Richard Weaver and Contemporary Society
An Introduction to His Thought
Introduction to the Author
Richard M. Weaver was born in western North Carolina in the town of Weaverville. The son of merchants, the family soon moved to Lexington, Kentucky where they opened a clothing store and where Mr. Weaver would receive his collegiate education at the University of Kentucky. However, likely the most important part of his intellectual life would be his time spent at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was here at Vanderbilt where he would first come into contact with a group of writers, poets, and thinkers colloquially known as the “Southern Agrarians”. These men, most well-known for their work I’ll Take My Stand, were the collaters of a school of thought which was distrusting of the modernist philosophical changes then overwhelming the United States.1 Studying under John Crowe Ransom had a permanent effect on the arc of his future career, first at Texas A&M, and following completion of his Ph.D. at the Louisiana State University, finally at the University of Chicago where he would serve as professor until his early death in 1964.2
A World of Order
The two books we will look at in this paper represent the earliest book-length testimony of Richard Weaver’s philosophy and the last prepared work for publication at the end of his life. The first is a reorganization of his Ph.D. thesis and examines the world of the post-bellum South and notes particular changes in life and letters resulting from the American Civil War.3 The latter book takes a larger, more principled focus, as to the reasons why the American people find themselves in the malaise and uncertainty of another post-war period, this being the culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s.4 In both of the works under consideration a consistent theme of Weaver’s is of the need for a mutually understood and agreed upon plan for the relations between individuals: whether men or women, rich or poor, city or rural.5 Before a politician or cultural leader may provide answers they need to have a homogeneous understanding of social order where solutions can be applied. A large part of the problem Weaver writes about, especially in Visions of Order is that neither Left nor Right exist in the same cultural space. He will entertain the thesis that society has no hope for spiritual6 or civil harmony outside of all peoples knowing their place.7 Now, it needs to be noted from the outset that Weaver’s structured world is not one of hierarchical rigidity or an exclusive caste system based upon inborn traits like skin color, ethnicity, or from which side of the tracks one may hail.8 This worldview is, however, one founded upon an ideal outside the democratic social contract of Rousseau and the rationalism of John Locke, something much deeper and idiosyncratic to the human soul.9
The War as Clarifier
As Weaver describes the post-war situation in the South he never falls into the always ready trap of hagiography and vindication, while at the same time writing with a clear-eyed understanding that to the victors go the spoils, and most importantly the history.10 This allows Weaver to explain the civilizational effects of the Civil War in a way that leaves the reader with little doubt as to the real losers of the conflagration, society as a whole. He ably describes the situation as the French Revolution come to America 70 years late. There is an old saying about America sneezing and Europe catching a cold, Weaver would likely say that when France fell to the fever of democracy at the storming of the Bastille it took until 1865 for the South to succumb to the disease itself whereas the North had long since been given over to populism. In his later work Visions of Order he notes this explicitly saying:
“This truth became evident following the Civil War, when many Southern men turned over the struggle even to make a living to their more valiant mates and lived idle and pointless lives, while the political power they had once wielded was seized by the poor white leaders and the demagogues.”11
Weaver also spends much time in both books making sharp distinctions between Southern and Northern cultures. He does so primarily not because these principles are regionally based, but because he clearly understands them to be good foils for his larger project of making it clear that Progressivism (where the North sits intellectually) and Conservatism (the South) are not just political, but have serious connotations for our cultural future. One of the more interesting aspects of post-war Southern culture that Weaver brings forward was/is the role of women in society. Both out of necessity12 and design the Post-Bellum world became a matriarchy.13 Any minister who has served a church in the South can testify that every congregation has its older lady who all look to for guidance and would not dare move the slightest chair without her implicit or explicit approval. To a large measure this comes from the place women gained as a result of the new order of culture in an era that lost its leading men to bloodshed. Weaver does not assign any kind of moral or sociological effect pro or con to this reality. It just is. However, it does do much to explain how the post-war South was able to be controlled by both marauding Freedman Bureaus and Klansmen. Similarly Weaver points to the loss of intellectual and moral capital during the Second World War as to a similar appearance of the pronounced loss of order which is overwhelming the States during the time of Visions of Order.
The Place of Man and Culture
This leads to a key part of Weaver’s argument in both books: no man is alien to his own culture. In other words regardless of the land of his birth or his personal creed where someone is from matters. He makes a historical argument noting the rise of the Nationalist Hero of the 20th Century were those who were not “natives” in a strict sense (France was a Gallego, Hitler an Austrian, Stalin a Georgian), yet they embodied the soul of the nation they led.14 Another way Weaver makes this point is by noting:
“Not only the character, but also the degree of a culture is responsive to the prevailing image of a man. For what man tells himself he is manifests itself soon enough in what he does and may even predetermine what he can do.”15
As can be seen this desire to understand the lives of societies as being formed not primarily from the accidental world events intruding on the culture, but from the soil in which they grew goes a long way in explaining Weaver’s focus on the formal process of both real-world training and education. To put it in terms of the contemporary 21st Century church if the body of Christ is not grounded, not only in the obvious things like the Word of God, creedal/historic Christian doctrine, etc… but in an ecclesiastical culture which does not value the “old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and the boundary markers (Prov. 22:28, 1 Kings 21) placed there for the benefit of the wider family of God than can there be any surprise that Judges 21:25 and Romans 1:21-23 are the controlling verses of a people who have thrown off the yoke of Christ and His Bride? Weaver shows convincingly in his work that this same need for grounded liberty applies both to church and state.
Towards the end of his examination of the post-war South Weaver brings to bear a summary of the views of University of Virginia President Edwin Alderman. He notes, “Like Thomas Dixon, Alderman held the view that Southern conservatism and pride of locality, plus a pure attitude toward government, might prove in some future crisis the salvation of the country.”16 As we have seen through these two particular works by Richard Weaver the kind of conflagration that President Alderman feared has come to pass in the disintegration of both the culture and the church. The question that must be asked is if the kind of localism and traditional conservatism promoted by Weaver is the answer to the travails of our time? Are things too far gone to rely upon an ideology which requires such intentionality about it to be understood as an actual workable solution? In his mature book on the cultural crisis Weaver would answer it in this way:
“When we turn to the other view [Weaver’s], we find that it is made up predominately of persons who are concerned with the nature of man and the problem of value. They are people with definite ideas of right and wrong, possessing the faculty of taste and consciences, which can be offended. If they are conservative, it is because they have learned the maxim that ‘The good is hard’. . . Another way of understanding this conflict of opinion is to recognize that the ‘optimists’ have the current rhetoric on their side even while the pessimists’ have the proof.”17
Rhetoric is only good enough for debate halls and television. At the end of the day the orator has to return home and put his words into action, As Charles Murray makes clear in his seminal work Coming Apart the people of Belmont may speak of personal freedom, liberalism, and excess, but they live lives which show forth order and responsibility, whereas the residents of Fishtown speak of conservatism, yet are more likely to live in the reality of broken homes, facing the consequences of that “freedom” the Belmontians revel in.18 Weaver’s work is a necessary part of putting the principles of conservatism into the right practices which will enable society to gain that which they seek, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
1 Ralph E. Ancil, “Southern Agrarians”, www.firstprinciplesjournal.com, http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=832, (Accessed, August 29, 2018).
2 Richard M. Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989) 7-9
3 Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay, 1
4 Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1995) xiv
6 Ibid., 9
7 Ibid., 5
8 Ibid., 25
9 Ibid, viii
10 Weaver, The Southern Tradition, 372.
11 Weaver, Visions of Order, 31
12 The death of 300,000+ men creates an obvious imbalance in the equilibrium.
13 Weaver, The Southern Tradition, 218
14 Weaver, Visions of Order, 7
15 Ibid., 134
16 Weaver, The Southern Tradition, 365
17 Weaver, Visions of Order, 5
18Charles Murray Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012) 253