The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 17, 2014

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Rediscovering the Heroic Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver (Part I)
James Patrick Dimock (MA 47:4, Fall 2005) - 11/03/08

Post-war America, and indeed the post-war world as a whole, witnessed one of the most prolific periods of social and political philosophy since the Enlightenment. Dramatic social, political, and economic change transformed a generation and demanded a philosophical framework which made that change intelligible. One of the most influential of these movements was the “new conservatism” which began with Peter Viereck’s Conservatism Revisited (1949) and Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke (1951), and his magisterial The Conservative Mind (1953).

One of the most significant and eloquent voices of the new conservatism was Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963). Often identified as being on the fringe of the new conservatism, Weaver is counted among the “Southern Agrarians” (along with Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom), sympathetic to the new conservatism but removed in his rejection of Edmund Burke as the founding father of conservative philosophy. According to Viereck, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) dates the “birth of a deliberate international conservatism . . . in the same way that the birth of international Marxism is dated by the Communist Manifesto.1Russell Kirk declared that “the true conservative is a disciple of Burke”; hence, to be a conservative was to be a Burkean.2

In The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), however, Weaver not only rejected Burke as the source of true conservatism but also derided him as a liberal and contended that, “a man’s method of argument is a truer index in his beliefs than his explicit profession of principles,” and that although Burke may be “widely respected as a conservative” he suffered from an addiction to the argument from circumstance, a mode “philosophically appropriate to the liberal.”3If the rejection of Burke was surprising, however, it paled in comparison with Weaver’s apparent praise of Abraham Lincoln as the ideal conservative, a choice bound to alienate Weaver from the Southern Agrarians as well as the new conservatives.

This has been the standard treatment of Weaver and of Weaver’s Ethics for more than a half century. It is also a misinterpretation which has inappropriately narrowed contemporary understanding of Weaver and the originality and significance of his thought. What follows is a re-reading of Weaver’s work. A closer reading of the Ethics reveals a much more complex argument than has been realized, and a more complex understanding of Weaver’s rhetorical and political philosophy. While Burke remains, for Weaver, the paradigmatic liberal, it is not, nor was it ever, Lincoln who epitomized the conservative but rather the heretofore forgotten John Milton.

A longstanding and widely, if not universally, held assumption is not easy to refute, nor should it be. The editors of Modern Age, appreciating the complexity of the argument which is developed herein, have consented to publish this paper in two successive parts. Part one addresses the Burke-Lincoln dichotomy by arguing that a careful reading of the Ethics, especially when read in the light of Weaver’s other writings, does not support that view. Rather, Weaver developed a tripartite ethical system characterized by the rhetorics of Burke, Lincoln, and Milton. Part two revisits Weaver’s ethical, rhetorical, and political philosophy in this light. Positioning Milton as the central figure in Weaver’s thought not only has significant impact on how Weaver is understood but also raises serious questions and criticisms with which contemporary conservatives have yet to grapple.


The Case Against Lincoln

The standard treatment of Weaver begins with his categories of argument, a structure he developed in a series of writings including the article “Looking for an Argument” and the essays “Language is Sermonic” and “Responsible Rhetoric,” although the fullest treatment is in his composition handbook, Rhetoric and Composition (1967). It is in the Ethics, however, that this typology of argument is first developed, and while his system has several gradations, Weaver consistently argued that the highest and most ethical form of argumentation was grounded in definition, or genus, an argument from “the nature of a thing” or its “fixed class,”4while the lowest and least ethical form of argument was grounded in circumstance, “the nearest of all arguments to purest expediency” which “attempts only an estimate of current conditions or pressures.”5The argument from genus, Weaver argued further, is the mode most appropriate to the conservative, while the latter mode is indicative of the liberal.

Weaver, typical of his “unorthodox defense of orthodoxy,”6refused to “conform to any faction for the sake of popularity.” Underscoring an “impartiality that does not spare his friends,”7he elected to use Abraham Lincoln as the model of the argument from genus and Edmund Burke as the epitome of the liberal mode based on circumstance. Consequently, many concluded that Weaver believed Lincoln to be a true conservative and praised him for his rhetoric and his philosophy.

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