreat to “a fairyland of absolute essences.” Ideas was not a measured, carefully modulated argument; it did not elicit a measured, carefully modulated response. I suspect that some part of the book’s success lay in its title. It is not catchy, exactly, but it bluntly articulates an immovable intellectual truth: ideas do indeed have consequences. It is ironical, then, that Weaver intensely disliked the title, which was foisted upon him by his editor. In his excellent biography of Weaver, Joseph Scotchie reports that Weaver almost pulled the book from the press over the title. Weaver’s friend Russell Kirk said that The Adverse Descent was the title Weaver favored; other scholars say it was The Fearful Descent. Whatever it was, Weaver was fortunate that his editor prevailed.
As Weaver’s friend Eliseo Vivas, a professor of philosophy, noted, Weaver’s defining intellectual trait was “audacity of mind.” It was audacity of a decidedly contrarian stamp. In the mid-1940s, when Weaver was writing Ideas, America was blooming with post-war prosperity. The ideology of progress was underwritten by the joy of victory and the extraordinary dynamo of capitalism suddenly unburdened by the demands of war. Material abundance was rendered even more seductive by a burgeoning technological revolution: cars, radios, gadgets galore. Easier. Faster. Louder. More—above all, more.
Weaver wanted none of it. Ideas, he said, was not a work of philosophy but “an intuition of a situation,” namely, a situation in which the “world that has lost its center.” Weaver traced that loss back to the the rise of nominalism in the twelfth century, a familiar pedigree that is both accurate and comical. It is is accurate because the modern world—a world deeply shaped by a commitment to scientific rationality—does have a root in the disabusing speculations of nominalism. It is comical because to locate the source of our present difficulties on so distant and so elevated a plane is simply to underscore our impotence. If William of Occam is responsible for what’s wrong with the world, there’s not much we can do about it.
Nevertheless, Weaver’s diagnosis struck a chord, or rather many chords. On the strength of Ideas, the quirky Yale polemicist Willmoore Kendall declared Weaver “captain of the anti-liberal team”—a team, as Scotchie notes, that was only just coming into its own with figures like Weaver and Russell Kirk and, just over the horizon, William F. Buckley Jr. and the circle he assembled around National Review (a circle that included Weaver).
In fact, though, Weaver was not so much anti-liberal as anti-modern. This shows itself, for example, in his discussion of private property. He praises private property as “the last metaphysical right.” But although he clearly appreciates the place of private property in fostering liberty and forestalling the tyranny of the state, his defense is actually highly qualified: “Respecters of private property are really obligated to oppose much that is done today in the name of private enterprise, for corporate organization and monopoly are the very means whereby property is casting aside its privacy.” Private property is good, Weaver thinks, so long as it is limited: “The moral solution is the distributive ownership of small properties.” Who or what oversees that distribution was not a problem he solves.
Something similar can be said about his discussion of total war, war conducted not just among recognized combatants but against civilians as well. No sane person is “in favor” of war, total or otherwise. But Weaver’s laments about the loss of chivalry in war are bootless. Weaver locates the origin of total war in the American Civil War and the North’s brutal campaign against the South. But he applies his criticism to other conflicts, for example the firebombing of Dresden and the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. In the posthumously published Visions of Order (1964), he argues that the usual justification—that those actions ultimately “saved lives”—has “a fatal internal contradiction,” since if one really wanted to save lives one could simply capitulate and stop fighting. Really, though, there is no contradiction. It takes away nothing of the horror of those episodes to say that the real alternative—for example, invading the Japanese islands—would have been even more horrible. The decision about saving lives was made then, in the aftermath of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The point is that the choices life presents us with, especially in wartime, are often not between good and bad but between bad and worse. That is a central conservative insight, and it is a curious feature of Weaver’s thought that, despite his ostensible celebration of the particular over the abstract, he sometimes sacrifices vital human reality for the sake of an abstraction.
Weaver’s taxonomy of decadence is both bracing and overstated—bracing, perhaps, because overstated. He lamented “the lowering of standards, the adulteration of quality, and, in general, … the loss of those things which are essential to the life of civility and culture.” Who can disagree? In his opening pages, he notes that “Man is constantly being assured today that he has more power than ever before in history, but his daily experience is one of powerlessness.” This is certainly true, and it testifies to the accuracy of de Tocqueville’s analysis of “democratic despotism,” which does not tyrannize so much as it enervates and infantilizes. But then Weaver proceeds to argue that if one “is with a business organization, the odds are great that he has sacrificed every other kind of independence in return for that dubious one known as financial. Modern social and corporate organization makes independence an expensive thing; in fact, it may make common integrity a prohibitive luxury for the ordinary man.” Is this true?
Weaver acknowledged at the beginning of Ideas that lamentation about “the decadence of a present age is one of the permanent illusions of mankind.” But that was a pro forma rider. At the center of his analysis was the insistence that modern man, “like Macbeth,” had made an evil decision to trade allegiance to transcendent principles for present gain. From this Faustian bargain all manner of bad things flow. Weaver warns about “the insolence of material success,” the “technification of the world,” the obliteration of distinctions that make living “strenuously, or romantically” possible. “Presentism,” the effort to begin each day, as Allen Tate put it, as if there were no yesterday, has robbed man of his history and therefore his identity as a moral agent. Weaver is particularly harsh on what he regards as the tepid ambitions of the middle class: “loving comfort, risking little, terrified by the thought of change, its aim is to establish a materialistic civilization which will banish threats to its complacency.” In a chapter called “Egotism in Work and Art” he launches an extraordinary attack on jazz, “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.” All this, I think, is not so much wrong as radically incomplete. Weaver speaks of “hysterical optimism,” and rightly; it is not, however, the only form of hysteria on offer.
Weaver is often at his best when applying himself to the concrete analysis of language. He understood with rare subtlety that rhetoric (as Aristotle insisted) is an ethical as well as an instrumental discipline. A debasement of language, he knew, was also a debasement of reality. In 1937, when asked how he could worry about the misuse of language when the Japanese were bombing Shanghai, Karl Kraus responded that “If all commas were in the right place, Shanghai would not be burning.” An overstatement, perhaps, but one that errs in the right direction. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver has penetrating and original things to say about Lincoln’s speeches, Milton’s rhetoric, and the legal arguments deployed in the Scopes trial. Particularly noteworthy is his discussion of the way certain words acquire a positive or negative charge that lifts them out of the precincts of ordinary semantics to a realm of moral inviolability. Consider the word “progress.” Weaver nominates it as “the god term of the present age” which can “validate almost anything.”
It would be difficult to think of any type of person or of any institutions which could not be recommended to the public through the enhancing power of this word. A politician is urged upon the voters as a “progressive leader”; a community is proud to style itself “progressive”; technologies and methodologies claim to be “progressive”; a peculiar kind of emphasis in modern education calls itself “progressive,” and so on without limit.
Thus it is, as Scotchie puts it, that certain words, and by extension the causes to which they are attached, become “unassailable.” The word “democracy,” Weaver notes, enjoys a similar dispensation.
It works the same way on the negative side of the lexicon: certain terms seem unredeemable. One of the primary “devil terms” in modern times is “prejudice,” a term that once meant “prejudgment” but now, as Weaver says his important essay “Life Without Prejudice” (1957), is primarily “a flail to beat enemies.” Edmund Burke could praise “just prejudice” as that which “renders a man’s virtue his habit.” For us, the word is synonymous with bigotry. Prejudice in the old sense, Weaver notes, was a “binding element” in society. And that is precisely why—at least, it is one reason why—the attack on prejudice occupies such a prominent place in the strategy of the Left. “Life without prejudice,” Weaver concludes, “were it ever to be tried, would soon reveal itself to be a life without principle.”
Irving Kristol famously said that a neo-conservative is a liberal mugged by reality. Weaver might be described as a socialist repelled by modernity. You don’t have to be Karl Marx to recognize that capitalism is a powerful solvent of tradition. Moralists have inveighed against luxury ever since there was luxury to tempt us. But capitalism and the free markets which feed it drastically ups the ante. Capitalism is an unparalleled engine of wealth. It is also an unparalleled engine of freedom, but that freedom has two faces: increased choice and increased dislocation. Weaver lamented that latter and blamed the former.
Weaver’s said his “core belief” revolved around the recognition that “man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things.” Quite right, and Weaver has penetrating things to say about the “spoiled child psychology” that underlies the modern culture of entitlement. He is right, too, that modern science and technology present us with formidable moral temptations. But the pretense that we might issue a categorical “no” to modernity would not only be impracticable, it would be immoral—and it would be so on good Weaverian grounds. Richard Weaver was eloquent in warning about the disastrous results of Prometheanism, of attempting to subjugate the world to our will. But part—a large part—of our world today is the world shaped by science. What greater hubris than to think we could dispense with that world in an effort to live “strenuously, or romantically”?
- Barbarians in the Saddle: An Intellectual Biography of Richard M. Weaver, by Joseph Scotchie; Transaction Publishers, 161 pages, $29.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 1, on page 4
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com