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IC's Top 25 Philosophical and Ideological Conservative Books
No. 21 - Richard Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences
by Dr. Enrico Peppe
7 January 2004

This is a book about the dissolution of the West, and the culprit is the mass mind, gnosticism, or socialism.

Weaver was born in western North Carolina in 1910. In 1932, he graduated with a major in English from the University of Kentucky. He became a socialist. In short time, he left the movement, finding his comrades "dry, insistent people of shallow objectives."

Weaver went to Vanderbilt University as a graduate student in English. In addition to others, he came under the profound influence of John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate -- the famed Agrarians -- who had shortly before published the anthology, "I'll Take My Stand." These
great conservative thinkers, with strong statements in defense of Christianity, Jeffersonian government, rural ethos, and Southern civility, had begun the political movement against modernism.
Economics, sociology and theology would never be the same.

Weaver experienced gestalt. In his autobiographical piece, "Up From Liberalism," Weaver states: "I liked them all as persons. They were humane, more generous, and considerably less dogmatic than those with whom I had been associated under the opposing banner."

With master's degree in hand, he paid his dues as an English instructor at Alabama Polytechnic Institute and Texas A&M University. Then came more gestalt: "I recall very sharply how, in the autumn of 1939, as I was driving one afternoon across the monotonous prairies of Texas, it came to me as a revelation that
I did not have to go on professing the cliches of liberalism."

Weaver continued his advanced education as a doctoral student at Louisiana State University where former Vanderbilt agrarians Cleanth Brooks and Warren now taught.The excellence of his dissertation, "The Confederate South, 1865-1910: A Study in the Survival of a Mind and Culture," secured for him a post as a
composition and rhetoric instructor at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death at the age of 53.

Whereas Strauss and Voegelin, for instance, were single issue political philosophers, Weaver's intellectual bent was decidedly eclectic. He was sociologist and historian, ("The Southern Tradition at Bay," 1968), psychologist, ("Life Without Prejudice," 1965), Christian realist, ("Visions of Order," 1964), literary critic and
Phaedrusian scholar, ("The Ethics of Rhetoric," 1953), and educator, ("Composition: A Course in Writing and Rhetoric," 1957).

The above-mentioned elements, so mixed in the remarkable mind of Richard Weaver, are found in "Ideas have Consequences," a work easily read as a traditionalist manifesto, a tract on distributist
economics, a completion of the thoughts of the Agrarians, a libertarian defense of private property and as one of the best indictments of the leftist weltanschauung.

The book is not easily summarized. It is first and foremost a book about the dissolution of the west. As in Ortega, the culprit is the mass mind. As in Voegelin, the culprit is gnosticism. As in Mises,
socialism. There is more.

And the prose exudes a wonderful anger. Not the defensive anger of the street-fighter. Rather, the stuff of muses: Calliope is present. Clio, Erato and Melpomene weigh in.

Joe Scotchie reports Weaver writing to mentor Donald Davidson that his book was written in "words as hard as cannonballs."

An example from Weaver as an incensed custodian of western verities,

"No less than his ancestors, (modern) man finds himself up against toil and trouble. Since this was not nominated in the bond, he suspects evildoers and takes the childish course of blaming individuals for things inseparable from the human condition. The truth is that he has never been brought to see what it means to be a man. That man is a product of discipline and forging, that he really owes his thanks for the pulling and tugging that enable him to grow --- this citizen is now the child of indulgent parents who pamper his appetites and inflate his egotism until he is unfitted for struggle of any kind."

With statements replete like the example cited above, Weaver's book became the fons et origo of the modern conservative movement.

Weaver's argument is in classical deductive mode --- not in analogy.The approach takes on a Sinatra-like glissando -- a deduction beginning with a priori considerations that somehow slide downward, but not straight down. The slide picks up all kinds of
deficiencies of the modern mind-set.

The philosophy of the nominalism of William of Occam (14th century) abandons the values of universals. Man becomes the measure of all things. Truth is denied. The theology of original sin is abandoned. The downward slide, like lava from a hill, enfolds the
heresies found in relativism, rationalism, materialism and scientism.

Nash captures the theme,

"After establishing his historical perspective on the decadent modern world, Weaver concentrated on the maladies of the...West...he insisted that civilization must be based on vision, principle, hierarchy, structure, distance, and restraint... Civilization faced rampant equalitarianism and the cult of the mass...empiricism and specialization were producing egotistic movements: jazz, impressionistic art and 'spoiled-child psychology' (for example)."

He offered proposals. First, we must defend "the distributive ownership of small properties." Next, we must rescue language from the general semanticists; language represents a value-laden power. We must respect words as things, not as sensation-symbols.
Finally Weaver demands piety toward nature, toward man, toward the past.

Weaver's legacy is perplexing. Over 50 years have passed since the publication of "Ideas have Consequences," and typification of his place in the philosophical history of conservatism is still problematic (albeit fascinating). Today, one can make a case of sorts for Weaver's elan as fodder for three strains of conservatism,

1. The movement of the Vanderbilt agrarians;
2. The movement of the post WWII
3. The movement of the Old Right

League of the South member and excellent political analyst Joe Scotchie feels Weaver's worth is his adherence to the twin movements of Southern Agrarianism and Traditionalism. Scotchie says,

"Weaver saw four distinguishing characteristics of the Old South: The code of chivalry, the education of the gentleman, the feudal system, and the older religiousness...The code of chivalry was very
important...to Weaver...the older relgiousness...was devoid of the skepticism towards Christianity then emerging in both New England and Europe...(the) education of the gentleman avoided specialization, but offered a classical curriculum...(in preparation
for)...stewardship in times of peace and war."

As early traditionalist, Scotchie points out that Weaver fostered the notion that values should be passed on from generation to generation. "Weaver opposed New Deal statism...but had no use for a libertarianism that rejected distinctions of age, gender, and class...Still a tenuous coalition between traditionalists and libertarians was attempted, mainly from..."Ideas Have Consequences."

With equally excellent brilliance, Mises Institute Scholar Joseph R.Stromberg strongly suggests that Weaver's work and enduring legacy might be that in his body of thought, the supposed conflict between tradition and the free-market was "wildly exaggerated." He calls Weaver a contributor to the philosophy of "libertarian conservatism."

Weaver's bent toward libertarianism is best seen, in part, Stromberg says, by examining Weaver's views on militarism and war. Stromberg, on Weaver's distrust of specialization (and the resultant atomic bomb) says,

"Weaver speculates that if the specialists had 'known that their efforts were being directed to the slaughter of noncombatants on a scale never before contemplated, or to a perfection of brutality...(a
few)...might have refused complicity. Perhaps (these few) would have had some concept of war as an institution which forbids aimless killing.' (Mostly) Weaver believed they would have taken the same attitude as those scientists who loyally served
the Third Reich."

On Militarism (Stromberg on Weaver),

"...wars had formerly been part of civilization, that is, they had been conducted on the basis of commonly understood rules for limited ends. The ability of the French Revolution to field massive armies on the basis of conscription helped destroy the old rules of war. A major turning point was the way in which the United
States (North) conducted its war against Southern secession...World War I enlarged the criminal remodeling of warfare...World War II...'reduced the word, noncombatant, almost to meaninglessness.'

When asked to define poetry, John Ciardi responded that a poem just "is." Weaver must be understood in the same way. He is, indeed, an Agrarian spokesman, a traditionalist conservative, and an early libertarian.

And he is neither fully the above. His agrarianism has a suburban flavor; his traditionalism, none of the parochialism of Kirk; his libertarianism, no latent anarchy.

The reviewer feels that Weaver's unique worth lies in his views on economics and education.

As a result of the tremendous impact Buckley's "God and Man at Yale" had on modern conservative thinking, it has been commonly assumed by the faithful and the leftist critics as well that the values of Christianity and the free marketplace should be synonymous. Weaver, (influenced by Chesterton, Belloc, and the Agrarians)
thought this not true. Garry Wills points out correctly that, in modern conservatism, there is a traditionalist strain that propounds the position of distributism.

In Kenneth Hoover's fine book on "Ideology and Political Life," the point is made:

"The conflict between money and principle was not resolved by Burke, nor was it by traditional conservatives generally...The idea (distributism) is that property should be widely distributed so as to
maximize the number of people who have a stake in the preservation of an orderly society. Whereas radicals have favored this principle as a key to equality, some conservatives see it as a way of encouraging widespread affiliation with the organized
institutional life of the community."

Weaver, when discussing economics, was clearly in the Right Wing Populist tradition.

Weaver was one of the very first conservative educators to take on John Dewey's experimentalist nonsense. Developed briefly in the book under review and expanded in later writings, he rails against the Education-for-Life Adjustment school. He looked upon this leftist-tinged approach as trivial and superficial. He saw in it no depth of understanding, a dearth of intellectuality, and little (or no) concern for the transmission of the well-tested ideas and sacred traditions of the past.

A brilliant statement by Weaver in "Ideas." In reference to the Life-Adjustment teachers or as he terms it, "the teachers of the present,"

"If one examines the strikingly different significations given to 'democracy' and 'freedom,' (one)...is forced to realize how far we are from that basis of understanding which is prerequisite to the
healing of the world. What has happened to the world of meaning? Teachers of the present order have not enough courage to be definers..."

Unlike, as with Strauss and Voegelin, cult-like milieux never surrounded Weaver.

It's a good thing.

This is the fourth of 25 books Dr. Peppe will be reviewing as part of the top 25 conservative books on political philosophy and ideology. Seminal books such as "The Federalist Papers" and "The Wealth of Nations" are not included in this list because they are already on most lists of the top books. Click here for the rest of IC's top 25 books.

Dr. Enrico Peppe is a retired educator who runs the website The Third Way. A widower with too much time on his hands, he spends most of his time reading and thinking about the conservative movement, studying Catholic theology, working on his "Third Way" website, listening to Sinatra and Miles Davis, and admiring Ann Coulter.

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