The Southern Tradition: Twenty Years After Richard Weaver

The image of Richard Weaver that sticks in my memory is a disturbing one. He is standing before an audience in a conference room at Vanderbilt University, his gnome-like features barely rising above the tall, polished oak podium that holds his manuscript. He wears a brown, wrinkled suit, shiny at the elbows; and at midmorning he is already in need of a second shave.

Slightly nervous, he reads in an accent that is decidedly east Tennessee or western North Carolina; for despite his education and his years at the University of Chicago, he is still a mountain man, with a nasal twang and hard R’s that sometimes sound more Midwestern than deep South. Because he is straining, his voice becomes almost shrill against a background of nearby crashing and shouting. The audience leans forward, cupping their ears, trying to make out his words above the racket.

For outside a wrecking crew is demolishing a neighboring building, and it is with this terrible confusion that Weaver is attempting to compete. He is trying to tell his listeners that the South, more than any other region, honors and preserves its past, that for this reason its poets and novelists have been able to draw on a tradition that is still vital and whole, despite the march of modernism with its idolatry of science and its commitment to the idea of progress.

But no one can hear him. The walls are trembling. The ground is shaking. The workmen are shouting. They are tearing down Kissam Hall, where all the Fugitive-Agrarians lived during their formative years, as did many generations of other Vanderbilt alumni. But the building is old, its architecture offensive to modern sensibilities; and Chancellor Harvie Branscomb—a great believer in progress—has commissioned the university architects to design a quadrangle of crackerbox dormitories to replace Kissam Hall. The quadrangle, according to the Chancellor, will be “approximately the dimensions of Harvard Yard.”

Weaver, realizing that he is fighting a losing battle with the wrecking crew, begins to shuffle through the pages of his talk, skipping huge sections in order to bring the ordeal to a speedy conclusion. Someone from the Vanderbilt English Department rises and slips quietly out of the door, determined to stop the noise. After a couple of minutes he returns and shakes his head. The workmen have to follow a rigid schedule. They have their orders. The roaring and crashing continue. Finally, in a clatter of crumbling bricks, Weaver finishes his paper and the audience gives him a great burst of applause that for a moment drowns out the noise of the wrecking crew. When the crowd files out the door they see that Kissam Hall is now nothing more than a heap of dust-clouded bricks with a few sections from a marble archway jutting out above the rubble.

As I say, this is a disturbing memory, partially because Weaver, a shy and modest man, found the chore of a public performance even more difficult than usual, but mostly because of the eerie symbolism of the occasion. The events outside the window mocked everything that Weaver was saying that day, and they did so at the direction of a man who opposed most of what Weaver and the Agrarians stood for, only the latest in a succession of chancellors who believed in modernism and the sanctity of scientific progress.

That was twenty-five years ago, however, and while the campus of Vanderbilt University has grown more unsightly with the years, the intellectual landscape has altered ever so slightly in Weaver’s favor. The critics who scoffed at the dire predictions in I’ll Take My Stand have grown silent as one by one the prophecies have been fulfilled. Fewer and fewer Americans trust the efficacy of science today, and if you ask young people if they believe the world is getting better and better they will tell you they don’t think so.

Yet the larger battle that Richard Weaver was waging is by no means won. Indeed I would suggest that the outcome is still very much in the balance, with no clear sign that truth will win in the near future. For Weaver, more than any other twentieth-century Southerner, saw the struggle as a clash between right reason on the one hand and non-reason or ideology on the other. He saw the breakdown of Western civilization not as the consequence of industrialism and technology (these too are consequences) but rather as the result of faulty thinking—if not the absence of thought altogether; and in the course of exploring this conviction Weaver wrote a number of important books and essays, three of which, it seems to me, are seminal studies.

These three works—Ideas Have Consequences, The Ethics of Rhetoric, and The Southern Tradition at Bay—lay important groundwork, awaiting the hand of a master builder, someone with philosophic insights commensurate with Weaver’s to come along and pull the parts together, to oversee the Restoration. These books, I hasten to say, are not Kantian in their depth and complexity. To the contrary, they are deceptively simple, available to any intelligent reader who is willing to devote time and thought to their arguments. Together they tell us precisely who we are at a moment in our history when most of us have forgotten, and for this reason alone they require close and respectful reading.

The first of these, Ideas Have Consequences, was published in 1948, at a time when Americans were in no mood for jeremiads. In the aftermath of a military victory over European fascism they were pleased with what they had become. Yet Weaver was saying that this nation in particular stood on the edge of the abyss.

As a consequence his study went unnoticed in the academy because it did not fit easily into the dialectic of the times and therefore did not lend itself to glib paraphrase. Thirty-five years later Ideas Have Consequences still demands a fuller discussion than anyone would stand still for, but its meaning is probably clearer now than in 1948 since the problems Weaver was addressing are more apparent and more crucial. Also, a number of important voices have been heard from since that time, voices that echo Weaver’s language and ideas, giving them a new currency in the intellectual marketplace, rendering them ever more intelligible to the average reader.

Of course his initial premise still proves a formidable obstacle to most. He wants to argue that the structure and texture of twentieth century life can be traced to a philosophical controversy in the 14th century, and most people who read, yea, even the New York Times, have difficulty thinking about any time so remote as the administration of Calvin Coolidge. Yet Weaver asks them to believe that the “nominalism” of William of Occam contained the seeds of modern chaos. The proposition called “Occam’s Razor” (Entities are not to be multiplied except as may be necessary) attacks the idea that an absolute universal truth exists against which all our experience must be measured. Thus for Occam, and for all his descendants, such categories as “tree” and “human being” and “evil” are merely convenient ways of talking about the world, but they don’t correspond to anything that is real or ultimately true. As Weaver puts it, “The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses.” The result is a gradual decline of belief in the transcendent and the emergence of modern materialism and moral relativism.

At first Weaver doesn’t really attempt to prove this proposition as a philosopher would, at least not through the rigid application of logic to a well-developed abstract argument. He simply states his convictions in the introductory chapter and then glosses them in enough detail throughout the book so that the reader will know finally with what he is being asked to agree; so the “proof’ comes in the body of this beautifully structured book and is cumulative in its rhetorical force. Read to its conclusion, Ideas Have Consequences is a devastating polemic, irresistible in its flashes of pure logic and its precise use of evidence.

Although the work is a defense of right reason, Weaver is no narrow rationalist. He makes it clear from the outset that reason itself is not the ultimate source of wisdom but rather sentiment, “an intuitive feeling about the imminent nature of reality.” Reason, he points out, is not self-justifying. If one affirms its validity one does so acknowledging a prior commitment to the reasonable nature of reality, to what he calls “the metaphysical dream.”

It is this “dream,” a belief in transcendence, which has always characterized Western thought and informed its communities, a commitment to the dominion of an ultimate truth under which all other truths are organized and from which they take their meaning. Assuming the existence of those “things unseen” which give form and validity to “things seen,” Weaver goes on to draw a conclusion that is unsettling to most twentieth-century sensibilities. He says that a belief in transcendence implies a commitment to political and social hierarchy and a consequent rejection of the egalitarianism that has more and more become the shibboleth of our age. If knowledge and virtue are attributes of the transcendent, he argues, then in choosing their leaders the electorate should seek out these qualities, which all men do not possess equally. The only purely democratic process, he suggests, would be government by lot, since any elective system is based on the implicit but logical idea that some people are better qualified to rule than others.

In discussing this point he has a few words to say about socialism, a tag he uses without apology. Here he shows his rhetorical teeth by terming the Marxists an outgrowth of what they most despise—the middle class, which Weaver describes as “risking little, terrified by change, its aim … to establish a materialistic civilization which will banish threats to its complacency.” “The goal of social democracy,” he says scornfully, “is scientific feeding.”

Though Weaver makes it quite clear that he believes in the idea of equality under the law, he says that other kinds of egalitarianism which attempt to subvert natural authority merely want to substitute a bureaucratic hierarchy for the government that Jefferson envisioned, a hierarchy of “gifts and attainments.” This segment of Weaver’s essay probably seemed more outrageous and less credible three decades ago than it does today, when the tyranny of a federal bureaucracy is beginning to intimidate even those who formerly urged its omnipotence (writers for the New Republic now openly complain about the U.S. Postal Service). Still even in the 1980s Weaver’s attack on egalitarianism constitutes an implicit scandal to Americans as a whole, who have almost forgotten the formidable limitations the Founding Fathers placed on the conduct of American democracy.

Another dire consequence of egalitarianism, says Weaver, is the fragmentation of modern society into specialists who revere their own isolated roles in a world they regard as economic but who have no understanding of the community as a whole, much less the truths that once undergirded it. Knowledge of the whole of Creation was the aspiration of the medieval “philosophic doctor” and his successor, the renaissance gentleman; but in more recent times the so-called “expert” is so obsessed with his own fragment of the puzzle that he stands on the borderline of psychosis. Or so Weaver argues, echoing the sentiments of T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and a number of other literary critics who took up this problem in an effort to explain the plight of the modern poet in a technocratic society that no longer has use for his wisdom.

Weaver also considers the situation of modern artists and artisans, demonstrating that labor of any sort in contemporary society is regarded as a necessary evil, whereas in earlier times, with some transcendent idea of what work should accomplish, people took pride in their craftsmanship; for, as he puts it, “to labor is to pray, for conscientious effort to realize an ideal is a kind of fidelity.” Again, it is the ideal, the transcendent, that gives meaning and dignity to everyday life. Thus, with the modern rejection of universal truth, even the daily activity of life-sustaining labor is rendered dull and meaningless, merely a means to material self-gratification. The result: built-in obsolescence and undisciplined art.

Turning to the popular press, Weaver argues that the counterfeit vision of the “media” (not his word) is distorted and simplistic in order to bring the public into easy conformity with current orthodoxy. Summarizing his opinion Weaver writes, “How . . . can one hesitate to conclude that we would live in greater peace and enjoy sounder moral health if the institution of the newspaper were abolished entirely?” His only optimistic observation is that despite persistent and dishonest opposition from the press, right-minded politicians are still elected to public office and skepticism is widening, even among uneducated people, as to the credibility of the media.

And what kind of society do the falsifiers of truth depict for Americans to admire? Weaver concludes that we are urged to be spoiled children, addicted to comfort and incapable of any heroic sacrifice, a generation of undisciplined egotists who are less and less willing to work for the plethora of material goods our leaders tell us we deserve. In addition, he points out that, driven by envy and bewildered by the presence of unequal wealth when he cannot admit unequal merit, modern man moves to take away the property of others with the fallacious argument that “property rights should not be allowed to stand in the way of human rights.”

It is important to note here that Weaver considers property to be “the last metaphysical right” upon which other rights depend, and he does so not out of any deep-seated conviction that the free-market economy is superior to collectivism or that capitalism is the salvation of the West, but out of a reasonable assumption about the essential nature of freedom and man’s capacity to act morally when he is owned outright by some impersonal social institution, however benevolently conceived. Here and only here does Weaver’s traditionalism strike a sort of accommodation with the economic conservatives of the Northeast. The rest of the time they stand beyond the pale of his philosophy and are often the enemy, particularly when they smack of social Darwinism.

In the final analysis, what Weaver defends in this brilliant study is something as simple and elusive as truth, the kind of truth that men once believed in as a matter of course, even when they disagreed about its nature. But truth requires property to defend it; piety towards nature, neighbors, the past to nurture it; and a renewed respect for language to reveal it and to render it compelling. This truth is the tenuous thread he offers as a means to escape from the labyrinthine modernity that he has defined for us all too well.

Like Ideas Have Consequences, The Ethics of Rhetoric is one of those small books that has the power to alter the thinking of an entire generation. Unfortunately, it hasn’t done so, largely, I suspect, because too many people believe it is for specialists in linguistic studies. And indeed two or three chapters are so restricted in their focus that they may be of no more than passing interest to the general reader. But the book as a whole is not about language alone but about social and political truths, about the ultimate realities which stand behind words and inform the structure of Being itself. In fact, of all Weaver’s works I find this one the most original and incisive. Here he is on his own, no longer apprentice to the Agrarians, an accomplished master ready to do things that Ransom, Davidson, and Tate could not do so well, if at all.

The book begins with a commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus that serves as a framework for the essays that follow, defining for the reader the way in which the persuasive user of language, the rhetor, must approach words in order to be morally worthy of his task. I am not thoroughly familiar with the scholarship, but I suspect that this interpretation of Plato’s famous dialogue (which is ostensibly about love rather than language) is one of the most original essays ever written on the Greek philosopher. Yet Weaver is surely right when he argues that Plato’s two kinds of lovers—the selfish lover and the unselfish lover—are intended to be seen as rhetors who approach language, the object of their affection, with a desire either to exploit it for their own ends or else to serve the ultimate truth that language, at its best, reveals.

The false lover (rhetor) is the Sophist, who still uses any means to achieve his ends. He does not believe that the truth exists, so the manner in which he manipulates grammar, logic, and rhetoric is subject to no external restrictions, such as those of moral conscience.

He therefore feels free to say anything that will help him possess what he most yearns after. He strives to use the beloved for his own gratification rather than to love for the beloved’s sake. The Greek word for such love is “eros”; the English word is “lust.” And such love is radically self-centered and finally immoral, since it grows out of a total disregard for the sanctity of the beloved, which, in Weaver’s argument, is ultimate truth.

The true lover (rhetor), on the other hand, believes in the infinite worth of the beloved and will therefore use language in such a way as to reveal this worth rather than to distort or abuse it. This lover will not violate the sanctity of the beloved, will not falsify logic and language in order to achieve his ends; for he wants to be servant rather than master. Such love in the Greek is called “agape,” and in older English usage was “charity,” though significantly the distinction between “eros” and “agape” is impossible to make in our contemporary diction.

What Weaver is attacking in this essay is the loose morality that lies behind such modern rhetors as advertising copy writers and ambitious politicians, who will say anything in order to sell their product or to be elected to office. If such people know about logic at all they use their knowledge to deceive members of their audience rather than to enlighten them. In fact, the advertisements in magazines and on television offer prime classroom examples of fallacious reasoning to the few college professors who still teach courses in formal logic; and the next best source for such negative examples is political discourse, not excluding the rhetoric found on the front pages of newspapers and in the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather reporting.

Weaver’s commendation of the true lover, the rhetor, is no more than a plea for integrity in a world where the loss of any sense of transcendence has turned the human community into a rhetorical jungle. In making this plea he realizes that the traditional values he admires and advocates can survive and prosper only in a climate of respect for truth, whereas the values of modernism will wither and die under the severe scrutiny of an honest language.

If this essay is the most original and broad-ranging in the collection, Weaver’s discussion of the Scopes trial is perhaps the most dramatic. Anyone who has seen Inherit the Wind or read retrospective accounts of the famous showdown at Dayton must think that Clarence Darrow was a quiet defender of justice while William Jennings Bryan was a blustering fool. They must also have concluded that Scopes’ conviction was one of those mean and arbitrary judgments that are sometimes handed down in rural courts when simple people get their backs up and refuse out of prejudice to do what the law prescribes. To everyone who has accepted this interpretation of the events at Dayton, Weaver offers a devastating rebuttal, one that no honest observer could seriously quarrel with, so carefully mustered is his evidence.

In the first place, it seems that Bryan was by no means a fool in the conduct of the trial—at least not all the time. His famous attempt to defend Biblical literalism was, of course, ludicrous, even to those intelligent men who agreed with him on the subject. But, as Weaver points out, the question of Biblical or scientific truth should never have been at issue in the first place, that Bryan understood this point, and that he eloquently argued as much to the judge, who erred in failing to restrict the testimony to matters of legal relevance. In quoting extensively from the transcript of the trial, Weaver demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that at one stage of the proceedings it was Bryan rather than Darrow who was the masterful logician and that he all but won the legal case before he ever took the stand to talk about Adam and Noah and the Whale.

In the first place, as Bryan argued (and as Weaver affirms), the wisdom of the Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of any creation theory (whether scientific or Biblical) was not an issue to bring before the court. It was, instead, a matter properly addressed in the legislature, where such laws, according to the federal and state constitutions, are to be debated and either passed or rejected. If the law is unwise, Bryan argued, then it should be repealed. But once passed, it has to be obeyed, unless one wants to argue that the people of a state, who pay for the establishment of public schools through their taxes, have no right to say what subjects are to be taught there—a proposition patently absurd. You couldn’t simply claim that because a few self-appointed experts say that the theory of evolution should be taught, the courts can presume to set aside the judgment of the people of the state.

Darrow, of course, called to his aid a number of expert witnesses who argued the truth of evolution as an “accepted fact.” Bryan, however, countered by saying that the truth or falsity of evolution was finally irrelevant, since a number of truths and facts were not taught in the public schools for one reason or another.

In discussing this exchange Weaver points out that the truth of evolution was by no means a “fact,” as Darrow and his experts argued, but something two times removed from fact. A fact, he says, is a verifiable entity in time and space. To suggest that facts have a relationship to one another, as Darwin does, is to express an opinion about fact. To say that this opinion is true is to express an opinion about an opinion about a fact, a distinction that Bryan seemed better able to make than Darrow, who wanted to argue that the state of Tennessee had no right to suppress “truth,” whatever the social consequences.

At this point Bryan delivered what should have been the coup de grace in an exchange you can bet Mencken never reported. He pointed out that Darrow—who now maintained that the state had no right to omit the theory of evolution from its curriculum—had only recently defended Leopold and Loeb on precisely the opposite grounds. The community, Darrow had argued in Illinois, was partially to blame for the “thrill murder” of a young boy by two college students. And why? Because these killers had been inspired to commit their cold-blooded act by the writings of Nietzsche, which they found in the public library. If the public allows such dangerous ideas to be broadcast, Darrow had thundered, then how can they hold these young impressionable students entirely to blame for what they did.

Bryan quickly pointed out the horrid inconsistency of Darrow’s argument in Illinois and his argument in Tennessee; and he was not too foolish or too senile to note that Nietzsche’s theory was based in some measure on the theory of evolution, which Darrow now wanted to say was undeniably true and therefore could not be banned from the curriculum of Tennessee schools.

In Weaver’s account we see a Bryan and a Darrow heretofore hidden from the public eye. Instead of the doddering old bigot we find the aging orator who still has a few arrows left in his quiver, the great champion of the people who makes one last stand for their rights, this time in the face of a new breed of technocrats who want to control education without any interference from those who establish and pay for it. Darrow, on the other hand, is no longer quite the doughty defender of truth but rather a seedy sentimentalist who uses his rhetorical powers first on one side and then the other, wherever whim or fame or the Almighty Dollar beckons. And the contrast between the two illustrates precisely the thesis that Weaver explores in Ideas Have Consequences: that those who believe in truth are better able to make distinctions than those who argue from the gut of their own egos.

Turning from Bryan and Darrow, he takes up Abraham Lincoln and Edmund Burke, and here I have a problem with his perspective. If he errs at all in this volume, it is in his love for what he calls “the argument from definition,” a deductive approach that deals in abstract principles rather than in particulars of the concrete world. In contrast to the argument from definition he cites the “argument from circumstance,” an inductive approach that draws on the particularities surrounding an issue without significant reference to abstract truth. I will say more about this blind spot later, though I don’t believe it is crucial to an understanding of Weaver’s thought as a whole. At this point suffice it to say that he chooses Lincoln to illustrate the argument from definition and Burke for the argument from circumstance, questionable choices, I think, though Weaver’s illustrative passages are convincing enough.

Since Weaver himself is a believer in the validity of ultimate definitions, why should he choose Abraham Lincoln for his model of this method, since Lincoln was among the most pragmatic abusers of legal definition in his unrestrained efforts to save the Union? On the other hand, why should Weaver—a traditionalist by temperament— choose a like-minded thinker, Edmund Burke, to illustrate what he considers the “lower road” in formal argument (though a permissible one)?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I suspect that he adopted this strategem because he knew his audience and concluded that if he hoped to make any impact on their modern, secular sensibilities he would have to do so by shocking them into some new understanding of the nature of rhetoric. “To those of you who want to argue pragmatically,” he may have been saying, “look at your greatest hero, Lincoln, who at his best argues from immutable principle. On the other hand, look at Burke, whose philosophy you despise, and see how often he argues the way you do. Which would you rather emulate? And are you not now ready to reconsider your rejection of the idea of higher truth?”

At worst, this strategy makes a few of us uncomfortable, though we cannot deny the persuasive selection of examples that he places before us. We can only say in reply that Lincoln often argued from circumstance and that Burke argued from definition, though never without some reference to the real world in which all human action takes place. (If I had to choose between the two, I would take Burke and the argument from circumstance; but such a choice would surely be a false dilemma, and Weaver is by no means suggesting that we must be impaled on its horns.)

The other essays in this volume are almost as rewarding as those I have singled out, though perhaps a little less innovative and profound. But all are directly relevant to the idea that rhetoric and thought go hand in hand and that together they constitute the most vital informing force in the political order. To many of us who have made a career of studying language this book is awesome and moving, the only one of Weaver’s studies, it seems to me, that gives us the full measure of his quiet and impregnable genius. Alone it could stand as the achievement of a lifetime—and one that would bid fair to have a perennial and curative effect on the scholarly community.

The Southern Tradition at Bay, though published posthumously in 1968, was written over twenty-five years earlier as a doctoral dissertation and then revised later for publication. Significantly Cleanth Brooks was Chairman of the Examining Committee and both Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom receive thanks in Weaver’s original preface. But written acknowledgment of his debt is unnecessary, because the text itself amply reveals the degree to which his thought is an extension of Agrarianism. Indeed the published version of this study could be regarded as a formal and scholarly presentation of the arguments made in I’ll Take My Stand and in other diverse essays of that group during the Thirties.

For one thing, Weaver begins where they began—with an attack on science and technology as “the most powerful force of corruption in our age.” Such a statement seems almost commonplace in the 1980s, because what Weaver and the Agrarians were saying a half century ago has now become part of a new and confused leftist orthodoxy so mindless and militant that if one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to feel sorry for the military-industrial complex.

Of course the young street politicians of our day have yet to see the connection between a sinister technology and the ills of widespread urbanization, something that Weaver makes explicit in this volume when he writes, “Man has lost piety toward Nature in proportion as he has left her and shut himself up in cities with rationalism for his philosophy.” Against this trend in the nation as a whole, Weaver juxtaposes the South, which, he says, is “alone among the sections … in regarding science as a false messiah.” Why this statement is true really constitutes the subject of his study as a whole, and he explains in fine and abundant detail the several important characteristics of the modem Southerner’s heritage which have fortified him against the assault of modernity.

First, he says, the region from its earliest times subscribed to a “feudal system” patterned after a declining European order. Agricultural in its economic bias, Southern society was hierarchical in structure, with the plantation as the model of the community and each member of the plantation household assuming a definite station and task in the scheme of things. “In the social order which was overthrown by the Civil War,” Weaver writes, “there existed a feature of feudalism incomprehensible to the modern mind with its egotism and enlightened selfishness, subordination without envy, and superiority without fear.”

Even the Agrarians had not been willing to go so far, and in essay after essay they deny that the South was aristocratic (Weaver says that in some respects it was), and they point most often to the yeoman farmer as a normative figure rather than to the plantation owner. In fact, Weaver does in this study what the Agrarians have been mistakenly accused of doing—offering a militant defense of the Old Regime. And while Weaver is careful to include qualifications, in a sense he is the most unreconstructed of them all.

He exhibits this quality most clearly in his brief discussion of the code of chivalry, an important element in the temperament of the Old South which he feels has affected the evolving nature of the region, even into modern times. Without pursuing the matter too vigorously, he calls Southern chivalric notions “a romantic idealism, closely related to Christianity, which makes honor the guiding principle of conduct,” and he argues that “it was an institution of strong and, on the whole, good influence,” though at least one observer has blamed it for the loss of the War.

His explanation for the appearance of such a tradition is altogether different from that of Mark Twain and a host of latter-day critics who have said that Southerners took too seriously the spirit of what they read in the romances of Sir Walter Scott. The Scott theory is widely accepted, but Weaver’s account is down-to-earth, historical, and less archly literary: “Since chivalry has been one of the main traditions of European civilization,” he says, “it was not strange that a chivalric code should develop in the South, which was disposed to accept rather than reject European institutions.” Simple enough, and more credible than Twain and his followers, who never bothered to explain why Southerners would have been attracted to Scott’s works in the first place if they had not been predisposed to admire the chivalric. Weaver’s discussion of the gentleman and his education is much fuller and considerably more rewarding than his treatment of chivalry, though here again he is cutting against the grain of current mythology. Much has been written in refutation of the idea that Southerners were educated at all, much less that they were given the “humanistic” preparation that Weaver supposes, an education that emphasized “the classic qualities of magnificence, magnanimity, and liberality.” Yet Weaver offers numerous examples and convincing glosses; his treatment is more than merely sentimental opinion, which is all the Negative side in this debate can muster.

His treatment of Southern religion, like that of the Agrarians, suggests that the region’s piety is constant but compromised by “doctrinal innocence”; for, as he says, “the average Southerner knew little and appears to have cared less about casuistical theology or the metaphysics underlying all religion; what he recognized was the acknowledgement, the submissiveness of the will, and that general respect for order, natural and institutional, which is piety. A religious solid South preceded the political solid South.”

The benefits of such theological laxity, according to Weaver, were a high degree of religious quiescence and a belief among neighbors of various sects that “a certain portion of life must remain inscrutable.” He admits, however, that the shortcomings of this attitude are more far-reaching. For in an epilogue to The Southern Tradition at Bay he says that one of the great errors of the South has been “a failure to study its position until it arrived at metaphysical foundations.” No Southerner, he argues, “was ever able to show why the South was right finally’’ and as a consequence, when the region was attacked by its Puritan enemies, Southerners had nothing to offer in response but impotent and uncontrollable anger. What has always been needed, he says, is a Summa Theologia, a comprehensive study of the Southern mind written by a Burke or a Hegel instead of random essays by lawyers and journalists.

On such a magnum opus, he says, a now and successful initiative might still be mounted, “one which would give the common man a world view completely different from that which he has constructed out of his random knowledge of science.” Such a counteroffensive— which he feels must be carried to the enemy by poets, artists, and intellectuals—would involve remanning “the barricades of revealed Christianity, of humanism, of sentiment,” though not, he says, in the name of the Lost Cause, whose final offensive failed in the 1890s with the organization of the United Confederate Veterans and their subsequent failure to attract new recruits from the young. An effective movement, he concludes, must subtly incorporate the values of the past while exploiting the rhetoric of progress and the future.

It is impossible with justice to gloss and praise this substantial volume, which is richer and more complicated than Weaver’s other works, though perhaps not so original. As Donald Davidson points out in his introduction to the published edition, Weaver uses every conceivable type of source in examining his subject—political, literary, personal, public—and he does so with careful attention to dissenting opinion and to embarrassing exceptions. He is neither unequivocally positive about the character of his region nor naively optimistic about its future. But he does offer something more than tenuous apologies or outright apostasy. He has written a call to battle that we can ignore only at our peril, and he may have written the very work he calls for at the end of his long and rewarding study. Not to consider that possibility is to pay him less homage than he clearly deserves.

Weaver has been dead twenty years now, and he has been missed every single day; but the same old wrecking crew is with us still, tearing down what is old and well-built in order to throw up something modern and transient, their mouths pursed, their worried little eyes blinking nervously. They constantly consult their watches, new ones which they have to press in order to see. They are behind schedule. American society should have been torn down long before now. The foundation for an entirely new economic system was to have been poured last Thursday. And now Reagan is in the White House, which means further delays (though not as many as they once feared). They shout to one another. The bulldozers roar into action. The driver sets down the grade. And they’re off in a flurry of endless activity, for they know that you can’t destroy a world if you don’t keep moving.

At the same time, somewhere in a classroom or library, Richard Weaver through the printed word continues to explain where we have gone wrong and how we can correct our error. He insists that we have time if we will only proceed with reason and prudence. No one has won or lost anything—at least, not yet.

Indeed Weaver and his mentors, the Agrarians, speak more forcefully in the year 1983 than they did in the Thirties and Forties. Yet some of us who admire and believe them are not sure if they are prophets of a genuine cultural renaissance or the last survivors of an order that has, like all its predecessors, doomed itself to final destruction. It depends on how our day has gone, doesn’t it? Or what we read in the morning newspapers. None of us is as certain about things as Weaver was, though he never held out false hopes or underestimated the difficulty of a Restoration.

But of course he brought some strengths to the battle that most of us lack, and I would like to say just a word about them. First, however, in deference to his own argumentative practice, I feel obliged to mention what I consider to be his shortcomings, which are so inconsequential as to warrant no more than a sentence or two. First, it seems to me that he is occasionally just a bit too Platonic to credit the full complexity of human beings and their corporate behavior. He has God the Father (the Mind) well in hand, but from time to time he has a little trouble with the Son and the Holy Spirit. You don’t always have a problem solved when you explain it in reasonable terms, and there is a case to be made for a folk wisdom that contributes as much to political understanding as do the Philosopher King. Weaver didn’t often forget how wise his own uneducated mountain neighbors could be, but he sometimes did. And they would never have been caught using anything but an argument from circumstance, believing, as they did, in the absolute truth of the Incarnation.

Second, like Davidson, Ransom and the early Tate, Weaver thinks and says too little about the Church’s role in the definition of Western culture—past, present, and future. (Only Brooks and Lytle are sound here.) The medieval certitude he admired was, after all, a characteristic of Christendom, only Platonic by way of St. Augustine and, to a far lesser degree, St. Thomas Aquinas. But it was the body and the soul of the Church as much as its mind that gave order and meaning to the medieval world, and I could not imagine a Restoration of he sort for which Weaver worked that would not have a revitalized Christianity at its center.

Weaver knew these things most of the time and took them into account. In addition, he brought some extraordinary virtues to the great struggles of our age, virtues which the rest of us lack. First, he had a genuinely philosophic mind rather than merely a polemical one. Davidson, the best polemicist in the group, was content to muster his rhetoric for The Cause without probing too deeply into the substratum of meaning that would engage a disinterested student of Western thought. Tate and Lytle delved more profoundly beneath the surface as they ground their axes, polemicists with definite philosophical import. Weaver, however, is always the philosopher first, though he never hesitates to fly his colors and do battle with the enemy. Ideas Have Consequences, therefore, has a logical rigor and a formal structure which give the work an air of authority that it would lack as a mere essay of opinion.

Then, too, Weaver had a rugged honesty about him that made his writings both ingenuous and intimidating. At times he was almost blunt in his statements about such controversial issues as equality, freedom, and the press. Where his logic led him he followed, and when he came to an unpopular conclusion he was not afraid to state it plainly, the way mountain people generally do. He could muster rhetoric for every legitimate purpose, but he never used it to mitigate or conceal truth in order to placate the spirit of the age. The rest of us, for the most part, lack his courage, and as a consequence fall short of his strength and power.

Finally, he generated an aura of absolute faith in all that he wrote and said. By the time he finished The Southern Tradition at Bay he had put socialism behind him, reordered his thinking, and come to a final accommodation with the world. And while he changed his mind about some matters in later years, he never gave an inch on the fundamentals. For this reason you can read his works—each quite different in concept and focus—and know that he was the same man at the end that he was when, late in life, he came over to the losing side and took his station beside a ragged and beleaguered band of defenders. Before Ransom, Davidson and the rest he was taken; and we are left with his indispensable legacy of thought and with the challenge of a life lived in service to a splendid vision of order that no crew of sleek upstarts can ever tear down.

This piece was originally printed in Southern Partisan magazine in 1983.

You might also enjoy these articles...