The Foreword to the new book “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition.”
Up Towards Traditionalism
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.
With this 1945 confession, the native Southerner Richard Weaver commenced an errand that, three years later, culminated in the publication of Ideas Have Consequences. Seventy-five years since its appearance, Weaver remains best known both as its author and, along with Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, and Leo Strauss, as a leading figure in the mid-twentieth-century conservative intellectual movement in America. At the time of the book’s publication, he was a professor at the University of Chicago and had traveled a circuitous route both geographically—from the South to the West to the Midwest—and intellectually, from socialism to traditionalist conservatism.
Weaver, who died unexpectedly in 1963 at the age of fifty-three, has the distinction of being both intensely admired and relatively unknown. Because of and in spite of this, his life and work remain a singular window into the variables of regionalism, cosmopolitanism, and conservatism in modern America.
Richard Weaver was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1910 and spent his early childhood in the nearby hamlet of Weaverville. Following the untimely death of his father in 1916, he moved with his family to Lexington, Kentucky. While a student at Lincoln Memorial Academy in Harrogate, Tennessee, and later at the University of Kentucky, he developed an enduring affection for the life of the mind as well an intense, though temporary, interest in socialism.
In 1932, he enrolled in the graduate program in English at Vanderbilt University, where he studied under the Fugitive poet and Agrarian thinker John Crowe Ransom. Ransom and eleven other Southerners had recently published the symposium I’ll Take My Stand, which defended a traditionalist way of life over a modern industrial one. In a 1931 review, Weaver had initially deemed it an “ineffectual rally against the onward sweep of industrialization.” Years later, however, he credited Ransom and, in particular, his work God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy with raising the possibility 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 were presumed to have their defense in charge.”
Following the completion of his master’s degree in 1934, Weaver, drawn toward though not yet converted to traditionalist conservatism, wandered farther south and then west, teaching first at Auburn and then Texas A&M. As he would after the dropping of the atomic bomb, Weaver experienced an epiphanic moment while driving on the prairies of Texas:
It came to me like a revelation 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 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 free will, and that giving up the worship of false idols is a quite practicable proceeding.
After “junking Marxism as not founded in experience” and joining the “Church of Agrarianism,” he proceeded to spend the next three years at Louisiana State University studying postbellum Southern history and literature. His 1943 dissertation, posthumously published as The Southern Tradition at Bay, was a unique work that furthered the reactionary imperative of the Vanderbilt Agrarians but also urged careful contemplation of the origins and limitations of modernity.
Weaver proposed that the Southern tradition had grown from a fourfold root: a feudal theory of society, which facilitated stable social order; a code of chivalry, which furnished an organic hierarchy; a concept of the gentleman, which cultivated both the “gentleman scholar” and the “political soldier”; and, finally, an “older religiousness,” which was instinctively open to mystery and resistant to rationalization. Together, these four variables had, Weaver argued, made the antebellum South “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World.”
Writing as something akin to a thirteenth contributor to I’ll Take My Stand, he observed that with the South’s defeat “the last barrier to the secular spirit of science, materialism, and democracy was vanquished.” Yet departing from the palliative regionalism of Southern Agrarianism, Weaver was “unwilling to say that [the South] offers a foundation” or “even an example.” At most, he concluded, it offered a challenge to “save the human spirit” from materialism. Thus, he insisted, it was up to “poets,” “artists,” and what he called “workers of the timeless” to redeem the time by constructing for their fellow man a “world view completely different from that which he has constructed out of his random knowledge of science.”
Weaver, however, cautioned that this errand must deliberately resist appeals to “symbols of lost causes.” Rather, he wrote, “the principles must be studied and used, but in such a presentation that mankind will feel the march is forward” since, he noted, “it is a serious thing to take from the average man, and perhaps from anyone, his belief in progress.”
At its core, Weaver’s diagnosis was not unlike those made by early twentieth-century traditionalists ranging from Henry Adams and Irving Babbitt to T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate. But unlike Adams, who famously had his historical neck broken upon seeing the dynamo, and departing from the Southern Agrarians, who had, by 1945, variously retreated from prescription, Weaver persisted in the quest to remedy the modern malaise. This alleviative impulse likely, in part, proceeded from the remnants of his socialist disposition, but even more so it emerged from a wrenching, humanistic concern for the state of mankind. This much was palpable in a letter to a friend, John Randolph, during the Second World War:
My outlook for the future is far more pessimistic than yours. I do not want an Axis victory, but I see nothing to hope for through an Allied victory. This idea that peace can be brought about by economic equality is the most fatuous of all delusions. The world is faced with an indefinite period of chaos—years that will be filled with “prison and palace and reverberation” and “torchlight red on sweaty faces.” It will not regain order and stability until it returns to the kind of poetic-religious vision of life which dominated the Middle Ages.
While indicative of Weaver’s angst over the war, the letter also reflected shifting circumstances regarding plans to publish The Southern Tradition at Bay. His editor, William Terry Couch, had recently departed the University of North Carolina Press for the University of Chicago, which for obvious reasons was not interested in a decidedly Southern-themed manuscript. Couch, with considerable urging from Vanderbilt’s Cleanth Brooks, encouraged Weaver to begin anew and “apply his conclusions” to “the modern world.” Weaver’s homage to the Middle Ages’ devotion to a “poetic-religious vision” was the harbinger of a manuscript that was initially entitled Steps Toward a Restoration of Our World, and then The Adverse Descent, before, at Couch’s urging, being changed to Ideas Have Consequences.
Weaver later disclosed that he conceived of the work while sitting in his Ingleside Hall office at the University of Chicago. He wondered, he recalled, “whether it would not be possible to deduce, from fundamental causes, the fallacies of modern life.” He began with something of a traditionalist conservative hallmark, namely to identify a person or moment that marked when the humane order was irretrievably shaken. The New Humanist critic Irving Babbitt, for instance, had singled out Francis Bacon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For T. S. Eliot and the Fugitive-Agrarians, the misapprehension had proceeded from various Romantic impulses. Weaver, in perhaps an effort to historiographically supersede other traditionalists, faulted the scholastic philosopher William of Occam, whose nominalism, he argued, had fatefully denied the existence of universals.
This concern with blameworthiness remains a characteristic of traditionalist conservatism, which is both bound to a sense of history and devoted to the cultivation of the historical imagination. In turn, this historical sense was integral to a man’s worldview, which, Weaver insisted, remains “the most important thing about a man” because it stands athwart the empiricist “denial of everything transcending experience.” The shift to empiricism led, he wrote, to the replacement of “man created in the divine image” with “man the wealth-seeking and -consuming animal.” Because modern man is peculiarly debased yet optimistic, establishing the “fact of decadence” was, he believed, “the most pressing duty of our time.”
Weaver’s introduction for Ideas Have Consequences sought to bring this decadence to light. Though in the opening paragraphs he resorted to describing modern man as a “moral idiot,” Weaver quickly moved to temper and fine-tune his prose to higher critical ends. Rather than “decadence,” he opted for the term “abysmality” to denote the consequences of modern man’s discarding of the “concept of transcendence.”
Weaver’s task was nothing less than to make the philosophical underpinnings of modernity palpable to mass man. In the introduction’s closing sentences, Weaver forthrightly wondered whether modern man “feel[s] equal to life.” He concluded by framing the obstacles: man was beset by “deep psychic anxiety” and had the “look of the hunted”; though he was led to believe that he was uniquely powerful, “his daily experience was one of powerlessness”; and, finally, modern man was rendered blind to his “abysmality” by material comfort. How, Weaver wondered, could modern man begin to recover that “intellectual integrity” necessary to “perceive the order of goods”? How might he reclaim a semblance of order, and thereby become able again to feel equal to life?
The first three chapters of Ideas Have Consequences probed the roots of disorder. Weaver outlined a macrocosmic decline whereby a “plebeian distrust of forms,” a substitution of “sensation for reflection,” and a “passion for immediacy” led, first, to a “disappearance of the heroic ideal” and, over centuries, to an accompanying “growth of commercialism.” These chapters furnished a historical-philosophical rendering of the poetic sentiment of Matthew Arnold’s receding Sea of Faith in “Dover Beach” and of T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” Echoing their disquietude, Weaver concluded that “our task is much like finding the relationship between faith and reason for an age that does not know the meaning of faith.”
Weaver’s subsequent description of the seismic cultural shocks that were then forthcoming is simply uncanny. In purposefully plain language, he observed that romanticism led modern man to “attach more significance to feeling than to thinking” and, by extension, “to wanting than to deserving.” He perceived that the Baconian notion that “knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite” would inevitably extend to the establishment, by the state, of “a vast bureaucracy designed to promote economic activity.” This led to the following circumstance:
When it is found that equality before the law has no effect on inequalities of ability and achievement, humanitarians concluded that they had been tricked into asking only part of their just claim. The claim to political equality was then supplemented by the demand for economic democracy, which was to give substance to the ideal of the levelers. Nothing but a despotism could enforce anything so unrealistic, and this explains why modern governments dedicated to this program have become, under one guise and another, despotic.
This despotic turn entailed the replacement of the medieval philosophic doctor, whose concern had been the “relation of men to God,” and of the secular gentleman, whose concern had been “the relation of men to men,” with the so-called “specialist,” who, Weaver cautioned, must be recognized as “a man possessed of an evil spirit.” While both the philosophic doctor and the gentlemen had recognized that “knowledge and virtue require the concept of transcendence,” these notions were repugnant to the scientific specialist, whose sole concern was immanent “material standards.”
Following this sketch of the decline from aristocracy to pragmatism, Weaver turned to consider the effects of “abysmality” on souls and on citizens-turned-consumers. Over the next three chapters, he examined the consequences of the relationships among accelerating egotism, the mass media, and present-minded lack of discipline. Weaver observed that the hubris of modern science coexisted with an expanding egotism among elites, who descend into self-absorption marked by the transformation of knowledge “from a means of spiritual redemption to a basis for intellectual pride.”
For the laboring citizen, this egotism manifested a tendency to see “profit only, not duty and honor, in work.” This combination of egotism and material gratification proved fatal to the “transcendental conception” of “service to others.” Politicians were reduced to continually “hypothesizing something larger than self, which turns out, however, to be only a multitude of selfish selves.” In the arts, culture had once achieved unity “on the imaginative level” and thus had abridged “egotism among the members,” but self-conceit, which accelerated during the era of Renaissance portraiture, eventually culminated in nineteenth-century Impressionism, which brought “nominalism into painting.”
In subsequent chapters on the “Great Stereopticon” and “The Spoiled-Child Psychology,” Weaver assessed the prospects for community once “self-realization” had become the goal of life. He deftly outlined the modernist project to replace religion with education and a mix of “information and entertainment” in a “wonderful machine,” which he dubbed the “Great Stereopticon.” This panoptic projector, he wrote, consisted of the press, the motion picture, and the radio. Together they presented “a version of life” in much the way “medieval religionists” once did, but for the purpose of emancipating man from “memory” and “faith.” Together, egotism and mass media undergirded a “spoiled-child psychology,” which encouraged the “worship of comfort” by a “pragmatic” and “ineffectual” people unable to apprehend that sacrifice meant not material investment but “giving up something to the transcendental.”
In a concluding trio of chapters, Weaver turned to prescription, or what he termed a “means of restoration” for those who must be made to recognize that they are in a quandary. Initially, he argued, the fallacy of empiricism must be exposed by a “driving afresh of the wedge between the material and the transcendental.” From this premise, Weaver turned to a defense of private property as the “last metaphysical right”—but he made clear that this was not a defense of finance capitalism’s view of property, which negates that metaphysical right by destroying the relationship “between man and his substance.” “Monopoly capitalism,” he declared, “must be condemned along with communism” because both contravened the moral aspect of property ownership, which furnished a “range of volition through which one can be a complete person.”
Weaver’s insistence on the ill effects of both finance capitalism and communism was integral to his traditionalist conservatism. Rather than an end in itself, property, he maintained, was a facilitator both of “providence” and of a “sense of honor.” Weaver’s traditionalist evocation of the sacramental nature of property and the stewardship of creation as the “last metaphysical right” did not merely brush aside finance capitalism and socialism; it sought to supersede even the economic apologetics of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, Thomas Jefferson, and John Locke.
If property was the last metaphysical right, language was its ballast. This notion pervaded Ideas Have Consequences, but it was brought to the fore in a chapter titled simply “The Power of the Word.” All metaphysical community, Weaver wrote, relies on language, which was “a great storehouse of universal memory.” He went on to praise the “symbolistic power of language” and the relationship between “the greatest subtlety” and understanding. By way of illustration, he lamented the corruption and resulting misapprehension of the term “democracy,” which for some meant the right to vote and for others referred to economic equality ensured by the state. Even more stringently, he disparaged the innumerable contradictory things that had been designated “Fascist.” Because, he wrote, “all metaphysical community depends on the ability of men to understand one another,” the “rehabilitation of the word” and the “restoration” of “power and stability” to language were of the utmost concern.
By way of prescription, Weaver called for a return to the study of rhetoric and dialectic, which, through a “fresh appreciation for language,” might prepare man to once again “see limitation and contradiction, the two things about which the philosophy of progress leaves him most confused.” This had been the task taken up in the classroom by Weaver’s mentors John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks, through the literary project of the New Criticism. But as much as his thoughts on property plumbed deeper into history than those of the Southern Agrarians did, so too his thoughts on language went beyond those of the New Critics. Language, like property, was sacramental, and consequently “respect for words as things” could only be restored through a return to “that ancient belief that a divine element is present in language” and through a “practical application of the law that in the beginning was the word.”
In the conclusion to his prescriptions, Weaver turned from property and language to justice, which he described as the “crowning concept which governs [man’s] attitude to the totality of the world.” Yet the downfall of modern man had less to do with his being unjust than with his being “impious.”
Weaver defined piety as “a discipline of the will through respect,” which rested upon a “proper relationship to nature” and prioritized a “superior philosophic resignation to the order of things.” Piety, in a second sense, acknowledged the substance of other beings. As an example, Weaver pointed out that, in contrast to chivalry, modern warfare’s demand for “unconditional surrender” irreverently “puts man in the place of God by usurping unlimited right to dispose of the lives of others.” A third form of piety entailed a proper orientation to the past, which restrained optimism by teaching skepticism of “man’s perfectibility” and of “schemes to renovate the species.”
The prevalence of “pride” and “impatience,” he contended, were the surest signs of the absence of piety, which renders man a confused “creature who does not fully comprehend his creation.” In light of this, Weaver confessed that there were limits to the use of “secular language” to describe modern man’s malaise and that “it has proved impossible to dispense with appeal to religion.”
Ideas Have Consequences was a mid-twentieth-century meditation on Matthew Arnold’s depiction of the Western tradition’s uneasy imperative to know and do rightly. In the closing paragraphs, Weaver issued a final charge:
We have to inform the multitude that restoration comes at a price. Suppose we give them an intimation of the cost through a series of questions. Are you ready, we must ask them, to grant that the law of reward is inflexible and that one cannot, by cunning or through complaints, obtain more than he puts in? Are you prepared to see that comfort may be a seduction and that the fetish of material prosperity will have to be pushed aside in favor of some sterner ideal? Do you see the necessity of accepting duties before you begin to talk of freedoms? These things will be very hard; they will call for deep reformation.
Weaver’s fellow traditionalist conservative Robert Nisbet called Ideas Have Consequences a “deeply prophetic” work and “one of the few authentic classics in the American political tradition.” The book itself had modest sales, but it was enough to gain Weaver a promotion at the University of Chicago and to establish him as a significant voice in an emergent conservative intellectual movement. The enduring value of Ideas Have Consequences is perhaps most apparent in the myriad contemporary intellectuals whose concepts remind one of Weaver’s thought. These range from Charles Taylor’s evocation of the transcendent frame and Christopher Lasch’s diagnosis of the culture of narcissism to Walker Percy’s humanistic concern for language and Wendell Berry’s exhortations on human limits.
Yet no comparable modern American intellectual, and especially no conservative one, is more underappreciated than Richard Weaver. Ironically, assessing Weaver’s legacy might be best undertaken through the lens of a contemporaneous liberal antagonist to mid-twentieth-century civilization. In his 1948 book The American Political Tradition, the leftist historian Richard Hofstadter delivered his own skeptical assessment of the state of things:
Almost the entire span of American history under the present constitution has coincided with the rise and spread of modern industrial capitalism. In material power and productivity the United States has been a flourishing success. Societies that are in such good working order have a kind of mute organic consistency. They do not foster ideas that are hostile to their fundamental working arrangements.
Those fundamental working arrangements centered, Hofstadter wrote, around “the sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order.” In numerous respects, Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences seconded Hofstadter’s general impression. Weaver proposed, though, that this “mute organic consistency” concealed a decadent “abysmality.” Weaver’s poetic-ethical challenge to the nation’s “fundamental working arrangements” was more profound than any criticism arising from the mid-century varieties of American liberalism. Nonetheless, Hofstadter’s ruminations on American thought explain how Weaver’s traditionalist conservative counterpoint to this mute conformity could both be intensely admired and remain relatively unknown.
On the seventy-fifth anniversary of Ideas Have Consequences, America stands roughly the same distance from its publication as Weaver had stood from the twilight of the antebellum South depicted in The Southern Tradition at Bay. If anything, it is now an even more dire thing to take away the average man’s faith in progress, and it is even more difficult not to continually glance over one’s shoulder to see what others are thinking. Twenty-first-century American liberalism has largely become one with scientism, but so too has American conservatism, which, for different reasons, also lacks the imaginative authority to inspire wonder and respect for mystery. Digital America rests on a shallow materialism that deadens the imagination, and it would be more arduous, if not impossible, to challenge this fundamental circumstance today. Yet there are sporadic, inversely proportional signs that an emboldened remnant is waiting to once again be made to feel equal to life. For them, Ideas Have Consequences, at seventy-five, stands as an even more unorthodox summons for renewal of orthodoxy and the traditionalist conservative imagination.
Jay Langdale is the author of Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South, 1920-1990. He resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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