In his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, Adams tells us that he was born into one world in the nineteenth century and lived on into another. Born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1838, he lived to see a new world in the twentieth century–a world in which a secular Dynamo has replaced Venus and the Virgin, two manifestations of the transcendent that once animated and energized Western culture–Venus a cultural force in the pagan world, the Virgin in Christendom. Historian Adams saw unity, harmony, and beauty in that older world, but multiplicity, fragmentation, chaos, skepticism, and confusion in the new. Likewise, the old world was an orderly and beautiful creation, for the poet and the scientist; the new, merely colliding atoms, matter in motion, “a chaos of anarchic and purposeless forces” (The Education of Henry Adams 289).
Adams’ account of the past and the present is reflected in Richard Weaver’s work. Both admire the old, ordered world, with its distinction and hierarchy, its grand cathedrals, and the scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas. Adams was alarmed by the scientific and technological god of the new age, the Dynamo; Weaver by its offspring: the “gods of mass and speed” (Ideas Have Consequences vi). For our purposes, what is most remarkable is that both writers emphasize a Great Divide or demarcation between two worlds: the older, more ordered world of nineteenth-century America, and the more fragmented and uncertain America of the twentieth century. While Weaver sees the beginning of the end of that old world in the rise of Nominalism in the fourteenth century, he still sees in mid-nineteenth century America a relatively ordered and humane world. Let us look at Weaver’s essay “The Spaciousness of the Old Rhetoric” to see what light it sheds on these two worlds, especially what the old world had and the new world lost.
This essay from Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953) analyzes the rhetoric of America’s 19th century orators. We have forgotten most of these orators as well as the occasions on which they spoke: Andrew Ewing in 1850 on the sale of public lands, Charles Faulkner in 1858 on the virtues of agrarianism at a Virginia agricultural fair, John C. Breckinridge (Vice President of the United States) in 1859 on the occasion of the Senate’s move from the Old to the New Chamber, Rufas Choate in 1845 addressing the Law School in Cambridge on the American Bar association’s essentially conservative function. Weaver also mentions Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugurals and the Gettysburg address–the only orator and oratorical occasions most of us will remember.
Examining these orations, Weaver finds what he calls “Spaciousness.” This term designates a “’high-flown’” quality (165), a “grand style” full of both “historical and literary” resonances (169); a “freedom of purview” that allows the orator to speak with conviction on principles and beliefs held in common with his audience (173); an “aesthetic distance” and decorum that envisioned the whole and did not trespass into crude familiarity, minute details, impertinent particulars, and obscene spectacles (175-177); a belief in “non-factual kinds of truth” (182); and a “polite style” that “’sounds good’” and respects “the powers and limitations of the audience” ( 184).
Weaver contrasts each quality of the old oratory with the general practice and expectations of twentieth-century orators and audiences. His observations regarding oratory in the mid-twentieth century are easily related to oratory today. Audiences do not have enough time, patience, belief, or knowledge to appreciate the older orations. They prefer the “petty and contentious style” (166); they want “evidence,” not uncontested terms and propositions (172); they relish the personal, the particular, the spontaneous, the novel, the bottom line–not general truths, historical vistas, classical literary allusions, and pious and ceremonial rhetoric; and as for the polite, old orator who respected his audience, they prefer the brash and crude speaker with his “slogans and catchwords” and his hurried and “syncopated style” (184).
While Weaver does not illustrate the new oratory, he does mention two developments that have influenced it: modern journalism, with its penchant for impertinence and spectacle (he mentions Time magazine), and our love affair with technological gadgets that give us instant photographic realism at the touch of a button. Here one thinks of Weaver’s searing analysis of modern journalism and electronic media in “The Great Stereopticon,” chapter V of Ideas Have Consequences. Today’s journalism, talk shows, and talk radio only confirm what Weaver said of the media in the 1950s. Our media, and the consumer-related industries that promote them, have conditioned us to the sound bite, the photo op, the bumper sticker slogan, and the ranting rhetorical food fights of the talk shows.
The electronic media invented and mass-marketed since Weaver’s death in 1963 give us instant access to many and varied sources and types of information. I expect the effect of this is information overload, causing us, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, to be “Distracted from distraction by distraction” (Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets 120). The new devices probably don’t encourage or foster long or steady views of a subject, such as we see in nineteenth-century oratory. But the divices may encourage or enable vices: a colleague tells me a pornographic website or video is always only three clicks away. And one does not have to look for it for it to find you. The world, the flesh, and the devil have been around us ever since the fall. The Internet brings them much closer.
According to Weaver an advantage the old rhetoric has over the new is the quality of “Spaciousness.” One major aspect of this Spaciousness is a happy “homogeneity of belief,” common presumptions of speaker and audience, “the essential unity of a people in belief and attachment” (167). Sharing beliefs and assumptions with his audience, the orator did not have to prove or define every term or premise in his oration. Ironically, what Weaver sees as an advantage many today would regard as a crippling and false limitation. But to give Weaver’s point a contemporary application, think of the difficulties we encounter today when we assume there are two genders, and only two, or that marriage and the family and the person have some definite and normative meaning. If the speaker has to “battle for [his] position” at every turn, he will get nowhere.
Actually, there is homogeneity of belief in liberal quarters regarding a series of politically correct terms: change, choice, tolerance, inclusiveness, multiculturalism, to name only five. If Weaver were with us today, he would likely add my short list to his list of “Ultimate Terms in Contemporary Rhetoric”: progress, fact, science, modern, efficient, American. But Weaver’s point and my own are still germane: traditionalists and progressives, conservatives and liberals do not agree on a host of definitions, principles, and issues.
But of what did this “homogeneity of belief” in the nineteenth century consist? Weaver mentions the Constitution, Christianity, and a belief that history teaches some definitive lessons about political goods and possibilities. I quote Weaver on this point: “Freedom and morality were constants; the Constitution was the codification of all that was politically feasible; Christianity of all that was morally authorized. Rome stood as an exemplum of what may happen to nations; the American and French Revolutions had taught rulers their necessary limitations.” (169-170). There is a paradox here. Weaver mentions common convictions that radically limit moral and political choices. Paradoxically, Christian morality, the Constitution, history as political exemplum–the very forms that limit us protect us from our lower nature, free us to pursue good in personal and corporate ways.
Weaver elaborates on the Spaciousness of the old rhetoric, pointing out that it is spacious in two ways: temporal and cosmological. The temporal spaciousness is possible because orator and audience know and are comfortable with historical and literary resonances that reach back in time, all the way back to ancient Rome, even to Genesis. Weaver writes: This “’continuity of the past with the present’ gave a dimension which our world seems largely to have lost” (178). A footnote here: lately I have heard a great deal of political and public policy discourse that does show some continuity of the past with the present. Yes, the speaker ranges back in time, but only to the Great Depression and, seemingly, to our first president: FDR. I fear there is too much continuity here.
The old rhetoric was spacious in cosmological as well as temporal ways. The old orators believed their world was connected to heaven or the transcendent. Discussing the personification and descent of Liberty from heaven in one of the old orations, Weaver refers to the “poeticized figment” that connected two worlds. Let me quote him here: “This is how the gods of classical mythology came down to hold discourse with mortals; it is how the god of the Christian religion came into the world for the redemption of mankind; it is how the logos is made incarnate. In other words, this kind of manifestation from above is, in our Western tradition, an archetypal process, which the orators of that tradition are likely to follow implicitly” (181). Today, one still finds orators and audiences comfortable with this archetypal connecting of two worlds. They tend to be Christian orators and audiences, and they also tend to be ignored, marginalized, or scorned by hostile liberal elites.
What Weaver demonstrates with argument and illustration in this temperate essay and in the more critical and passionate Ideas Have Consequences and Visions of Order, our poets reveal with disturbing, terrifying images and symbols. Here is a brief series of quotations from poems written between 1915 and 1942, with a few of my own comments appended:
Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning” (1915): “We live in an old chaos of the sun, . . . / Or island solitude, unsponsored, free.” That is, there are no Platonic forms to seek or imitate, no First Cause, no Prime Mover, no teleology, no Creator, no providential guide.
Yeats, in “The Second Coming” (1919):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Christendom is disintegrating, and while it crumbles before our eyes, Yeats predicts an ominous and terrifying future: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Eliot, in The Waste Land (1921)
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Our spiritual, moral, cultural, and legal inheritance from these great cities is “unreal,” or severely fragmented, so in our wasted land, if we are lucky, we can gather together a few of the fragments to shore up the ruins.
Pound, in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” (1920) on what is left of Western civilization following the Great War:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
. . . .
For two gross of broken statues
For a few thousand battered books.
Western civilization lives, but mostly in museums and libraries, not in the hearts, minds, homes, and cities of America and Europe.
Wallace Stevens once again. He tells us in “Modern Poetry” (1942) that the old poets had their “scene” and “script,” but that the modern poet is a “metaphysician in the dark,” creating out of his mind, and his mind alone, whatever order he perceives.
These poets are telling us the same thing Weaver and Adams claim: we live in a different world than our ancestors did, for we have lost contact with both tradition and with the transcendent, two things that made that older world larger, more spacious than our own. The Constitution, Christianity, and a long historical memory that served to exemplify the possible, the desirable, and the dangerous—these three things oriented nineteenth century discourse. While these things still influence discourse today, they do not do so in the same way.
The Constitution for Weaver’s nineteenth-century orator was “received from our forefathers”: it was “vigorous and inviolate.” I don’t think modern legislators and Supreme Court Justices view that document the same way the Founders and nineteenth century orators did. In Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Pennsylvania v. Casey, a majority of the United States Supreme Court justices maintained that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This sounds like all sail and no anchor to me. In the founding generation, and in the nineteenth century, the God-given inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration were circumscribed, anchored by historical memory, by prescriptive rights and duties, by Revelation and Common Law. The latitude of the Supreme Court’s definition of liberty is frightening.
Now it is true that the Constitution has been amended, that earlier notions of liberty and equality have been expanded to include blacks and women. These changes are compatible with Christianity and natural law. But if I may use a Weaver term in a different way, allowing every man to define reality any way he pleases is a bit too spacious. To my mind it suggests a Dostoevskian theme: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Something more than human whim or the self-centered pursuit of happiness must guide us in establishing social and cultural norms, in setting limits to law and public policy.
At the conclusion of “The Spaciousness of Old Rhetoric” Weaver hints at what this something is in summarizing his essay and emphasizing its key point. He writes that the older orator’s speech was informed by his epistemology: he believed “that true knowledge somehow had its source in the mind of minds, for which we are on occasion permitted to speak a part.” The “age or the man who has a true conception of [knowledge] will have . . . the key to every other question.”
Weaver does not tell us much about this mind of minds in “The Spaciousness of Old Rhetoric.” In other essays and books, he does, and that mind tends to be Platonic. Since in America the Platonic mind of minds has not had nearly as much credence and influence as the Christian, let me cite some of Weaver’s contemporaries, allowing them to speak a part concerning our need to bring our world back in touch with a specific tradition and a less abstract transcendence. They can also help us, I think, to deal with some of the troubling political and public policy questions facing us today.
What happens when we forget the Word who is within the word and our world? The distraction of the new; the devolution from wisdom to bits of information. So Eliot prophesies in his Choruses for The Rock:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experimentation,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
And our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
(Complete Poems and Plays 96).
Eliot’s lyrics sound like a commentary on the digital revolution. All the bits of information on the Internet are relatively meaningless unless they are integrated. The parts need to be seen in relation to the whole. Education, environmental concerns, economics, law, politics, and public policy—all these need to be connected to something. Eliot would connect them to the mind of minds revealed in the Logos, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.
In “The New Provincialism” Allen Tate declares that “Technology without Christianity is . . . barbarism quite simply” (Essays of Four Decades 539). What happens when medicine and science are not restrained by Christian law and sentiment? One thinks of embryos created and then destroyed for the purpose of research, of unborn and partially born children killed because they are inconvenient or unwanted. And what happens when sentiment is separated from the true source of sentiment? Flannery O’Connor tells us: “In the absence of faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chambers” (“A Memoir of Mary Ann,” Collected Works 830-831). The godless regime will have its human sacrifices. Better the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and the Christian religion’s basic respect for the dignity of the person, unborn and born, young and aged, male and female, black and white, Jew and gentile.
Eliot one more time, on the source of law and truth: “As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal sources of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality” (Christianity and Culture 50). Men in the Founding generation put it this way: There is no liberty without law, no law without morality, and no morality without religion.
And this religion, in the West, has been Christianity. It has been America’s tradition, and it has connected us with the transcendent. Human aspirations and actions in our day need to be seen in the light of tradition, but more so in the spacious light of a transcendent Good. We don’t necessarily need the “high-flown” quality and the “grand style” in our rhetoric, but we do need the old rhetoric’s spaciousness, a spaciousness permitting us to move back in time through history and tradition, and to join our world with a world above us. This spaciousness is still available to us. We have moved away from it into a limited, flat, and barren world. Adams and Weaver, but also Tate, O’Connor, and Eliot, point us back to that older spaciousness. We should let that spaciousness be a part of our mind, heart, and speech today.
Books mentioned in this essay can be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This paper was originally presented to The Philadelphia Society conference on The Ethics of Rhetoric in a Digital Age held in Atlanta, Georgia, September 25, 2010. Presented here with permission of the author.