Scotchie, Joseph. Barbarians in the Saddle: An Intellectual Biography of Richard M. Weaver. Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, NJ, 1997.
There aren’t many biographies of that late agrarian man of letters, Richard M. Weaver. While this isn’t a traditional intellectual biography (and so the title is misleading), it is a fine survey of Weaver’s thought. It ends by examining the evolution of late 20th century American conservatism.
Weaver saw the encroaching welfare state (which in its industrial form he terms “Megalopolis”) as a direct threat to the natural rhythms of man’s life. The Old South, on the other hand, provided Weaver with a foil against which to attack Megalopolis. For Weaver, the Old South was “an aristocracy of achievement” and the last nonmaterialist civilization. We will examine that claim at the end.
Strictly speaking, I think Weaver’s claim is a half-truth. On the other hand, it does provide him with a counter on how to live against such a technocracy that we face. Weaver wanted a society where “manners, morals, and codes of conduct mattered more than mere moneymaking” (Scotchie 17). The heart of this was aristocracy. Men aren’t equal in talent, intelligence, or strength. Some will always rise to the top. There are social distinctions (and even today’s democracy hasn’t fully erased them).
The aristocrat has the responsibility of maintaining the order in society while the yeoman is able to enjoy the stability. Of most importance, it was the Civil War that showed the dynamic relationship between aristocrat and yeoman: “the aristocrat and yeoman farmer lived, fought, and died together” (29). The yeoman didn’t scorn the leader in the field. He took pride “as a fighting man in Lee’s Army or riding with Old Jack. That the aristocrat was in the field, leading his charges into battle, only increased the yeoman’s respect for the idea of a hierarchy” (30).
Weaver’s most famous book was Ideas Have Consequences. The consequence he feared was that the total state might finish the job that total war started (43). This isn’t simply statism–any libertarian might make that critique. Rather, it is the totalization of industrial life that turns man into an abstraction (ever heard of “human resources”?).
Against this, Weaver sought to cultivate a humane rhetoric. This is a view that “presents us with a proper view of man and a pleasing vision of culture” (62). Rhetoric is a cultural cipher that allows us to see the “poetry, songs, religion and codes of conduct that shape” culture (64).
The ultimate opposite to Weaver’s vision of Agrarianism is not urbanism or even industrialism per se, but Gnosticism. The Gnostic cuts off man from any roots of place, tradition, memory–these three summarize Weaver’s vision of hierarchy and aristocracy. Such a society doesn’t have to become static, for as Weaver was fond of saying, “things are and are becoming” (131).
Was Weaver correct about the Old South? In some ways. Let’s leave slavery aside for the moment, for the question is not the morality of slavery, nor does it concern over what causes the war was fault. Weaver is asking, rather, did the South possess an aristocracy that embodied chivalry and an anti-materialist culture? I say yes to the first two claims and “kind of” to the last one.