How to Read Richard Weaver: Philosopher of ‘We the (Virtuous) People’ - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

How to Read Richard Weaver: Philosopher of ‘We the (Virtuous) People’

“Richard M. Weaver of Chicago (but a devoted son of Western North Carolina) . . . [bespeaks] a Conservatism that owes much to Plato but perhaps even more to a ‘complete disenchantment’ with the presumptuousness and vulgarity of liberalism. . . . [His] recent writings have become increasingly concerned with the debasing effects of ‘mass plutocracy.’” So Clinton Rossiter in the revised version of his Conservatism in America.1

Weaver—so Rossiter a few pages later—“must . . . be given a very special place in theintellectual history of the American Right”because he, among others, has “belaboredliberalism in season and out.”2 Weaver is the “spiritual heir” of Donald Davidson, fighting—how “sincerely” Rossiter is at a loss to decide—for the “embattled [sic] cause of southern agrarianism.”3 Again: Weaver is a man “quick with the timeless truths of Conservatism” (though no quicker with these truths, Rossiter adds, than many of his liberal opponents), and one of several readily-recognizable “voices of the Right” which, “for the first time in many years,” are now becoming audible. Weaver—so Rossiter in the following chapter4—is again a Southern Agrarian, whom Rossiter calls upon to decide whether to “abdicate responsibility for the future of the American republic” or help teach American Conservatism that it must “enlist and serve the interests of American business.” Then, finally: Weaver, now suddenly linked with Russell Kirk, Anthony Harrigan, and Gerhart Niemeyer, because of his “contempt” for liberalism is one of the only “real” conservatives “now writing in America”—“too real,” indeed, because “they find themselves in a state of all-out war with liberalism—and thus, in fact, with the American tradition,” “reckless, imprudent, and [therefore] ‘unconservative.’”5

No, my point is not, or at least not primarily, my usual one, namely, that Rossiter doesn’t know what he is talking about.6 But rather that Richard Weaver was, even for so skilled a labeller as Rossiter, a hard man to stick a label on, and for some reason or reasons other than that, Picasso-like, he went through “periods” (he was, from his very beginnings in the Southern coterie reviews, all of one piece), and that, as I have put it in a footnote, one of those reasons is that lines are not easy to draw among contemporary Conservative intellectuals: relevant categories, relevant in the sense that they result from asking questions that bring to light the real differentiae ofthe writers involved, apparently do not exist. Even M. Morton Auerbach, who unlike Rossiter sounds as if he had actually read the books he speaks of, has trouble classifying Weaver, just as Rossiter does. He does not, to be sure, commit the (in part anachronistic) error of making Weaver a Southern Agrarian, as distinguished from a writer on Southern agrarianism, but even he still cannot resist the temptation to tar him a little with the Southern Agrarian brush. Among the many statements Weaver made about the Southern Agrarians, the one Auerbach chooses to emphasize, accordingly, is that to the effect that they asserted the “timeless moral values”—with, of course, the unavoidable implication that, in morals and, one supposes, politics, they were insome special sense Weaver’s forebears.7 Again: Weaver bases his “Conservatism” on “tradition” (what tradition Auerbach does not tell us), which according to Auerbach, is a matter of Weaver’s ultimate reliance on “values” that are, like those of any other ideologist, “intuitive”: tradition alone enables “men to live . . . together harmoniously over an extent of time.”8 “Communal harmony,” the “absence” (by which Auerbach of course understands total absence, so that Weaver begins to emerge as an authoritarian) of “conflict and tension,”9 is Weaver’s “primary concept”; Weaver seems to believe indeed, that “any tradition” (that is, any tradition whatever) is a Conservative tradition, and thus, by implication, a tradition a Conservative must defend.10 Still again Auerbach follows Rossiter in making of Weaver a “Platonic Conservative,” by which he turns out to mean not that Weaver wished to build Plato’s Republic on earth, as Auerbach’s earlier discussion might appear to suggest, but rather that Weaver believed that our troubles began when “the Middle Ages” surrendered “Platonism” in favor of “the easier ethic [!] of Aristotle.”11 Again (and not, as we shall see, a bad point) Weaver, unlike Kirk (again not a bad point), is on the optimistic side about the possibility of “restoring lost ideals,” though only through “teaching poetry and precise dialectical definition in the schools.”12 Again (a little difficult to follow, but let us always be patient with Auerbach): In 1953 Weaver wrote a further book, The Ethics of Rhetoric, in which he seems, says Auerbach, less “pessimistic” than in the earlier one (in which, as we have just seen, he was “hopeful of restoring lost ideals,” i.e.optimistic), and in which—at last we begin to getsomewhere—he argues (with Auerbach’s approval) that Edmund Burke’s frequent arguments from “mere traditionalism” were without meaning as long as Burke did not “abstract the essence of the traditions he was defending,” which begins to make it sound as if Weaver, after all, did not, despite Auerbach’s earlier statement, defend just any old tradition.13 Burke, we find Weaver saying in the pages to which Auerbach refers us argues “from circumstance.” Burke tells us to be sure, that “he is going to give equal consideration to circumstance and to ideals (or principles)”—which, Weaver is there to assure us, cannot be done, because the man who attempts it finds himself, inevitably, following circumstance not principle; the “argument from circumstance,” is “philosophically appropriate for the liberal,” and “is very far from being conservative.”14 More: a man’s method of argument is a “truer index” to “his beliefs than his explicit profession ofprinciples.” And in the sequel, Weaver scores Burke as a preacher of a “gospel of precedent and gradualism” (italics added), as, in the end, a man who bases his argument for prescription merely on the grounds that it is backed up by precedent, merely on the grounds that it is old. Weaver concluded, Auerbach himself concludes, that “Burke should not be a model for Conservatism at all.” Auerbach’s treatment of Weaver, as I had encouraged the reader to expect, is a considerable improvement on Rossiter’s, if only because he sees that Weaver’s repudiation of Burke is somehow significant, even though the reason it is significant escapes him.15 I repeat my point: The categories for classifying Right-wing intellectuals in America do not exist, or, if they do, are unknown at least to the major liberal writers on these matters. And I begin to lead up to my further point: Weaver just may be unique, so that even if the relevant categories did exist he would not fit into any of them. The Rossiter-Auerbach Weaver cannot, in any case, appear other than an outrage in the eyes of any real “studier” (I borrow the phrase from my hero Locke) of Weaver’s thought.

Weaver, apart from (for the most part scanty) reviews of his books as they have appeared, has been little written about by his fellow-Right-wing intellectuals. Or, to put it more precisely, he was much eulogized but seldom if ever subjected to analysis and, what is more important, seldom if ever really listened to. The last claim that could be made for him, for example, would be that he has impressed his influence upon or swayed the minds of the present-day high-priests of Conservatism in America.16 This is perhaps partly a matter of their being too busy writing their own books to read each others,’ but only partly; among them also, the questions have not been raised that would lead to the drawing of significant lines17; among them, too, the stereotype of Weaver as somehow a spokesman for the South has continued to pop up with surprising frequency; there, more perhaps even than on the Left, Weaver has tended to be thought of as a writer mainly on “cultural” and “literary” matters, and not as a political theorist—or, if as a political theorist, as one concerned with answering the Right-wing intellectuals’ question of questions, “What is Conservatism?” (as distinguished from the question “What is American Conservatism?”); there, too, what I call Weaver’s uniqueness, and the qualities in him that made him unique, have gone un-noticed.18

Thus Russell Kirk, the publisher’s unhappy choice to write the Foreword to Weaver’s posthumous Visions of Order, lets theessential Weaver slip through his fingers about as clumsily as Rossiter and Auerbach. Here, too, Weaver’s “view” is “Platonic” (though Weaver spends several pages of this very book scolding Socrates, who is said to have been greatly loved and admired byPlato). Here too we might easily get the impression that Weaver, in the decisive dimension, was a johnny-come-lately Southern Agrarian. Here too we are struck by the failure to try to dig down and identify the deep differences that in fact divide our conservatives, and “place” Weaver with respect to them. Mr. Kirk’s main purpose, indeed, seems to be to make Weaver sound, apart from certain purely personal idiosyncracies, like “one of the boys” in the exalted Right-wing circles in which Kirk himself normally moves when he emerges from Mecosta—like, ifI may put it so without seeming impudent, a sort of alter-ego of Mr. Kirk’s: a deplorer of pretty much everything on the horizon, a “despiser” of everything modern, a man who thought of himself as “speaking to a Remnant,” above all a trafficker, again like Kirk himself, in Weltanschauüngen, grand style, who when he writes that “we” have been “stumbling down the path of Avernus,” that “we” have been “distorting rhetoric” and so “subverting the high old order” of “our civilization and our human dignity,” means “we” of the West, and thinks of his redemptive mission as an act to be performed on a world-wide stage.19 More: Kirk even attempts (I anticipate a little a major argument to which I am leading up) to transform Weaver into “one of the boys” ( ut supra) in a more intimate dimension, namely, that of his day-to-day way of life. Finding himself in an uncongenial “climate of opinion,” we are told, Weaver “withdrew much of the time to the fastnesses of his solitary reflections” (i.e., to his equivalent of Mecosta).20 After Mr. Kirk hasdone, only one drop of quicksilver remains in hand; but it, as far as it goes, is a precious one, and in justice to Mr. Kirk, I have saved it for the end: “Order . . . was Weaver’s austere passion: the inner order of the soul, the outer order of society.”21

I conclude: Everybody appears to be hard put to it to “classify” Richard Weaver, or to say what he was up to without, pretty soon, sticking his foot in his mouth.


To the reader who wishes to object at this point, “This is supposed to be an essay, and you are not getting anywhere,” I answer: “Ah! But I am.” Allthe above has been necessary for the business I have in hand, namely: To explain to the readers of this essay (whom I think of as the Conservative intellectual spokesmen of that morrow when the “false teachers” who produce most contemporary Right-wing literature will have been shunted aside) why Richard Weaver’s Visions of Order, it and it alone among American Conservative books, is the one that they must place on their shelves beside The Federalist, and confer on it, as on The Federalist, the political equivalent of biblical status. For the danger (because of the confusion about where Weaver stands among the thinkers with whom, erroneously, his name tends to get itself associated) is that it is Visions of Order that will get shunted aside. (Certainly no review has appeared to date that might conceivably prevent that from happening.) Now it is only after we have asked the questions that expose the significant groupings on the Right, and drawn the necessary lines, that we can distinguish the true from the false teachers, and assign to Richard Weaver the pride of place that he deserves, and so avoid that danger.

What are the questions that want asking? I think they are these.

a) Who have, who have not, fallen for the liberal lie of the past forty or fifty years, according to which the American political tradition is a tradition of “individual rights,’’ of rights that because “individual” end up (they always do, because there’s no stopping on this downward slope) rights that are equal from individual to individual and thus for all individuals, of, therefore, equality as the ultimate destiny of the American Republic? The answer to the question “Who have?” would be too painful to contemplate. The answer to the question “Who have not?” is: Only Richard Weaver, who never had so much as a flirtation with an individual right.

b) Who have, who have not, fallen for latter-day Right-wing ideology according to which government is “evil” as such, and “freedom” over against government, especially the wicked brand of government known as “big government,” is good as such—though the authors of The Federalist, in which our political tradition has its roots, repudiated both these notions? Those who have: Pretty much every celebrity you can name among Right-wing intellectuals, But not Richard Weaver, who was steeped in The Federalist andits thought, and did not lightly accept new-fangled notions.

c) Who have, who have not, fallen for the propaganda-line—it comes at you from boththe Left and the latter-day Right, where it derives from Tocqueville—according to which the forces of the Left, the egalitarians and the levellers, are going to win inany case, so that “we conservatives” are fighting, at best, a rear-guard action? (Has not the history of the past two centuries been one of continuous defeat for the followers of Burke by the followers of Rousseau?)22 As I have written in an unpublished book dealing with Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, et al., the favorite battle-cry of the contemporary American intellectual Right is: “We are losing! We are losing! But in how noble, how fine, how glorious a cause!” I find no trace of any such pessimism in the mature writings of Richard Weaver. Nor, for reasons I am about to note, is this a matter, as Kirk suggests in his Foreword, of Weaver having refused to “despair,” of his having dared to “hope.” Weaver simply believed that if we of the Right only use our heads, we have the strength and the resources with which to win.

d) Who do, who do not, conceive of Right-wing victory in America, and thus of the immediate Right-wing task in America, in terms of storming American public opinion from without, of conquering the hearts and minds of an essentially hostile because already Left-wing people, ready always to sell its votes to the highest bidder?23 Again the answer is too horrible to contemplate. But Richard Weaver addresses himself to the American people through his pupils of course, as an insider, avuncularly lovingly, that is, in the tone of a wise uncle seeking to emancipate those of the nephews who may have fallen under the influence of “false teachers.” (The pessimistic, storming-from-outside overtones of the Goldwater campaign are, in this context, too obvious to dwell upon. No wonder Goldwater lost!) Weaver always writes reverently of America and the American people, with never a doubt of their ultimate soundness, good judgment, uprightness, and good faith.24

e) Who do, who do not—a point akin to (d), but by no means the same point—share with the Founders of the American Republic the belief that the Republic’s destiny will in fact be decided by the discussion-process; that therefore writing good, well-argued books matters not merely for its own sake, but because (Keynes has said it better than anyone else) what ultimately sways events is books; that, though the “world of the intellect” does go crazy now and then, as it has certainly done both in America and in the West-in-general in recent decades, the law that obtains in the world of the intellect remains the precise opposite of Gresham’s Law: good books drive out bad, and the debate is won finally by those who, in their books, prove themselves right. It is a difficult faith to keep alive in the evil days in the world of the intellect, when writing and publishing good books—witness the fate of e.g., Leo Strauss’s Machiavelli25 and Harry V.Jaffa’s Crisis 26seems hardly less futile than dropping pebbles in a bottomless well. Yet the Strausses and Voegelins and Jaffas and Weavers continue to ply their trade, and produce books that breathe confidence, a confidence that the apt pupil will quickly learn to recognize and value: that the ultimate effect oftheir books will be to purge the intellectual climate of ideology, and to restore true philosophy to its rightful place of honor and influence. This, of all the issuesI mention, is certainly that which cuts deepest; for it is precisely the confidence I speak of here that is lacking in the “mainstream” of contemporary Conservative writing,27 so that the latter is shot through and through with a fundamental, though gracefully-concealed, anti-intellectualism.

f) Who do, and who do not, earn their living by (or, if they inherited that, devote the bulk of their working-time to) being Conservative intellectuals—or, if you like, who are, who are not, “professional” Rightwingers? Again the point is a delicate one, but it cannot be side-stepped: much of the quality and the importance of Richard Weaver’s thoughts about the deepest issues inour politics is intimately tied up with the fact that, like Hamilton and Madison, he had, and wrote from a locus standi in American life as somebody in particular with a particular function to perform in American society. No hurler of thunderbolts from Olympus (or from the ski-resorts in Switzerland) he: he was first and foremost a “working” school-teacher, with a job to do withinone of America’s basic institutions, whose first thoughts were always, inBradley’s pungent phrase, of his “station and its duties”; and he philosophizes about politic in that capacity (which is one of the many reasons why those who try to read him as simply another of the high-priests, who are sermonizers not teachers, will never understand him).

g) Who does, who does not, mean by the American Tradition that which he in his wisdom happens to like about the American past—but rather that which Americans, Americans from their very beginnings at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown,28 have made theAmerican Tradition, especially the Americas Political Tradition, by actually living it,which leads on to the further question, Who does, who does not, mean by American Conservatism the assertion, protection, and perfection of that tradition as the kind of thing it is? This is the point at which the “Burke business” becomes relevant, the point that explains why the issue between theBurke “cultists” andthe non-Burke cultists is another of the deepest-cutting issues on the American Right.

h) Who are, who are not, in one sense or another, darlings of the Liberal Establishment, invited to appear on its television programs, called to lecture far and wide at its universities, reviewed in its newspapers and magazines, privileged to debate with its major spokesmen in its vast auditoriums? The Liberals, who know a thing or two about the business they are in, have a “little list” of their favorite conservatives and, of course, their “little list” of conservatives whom they would not touch with a ten-foot pole, (Also, presumably, their well-pondered though of course secret criteria for choosing the former, at which we can only guess: X, though he does make those Conservative noises, really agrees with us on the fundamentals, in the long run means us no harm, is, therefore, a man we can do business with? Y, though he too makes Conservative noises, is so out of touch with reality that we can make mincemeat of him? Z, though indeed a Conservative, says such silly things that he in fact forwards ourcause? And old A, though he does write those savage attackson our foreign policy in National Review, is he, down deep in hisheart really any more eager than we to force a showdown with the USSR? Is he not, therefore, really one of us?) Here Weaver is perhaps less lonely on his side of the line than in the previous cases(one thinks at onceof Frank Meyer, of Brent Bozell, of yet others of the high-priests); What is certain, and a further proof that Weaver was indeed a“real” American Conservative, is that the Liberal Establishment avoided him like the plague because he was clearly out to do ’em in the eye.

I conclude: Richard Weaver’s “uniqueness” lies in part in the fact that he, and he alone, falls on the (for me) “right” side, from the standpoint of true American Conservatism, of each of the lines I have drawn. But it is a matter, mainly and far more importantly, of the unique manner in which he has performed, in Visions of Order, aunique task.


“We the people,” according to our basic constitutional theory, “ordain and establish” the Constitution for certain purposes: among others, to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. In doing so, that is, in the act of writing and ratifying the Constitution, “we” constitute ourselves a“people” (which we may or may not have been prior to the writing and ratification). And, by speaking of “our” posterity declare our intention to remain a “people,” with such and such “machinery” of government, to which “we” assign certain coercive functions, the necessity of whose performance “we” assert by assigning them to the government, to which, however, we do not assign certain other functions, not necessarily less necessary in our minds, and not necessarily less coercive, which “we” tacitly declare “our” intention to perform “ourselves,” i.e, in “our” capacity as a “people” (e.g., providing for the education of the young, building and supporting churches, growing “our” food, making arrangements for “our” transportation—all of which, and many others, we might have assigned to “our” government but did not). “We” also indicate, by the purposes “we” in the act of constituting ourselves a “people” choose to emphasize over and above the two-so-to-speak clearly indispensable ones (providing for our defense, maintaining the civil peace) what kind of “people” we think of ourselves as being and intend to keep on being, i.e.a“people” dedicated to “justice,” the “common good,” and “liberty,” and dedicated to these goods with respect both to the functions “we” assign to “our” government and the functions “we” propose to perform in “our” capacity as a “people.” If there is, at the time, any question in “our” minds as to whether we will in fact remain that kind of people, any thought in “our” minds as to who is to see toit that “we” do remain that kind of people,29 “we” in constituting ourselves say nothing about it, unless by implication this: seeing to it that we remain a people dedicated to justice, the common good, and liberty, is not one of the functions that “we” assign to “our” government. If there be a problem here, “we” do not face it head-on.

Let the reader hold all that still, and let us approach the matter along another path. In the course of ratifying “our” Constitution, “we, the people” tacitly adopt a book, directed to us precisely in ourcapacity as a“people,” entitled The Federalist. That book—so we are assured by our major contemporary authority on its contents—30 “interprets” the Constitution for us, and spells out certain rules and principles, not explicit in the Constitution, the observance of which, according to the book’s author Publius, will help “us”31 to see to it that no “branch” of our government shall monopolize the functions “we” have assigned to the government, and divided among three “branches.” The Federalist does not, however, concern itself exclusively with problems of government, that is, with the kind of governmentwe are going to have. Publius knows only too well that the problem of actually doing justice, promoting the common good, and insuring the blessings of liberty cannot be solved on the governmental “level”; that, in a word, it depends somehow on the kind of “people,” or “society” we are going to be; and Federalist 10 does raise, however obliquely, the question to which I have led up in the preceding paragraph, and has something—not much, but something—to say by way of an answer to the question. “We, thepeople” must add to the three optional purposes we have noted above a fourth, namely, the prevention of “tyranny,” by which Publius means the use of government, by a majority of “we, the people,” for effectuating measures “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” “Our” machinery of government, Publius sees, issubject to capture by a popular majority, and does, for all its built-in guarantees against tyranny, lend itself, once captured, to the uses of tyranny (as he has defined it). The solution, if one there be, must be sought “out there” among “we, the people,” in society, in, as I put it a moment ago, the “kind” of “people” we are going to be.

Publius is, however, strangely stingy with his recommendations (“we” must be a “people” spread over a large territory, “we” must be a “people” characterized by diversity), and strangely reluctant to open up, really open up, the problem he is skirting the edges of. I say “strangely” because he shows, in many a scattered passage, that he knows the shape at least of the correct answer to the problem: The machinery of government will help; diversity will help; spreading the “people” over a large territory will help; but in the end nothing will prevent tyranny, since the machinery of government is open to capture by a popular majority, except that “we, the people” shall be virtuous, that is, to go no further, dedicated in our hearts to justice, to the common good, to liberty, and to the prevention (the renunciation on “our” own part) of tyrannical measures; that is, which brings us back to where we were at the end of the preceding paragraph, a certain kind of “people.” The question, however, and for whatever reasons Publius chooses to ignore it, cries up at you throughout the argument of The Federalist: if all depends ultimately on the virtue of the “people,” how—unless weareto take it for granted that that will just take care of itself—are the “people” to be kept “virtuous”? And this, translated into the language of our basic constitutional theory, becomes the question “[h]ow are ‘we, the people’ to keep ‘ourselves’ virtuous?” Bref: There is a “missing section” of The Federalist, in which that question, the question as to how “we the people” shall order “ourselves” so as to remain virtuous, and become ever more virtuous. Worse still: “we, the people” have been only too ready to conclude, from the fact that Publius left out the section in which he might have discussed the ordering of society, of “we, the people” qua“virtuous people,” that no such section was needed, and, even the best of us, to focus our thinking on the range of problems to which Publius did address himself.32

My claim: At last we have, in Richard Weaver’s posthumous Visions of Order,33that missing section of The Federalist. No matter that Weaver nowhere posed, in so many words, the question “How shall ‘we, the people’ be kept virtuous?”34 No matter, either, whether he “consciously” set himself the task of answering that question, although, once you begin to look at his mature essays from this standpoint you will, so unerringly “on target” each of them is, find it difficult to suppose that he had not done so. No matter, finally, that he elects to state himself in terms of “culture,” “rhetoric,” etc.—never, that is to say, openly assumes the role of political philosopher, of philosopher of the order of society (modest man that he was, he would have deemed open assumption of that role pretentious). Just, provisionally, take my word for it that each of his essays takes on new and deeper meaning when read as a partial answer to the question as I have posed it for him, and that the essays taken together do add up to an answer to the question, which you—like the high priests of contemporary American Conservatism, who as I have intimated repeatedly would be providing us a very different kind of leadership had they attended to the teachings of Richard Weaver—will do well to lay in your heart and ponder. Then go read—nay, live with—thebook, until you have made its contents your own. It will prepare you, as no other book, not even The Federalist will prepare you, for your future encounters with the protagonists of the Liberal Revolution, above all by teaching you how to drive the debate to a deeper level than that on which our present spokesmen are engaging the Liberals.

How shall the people be kept virtuous? Weaver answers—though here I can only indicate in the briefest manner, the general outline of his reply—only through a self-chosen “select minority”35 who assume responsibility for people’s culture, in which its virtue must be rooted—for, therefore, understanding what needs a culture must satisfy if the people are to adopt it and live it as their own, for, therefore, keeping alive and healthy a culture that will satisfy those needs, and for disseminating it among the several members of the people, each according to his capacity for receiving it. It must, as part of the culture it disseminates, teach the people those lessons that the people must learn if they are to operate a society in which a sound and healthy culture is possible. It must teach them, for example, the value, the value for their own sake, of that diversity which Publius showed to be necessary for the prevention of tyranny. It must teach people the value, for the people themselves including those who had the short end of the stick, of distinction of rank and status in society, and the unwisdom of making such distinctions wholly dependent upon “functions performed.” It must teach them the correctness of the Christian picture of man, of, that is, Christian anthropology, and so render them proof against all forms of “reductionism” (in order to be virtuous, the people must suppose themselves capable of virtue, which, to the extent that they think of man as an animal, they will not do). It must itself be clear as to the respective roles in a healthy culture of “dialectic” and “rhetoric,”36 that is, between pure, “abstract” propositional reasoning as in science or economic theory, and the task of relating the results of such reasoning to the “existential world,” in which facts must be “treated with a sympathy” and “historical understanding and appreciation” that are, as they should be, foreign to the “dialectical process”37. It must not permit the culture of which it is custodian to become contemptuous of, or hostile to, the “arts of persuasion,” which alone can “move men in the direction of a goal.” It must keep alivewithin itself, and develop in the people, “historical memory,” i.e., knowledge of their own traditions—lest, in ignorance of them, they forget, like madmen, what and who they are.

But enough. I warned you that I could at most suggest, not summarize, the contents of Visions of Order.

The Liberals, according to Weaver, are by definition, so to speak, incapable of supplying a “select minority” that can build a healthy culture, and so keep the people virtuous (wherefore, on Publius’s logic, a people led by Liberals must become tyrannical). The task to which Weaver’s teaching points us, therefore, a task that only conservatives can perform, and they, of course, only ifthey understand its nature and the means by which it can be performed—which our “name” Conservative spokesmen, believing as they do that the people are already corrupt, and innocent as they are of proposals even for restoring its virtue, clearly do not. But the existence of Weaver’s book enables us, I repeat, to indulge the hope their successors, nurtured on a less narrow view of politics and especially Conservative politics, will be men of another stamp.



  1. Conservatism in America: The Thankless Persuasion(New York: Vintage Books, 1962, 223–4.) There areten-page references to Weaver in the revised version, as against only four in the original version (Knopf, 1956)—one of which points us to a list of major “items” in the “literature of American Conservatism,” which includes Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), and The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Henry Regnery and Co., 1953); one which cites some of his early writings of the Southern Agrarians, esp. his essay in Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953), a third that links him with Peter Viereck (!), Russell Kirk, Francis G. Wilson, John Hallowell, and Thomas I. Cook (!), et al., who allegedly belong together because of their “outspoken distaste for the excesses, vulgarities, and dislocations of the industrial way of life,” their “deep-seated antipathy toward the undiluted Jeffersonian tradition,” their “emphasis on our European and English heritage,” and their “peculiar affection for Burke and John Adams, but not Hamilton . . . (italics added). The revised version contains twenty-page references to Russell Kirk, and a two-page summary of his “political theory.”
  2. Ibid., 226. What months of the year, one wonders, has Rossiter set aside as the “season” for “belaboring” Liberals?
  3. Ibid., 231
  4. Ibid., 252
  5. Ibid., 262 (italics added). Cf. Fn. 1 above, and note, in re Rossiter’s linkings, that Weaver is now contrasted with a list that includes his former companions Viereck and Hallowell. (Despite the incomprehensible linking of Weaver and Kirk, who are as different aschalk and cheese, it is only fair to note that Rossiter’s categories have improved in neatness between 223 and 262, which may or may not indicate that Rossiter has begun to understand where the lines need to be drawn among contemporary Right-wing intellectuals in America.
    As for the words in italics: If Professor Rossiter will write out on a piece of coarse sandpaper any sentence Weaver ever wrote that is “contemptuous,” “reckless,” or “imprudent,” and send it to me, I’ll eat it in the presence of reliable witnesses. The works of Weaver the writer are informed throughout by the gentleness, courtesy, and moderation that were the outstanding characteristics of Weaver the man.
    Note (Ibid., 288) that Weaver reappears as a professional Southerner (because of his “The Regime of the South,” National Review, March 14, 1959).
  6. I have developed that point sufficiently in my The Conservative Affirmation (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1963), 159.
  7. Weaver did write his (unfortunately unpublished) Ph.D. dissertation, on the intellectual history of the ante-bellum South, under the then Southern Agrarian Cleanth Brooks, and did, as suggested in the text, produce a sizable literature on the Southern Agrarians: Shenandoah, Summer, 1952, 3–10; Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1950; and an essay is Southern Renascence (ut supera). But even the most casual reader of that literature will see atonce, Weaver writes mainly as a literary historian and critic, with out immediate political intent, and, in any case, as an outsider—as witness the following key passage, of great significance for the present article, from the essay citedby Auerbach: “ . . . The nation as a whole welcomed [I’ll Take My Stand] . . . That is because the nation as a whole wishes the South to speak, and wishes it to speak in character . . . Despite our excitement over differences, our pain over indvidious comparisons, and our resentment of suspected superiorities we desire, as long as we are in possession of our rational faculty, to hear an expression of the other point of view. That is a guarantee of our freedom and a necessity for our development” (italics, except for “in character,” added) The connection between the “nation as a whole,” (for which, as I argue below, Weaver always thought and prayed and spoke) and “our,” “our,” “we,” “we,”is inescapable. The Southern Agrarians were, on one side, a movement with politico-economic objectives: they were, forexample, distributivists, much under the influence, in their economic ideas, of Chesterton and Belloc, thus militantly, and by no means merely romantically, anti-capitalist, as Weaver certainly was not; and the presence in the book here discussed of an important chapter justifying the rationality of arbitraments by war is difficult to explain save as a sermon-in-retrospect, delivered from a national pulpit, on the professional Southerners’ tendency to Keep the War between the States alive as a political issue, and on the overtones of irredentism that were always present in Southern Agrarian pronouncements. (My most vivid recollection of my first meeting with Richard Weaver is the expression on his face when I referred to him, as apparently no-one had ever done before, as a “political theorist”—a term which, as I have implied above, I do not dispense freely. Iwas, of course, using the term“political” in a sense that is no longer fashionable, but the beginning of wisdom about these matters is tounderstand that most of what passes today for“political” literature is written by men who are not interested in politics at all.
  8. R. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 19. apud Auerbach, The Conservative Illusion (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1950), 137.
  9. Auerbach, op. cit. . 137. Auerbach relies in this discussion entirely on Weaver’s first book, which is the least “political” of hisworks (inthe sense I am giving to that word in this article), and the least mature. When I say that Weaver is all of one piece, I do not mean, of course, that he did not develop over the years.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 154, This is surely a misreading of Ideas Have Consequences, whose thesis is that the “long process of degeneration” (Auerbach’s phrase, and Weaver did believe that things out in the world have got worse and worse) is to be laid at the door of nominalism. Any quarrel the mature Weaver would have had with Aristotle’s Ethics would, surely, have been pressed on Christian grounds.
  12. Ibid., 154–5. The referenceis to Ideas Have Consequences, 166–67, 187,
  13. Ibid., 155. Auerbach notes that this got Weaver into an argument with Kirk, and adds, gleefully (156), that there are “ideological cleavages even within the ranks of reactionary Conservatism.” To which Iwould add, the half has never yet been told.
  14. Ethics of Rhetoric, 58, et seq.
  15. Had he written: Weaver concluded that “Burke should not be the model for American Conservatism” hewould have been hitting the nail on the head—i.e., showing an incipient understanding of where the lines must be drawn among our contemporary Conservative intellectuals, and opening up the way for an understanding of Weaver.
  16. As witness National Review’s 23 March 1965 editorial on Selma, with its nice impartiality between Governor Wallace and his attempt to “maintain Alabama as an enclave of racial stability,” and Dr. Martin Luther King and his use of the “methods and arts of modern psycho-political warfare . . . to move public opinion . . . in his chosen direction.” It is not easy to imagine Richard Weaver writing an angry “letter to the editor”; but the editorial in question, which could never have been written by anyone who had begun to grasp the essence of Weaver’s teaching, would certainly have fetched one from him. His letter would, of course, have driven the discussion to a higher level, but nothing could be more certain than that he would have defended Selma, and would have done so on identifiably non-Southern grounds. It is perhaps in point that Weaver, though a regular contributor to National Review inits early years, wrote for it less and less as the magazine found its stride.
  17. A major effort is under way, indeed, to prove that no such lines can be drawn. See Frank Meyers introductory chapter in What Is Conservatism?” (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), and the review of that book by Vincent Miller, Modern Age, Fall, 1964, 416–417.
  18. The writer who has, though tacitly, noticed Weaver’s uniqueness is, curiously, Ronald Hamowy. Weaver, who was certainly grist for Hamowy’s mill for purposes of his vicious attack on the “Neoconservatives” (Modern Age, Fall, 1964, 350–359), is not mentioned, though the two must often have brushed shoulders on the Chicago campus. I might add that Weaver’s vogue among the libertarians and “individualists,” who seemed to adore him, is the proof positive of how little understood Weaver was. Had they ever found him out for the kind of scoundrel he really was, they would—in some manner consistent with the free market, of course—have torn him limb-from-limb.
  19. There was indeed something of this emphasis in Ideas Have Consequences, and there are flashes of it inthe later works, even that here under review. But as I argue in the text, tostress this aspect of Weaver is indeed to let theessential Weaver slip through your fingers.
  20. As a friend who frequently visited Weaver at Chicago, I must record my impression that Kirk is “factually” wrong on the whole point. Weaver always seemed to me to be happy in his work at Chicago, to hold his colleagues there in high esteem, to be taking anactive part in theday-to-day life of the University and, what would presumably shock Mr. Kirk most, to love Chicago. He lived, by choice, a tidy distance from the campus, in order to givehimself the pleasure of the daily walk to and fro (each day, he boasted, by a different route) through its streets. As for Weaver’s alleged “withdrawal” to the “fastnesses of his solitary reflections,” an accurate statement, readily intelligible to persons who have spent their lives close to universities, would run: Weaver was a professional scholar, who worked hard at his business, and preferred—like many other scholars, many even who find the prevailing intellectual climate congenial—to work at home rather than in the office. I might add that Weaver atehis meals for themost part at the University cafeteria, at the mercy of students who might wish to descend on him—an unlikely choice for the kind of “recluse” Kirk tries to make him.
  21. Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1964), ix.
  22. Cf. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), 3–10, and pretty much any issue of National Review, esp, those that appeared hard upon the 1964 elections. Cf. Kendall, op. cit., Chapter One.
  23. Again I must mention National Review, whose picture of American voting-behavior is almost as purely a “pork chops” picture as, say, that of Hubert Horatio Humphrey’s. And, for the amusement of the curious, let me add—here in a footnote because the matter is perhaps too delicate to haul out into the full light of day in the text—the following speculation: On the basis of the data available to me, I deem it not impossible that there is a high correlation between, on the one hand, having been born and brought up aWASP, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant in America, a member of an established “ruling-class” in American society, with a feeling not only of “belonging” but of being, by inheritance so to speak, a “part-owner” of America, on the one hand, and refusing to accept the “conquest” conception of the political future of the American Right on the other. For the further amusement of the curious let me recommend study of the evolving masthead of National Review, with an eye to the incidence, among early active participants in the magazine who have fallen by the wayside, ofpersons who were either born WASPs or, like Willi Schramm, were born and brought up in a foreign land (but still not in either of the major American ghettoes).
  24. Perhaps, or perhaps not, in point: Weaver normally spent his summers, throughout the years I knew him, with his mother in Weaverville, North Carolina, dividing his time between gardening and his scholarly pursuits, and permitting himself no “vacation” in the usual sense of that term. The one time Iever heard of his taking a vacation, hebought himself (for the first time I think) an automobile, fetched his “Mamma” (he was the only American intellectual I ever knew who didn’t regard the advance from “Mamma” to “Mother” as a necessary part of growing up), and made the grand tour—of the United States of America. If he ever set foot outside his beloved America, he never mentioned the fact in our conversations, though it is not impossible that hedid so at Niagara Falls or El Paso, in the course of thatOne Big Trip.
  25. Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1958).
  26. Crisis of the House Divided (New York: Doubleday, 1959).
  27. Because of the acceptance, on all sides, of the “inevitability” of aLeftist victory.
  28. Long before Burke.
  29. The thought at the back of “our” minds may have been: “our” churches will see to it.
  30. See Martin Diamond, “The Federalist,” apud, History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: Rand, McNally and Company, 1963).
  31. Yes, “help.” Publius makes no greater claim, either for the Constitution or for the rules he spells out.
  32. Not so the worst of us, the Jefferson and the Deweys, who have addressed themselves to the range of problems that would have been discussed in the missing section, though with a new twist: How can the virtue of the people, as Publius would have understood it, be undermined?
  33. And in the other miscellaneous essays of the mature Weaver.
  34. One of the first things I learned from R. G. Collingwood, when I was his tutee at Oxford, is that it is a rare philosopher who can state clearly the question he ends up answering.
  35. The phrase is from Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.
  36. Weaver gave his bestefforts over many years to wrestling with this problem, which he believed to be the most difficult problem any culture must face, as also the problem with which we in America have dealt least successfully. Visions of Order contains his most sophisticated treatment of the problem.
  37. This is the aspect of Weaver’s thought for which the libertarians would never have forgiven him had they grasped it. Weaver’s favorite examples of “dialectic” gone wild are taken from science, but all that he says inthis regard would apply equally to those who seek to implement conclusions arrived at viaabstract reasoning about “the market,” without mediation by techniques appropriate to rhetoric, in the living flesh of a goingsociety. Nor is that all: Weaver spells out at great length the presuppositions of the healthy, need-satisfying culture, but economic freedom (though Weaver was “for” it on other grounds) is certainly not one of them. One can hardly imagine Weaver losing a night’s sleep over the size of the GNP.

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like