Fred Douglas Young, Richard M. Weaver, 1910-1963: A Life of the Mind. University of Missouri Press, 1995. 217; Joseph Scotchie, editor, The Vision of Richard Weaver. Transaction Publishers, 1995.
Early in the fall of 1939, while driving over “the monotonous prairies of Texas” to begin a third dismal year at Texas A & M with its “rampant philistinism, abetted by technology,” Richard Weaver had what he called, in retrospect, “my conversion to the poetic and ethical vision of life.” This conversion involved Weaver’s rejection of socialism and “the clichés of liberalism” in favor of a traditional Platonic-Christian vision of man and his position in a world whose fundamental laws are divine “givens” rooted in transcendent universals, “givens” which can be ignored or tampered with only at utmost peril. This truly radical conversion was the beginning of a long journey home.
Born on March 3, 1910, Richard Malcolm Weaver spent his early childhood in
Asheville and Weaverville, the latter town named for one of his ancestors whose father had been among the first settlers of western North Carolina. In the year after his own father’s early death in 1915, Weaver moved with three younger siblings to Lexington, Kentucky, where his mother worked for Embry and Company, a women’s store owned by her brother. But every summer as a boy he returned to Weaverville, a tradition he maintained throughout his professional life: nine months teaching at the University of Chicago, three months in the rural South tending his horse- or mule-plowed garden and writing essays.
Richard Weaver’s profound commitment in these essays to the logical discernment of truth (dialectic) followed by the persuasive presentation of such truth so as to inspire readers or listeners to right thinking and virtuous action (rhetoric) is evident in his founding of a philosophical society at his college prep school, Lincoln Memorial, and in his considerable success on the debate team at the University of Kentucky. Weaver also joined the American Socialist Party while a graduate student at Kentucky but soon found himself disillusioned with practical politics and unattracted to the persons he encountered at party meetings. Thus, when he left Kentucky for Vanderbilt in 1933 to work on a master’s degree in English, Weaver was caught between the actual experience of family life rooted in the rural South and a theoretical attachment to socialism. He was ready for John Crowe Ransom.
Weaver liked the Vanderbilt Agrarians as people even though at first he opposed their ideas. But he came in time to admire the Agrarians as seekers — especially poetic seekers — after permanent truths, including man’s relation to God and his rightful place in a given order of things. Weaver realized that the Old South, which he later called “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World,” had not been indefensible (though he did oppose slavery) but had simply lacked defenders capable of articulating the fundamental principles upon which that culture was based. John Crowe Ransom, whom Weaver called “subtle doctor,” had commended as humane the “seasoned provincial life” in England, a life not unlike that in the rural antebellum South; and in a phrase he employed as the paradoxical subtitle to his attack on liberal theology, God Without Thunder, Ransom awakened Weaver to the idea of an even more comprehensive “unorthodox defence of orthodoxy,” a possible Summa Theologica of timeless values common to the South and to other regional cultures in the pre-modern West Ransom’s talent, as Weaver put it, for “dropping living seeds into minds” was well exercised on Weaver, who left Vanderbilt with his master’s degree in 1936 deeply divided between his earlier socialism and his more recent encounter with the ideas and the writers of the poetry in The Fugitive and the essays in I’ll Take My Stand. Weaver would take his own firm stand during the three bleak years soon to follow at Texas A & M (1937-40) and during his years as a doctoral candidate at LSU (1940-43).
Directed by Cleanth Brooks, Weaver’s dissertation, published posthumously as The Southern Tradition at Bay (1968), was originally entitled “The Confederate South, 1865-1910: A Study in the Survival of a Mind and a Culture.” Examining firsthand accounts by southern survivors of the Civil War and the later apologists, romancers, and finally the more ironic-realistic fiction writers and critics, Weaver argued that the southern mind had four essential characteristics all but foreign to modernity: a semi-feudal social structure (hierarchy, class, noblesse oblige, a sense of place and of personal liberty curbed by social duties); an allegiance to chivalry (one’s word of honor as inviolable, dueling codes, constraints against the barbaric modern concepts of total war and unconditional surrender); the ideal of the gentleman (an ideal whose main drawback was an amateur’s attitude to a literary or philosophical defense of the South, an attitude which, Weaver believed, deprived the South of a coherent intellectual understanding of its culture: “It needed a Burke or a Hegel; it produced lawyers and journalists”); and an “older religiousness” that shied away from theological speculation and debate but which valued Scripture over science and which instinctively recognized and respected the natural order as God-given, mysterious, and largely unalterable by man.
Sadly, Weaver noted, the South — which once had been “in the curious position of having been right without realizing the grounds for its rightness” but which nonetheless by this same unarticulated instinct for the permanent things had functioned as America’s “flywheel” to check or urge on the country as a whole as it deviated from or approached traditional values — this very South was now capitulating to a debased vision of the world presented to it in northern books and magazines. Even so, the South still provided Weaver with a dramatic illustration of the principle that “all questions resolve themselves ultimately into metaphysical problems.” Thus, the clash between the Old South and modernity might even be described as a late manifestation of the consequences of a fourteenth-century philosophical debate between logical realism and the nominalism of William of Occam. Seen in such a light, the four-year conflict from Manassas to Appomattox appears as one long bloody emblematic slaughter carried out by largely unselfconscious adherents to, or cultural products of, one of these two philosophical positions or the other. Ideas do have consequences.
After earning his Ph.D. at LSU in 1943, Weaver began a twenty-year career as a professor of English at the University of Chicago (1944-63). Although courteous and affable in company, Weaver was essentially a loner living according to an almost monastic routine of teaching and writing, making do through all those years with only a modest rented room in a house not far from campus. One day, in the fall of 1945, while meditating in his office in Ingleside Hall on the carnage and betrayals of World War II and on the inadequacies of socialism, communism, and capitalism, Weaver concluded that modern man had become a “moral idiot” and immediately jotted down the chapter headings of Ideas Have Consequences (1948), a book that would investigate how such idiocy had come to be. Its original title was The Fearful Descent.
Weaver traced the problems of modern man back to the aforementioned medieval debate between nominalism (particulars, not universals, are real) and the logical realists or Platonic idealists who believed that transcendentals are both real and primary, that form precedes substance, and that nature is a mixture of essences and transformations. The long-term consequences of nominalism included the triumph of solipsism and relativism over objective truth, the rejection of the fall of man in favor of a belief in man as innately good and the measure of all things, the acceptance of nature as a closed system to be manipulated at will, and ultimately, the isolation of man from God, of human language from the Word.
And so, with nothing left to believe in but scientific facts and the theories built upon them, modern man drifts through an unreal life, deprived of a sustaining “metaphysical dream of the world.” This pathetic state of things explains the superficiality, unrepresentativeness, and often horrifying spectacle of the “Great Stereopticon” (the mass media), the arrested development of contemporary man as “spoiled child,” the absence of a metaphysical understanding of private property, and a general loss of pietas toward the givenness of things including an egalitarian attack upon hierarchy and a feminist attack upon the ancient patriarchal ordering of the family. In response to this situation, Weaver called for a “deep reformation” and an “upward conversion” toward timeless transcendental truths and ultimately the idea of the Good. How such truths can be discerned and how mankind is to be lifted up toward them were the special concerns of the dialectician and the rhetorician.
Cleanth Brooks warned Weaver to be prepared to be “flayed alive” in the liberal press over Ideas Have Consequences, but Weaver remained confident that he had made a strong case, having employed, as he wrote to Donald Davidson, “words as hard as cannonballs.” And for almost half a century now, many readers of this small, persuasive book — in which values found in the Old South and beyond are more generally applied as standards by which to judge the contemporary world — have had, as a result, their own “conversion to the poetic and ethical vision of life.” Indeed, as Paul Tillich said, Ideas Have Consequences provides “that philosophic shock” which is “the beginning of wisdom.”
Such wisdom, Weaver believed, should lead to action, and so, in The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), he showed the way to a restoration of modern man’s full humanity. Truth, Weaver argued, is established by dialectic. But how can people be persuaded to order their lives according to the truth? That is the job of the “true rhetorician” who is “a noble lover of the good, who works through dialectic and through poetic and analogical association.” As opposed to the “base” rhetorician who dangerously manipulates language and human feelings for selfish or evil ends, the true rhetorician employs “persuasive speech in the service of truth” and creates “an informed appetition for the good.” The idea of the Good (Weaver’s philosophical term for God) in which all universals are rooted is that toward which the true rhetorician would raise up fallen man through sermonic language (and all language is “sermonic,” Weaver says).
Thus balancing a Platonic belief in the ideal with an Augustinian belief in the fall of man, Weaver depicts a world in which cultural improvement and decay are clearly measurable against an absolute standard. Employing to such ends (in descending order of importance) the arguments from genus or definition, similitude (analogy and metaphor), cause and effect, and circumstance, the true rhetorician becomes the central figure in human culture because he is dealing with the entire person both as private and as social being — both the intellect and the affections, the body and the spirit — and so practices “the most humanistic of all the disciplines.”
In his all too brief lifetime, Richard Weaver continued to write essays as a “noble rhetorician” in defense of true rhetoric, in defense of the South, and in opposition to those aspects of modernity rooted not only in nominalism, with its centuries-old deleterious effects, but also in other fallacious (even heretical) schools of thought such as gnosticism. Many of these essays were collected after his death in a number of volumes including Visions of Order (1964), Life Without Prejudice (1965), Language Is Sermonic (1970), and The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (1987). Other uncollected and unpublished works, especially any surviving letters between Weaver and Donald Davidson, should certainly be published, along with all of Weaver’s books, in a uniform scholarly edition. [The publication of In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M, Weaver in 2000 by the Liberty Fund should also be noted.]
Among Weaver’s posthumously collected essays, two of the most impressive are “The Attack upon Memory” and “Gnostics of Education,” both appearing in Visions of Order. The former of these is a disturbing analysis of the ongoing loss of any sense of reality beyond the present moment and the latter a devastating exposé of the fallacious reasoning of “progressive” educators such as John Dewey. In regard to this argument against Deweyism, it is interesting to note that after winning the Quantrell Prize in 1949 for excellence in teaching, Weaver was invited by his dean at Chicago to take the money and seek employment elsewhere. As fate would have it, though, Weaver taught at John D. Rockefeller’s university — where the first nuclear chain reaction was set off not long before he came — for another fourteen years. Weaver was just months away from taking up an appointment at Vanderbilt, where he could have continued working in the tradition of the Fugitives and the Agrarians, when he died in Chicago on April 1, 1963, of a brain hemorrhage. He was 53.
Some years before, according to Thomas Landess — but disputed by some — Weaver had been invited to Vanderbilt to read a paper and was speaking there of how the South possessed a strong sense of history on which its writers had always richly drawn. But his presentation was unexpectedly disrupted by a wrecking crew noisily destroying next-door Kissam Hall, the one-time residence of several Fugitives and Agrarians as younger men. Weaver hurried to finish his paper as the ground shook, silence fled, and the wrecking ball reduced Kissam Hall to rubble. But disturbingly emblematic as this picture — whether actually true or not — may seem, it remains incomplete. For what no wrecking crew can ever destroy is the intellectual edifice Richard Weaver erected out of “words as hard as cannonballs.” He was a member, as Fred Young says, of a “Gideon’s band,” including the Agrarians, who waged a gallant campaign against the baser assumptions of modernity, a campaign by no means over (no lost cause is ever really lost, Weaver argued, in the final scheme of things, if the cause is true and just). And as Russell Kirk remarked in eulogy, “Richard Weaver sowed deep his intellectual seed; and though there are no heirs of his body, the heirs of his mind may be many and stalwart.” Among these heirs are all traditional southerners, for as M.E. Bradford said, Weaver “made it possible for a whole people . . . to discover and to accept themselves in an act of mind.”
In his “Epilogue” to The Southern Tradition at Bay, Weaver lamented that “[f]rom the Bible and Aristotle [the South] might have produced its Summa Theologica, but none measured up to the task.” Insofar as his own intellectual abilities and total commitment to the life of the mind permitted, Richard Malcolm Weaver did so measure up and thereby gave the South that final victory in the timeless realm of thought which had eluded it those four long years on the battlefield. Moreover, Weaver’s vision is essentially a hopeful one. He certainly agreed with Robert E. Lee’s famous remark on history and Providence, which he quotes in “Lee the Philosopher”: “The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress is so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.” Such hope as Lee’s and Weaver’s still remains for traditionalist southern writers who can find in Weaver’s essays a philosophical and indeed even a theological grounding for the most ambitious literary works.
In the introduction to his Richard M. Weaver 1910-63: A Life of the Mind, Fred Douglas Young declares that his intention was to write the first comprehensive study of “the curve of Richard M. Weaver’s intellectual life.” And indeed Young has done an excellent job interweaving the biographical details of his subject’s life with his intellectual development — his real life, the “life of the mind.” Young begins by defining Weaver as a “social bond individualist” in the tradition of John Randolph of Roanoke and then traces Weaver’s life — intellectual and otherwise — from its beginnings in Weaverville through the years at the Maxwell School, the Lincoln Memorial Academy, the University of Kentucky, Vanderbilt University, and Louisiana State University and finally to a culminating twenty- year career at the University of Chicago. Young concentrates his analysis on Weaver’s dissertation (The Southern Tradition at Bay) and on the two major books Weaver published during his lifetime: Ideas Have Consequences and The Ethics of Rhetoric. The dissertation confirms Weaver’s radical change from socialism to his own particular kind of conservatism. (Young draws on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to detail the process involved in such a radical “paradigm shift.”) After the shift, Weaver was able to write Ideas Have Consequences, a powerful critique of modernity, and The Ethics of Rhetoric, a demonstration of how the evils of modernity can be countered by a combination of dialectic and right rhetoric rooted in a commitment to “the idea of the Good” (God). Young concludes by arguing that what Weaver faced was nothing less than an earlier phase of today’s worldwide “culture war” between modernists and traditionalists.
Young draws upon many important sources in his study including recollections by Russell Kirk, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Heilman, George Core, Polly Weaver Beaton (Weaver’s sister), Clifford Amyx (a good friend from undergraduate days at Kentucky where he later taught art), and Wilma R. Ebbitt, a colleague at Chicago. Other important sources Young consults include the Weaver Family Papers (currently held by Polly Weaver Beaton), Pearl M. Weaver’s The Tribe of Jacob (a history of the Weaver family printed in 1962 by the Weaver Family Historical Committee), the Weaver/Davidson correspondence in the Davidson and Weaver Collections in the Heard Library at Vanderbilt, and an early student notebook Weaver kept at Lincoln. Drawing upon these sources and others, Young is able to say a great deal about Weaver’s childhood and such early influences on him as University of Kentucky debate coach W.R. “Bill” Sutherland (dialectic and rhetoric) and Kentucky professor Francis Galloway, an eighteenth-century scholar who may well have been the first to bring Edmund Burke’s writings to Weaver’s attention.
Young is particularly excellent in retelling the history of the Fugitive-Agrarian School and in depicting Weaver’s highly disciplined life in his “missionary outpost” in Chicago, that “most brutal of cities” as Weaver himself put it in his 1950 address to the annual gathering of the Weaver clan in Weaverville. Young also provides a excellent primary and secondary bibliography of works by and about Weaver and his times. This first intellectual biography of Richard Weaver — written in a clean, jargon-free style — is now an essential companion to the study of Weaver’s increasingly relevant attack on contemporary liberalism and his spirited defense of traditional values in his eight books and in a number of still uncollected essays and reviews.
Joseph Scotchie’s The Vision of Richard Weaver begins with “From Weaverville to Posterity,” the editor’s essay on Weaver’s personal life and intellectual development, followed by “Up from Liberalism,” Weaver’s own similar essay. Scotchie then gathers fourteen previously published essays into four sections on Weaver’s individual books, his understanding of the nature and importance of rhetoric, his defense of the South, and his continuing relevance. Scotchie also provides a concise chronology of Weaver’s life and a bibliography which includes a particularly helpful listing of some of Weaver’s most important uncollected essays. In his own essay, Scotchie makes use of information gathered from interviews with Polly Weaver Beaton, Wilma R. Ebbitt, and Josephine Osborne (Weaver’s cousin).
Among the most impressive of the fourteen essays collected by Scotchie are Donald Davidson’s introduction to Weaver’s posthumously published The Southern Tradition at Bay, M.E. Bradford’s analysis of Weaver’s debt to the Agrarians, Henry Regnery’s recollections of Weaver at the University of Chicago, John East’s investigation of the philosophical roots of Weaver’s conservatism, and an essay on Weaver’s understanding of the nature of rhetoric authored by Richard Johannesen, Rennard Strickland, and Ralph T. Eubanks. The final essay, by Thomas Landess, reprinted from The Southern Partisan (Spring 1983), is entitled “Is the Battle Over. Or Has It Just Begun? The Southern Tradition Twenty Years After Richard Weaver.” Balancing Scotchie’s introductory essay, Landess’s concluding essay favorably comments on Weaver’s major books and ideas, though Landess does wonder whether Weaver is at times not “just a bit too Platonic to credit the full complexity of human beings and their corporate behavior.” Landess also observes that Weaver — who was satisfied with attending an Episcopal High Mass at Christmastime but not otherwise throughout the year — badly underestimates the importance of the church in any cultural restoration along traditional lines. Still, Landess argues powerfully for the ongoing importance of Weaver’s works: “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.”
Both Fred Douglas Young’s superb pioneering study of Weaver’s life and mind and Joseph Scotchie’s useful anthology of essays on Weaver written by various hands over nearly half a century should be welcomed by all serious students of Richard Weaver and the American South. These books fulfill Russell Kirk’s prediction, quoted above, that although Richard Weaver had no heirs of his body he would surely have heirs of his mind. In that sense, Weaver himself, desiring perhaps above all that the southern Summa Theologica he began be completed, would certainly have been proud to claim both Young and Scotchie as his own.
As Weaver once wrote, “. . . the South exhibits still a oneness which has puzzled other sections. Its history shows a pattern of synthesis struggling unweariedly, though oftentimes blindly, against forces of disintegration. The cultural forms which were built up in Europe during the Middle Ages, under whatever mysterious impulse led to such creations, were brought to the South before the acids of modernism had eaten into them. . . . The Old South was the Old World before the great upheavals. The social foundation of its life were laid prior to the French Revolution, which carried far, though it did not begin, the dissolution of Western Civilization.”
And it is upon those old foundations — their flaws repaired — that we must try to build.
This newly revised, extended, and re-edited review-essay was first published in the Sewanee Review, vol 106, no. 4, Fall 1998. (c) 1998 by David Middleton without its original main title. That title is herewith restored.