Three on Weaver
Richard M. Weaver, 1910–1963: A Life of the Mind
The Vision of Richard Weaver
Barbarians in the Saddle: An Intellectual Biography of Richard M. Weaver
reviewed by Patrick Henry Reardon
Although there are dozens of published articles and reviews examining the life and thought of Richard Weaver, the three works here under review are, to the best of my knowledge, the only full-length books devoted entirely to this subject.
Two of them are biographical in outline, Young’s work and Scotchie’s Barbarians, but the subtitle of each indicates that the life being portrayed is chiefly that of Weaver’s intellect. Both of these works, nonetheless, follow generally the stages of his outward life, the facts of which are easily narrated: Weaver was born in North Carolina in 1910, spent his early years in Kentucky, and graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1932. In 1936 he received his M.A. from Vanderbilt University, where he had come under the important influence of the Southern Agrarians, though it was only some years later that that influence made itself explicitly felt in Weaver’s thought. For one year he taught English at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn), and then for three years at Texas A & M. From 1940 to 1943 he worked with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University, where he obtained his Ph.D. Then, for the next two decades until his sudden death in 1963, Weaver taught undergraduate English at the University of Chicago.
Until the Vanderbilt experience began to work its yeast on his understanding, the younger Weaver flirted with liberalism and socialism, his conversion from which he later described in his essay “Up From Liberalism.” From the Vanderbilt Agrarians, chiefly John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davies, Frank Owsley, and Kyle Lanier (as well as Allen Tate, who lived nearby), Weaver came to appreciate the massive cultural continuity that bound the Old South to feudal Europe of the Middle Ages, and thence back to the ancient agrarian cultures of Rome and Greece. A few years later his doctoral dissertation at Louisiana State was devoted to the study of Southern culture in the postbellum period up to 1910, the year of his own birth. Although no one showed interest in publishing it at the time, that dissertation was posthumously published as The Southern Tradition at Bay. It was his longest book. The study of Southern history, culture, and literature was to remain a dominant interest of Weaver’s until the very end, some of his later studies on the subject being gathered and published as The Southern Essays in 1987, almost a quarter-century after his death.
Cultural criticism was another preoccupation of Weaver’s, finding its major expression in Ideas Have Consequences, in 1948, and two other works published shortly after his death, Visions of Order and Life Without Prejudice. Weaver’s criticisms of modern technocratic culture, as shown in two articles printed in this edition of Touchstone, were based on his conviction that modern thought has been corroded by a lack of confidence in the existence and knowability of transcendent truth, a distrust begotten of late medieval nominalism. Weaver was an unashamed and militant Platonist.
Probably chief of his preoccupations, however, was the study and teaching of proper rhetoric, especially the grounding of the latter in the perception of transcendent forms and the principles of dialectics. In addition to his books on the subject (The Ethics of Rhetoric, Composition: A Course in Writing and Rhetoric, and Language is Sermonic), Weaver returned to some discussion of that same theme in nearly everything he wrote.
Relative to the two biographies here reviewed, let it be said that neither is adequate. Both likewise are destined for a very short life, one suspects, because of the vast amount of new material that will become available in the next few years, thanks to the research of Ted Smith III. Meanwhile, the better of these two biographies, hands down, is Young’s, which, though only slightly longer than Scotchie’s, provides a great deal more historical background and useful comment.
Barbarians in the Saddle, while easy to read, is, one regrets to say, a bit disappointing in some respects. First, Scotchie’s description of nominalism is terribly oversimplified, even to the point of being misleading: “Simply put, Western man gave up his belief in a Higher Being. . . .” No, that is not simply put; that is inaccurately put. The vast majority of Western men do believe in a Higher Being, but they are still nominalists and the sons of nominalists. Nominalism does not logically lead to atheism, and it is a clear fact of history that most of Ockham’s major disciples, such as Luther (who referred to Ockham habitually as Mein Meister Wilhelm), certainly believed in a Higher Being. Second, there are some small inaccuracies in Scotchie’s work, such as wrong dates for the founding of New Age and even the day of Weaver’s death (though these may be simple typographical errors, of which there are a few others, none of them so serious). Third, Scotchie was apparently unable to omit many sudden outbursts of his own political animus which, while perhaps not wrong, tended to annoy this reviewer and to distract from the subject of Weaver himself. Scotchie is strongest and best on the subject of Weaver’s treatment of the South.
Given how thorough and helpful is Young’s presentation of Weaver’s earlier works, one is distressed that the later works are not treated at the same high level of competence. After his section on Weaver’s great work on rhetoric, Young summarizes his last two decades of thought in a single, rather unsatisfactory chapter. Should one suspect here some restrictions imposed at the last minute by a publisher?
The last book reviewed here, The Vision of Richard Weaver, may turn out to be Scotchie’s major contribution to Weaverian studies, for he carefully brings together 14 important essays not otherwise easily available. Some of these appeared originally as introductions to Weaver’s works (such as Donald Davidson on The Southern Tradition at Bay), or reviews thereof (Allan Brownfeld on The Southern Essays), or thoughtful reactions thereto (Eliseo Vivas on Visions of Order), or commentaries on specific themes (such as Henry Regnery’s reflections on Weaver’s Southern Agrarianism). While these essays understandably range somewhat in quality, they are all useful for an adequate grasp of how Weaver has been read and perceived in the intellectual community over the past half-century. This volume is recommended without criticism.
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“Three on Weaver” first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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