Remembering Richard M. Weaver (March 3, 1910–April 1, 1963)Greg Johnson
America wasn’t always a liberal country. The founders drew more upon classical republicanism than liberalism. In the nineteenth century, the populist movement was decidedly anti-liberal. But the founders and the populists were never consistently anti-liberal, because consistency is the province of intellectuals, not statesmen.
America never had a genuinely anti-liberal intellectual movement until the Southern Agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s. (The North American New Right is America’s second anti-liberal intellectual movement.)
Richard M. Weaver has been called “the owl of Minerva of Southern Agrarianism,” meaning that he arrived at the dusk of Agrarianism — but because of that, he was able to comprehend the meaning of their movement more deeply in intellectual terms.
Born in a middle-class Southern family in Asheville, North Carolina, Weaver took a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky. He then earned a master’s from Vanderbilt, where Agrarian John Crowe Ransom supervised his thesis. After teaching for a few years at Auburn and Texas A&M, Weaver pursued his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University, while Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and Eric Voegelin were among the faculty. His doctoral dissertation, The Confederate South, 1865-1910: A Study in the Survival of a Mind and a Culture, was written under Brooks.
After receiving his doctorate, Weaver taught for a year at North Carolina State, then landed a position in the English department at the University of Chicago, where he excelled as a teacher and writer until his death of a stroke at the age of 53.
A socialist in his youth, Weaver became a Southern Agrarian while doing his master’s degree under John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt, and from that point on, he was an openly conservative intellectual critic of modernity. Weaver was more of a rhetorician than a philosopher. He was a critic of rationalistic approaches to politics and a defender of the wisdom embodied in evolved traditions.
Weaver’s first book, Ideas Have Consequences (1948), is an account of the decline of the West that invites comparisons to Giambattista Vico, Oswald Spengler, René Guénon, Julius Evola, and Martin Heidegger. Weaver’s second book, The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953) deals with the social and political implications of rhetoric from Plato to the modern social sciences. Weaver also published a college textbook, Rhetoric and Composition (1957). His final book, Visions of Order (1964), was published posthumously, as was his doctoral dissertation, which appeared under the title The Southern Tradition at Bay (1968).
Weaver was a prolific essayist. After his death, his essays were reprinted in a number of anthologies: Life without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965), Language is Sermonic: R. M. Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric (1970), The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (1987), and In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver (2001).
Weaver’s writings had an immense influence on post-war American conservatism. He was praised by such figures as Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Willmoore Kendall, and Frank Meyer. But American conservatism was never very intellectual — or very conservative, for that matter — and with the neoconservative takeover of the American Right, Weaver’s books are still name-dropped, but his ideas have ceased to have any mainstream consequences, which is a grave injustice.
To rectify that, I wish to recommend Richard M. Weaver — and the Southern Agrarians more broadly — to the New Right. Thus I am adding Weaver to the roster of thinkers whom we commemorate each year, and I am inaugurating that new tradition with a symposium on Weaver’s thought, featuring essays by Quintilian, Alex Graham, James O’Meara, Spencer Quinn, and Morris V. de Camp. We hope that with each passing year, we will add new articles and reviews to this roster as Weaver’s ideas work their consequences on a new and far more receptive audience.
- Jef Costello, “A Southerner Comes Home: My Escape from New York.”
- Morris V. de Camp, “Dixie Musings: The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver.”
- Alex Graham, “Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric.”
- James J. O’Meara, “Richard Weaver’s Ideas and their Consequences.”
- Spencer Quinn, “Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay.”
- Quintilian, “Searching for Transcendentals & True Knowledge: The Enduring Legacy of Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences.”
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