The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 06, 2015

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How to Read Richard Weaver: Philosopher of "We the (Virtuous) People"
(IR 2:1, September 1965) - 06/27/08

h) Who are, who are not, in one sense or another, darlings of the Liberal Establishment, invited to appear on its television programs, called to lecture far and wide at its universities, reviewed in its newspapers and magazines, privileged to debate with its major spokesmen in its vast auditoriums? The Liberals, who know a thing or two about the business they are in, have a “little list” of their favorite conservatives and, of course, their “little list” of conservatives whom they would not touch with a ten-foot pole, (Also, presumably, their well-pondered though of course secret criteria for choosing the former, at which we can only guess: X, though he does make those Conservative noises, really agrees with us on the fundamentals, in the long run means us no harm, is, therefore, a man we can do business with? Y, though he too makes Conservative noises, is so out of touch with reality that we can make mincemeat of him? Z, though indeed a Conservative, says such silly things that he in fact forwards ourcause? And old A, though he does write those savage attackson our foreign policy in National Review, is he, down deep in hisheart really any more eager than we to force a showdown with the USSR? Is he not, therefore, really one of us?) Here Weaver is perhaps less lonely on his side of the line than in the previous cases(one thinks at onceof Frank Meyer, of Brent Bozell, of yet others of the high-priests); What is certain, and a further proof that Weaver was indeed a“real” American Conservative, is that the Liberal Establishment avoided him like the plague because he was clearly out to do ’em in the eye.

I conclude: Richard Weaver’s “uniqueness” lies in part in the fact that he, and he alone, falls on the (for me) “right” side, from the standpoint of true American Conservatism, of each of the lines I have drawn. But it is a matter, mainly and far more importantly, of the unique manner in which he has performed, in Visions of Order, aunique task.


“We the people,” according to our basic constitutional theory, “ordain and establish” the Constitution for certain purposes: among others, to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. In doing so, that is, in the act of writing and ratifying the Constitution, “we” constitute ourselves a“people” (which we may or may not have been prior to the writing and ratification). And, by speaking of “our” posterity declare our intention to remain a “people,” with such and such “machinery” of government, to which “we” assign certain coercive functions, the necessity of whose performance “we” assert by assigning them to the government, to which, however, we do not assign certain other functions, not necessarily less necessary in our minds, and not necessarily less coercive, which “we” tacitly declare “our” intention to perform “ourselves,” i.e, in “our” capacity as a “people” (e.g., providing for the education of the young, building and supporting churches, growing “our” food, making arrangements for “our” transportation—all of which, and many others, we might have assigned to “our” government but did not). “We” also indicate, by the purposes “we” in the act of constituting ourselves a “people” choose to emphasize over and above the two-so-to-speak clearly indispensable ones (providing for our defense, maintaining the civil peace) what kind of “people” we think of ourselves as being and intend to keep on being, i.e.a“people” dedicated to “justice,” the “common good,” and “liberty,” and dedicated to these goods with respect both to the functions “we” assign to “our” government and the functions “we” propose to perform in “our” capacity as a “people.” If there is, at the time, any question in “our” minds as to whether we will in fact remain that kind of people, any thought in “our” minds as to who is to see toit that “we” do remain that kind of people,29 “we” in constituting ourselves say nothing about it, unless by implication this: seeing to it that we remain a people dedicated to justice, the common good, and liberty, is not one of the functions that “we” assign to “our” government. If there be a problem here, “we” do not face it head-on.

Let the reader hold all that still, and let us approach the matter along another path. In the course of ratifying “our” Constitution, “we, the people” tacitly adopt a book, directed to us precisely in ourcapacity as a“people,” entitled The Federalist. That book—so we are assured by our major contemporary authority on its contents—30 “interprets” the Constitution for us, and spells out certain rules and principles, not explicit in the Constitution, the observance of which, according to the book’s author Publius, will help “us”31 to see to it that no “branch” of our government shall monopolize the functions “we” have assigned to the government, and divided among three “branches.” The Federalist does not, however, concern itself exclusively with problems of government, that is, with the kind of governmentwe are going to have. Publius knows only too well that the problem of actually doing justice, promoting the common good, and insuring the blessings of liberty cannot be solved on the governmental “level”; that, in a word, it depends somehow on the kind of “people,” or “society” we are going to be; and Federalist 10 does raise, however obliquely, the question to which I have led up in the preceding paragraph, and has something—not much, but something—to say by way of an answer to the question. “We, thepeople” must add to the three optional purposes we have noted above a fourth, namely, the prevention of “tyranny,” by which Publius means the use of government, by a majority of “we, the people,” for effectuating measures “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” “Our” machinery of government, Publius sees, issubject to capture by a popular majority, and does, for all its built-in guarantees against tyranny, lend itself, once captured, to the uses of tyranny (as he has defined it). The solution, if one there be, must be sought “out there” among “we, the people,” in society, in, as I put it a moment ago, the “kind” of “people” we are going to be.

Publius is, however, strangely stingy with his recommendations (“we” must be a “people” spread over a large territory, “we” must be a “people” characterized by diversity), and strangely reluctant to open up, really open up, the problem he is skirting the edges of. I say “strangely” because he shows, in many a scattered passage, that he knows the shape at least of the correct answer to the problem: The machinery of government will help; diversity will help; spreading the “people” over a large territory will help; but in the end nothing will prevent tyranny, since the machinery of government is open to capture by a popular majority, except that “we, the people” shall be virtuous, that is, to go no further, dedicated in our hearts to justice, to the common good, to liberty, and to the prevention (the renunciation on “our” own part) of tyrannical measures; that is, which brings us back to where we were at the end of the preceding paragraph, a certain kind of “people.” The question, however, and for whatever reasons Publius chooses to ignore it, cries up at you throughout the argument of The Federalist: if all depends ultimately on the virtue of the “people,” how—unless weareto take it for granted that that will just take care of itself—are the “people” to be kept “virtuous”? And this, translated into the language of our basic constitutional theory, becomes the question “[h]ow are ‘we, the people’ to keep ‘ourselves’ virtuous?” Bref: There is a “missing section” of The Federalist, in which that question, the question as to how “we the people” shall order “ourselves” so as to remain virtuous, and become ever more virtuous. Worse still: “we, the people” have been only too ready to conclude, from the fact that Publius left out the section in which he might have discussed the ordering of society, of “we, the people” qua“virtuous people,” that no such section was needed, and, even the best of us, to focus our thinking on the range of problems to which Publius did address himself.32

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