Native Southerner and traditionalist conservative, Richard Weaver (1910-1963) was a unique figure in the rise of the modern American right. Weaver, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, was an historian, literary critic, and rhetorician who despised the modern trend towards intellectual specialization. As an undergraduate, he embraced socialism after being convinced that the future was firmly on the side of “science, liberalism and equalitarianism.”
Weaver’s self-described conversion “up from liberalism” commenced with his association, as a Vanderbilt graduate student, with the Nashville Agrarians. In 1930, the Nashville Circle had published I’ll Take My Stand, a collection of 12 essays which juxtaposed the Southern agrarian tradition against the Northern industrial way of life. Upon completion of his master’s degree in 1934, he had admittedly grown fond of his Agrarian mentors, but he was reluctant to embrace their particular conservative vision. Years later, while driving on a Texas highway, he began to ponder whether to return to an academic job at Texas A&M. He wrote later that he was overcome by the realization that:
I did not have to go back to this job, which had become distasteful, and that I did not have to go on professing the clichés of liberalism, which were becoming meaningless to me. I saw that my opinions had been formed out of a timorous regard for what was supposed to be intellectually respectable, and that I had always been looking over my shoulder to find out what certain others, whose concern with the truth I was beginning to believe to be not very intense, were doing or thinking. It is a great experience to wake up at a critical juncture to the fact that one does have a free will, and that giving up the worship of false idols is a quite practicable proceeding.
Troubled, he wrote, that “many traditional positions in our world had suffered not so much because of inherent defect as because of the stupidity, ineptness, and intellectual sloth of those who, for one reason or another, are presumed to have their defense in charge.”
Weaver then enrolled in the graduate program in English at Louisiana State University. There he completed a dissertation on the conservative tendencies of the South which was posthumously published in 1968 as The Southern Tradition at Bay.
The work’s central contention was that the South’s intellectual life had been distinctly resistant to the ongoing “spiritual disintegration of the modern world.” This condition proceeded from what Weaver described as the Southern tradition’s “fourfold root.” First and foremost was the South’s premodern feudal theory of society. The second was its adherence to a code of chivalry, which both informed distinctions and reinforced hierarchy. The third was the Southern concept of the gentleman, which fostered the ideals of both the scholar and the soldier. The fourth, and arguably most significant, was the region’s “older religiousness” that was characterized both by a respect for mystery, and by a radical skepticism of rational inquiries into matters of faith.
In the work’s epilogue, Weaver sought to counter the nostalgia surrounding the Confederate defeat, and urged not merely recovery of the Southern tradition, but a challenge to “save the human spirit” by “recreating a non-materialist society.” In short, Weaver sought to translate the lineaments of the Southern tradition’s fourfold root into the late modern world. It was with this goal in mind that he took the philosophical sentiments outlined in The Southern Tradition at Bay and applied them to the modern world in his book Ideas Have Consequences (1948). Like many works in the post-1945 revival of American conservatism, Weaver’s manuscript was aroused by the tragedy of World War II. In response to the atomic bombing of Japan, Weaver declared to a friend that:
I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe that my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible.
This passage discloses Weaver’s mindset as he moved from discerning the lineaments of the Southern tradition to an elaboration of the broader dissolution of Western culture. While the Nashville Agrarians’ I’ll Take My Stand had been prompted by the loss of the Southern way of life, Ideas Have Consequences was inspired by the West’s neglect of original sin and the ideal of chivalry. Redolent of The Southern Tradition at Bay, Weaver’s prescription rested largely on a revival of an “older religiousness” in the Western world.
Citing the historical precedent for civilizational trauma to “turn the mind towards Christianity,” Weaver believed that World War II might lead to a renewed understanding of original sin. The main barrier, he wrote, was that such a notion, if not wholly anti-democratic, was nonetheless a “severe restraint upon democracy” as a political system that made it difficult to restrain man as long as he does things in large majorities. Chivalry’s elevation of the spiritual over the material represented the only defense against this tendency and was thus the only means both to “contain a war and go on existing as a civilization.” Because it allowed for the recovery of a degree of mastery over our lives, chivalry was the only means both to counterbalance total war and to restrain its handmaiden, technological innovation. Much as the Agrarians had once reviled the industrialization of agriculture as indicative of Southern civilization’s decline, Weaver mourned the industrialization of war as symptomatic of Western civilization’s eclipse.
Weaver subtly described Ideas Have Consequences as simply another book about the “dissolution of the West.” Its disquieting introduction indicted modern man’s embrace of material progress which had transformed him into a “moral idiot” unable to apprehend the “superiority of an ideal.” Rather than viewing himself as created in the divine image, modern man had been reduced to a mere “wealth-seeking and -consuming animal.”
Tracing the origins of this deviation, Weaver turned to mankind’s abandonment of “transcendentals” under the auspices of William of Occam’s 14th-century nominalism. He held that Occam’s nominalism, which denied that universal essences have a real existence, had inaugurated a tendency to reduce universal terms to mere articles of convenience. Weaver portrayed nominalism’s medieval route of “logical realism” as the central precursor to the decline of Western civilization. The remainder of Ideas Have Consequences was dedicated to illuminating the “consequences” of this cultural upheaval.
The book’s remaining chapters outline the depths of the West’s decadence, ranging from the effects of mass media to the abasement of language. These windows into Western decline aimed to stall what Weaver termed the “steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” In the end, the West’s preservation was, he wrote, contingent on:
…the recovery of true knowledge. For the success of our restoration it cannot be too often said that society and mass are contradictory terms and that those who seek to do things in the name of mass are the destroyers in our midst. If society is something which can be understood, it must have structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy…
Extending his diagnosis of mankind’s predicament in Visions of Order (1964), Weaver noted that modern man had been diminished in three ways:
He has been told of his cosmic insignificance; he has been informed that he must class himself as an animal, and he has been left in doubt as to whether he is a free agent. These assertions, made with increasing boldness over the present span of time, have rather thoroughly percolated the public mind and have produced an attitude forbidding to his religious and poetic representation.
Weaver’s restoration was premised upon the cultivation of a new archetype, a being who would guide modern man back to an appreciation of the “poetic and ethical vision of life.” This errand, which had once been furthered by the gentleman scholar and the man of letters, would now be undertaken by a new personage that he designated a “doctor of culture.” He described this role thusly:
He is a member of the culture who has to some degree estranged himself from it through study and reflection. He is like the savant in society; though in it, he is not wholly of it; he has acquired a knowledge and developed habits of thought which enable him to see it in perspective and to gauge it. He has not lost the intuitive understanding which belongs to him as a member, but he has added something to that. A temporary alienation from his culture may be followed by an intense preoccupation with it, but on a more reflective level than that of a typical member.
Weaver’s conservatism was, at bottom, less concerned with scolding Western man over what he had subverted than with reminding him of what he had disregarded. His conservative vision was distinctly that of a 20th-century Southerner who, after being tempted by socialism, first reclaimed his native tradition and then endeavored to reimagine a traditionalism fit for the modern world. Along these lines, Weaver’s friend and fellow traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk once remarked that Weaver sought to remind mankind of the interrelatedness of the “inner order of the soul” and the “outer order of society.”
Of course, all of this is to say that Weaver’s life and thought have virtually no bearing on what passes for conservatism in 21st-century America.
Image Credit: Richard M. Weaver (photo courtesy of Intercollegiate Studies Institute)