Richard M. Weaver: Philosopher
Ideas Have Consequences
by Joe Scotchie
Richard Weaver's ascendancy into the bloody crossroads of American letters was a
most propitious development. By the late 1940s, the once-promising Agrarian
movement had long broken up. Only Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, and Frank
Owsley, among the contributors to I'll Take My Stand, still
subscribed, with full vigour, to their original positions. But with the 1948
publication of Ideas Have Consequences and later works, Weaver breathed
new life into the conservative Southern tradition, carrying it into the
post-World War II era. His influence is evident
today as Southern traditionalists do battle with their multiculturalist
native of Western North Carolina, Weaver briefly dabbled in the fashionable
socialism of the 1930s. But graduate study at Vanderbilt University would send
his worldview in a different direction. There he was exposed to the Agrarian
movement which, in the mid-1930s, still had great ambitions. However, it took
Weaver several more years to fully reject socialism and embrace the
traditionalism that characterized his rural upbringing.
After quitting his teaching job at Texas A & M, he enrolled at LSU to complete his PhD. There he wrote his thesis, ‘The Confederate South, 1865-1910: A Study in the Survival of a Mind and a Culture.’ The dissertation though yet unpublished, got him a job at the University of Chicago where he spent the rest of his career.
Weaver is identified with two important 20th century intellectual movements. He was probably the first great disciple of the Vanderbilt Agrarians. As Walter Sullivan observed, he was the Saint Paul of the movement, too young to be one of the original twelve, but the most eloquent spokesman the cause ever had. Secondly, Weaver, along with Russell Kirk, was one of the founders of the traditionalist wing of the post World War 11 conservative movement.
Weaver earned Sullivan's lofty praise on the basis of The Southern Tradition at Bay and essays on Southern history, politics and literature. He managed to capture the essence of Southern civilization in one short, illuminating definition: the South was the ‘last non-materialistic civilization it the Western world.’ It was a society where the questions, Where are you from? and Where are you heading? were more important than, What are you worth? Or as Calvin Brown put it, Southerners knew a man might have two million dollars and not be worth two cents.
In short, Weaver saw four distinguishing characteristics of the Old South: The code of chivalry, the education of the gentleman, the feudal system, and the older religiousness.
There were shortcomings to all this. For instance, the education of the gentleman placed too much emphasis on politics and the martial arts and not enough on literature and philosophy. Writers like South Carolina's own William Gillmore Simms and Edgar Allan Poe received little recognition in their homeland. Men of the Old South didn't think much of a career in letters; it was something a man might do for a few years, but not as a lifelong profession. As such, when the war came, the South, Weaver claimed, could never say why it was ‘right finally.’ It- made legal points, but not a very good metaphysical defence.
These criticisms are not what the reader remembers from The Southern Tradition at Bay. The code of chivalry, for instance, was very important to Richard Weaver. This virtue may seem quaint to us, but Weaver took it seriously. He was appalled by the total war of World War II, especially the Allies indiscriminate bombing of Dresden and other German cities. Weaver felt that a country that practices ‘total war’ abroad is not likely to grant many liberties to its own citizens --- a point Old Right conservatives have made countless times throughout the years.
There were other aspects about the heritage Weaver admired, including the older religiousness which was devoid of the skepticism towards Christianity then emerging in both New England and Europe. The education of the gentleman avoided specialization, but offered a classical curriculum designed to build a leadership class that provided for a responsible stewardship in times of peace and times of war. Here, Weaver had plenty of ammunition to work with; namely, he could point to the men who founded the first republic of the modern world. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Randolph of Roanoke were all products of the education. Mostly, he cited George Washington and Robert E. Lee as the kind of soldier/statesmen the education was capable of producing.
The bulk of The Southern Tradition at Bay is spent telling the story of the postbellum South, a defeated region that remained ‘unreconstructed and unreconstructable.’ Weaver never gave up a romantic view of the South; even the South of the 1950s and 60s was to him ‘conspicuous for its resistance to the spiritual disintegration of the modem world.’ Apologists for the postbellum South still opposed ‘secular democracy,’ they defended the particularisms of Southern culture; specifically, its agrarian heritage in a nation that was rapidly becoming industrialized. In the 1890s, the US, with the Spanish American War, embarked on its own attempts at empire building. This was the Gilded Age, a time of great wealth and poverty, all marked by the rise of urban culture. Many Southerners were alarmed by these changes. Albert Taylor Bledsoe declared that the money culture springing up in large cities was ‘against the spirit of Christianity.’ One paragraph from Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots summed up the Southern reaction to America's transformation from a republic to empire:
am in a sense narrow and provincial, I love mine own people. Their past is mine,
their present mine, their future is a divine trust. I hate the dishwater of
modern world citizenship. A shallow cosmopolitanism is the mask of death for the
individual. It is the froth of civilization, as crime is it dregs. The true
citizen of the world loves his country.
early 1960s, Weaver wrote an epilogue to the book. It is a very moving essay,
containing some of his best writing. There Weaver called on modem man to live
‘strenuously and romantically’ and to rebel against the cradle to grave
social security state which had taken hold in Europe and North America. The
Southern Tradition at Bay is a remarkable book on several levels. It is a
fine work of literary criticism, an indispensable document of American history
and also a great tragedy. The Southern Tradition at Bay is mostly
an unforgettable account of how a defeated people reacted to a strange, hostile
world they were now forced to live in. It is a story of heroism, defiance and
finally, self-criticism. Despite all this, the book wasn't published until 1968,
twenty-five years after it was completed and five years after Weaver's death.
Indeed, Weaver didn't make his publishing debut until 1948, when the University of Chicago press brought out Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver's Chicago residence helped him with this book. Ideas contains a sweeping criticism of urban life, Weaver called the mass migrations from the country to the city, a ‘flight from reality.’ But he didn't like the suburbs anymore than large cities. Weaver correctly noted that the welfare state exists mainly to serve a complacent middle class.
In Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver trained his guns on all aspects of urban culture --- tabloid newspapers, movies, radio (this was 1948; television had not yet conquered the American livingroom), jazz music, ‘economic democracy’ (Weaver would have no use for ‘it’s the economy stupid’ style politics, preferring instead that a democracy asks deeper, more Socratic questions such as what does it mean to be a free man living in a free society?). There were also attacks on ‘undefined equality’ as Weaver predicted the day when women ‘would be bombed in a foxhole’ along with her male counterpart. The consequences? Weaver identified smoldering resentments (‘the dynamite which will finally wreck Western civilization’), deeper levels of moral decadence; most of all, he defined 20th century man as a spoiled child. One chapter is even titled the ‘Spoiled Child Psychology.’ This is where the cradle to grave social security state leads us. The prose in Ideas is urgent, angry, apocalyptic. Fifty years after its publication, the book has lost none of its ability to sting, provoke and enlighten the reader. As Weaver wrote to Donald Davidson, the book was written in ‘words as hard as cannonballs.’ Here's one example:
less than his ancestors, [modern] man finds himself up against toil and trouble.
Since this was not nominated in the bond, he suspects evildoers and takes the
childish course of blaming individuals for things inseparable from the human
condition. The truth is that he has never been brought to see what it means to
be a man. That man is a product of discipline and forging, that he really owes
his thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow --- this citizen
is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his
egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind.
In the book's final chapters, Weaver constructs a program of restoration
built around private property, piety and truth in the written and spoken word.
There wasn't much of a conservative movement in those heady days of New Deal
optimism, but traditionalists did like Weaver's emphasis on piety; namely, that
there are values and mythologies that should be passed on from one generation to
the next. Libertarians, likewise, rallied around the defence of private
property. Here was something concrete that was free from the whims of the state.
Weaver opposed New Deal statism, but he had no use for a libertarianism that
rejected distinctions of age, gender, and class. Still, a tenuous coalition
between traditionalists and libertarians was attempted, mainly from the legacy
of Ideas Have Consequences.
The volume lifted Weaver into a whole new world. He was no longer an obscure college professor, but now a spokesman for a new intellectual movement in the country. During the 1950s he lectured widely and wrote on a regular basis for National Review and Modern Age. Times were much different, then. Conservatives still hoped to roll back the New Deal. They were anticommunist, but many were also uneasy about the idea of an American Empire. Conservatives uniformly opposed the revolutionary jurisprudence of the Warren Supreme Court. The thought that such statists as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman would eventually become conservative heroes appalled surviving remnants of the 1950s Old Right.
And so, we might ask, how goes the struggle today? Well, as the conservative movement has grown in strength, so has feuding between its different factions. In this decade, the Old Right that Weaver helped to found has resurrected itself as articulate opponents of the entire globalist agenda, specifically open immigration, free trade and an interventionist foreign policy. This has been such a feisty counterrevolution that its enemies, especially on the establishment Right, have sought to destroy the careers of its leading figures. Most notable was the unprecedented media assault against Pat Buchanan after he won the 1996 New Hampshire presidential primary.
Weaver had his own bouts with the high priests of political correctness. Back in the 1950s, the people at Chicago were not happy with the publicity Weaver's writing was bringing to their institution. With Ideas Have Consequences and Frederick Hayek's Road to Serfdom, Chicago was acquiring a reputation for publishing reactionary texts. When Weaver won the schools' annual Quantrell Award for teaching excellence, a dean told him, ‘Weaver, I hope you take the money and go somewhere else!’ Indeed, Chicago would publish no more Weaver volumes. After W.T. Couch, Weaver's fellow North Carolinian left the university press, the author went to Regnery to bring out The Ethics of Rhetoric.
The people at Chicago were right to fear Richard Weaver. Like all great 20th century literary figures, he was a high reactionary against the massive efforts to dehumanize man and destroy ancient pieties. What Weaver had to say about man's nature, that his life is a grand struggle where his soul was at stake; what he said about culture, that it is something more satisfying to us than anything the political state might construct, remains permanent and enduring. His work remains one of our great treasures as the culture wars move into the next century.
Joe Scotchie is author of Barbarians In the Saddle-an Intellectual
Biography of Richard Weaver, The Paleoconservatives, The Vision of Richard
Weaver, and Thomas Wolfe Revisited.