The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Rediscovering the Heroic Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver (Part II)
James Patrick Dimock (MA 48:1, Winter 2006) - 11/03/08

In 1953, when Richard M. Weaver published The Ethics of Rhetoric, he advanced an argument with respect to the ideal conservative which has, since its original pronouncement and through the last half century, been misunderstood. The standard reading of Weaver has understood him, both in rhetorical theory and in political philosophy, as idealizing Abraham Lincoln while Weaver considered Edmund Burke, regarded by many as the father of conservatism, as the archetypal liberal.

The problem with this interpretation of Weaver’s work is the problem with contemporary political dialogue: the reduction to simple bi-polarity. The conservative sees his own position as right and all others as being wrong. Conversely, the liberal regards anyone who disagrees with his position as a conservative. Given his passionate insistence that ideas be taken seriously, it should not be surprising that Weaver rejected this simplistic scheme and warned against its dangers. He did not suggest a Lincoln/conservative-Burke/liberal dualism but rather that Lincoln and Burke were extremes to be avoided, while it is John Milton who, for Weaver, represents the ideal in conservative ethics and rhetoric.

A broad reading of Weaver’s other writings reveals an essentially hostile view of Lincoln; furthermore, a critical look at the examples Weaver used to demonstrate the terms upon which conservatism is possible71reveals that those examples express philosophical positions, such as the leveling of hierarchies, the elimination of distinctions, and a singular and unitary vision of human nature, which Weaver rejected throughout his writings.

Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, which Weaver analyzed in the first chapter of the Ethics, suggests an organizational pattern or scheme for the whole of the Ethics. Where Plato offered three types of lover—the non-lover, the evil lover, and the noble lover—Weaver offered three types of orator: the neutered speaker who argues from circumstance, the base speaker who argues from definition not dialectically sound, and the noble speaker who argues from sustained and dialectically secured definitions. Edmund Burke was, for Weaver, the liberal who positioned himself as the victim of circumstance. Lincoln was the collectivist who undermined individual distinction in favor of mass society and centralized power. John Milton, whose place in Weaver’s ethical, rhetorical, and political philosophy has yet to be truly understood, is the conservative and the ideal orator, and it is toward this final conclusion that the second part of this essay is primarily directed.

In their analysis of Weaver’s writing, Richard Johannesen, Rennard Strickland, and Ralph Eubanks criticized Weaver’s scholarship. With regard to Weaver’s treatment of Lincoln, they expressed their concern that Weaver had failed to “indicate whether he based his generalizations on a careful examination of the entire corpus of the martyred president’s oratory.”72They expressed a similar concern with respect to Weaver’s treatment of Burke. Weaver’s examples “failed to indicate whether his generalizations rested on a scrutiny of all Burke’s speeches, letters and essays.”73Although such criticism is superficial and fallacious, it would be difficult to raise even the suggestion that Weaver lacked familiarity with the work of Milton.

While it is well-known that Weaver completed his Ph.D. studies at Louisiana State University in 1943 and that his dissertation, posthumously published as The Southern Tradition at Bay (1968), was on the literature of the post-bellum South, Weaver’s graduate work often escapes notice. He finished a year of graduate study at the University of Kentucky (1932–33) but enrolled at Vanderbilt University in 1933, where he completed both his coursework and his master’s thesis, “The Revolt Against Humanism: A Study of the New Critical Temper,” under the direction of John Crowe Ransom in 1934. According to Ted J. Smith III, Weaver then spent the next two years at Vanderbilt “completing coursework and other preliminary requirements for the doctorate” and, in June 1936, he began “searching for a full–time teaching position to support him while he wrote his dissertation, a study of Milton, once again under Ransom’s direction.”74

Weaver frequently referred to Milton in categorically positive terms; Weaver drew parallels between Milton’s A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth and the manifesto of the Southern Agrarian movement, I’ll Take My Stand (1930).75The inseparability of freedom and right reason, the necessity of which pervades Weaver’s philosophy, he identified as “the Miltonic doctrine.”76Weaver levied criticism at social scientists for their inability to conceive of “a dominant image of man” that offered “unconditional reason for trying to save him from his threatened collapse.”77In “‘Parson’ Weems: A Study in Early American Rhetoric,” an essay which Ted Smith III believed was first intended for the Ethics,78Weaver praised Weems by identifying the similarity between Weems’s style and Milton’s.79

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