- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2010


By Richard M. Weaver Jr.

University of Chicago Press

$14, 284 pages


“The past shows unvaryingly that when a people’s freedom disappears, it goes not with a bang, but in silence amid the comfort of being cared for. That is the dire peril in the present trend toward statism.” These words were uttered not at the Conservative Political Action Conference within the past month, but nearly a half century ago by a quiet, bespectacled professor at the University of Chicago. March 3 marked the centenary of this man, Richard M. Weaver Jr. (1910-1963), a person of prescient thought and high achievement.

Born in novelist Thomas Wolfe’s hometown of Ashville, N.C., Weaver rose from humble beginnings to become respected as one of the most eloquent spokesmen for traditionalist conservatism in the United States during the decades immediately following World War II, an era when the very term “conservative” was widely deemed a term of dishonor - something akin to “throwback” or “reactionary” or “McCarthyite.” (Come to think of it, when it comes to dismissive name-calling, perhaps times haven’t changed terribly much.)

The conservative movement’s salad days are long past; and whatever the failings of the modern right in terms of overreach, strutting triumphalism and the fudging of conservative principles during the years since Ronald Reagan left the White House, traditionalist conservatism - a philosophy of life that focuses upon norms, character and the spiritual nature of man - offers a refreshing alternative to the bare-knuckle, politically obsessed culture of the present day.

The traditionalists - Weaver, Russell Kirk, John Hallowell and others among them - have much to remind the American people about the roots of ordered freedom in America, the virtuous life and the permanent things. Weaver’s friend Russell Kirk, author of “The Conservative Mind,” described the essence of traditionalist conservatism as the “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity” and declared that the modern conservative “is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character - with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.”

In short, to the traditionalist conservative, politics and the wielding of power aren’t everything.

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, has ably noted that Mr. Weaver’s core belief “revolved around the recognition that ‘man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things.’… Richard Weaver was eloquent in warning about the disastrous results of Prometheanism, of attempting to subjugate the world to our will.”

Just so; and if conservatism’s diagnosis of modernity - as a dangerous blend of rootlessness, contempt for history, a “spoiled-child psychology” of unlimited entitlement, and unblinking faith in the power of technology and slogan-driven politics to solve all the ills to which human flesh is heir - is valid, much of the credit belongs to Weaver, claimed independent scholar John Attarian in 1998.

Mr. Attarian wrote that the distinguished North Carolinian “produced searching explorations of the nature of reality, rhetoric, culture, and modernity. His “Ideas Have Consequences” (1948), justly celebrated for tracing patterns of cause and effect running from worldview to conduct, remains after half a century one of conservatism’s most important and seminal works.”

In addition to the influential “Ideas Have Consequences,” Weaver is remembered today for two other books: “The Ethics of Rhetoric,” an extended argument for viewing language as a vehicle of truth and orientation, rather than the speaker’s state of mind; and the posthumously published “Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time,” a somewhat hard-slogging restatement of the ideas presented in his two previous books.

Paging through Weaver’s shorter writings, the reader is struck by how his words resonate, as if they were written not 50 years ago or more, but just yesterday. In 1962, for example, addressing the Young Americans for Freedom at an event in Madison Square Garden, Weaver said:

“It is our traditional belief that man was given liberty to ennoble him. We may infer that those who would take his liberty away have the opposite purpose of degrading him. Too much is being said today about the dignity of man without realization that the dignity of man means the worth of man. There can be no worth of man unless there is an inviolable area of freedom in which he can assume the stature of a man and exercise choice in regard to his work, his associates, his use of his earnings, his way of life. Little by little this area has been traded away in return for plausible gifts and subventions, urged on by slogans. Now we are at a point where regimentation, which used to be suggested with apologies, comes couched in the language of prerogative.”

Few Americans of today, concerned with federal encroachments upon the life of the average citizen, could state this cautionary thought with such clarity and eloquence.

Weaver was concerned deeply about the health of American culture and what makes for a virtuous society. Forty-five years ago an admirer, conservative theorist Willmoore Kendall, vividly summarized Mr. Weaver’s discursive beliefs on the matter, writing that a healthy American culture “must keep alive within itself, and develop in the people, ‘historical memory,’ i.e., knowledge of their own traditions - lest in ignorance of them, they forget, like madmen, what and who they are.”

A legacy of order, freedom and justice should not lightly be cast aside, but all too many Americans today seem to have embraced a belief that we as a people have evolved beyond such backward concept as freedom and dignity. To them, Weaver warned, “If freedom is not found accompanied by a willingness to resist, and to reject favors, rather than to give up what is intangible but precarious, it will not long be found at all.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books) and a longtime book reviewer.

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