In Defense of Tradition (Richard Weaver)

Weaver, Richard M. In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M Weaver, 1929-1963. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000.

Richard Weaver’s legend was already secure when he wrote his brilliantly-titled Ideas Have Consequences. In this collection of essays we see Weaver the teacher, the professor. It’s hard to say how modern American Conservatism would have emerged had it not been for Weaver.  In a sense, Weaver may have passed the baton to Russell Kirk, from whom National Review took it (and likely ruined it).

Section 1 highlights with Weaver’s key essay “Up from Liberalism,” wherein he describes his movement from a young college socialist (but I repeat myself) to a mature agrarian conservative.

Why would someone like Weaver be interested in socialism?  Aside from youthful naivete, it seems he was looking for an organic connection among humanity that doesn’t reduce men to capital (ever heard of the phrase “Human Resources?”  It should chill you). Of course, socialism can’t deliver, mainly because academic socialists don’t know how humanity acts.  Weaver tells a funny story from college:

“I remember how shocked I was when a member of this group suggested that we provide at our public rallies one of the ‘hillbilly bands’ which are often used to draw crowds and provide entertainments….I have since realized that the member was far more practically astute than I: the hillbilly music would undoubtedly have fetched more [people] than the austere exposition of the country’s ills” (34-35).

Change “socialist” to “intellectual conservative today” and the point stands. As socialism bankrupted Weaver began to see that society could be ordered around “the Agrarian ideal of the individual in contact with the rhythms of nature, of the small-property holding, and of the society of pluralistic organization” (37).

From this Weaver would later take his stand (no pun intended) on the idea of “substance” or “the nature of things,” yet he would not do so in the way of scholasticism which endlessly multiplied speculations and abstractions.  He notes that it is “the intent of the radical to defy all substance, or to press it into forms conceived in his mind alone” (41).

The ideological Marxist (both then and now, but much more efficiently now), knew that the best way to silence conservatives is to accuse society of “prejudice.”  What the Christ-hater meant is that any differentiation in society meant an ideological violence.  The form of the fallacy used, argumentum ad ignorantium, “seeks to take advantage of an opponent by confusing what is abstractly possible with what is really possible” (92-93).

Reviewing T. S. Eliot, Weaver examines what is and isn’t culture.  We never get an analytical definition, but Weaver does offer some fascinating, if only tantalizing, clues.  A culture is an image through which our “being” comes through.  It’s often regional in focus (think of the oxymoron international culture).  As such, “Cornbread or blueberry pie is more indicative of culture than is a multi-million dollar art gallery which is the creation of some philanthropist” (150).

In line with his Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver assumes philosophical realism, yet his defense of essences is never center-stage, and so never belabored.  He reminds us that “names are indexes to essences” (235), and essences are what form “permanent things” (against which the modern world is in full attack).

From the middle of the book onward, Weaver engages in various book reviews dealing with literature, history, and the South.  Whether they are two pages or twenty, they are a model in concise thinking.

As he ends, he reminds us what it is to be a conservative (and what most popular conservatives have lost today). We defend the essences of permanent things.  There is a hierarchical structure in the universe (albeit closer to aristocracy than today’s crude religious patriarchy).

Teaching How to Think

Since Weaver was a professor of English composition, this section (228ff) could yield some valuable insights.  Given that Weaver was a gifted prose artist, and given that he taught students how to write and think (rhetoric, in other words), what advice does he offer us today?  The section is too good and too long for any adequate review.  The reader is encouraged to digest Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric.

Observations

Weaver wasn’t a shrill alarmist bemoaning how Communists are taking over the universities.  They certainly are, but the issues are deeper.  Conservatives are just as guilty (if only by incompetence rather than malice). Weaver notes of curricula that students learn “a fair introduction to the history–but not the substance–of literature and philosophy” (Weaver 34).  Let’s remain on this point.  I knew a lot of history in college and in seminary I thought I knew a fair amount of theology, but I never once had a teacher engage in a socratic dialogue concerning the meaning of essence, etc.  

* Original sin puts the breaks on “democratic reasoning.” “Democracy finds it difficult ever to say that man is wrong if he does things in large majorities” (44).

* Liberal education is designed to make free men.  It cultivates virtue and such virtue is “assimilated and grows into character through exercise, which means freedom of action in a world in which not all things are good” (198-199).

Key Insights

The technocracy (ruled today by the cult of Experts) makes it hard to be a person.   “Man is an organism, not a mechanism; and the mechanical pacing of his life does harm to his human responses, which naturally follow a kind of free rhythm” (75).

* “To divinize an institution is to make it eventually an idol, and an idol always demands tribute” (153).

* “Wisdom is never taught directly; indoctrination often backfires; propaganda ends by drawing contempt upon itself” (227).

* “Future teaches got trained not in what they were going to teach, but in how they should teach it, and that, I repeat, is a very limited curriculum” (223).

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