by Bradley G. Green
Somewhere along the way, many twentieth-century pilgrims have found inspiration and insight from the pen of Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963). More than one friend cites Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences when they recount their own intellectual journey, and when they describe when and how they began really to “think.” Best known as the author of Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), Weaver was a southerner who has had a significant impact on political thought in the United States in the twentieth-century. Born and raised in North Carolina, Weaver did his undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky. A leftist-liberal during his undergraduate days in the 1920s, after a year of graduate work at Kentucky, he moved on to Vanderbilt for graduate study (early 1930s). During his time at Vanderbilt, Weaver was greatly influenced by the Nashville Agrarians (often called the Southern Agrarians, or the Vanderbilt Agrarians), which included such persons as Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and his thesis advisor, John Crowe Ransom. Weaver would eventually do doctorate work at Louisiana State University (1940-1943), where he would write his dissertation on southern culture (eventually published posthumously as The Southern Tradition at Bay). By the time he began doctoral work, Weaver had become disillusioned with the Left, and had become a southern partisan. A conservative, agrarian, southern framework would be the general framework in which he would work during the remainder of his life. Weaver would go on to a teaching career in English at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1944 until his death in 1963.
Christian theological themes are found implicitly and explicitly in the work of Richard M. Weaver. Weaver would eventually see his work as a “restoration of culture,” or of civilization, and he relies extensively on Christian themes as he writes about the restoration of culture. In this essay I seek to explore how the following Christian theological themes appear consistently in Weaver’s work, and how these themes serve as the necessary substructure or precondition of this intellectual program. The key themes I explore are: creation, the Logos, faith seeking understanding, and eschatology and the importance of history. I argue that Weaver’s use of such Christian themes are both too extensive and intensive to be simply peripheral to his thought. However, I ultimately argue that there is something key missing in Weaver’s use of such themes—the Christian gospel—and I try to elucidate the ways in which this lacuna may weaken an otherwise very penetrating criticism of modernity, and may hamper an otherwise brilliant attempt at the restoration of a meaningful culture.
Christian Themes in the Thought of Richard Weaver
In his attempt to articulate what is necessary for civilization, or for a genuine and meaningful culture, Weaver repeatedly emphasizes the importance of a doctrine of creation. Weaver contends that a doctrine of creation is essential to an affirmation of the reality of knowledge. If this is indeed a created world, there is something outside of us, something there to be known.
Some of Weaver’s key insights related to creation can be found in his essay, “Gnostics of Education,” a penetrating critique of contemporary educational theory. In it Weaver’s understanding of the necessity of a created order is made explicit. Weaver suggests that one of the key weaknesses of modern educational theory is that the student is being prepared to become a member of “a utopia resting on a false view of both nature and man.” Weaver contends that modern educational theory has abandoned centuries of tradition and insight, and that the twentieth century has witnessed a veritable revolution in the world of education—at all levels. It is common for critics to look back a few years—sometimes very few years—in their search for what ails us. The list of usual suspects might be Hobbes, or Descartes, or Hume, or Kant. But Weaver looks even further back—to the Gnostic heresy of the first and second centuries of the Christian era. Weaver defines gnosticism as “an attempt to reinterpret annalistic Christianity in terms suited to the ‘enlightenment’ of the contemporary era.”
Richard Weaver suggests that much of modern educational theory is ultimately gnostic. Weaver means two things by his use of “Gnosticism”: (1) creation is inherently evil, the work of a demiurge limited in power; and (2) man does not require salvation from outside himself, but is already in a state of “Messianic blessedness.” Gnosticism, according to Weaver, is a kind of irresponsibility—an irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.” Gnosticism fails because its advocates, on Weaver’s understanding, are “out of line with what is.”
Ultimately, Gnosticism fails because it fails to deal with the world as it truly is. And Weaver’s point is that in order for there to be true education and knowledge (both which he would affirm), our world must indeed be a created world. And Weaver links his understanding of creation to his understanding of history and the past. Ultimately, Weaver contends, one’s understanding of education necessarily flows from one’s understanding of the world: “education at any level will reflect the primary assumptions that we make about reality, and for this reason no education is innocent of an attitude toward the existing world.” Indeed, as Weaver writes, “education will reveal beliefs about creation.”
Weaver also criticizes this “gnostic” modern educational theory, because it assumes an overly optimistic view of man. Thus, Weaver notes, The Gnostic belief was that “man is not sinful, but divine.” Indeed, “The real evil in the universe cannot be imputed to him; his impulses are good, and there is no ground for restraining him from anything which he wants to do….By divinizing man, Gnostic thinking says that what he wants to do, he should do.” Thus, Weaver can note that in this gnostic vision of things, “the doctrine that human beings do not stand in need of correction, to say nothing of conversion.” Summarizing this modern notion, Weaver can write, “Because human nature is so good that it is not constrainable, laws and traditions are not to be respected.”
Richard Weaver suggests that the idea that there is a world of truth which is “worth knowing and even worth reverencing” ultimately requires a doctrine of creation: Clearly this [i.e., that there is a body of data worth knowing] presumes a certain respect for the world as creation, a belief in it and a trust in its providence, rather than a view (as if out of ancient Gnosticism) positing its essential incompleteness and badness. The world is there a priori; the learner has the duty of familiarizing himself with its nature and its set of relations.” As Marion Montgomery (borrowing from Aquinas) suggests, education is concerned with coming into contact with “the truth of things.”
Weaver concludes his chapter, “Distinction and Hierarchy” from Ideas Have Consequences with the following: “Now such a look at the nature of things is imperative for our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.”
As a professor of English, and as a teacher of rhetoric, Weaver was concerned with the disintegration of communication in the modern age. As such, Weaver at times relies on the importance of the Christian understanding of the Logos as central to a philosophy of language and communication. Christians have long articulated a distinctively Christian understanding of language, as seen for example in Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, and in a number Christians influenced by Augustine.
To understand Weaver, one must recognize that although he begins Ideas Have Consequences with the lines, “This is another book about the dissolution of the West,” Weaver is not simply another gloomy prophet predicting the end of Western culture. It might be better to say, that according to Weaver Western culture has in effect already crumbled, and Weaver is more interested in the work of the restoration of culture. In articulating an understanding of the restoration of culture, Weaver turns to an understanding of the logos. Weaver writes, “The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society. Rational society is a mirror of the logos, and this means that it has a formal structure which enables apprehension.” And he concludes, “The preservation of society is therefore directly linked with the recovery of true knowledge.” And part of this recovery is the recovery of the importance and nature of language. Weaver quotes John Milton with approval, when Milton wrote, “I am inclined to believe that when the language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin and degradation. For what do terms used without skill or meaning, which are at once corrupt and misapplied, denote but a people listless, supine, and ripe for servitude? On the contrary, we have never heard of any people or state which has not flourished in some degree of prosperity as long as their language has retained its elegance and its purity?”
Weaver saw the recovery of language, its power, and its proper use as key to a restoration of culture. He could argue: “The feeling that to have power of language is to have control over things is deeply imbedded in the human mind.” And language has a transcendent component: “words in common human practice express something transcending the moment.” Noting Adam’s act of naming the animals, and offering a few words on the prologue to John, Weaver proceeds to unpack his understanding of language. While at the end of the day, Weaver’s understanding of the logos may not have been the full-orbed christological and trinitarian affirmations seen in Augustine and the Christian tradition, he still recognizes the centrality of the logos as that which orders the world. And, our language is meaningful and powerful because of the reality of this larger and transcendent logos.
Weaver asserts that a key indicator of the health of a culture is whether it sees language as a bridge to reality, or as a transient and pragmatic combination of sounds and utterances. Weaver can write, “Certainly one of the most important revelations about a period comes in its theory of language, for that informs us whether language is viewed as a bridge to the noumenal or as a body of fictions convenient for grappling with transitory phenomena.” As Weaver sees it, things went wrong with Occam, and the victory of nominalism. In relation to the reality and use of language, Weaver writes that with Occam’s victory, “ontological referents were abandoned in favor of pragmatic considerations. . . . [I]deas become psychological figments, and words become useful signs.” Over against Occam, Weaver wishes to affirm and recover a type of realist ontology, an aim which appears consistently throughout his works. For example, in his essay, “Language is Sermonic,” Weaver again bumps into a doctrine of creation as that which underlies any affirmation of the meaningfulness of language. Thus Weaver can suggest that the cosmos is one vast system of analogy, so that our profoundest intuitions of it are made in the form of comparisons.” And this, Weaver argues, leads one back to a doctrine of creation: “To affirm that something is like something else is to begin to talk about the unitariness of creation.”
Weaver is explicit in where his understanding of language pushes him, at the end of his essay, “Language is Sermonic.” Again referring to the medieval debate between realism and nominalism, Weaver seeks to avoid a positivistic view of language—a radically empiricist, or naturalistic empiricist understanding of language. Thus, Weaver can argue, Language is a system of imputation, by which values and percepts are first framed in the mind and art then imputed to things.” But this imputation is not necessarily haphazard or simply accidental. Weaver does not want to imply that “no two people can look at the same clock face and report the same time.” Rather, “The qualities or properties have to be in the things, but they are not in the things in the form in which they are framed in the mind.” And Weaver explicitly admits the need for a created order as a necessary precondition of the meaningfulness of language: “Language was created by the imagination for the purposes of man, but it may have objective reference—just how we cannot say until we are in possession of a more complete metaphysics and epistemology.” In a fascinating turn, then, Weaver admits that a certain metaphysics and epistemology are necessary if we are to affirm the objective reference of language.
Finally, Weaver can even broach the issue of the inherently covenantal nature of language. It is clear that different cultures use different languages, and that different languages are, well, different. Weaver notes, “There is a difference between saying that language is relative because it is a convention and saying that because it is a convention it may be treated or used relativistically.” And Weaver continues, “If language is a more or less local convention, then its meanings are relative to those who use it. It clearly does not follow from this, however, that those who speak it may use it with unrestricted license.” But how does one avoid this relativistic turn that Weaver wishes to avoid? Weaver retrieves the biblical notion of covenant, and suggests that “language is a covenant among those who use it. It is in the nature of a covenant to be more than a matter of simple convenience, to be departed from for light and transient causes. A covenant—and I like, in this connection, the religious overtones of the word binds us at deeper levels and involves some kind of confrontation of reality.” And Weaver continues: “When we covenant with one another that a word shall stand for a certain thing, we signify that it is the best available word for the thing in the present state of general understanding. The possibilities of refinement toward a more absolute correctness of meaning lie within and behind that convention. But as long as the convention is in effect, it has to be respected like any other rule, and this requires that departures from it must justify themselves.”
Faith Seeking Understanding
In a number of writings, particularly Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver criticizes modern rationalism, and compares his own understanding to the medieval attempt to synthesize faith and reason. Weaver speaks of a “metaphysical dream of the world,” and his explication of his own view is strikingly similar to the Augustinian and Anselmian notions of faith seeking understanding.
The first chapter of Ideas Have Consequences, titled “The Unsentimental Sentiment,” is perhaps one of the clearest places where Weaver embraces something like the Augustinian and Anselmian notion of “faith seeking understanding.” Weaver argues that all persons evidence three levels of conscious reflection: (1) “his specific ideas about things”; (2) “his general beliefs or convictions”; and (3) “his metaphysical dream of the world.”
The first level—“specific ideas about things”—consists of “the thoughts he employs in the activity of daily living. This is simply the most basic level. The second level—a man’s “general beliefs or convictions,” or one’s “body of beliefs”—consist of certain conceptions of the world around him.
But it is the third level that interests us here. This third level is what Weaver calls one’s “metaphysical dream of the world.” Weaver calls this “an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which ideas [level 1] and beliefs [level 2] are ultimately referred for verification.” Weaver asserts that the dream carries with it an evaluation, which is the bond of spiritual community.” What Weaver is suggesting is that one’s basic ideas and convictions flow from this “metaphysical dream of the world.” And the metaphysical dream is something anterior to reason. As Weaver writes, “logic depends upon the dream, and not the dream upon it.” And he expounds upon this: “We must admit this when we realize that logical processes rest ultimately on classification, that classification is by identification, and that identification is intuitive.” It appears that this is Weaver’s somewhat secularized way of speaking of “faith seeking understanding.” And Weaver self-consciously positions himself with the medieval realists, as opposed to the nominalists, in Weaver’s assertion that universals exist before, not after, the particulars. And at the end of the chapter on the unsentimental sentiment, Weaver can write,
The only redemption lies in restraint imposed by idea; but our ideas, if they are not to worsen the confusion, must be harmonized by some vision. Our task is much like finding the relationship between faith and reason for an age that does not know the meaning of faith.
Past and Future: History and Eschatology
Weaver sees himself as essentially a pre-modern thinker, in that whereas the modern age has largely abandoned the affirmation of first and final causes, Weaver wishes to recover the importance of such causes. In particular, Weaver wishes to affirm the importance of history, or of the past, as well as to affirm the importance of the notion that history is indeed going somewhere (eschatology). Weaver explicitly relies on a Christian versus a gnostic understanding of the world to make his argument.
Why the Past Matters: The Importance of History
Weaver saw, and sadly many contemporary Christians fail to see, the importance of history. Returning to the theme of gnosticism dealt with above, Weaver saw gnosticism as being fundamentally anti-historical, in that according to gnosticism, knowledge need not be mediated over time. Rather, for the gnostic what is important is the immediate—i.e., that which is not mediated. Thus, in gnosticism there is a disinterest in the flow of events, the events of history, and how these events culminate in the present. Thus, Weaver can assert,
the essence of Gnosticism is a kind of irresponsibility—an irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.
And Weaver is explicit in connecting a proper understanding of history with creation. Thus, Weaver can note,
History on the other hand is the memory of all the past with all its uniqueness, as they were expressed in the concrete matter which is creation.
Weaver argues for the centrality of memory, and the ability to recall the past, as central to the possibility of knowledge and understanding. Could it be, Weaver suggests, that an age that lacks memory ipso facto will be an age lacking in understanding? He writes, “Intelligence is this power to associate remembered potencies with things seen simply.” Indeed, “In general all intellectuality rests upon our power to associate things not present or only suggested by what is present. Thus the intellectual value of anything depends upon our ability to retrieve from memory.” Since our age sees little value in the past, there will be little emphasis on memory. And if Weaver is right, to lack memory is to lack understanding. As Weaver continues, “It is therefore impossible to imagine a high-grade or effective intelligence without things supplied by the remembering process.” Thus, “It seems beyond question then that any attack upon memory, insofar as this metaphor expresses real facts, is an attack upon mind.” Indeed, Weaver can even say, “The preservation of society is therefore directly linked with the recovery of true knowledge.”
If Weaver is correct, on the whole, it is almost as if man is intent on destroying himself. And indeed, more than one twentieth-century writer has commented that modern man seems to have a sort of death wish. Malcolm Muggereridge, commenting on his travels in the Soviet Union (see his Chronicles of Wasted Time, or his novel, Winter in Moscow), spoke of his “fellow-travelers,” those western journalists, academics, union leaders, etc., who were enthralled with Stalin and his regime, and Muggeridge summarized that these visitors to Stalin’s “paradise” must have had a “death-wish.” Richard Weaver, likewise, can wonder if modern man does not often seem to have a “suicidal impulse,” “or at least an impulse of self-hatred.”
But surely Weaver overstates his point, or does he? Weaver laments that modern man seems to have no memory, no historical consciousness. Weaver goes on to suggest that memory, a sense of history, is key to one’s identity. If this really is the case—that memory is central to who we are as humans—then to reject, or jettison memory is to a large extent to manifest a “suicidal impulse,” or to manifest an “impulse of self-hatred.” As Weaver argues, “no man exists really except through that mysterious storehouse of his remembered acts and his formed personality.” Indeed, “His very reality depends upon his carrying the past into the present through the power of memory.” Weaver concludes:
If he does not want identity, if he has actually come to hate himself, it is natural for him to try to get rid of memory’s baggage. He will travel light.” Whereas modern thinkers like David Hume (1711-1776), in his Treatise of Human Nature, can write that his own system of philosophy intends to be “built on a foundation almost entirely new,
Weaver suggests that knowledge is virtually impossible without attention to the past, without the reality of memory.
This lack of memory, or indeed, this attack on memory, is widespread in our culture. It is perhaps most radically prevalent in the modern academy. While the academy used to be a stronghold of a love for the past—old books, old languages, old truths—the contemporary academy seems particularly anxious to be “relevant,” or “current,” and often seems little concerned with passing on an intellectual tradition. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of modern education is its arrogance and chronological snobbery, and its attempt to cut students off from the past. This is seen in myriad examples, including the insistence that vestiges of southern culture be removed from public places. This war on the past is fundamentally anti-Christian in that it seeks to cut people off from their past—it is essentially a gnostic obsession with the immediate. Richard Weaver has written that such gnostics are “attackers and saboteurs of education.” Indeed, “in the way they have cut the young people off from knowledge of the excellencies achieved in the past, and in the way they have turned attention toward transient externals and away from the central problem of man, they have no equal as an agency of subversion.” Perhaps the chief way to avoid being victim to such “attackers and saboteurs of education” is by a deep immersion in the writings of the past. Only by being saturated by the events, figures and texts of the past, can contemporary students keep from being cheated out of a good education by ideologues and educational gnostics.
Where Are We Headed? The Importance of Eschatology
In Weaver’s attempt at a restoration of culture, he wishes to recover an affirmation of transcendent goals. Indeed, Weaver’s critique of the demise of Western culture often returns to the loss of ultimate, transcendent goals or ends. Thus, in A.J. Conyers’ words, we witness in contemporary culture the “eclipse of heaven.” In explaining the vacuous nature of most modern educational institutions, Weaver can write, “if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and the passions will take precedence over all else….Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in this world have won a practically complete victory.” When we think of eschatology in terms of an understanding of the nature and purposes of history—indeed, the question of where we are headed—we see that Weaver is here arguing for a certain kind of eschatological vision of the world. Man is supposed to do more than simply get a “job,” and man—contra John Dewey—is to be more than simply a cog in the economy.
Weaver does not speak to eschatology in terms of end-times schemes or timelines. I use the term “eschatology” here in the sense that Weaver is highly interested in recovering the reality of ultimate and final causes. Weaver posits that one way of understanding modernity is in terms of the loss of ultimate and final causes. Whereas in the pre-modern world there was often an affirmation of multiple levels of causality, in the modern world there is often a reduction of causes to simply efficient and material causes. Thus Weaver can write that
The nature and proper end of man are central to any discussion not only of whether a certain culture is weakening, but also of whether such a culture is worth preserving.” Likewise, in an essay on the nature and purpose of education, Weaver can write, “Man has an irresistible desire to relate himself somehow to the totality, to ask what is the meaning of his presence here amid the great empirical fact of the universe.
In short, Weaver argues consistently in his writings for the centrality and importance of history, and for the centrality of importance of seeing man and his purposes in the light of transcendent and ultimate ends and goals, and these appeals to the importance of history and such transcendent and ultimate goals are at least at times made in reference to fundamental Christian themes and convictions.
Richard Weaver and The Gospel
What are we to make of Weaver’s repeated use of Christian themes in his writing? This essay does not try to make a case for or against Weaver’s personal faith commitment. It does appear that Weaver’s own intellectual program is essentially, and not peripherally, tied to certain Christian theological themes that provide the necessary substructure and precondition to his own intellectual program. Additionally, I would argue that the use of these Christian themes is thoroughly intentional.
There are, however, some striking omissions in Weaver’s use of Christian themes. Weaver utilizes a doctrine of creation, the idea of the Logos, a type of faith seeking understanding, and an affirmation of the importance of history and eschatology. However, the key omission is of course the gospel itself. This omission of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is certainly a significant omission in Weaver’s thought. While Weaver’s thought consistently pushed him to affirm a created order, to attempt to combat Gnosticism, to affirm a realist view of the universe, to affirm the possibility of knowledge grounded in metaphysics, the centrality of history, the attention to a sense of ultimate goals and aims (i.e., eschatology), etc., he came short—at least publicly—of a more full-orbed affirmation of historic Christian orthodoxy. It is striking, that given his repeated reference to other key Christian themes, the gospel itself is sadly absent from his written work.
This omission represents the key divide between Weaver and more explicitly Christian thinkers who have sought to articulate a more explicitly Christian understanding of intellectual and cultural life. And my critique is similar to that offered by Marion Montgomery, who in approvingly summarizing T.S. Eliot’s critique of the agrarians, can write: Eliot “has as his initial fear that these (somewhat) younger poets, those Fugitives turned Agrarian turned polemicists, might not be sufficiently oriented, under the pressure of their concerns, to the necessity that tradition be recovered through orthodoxy.” Indeed, Montgomery echoes my own concerns (or I echo his!) when he writes, “without some metaphysical purchase in the nature of reality, the life of the mind can only ad hoc, in response to the present moment’s circumstances.” Montgomery is clearly sympathetic to Weaver’s attempt to resist the pressures and pitfalls of modernity, although he fears that Weaver’s resistance to modernity was rather ad hoc, and not sufficiently rooted in an understanding of, and commitment to, the “truth of things.” Montgomery writes:
It was a valiant resistance nonetheless, and it gained for us some advantage to the continuing resistance, though we may ourselves at the close of our century feel so hard pressed as not to appreciate or take possession of a possible position beyond those ad hoc weaknesses we may ourselves discover.
Montgomery expresses serious concerns about Weaver’s understanding of modernity, and of Weaver’s scheme for some sort of “restoration of culture.” Montgomery faults Weaver for a misunderstanding of Aristotle, and of failing to appropriate The Teacher’s insights. But more significantly, Weaver is not sufficiently Thomist for Montgomery, particularly for his supposed failure—on Montgomery’s view—to appreciate the goodness of creation, and particularly a creation whose reality is structured and oriented by God. One can appreciate Montgomery’s skittishness concerning Weaver on these issues, even if one does not walk down the Thomist road all the way with Montgomery.
But Montgomery makes a particularly pointed criticism of Weaver when he suggests that Weaver is avoiding a central issue—the question of atonement. Montgomery writes: “As Christian apologist against Modernist secularism, therefore, Weaver avoids (it seems to me) the Christian mystery which declares that through Christ there is both anticipated and provided to man a rescuing propitiation. And through that rescue lies a hope of the resurrection of body and soul in a perfected simplicity.” Here Montgomery is moving in the direction I wish to pursue. The fundamental reality missing in Weaver is of course the gospel itself—any attention to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Weaver continually utilizes various Christian insights and resources, but he never quite reaches for the heart of the matter—the gospel. While Montgomery does not linger long on this issue of atonement, Montgomery does register his doubts about Weaver’s effort to restore culture apart from a more explicit and robust theological matrix. In short, in Weaver’s proposal Montgomery finds “little hope of new cathedrals.”
While Montgomery’s analysis is illuminating, even he hits Weaver softly in his criticism. Weaver consistently utilized Christian themes in explicating his understanding of our culture’s dilemma, and in his scheme for the “restoration of culture.” But to borrow numerous insights and themes from the Christian tradition but pull up short of the heart and soul of historic Christianity cannot but help draw attention as well as criticism. On a Christian understanding it is understandable (perhaps inevitable?) that a thoughtful person would “stumble” into the insights of the Christian tradition when attempting to explicate the road ahead in attempting to restore culture. But to fail to deal fully with the problem of human sin and the historic Christian response to this dilemma is really to fail to come to terms with why a culture disintegrates in the first place.
Montgomery also properly locates a weakness—at least on Christian terms—in Weaver’s diagnoses of our malaise, and therefore in his diagnosis of a possible way ahead. Montgomery is concerned that Weaver’s understanding of creation—and hence of that “last metaphysical right,” property—is inadequate. Weaver properly affirms the importance of property, but because his construal is not sufficiently theologically oriented, it fails. Montgomery suggests that what is missing is “the metaphysical vision which orients intellect to nature.” Indeed, Montgomery notes, what is needed is “a vision of the person as created intellectual soul incarnate who must recover and maintain himself in responsibilities as steward.” For, “it becomes lost in the rejection of the law of nature as under the law of God, a law available to the discrete intellect through a grace to that intellect called natural law.” In short, property indeed should be affirmed as a “right,” but it is only a more robustly Christian theological framework, where creation as seen as fundamentally good, where nature is oriented toward a telos, and where man is seen as steward over creation (but under God), that can provide the proper and necessary substructure for, or justification of, such an understanding and affirmation of property as a “right.”
Why so little attention to the gospel in Weaver’s writings? There is a certain interpretation of the differences between North and South that suggests that the North was overly concerned with doctrinal precision and details, while the South was less concerned with these issues. To wit, Weaver can write that “although the South was heavily Protestant, its attitude toward religion was essentially the attitude of orthodoxy: it was a simple acceptance of a body of belief, an innocence of protest and schism by which religion was left one of the unquestioned and unquestionable supports of the general settlement under which men live.”
Weaver also summarizes southern religion by speaking of a “doctrinal innocence, for the average Southerner knew little and probably cared less about casuistical theology.” Indeed, what the Southerner held as central was “the acknowledgement, the submissiveness of the will, and that general respect for order, natural and institutional, which is piety.” And I suspect that when Weaver speaks of this “general respect for order, natural and institutional” we are given a window to Weaver’s own religious or theological disposition. Weaver’s summary of religion is rather vague, and lacks the robustness and fullness that has traditionally and historically marked the best of Christian theological affirmations and conviction. Indeed, as Weaver continues, for a person to be religious in the south “did not obligate him to examine the foundations of belief or to assail the professions of others.” Weaver can even write that the Southerner “did not want a reasoned belief, but a satisfying dogma.” Weaver can speak of the Southerner: “a sense of restraint, and a willingness to abide by the tradition,” and can speak of the Northerner: “the spirit of discontent, of aggressiveness, and of inquisitiveness was associated with those who had something to gain by overturning the established order.” Some of this is admirable, particularly the emphasis on the receiving of a tradition. But, on the other hand, is it really necessary to believe that in the South, Christians did not—for example—desire to examine the foundations of belief? Weaver recounts the testimony of a minister in the South, whose only lament after ministering for some time in the South was that “no token had reached him that he had religiously impressed their minds, more or less. They met regularly and decorously on Sundays, and departed quietly, and there was an end.” That is, the minister’s complaint (but not Weaver’s) was that corporate worship—and church life more general—did not seem to have a noticeable or discernible impact on those involved.
According to Weaver, “What the Southerner desired above all else in religion was a fine set of images to contemplate . . .” Again, if this is what southerners really desired, then southern Christianity is a Christianity of a rather unique sort. For Weaver, the Southerner has inherited a certain tradition, and is happy pretty much to leave the tradition alone. The Northerner on the other hand is marked by some level of discontent and aggressiveness. Toward the end of “The Older Religiousness of the South,” Weaver comments, “in the sphere of religion the Southerner has always been hostile to the spirit of inquiry.” One is tempted to tease this out a bit, for if Weaver’s understanding of southern religion is on the whole accurate, this may go a long way to explaining why the South—like virtually all other regions and peoples—has had such a difficult time resisting antipathy to traditional revealed religion. If the Southerner typically did not feel compelled to trace out the implications of the Christian vision of God, man, and the world (to paraphrase Scottish divine James Orr), and to attempt to think through the implications of the Christian understanding of things to every facet of reality and to every area of human concern and life, it is certainly understandable (inevitable?) that “religion” would—over time—cease to satisfy and persuade and compel.
When Weaver speaks like this, one is led perhaps to recall Walker Percy’s essay “Stoicism in the South,” where Percy suggests that the South has always had a dual allegiance to stoicism and Christianity. Percy summarizes what a stoic does when civilization is crumbling: “For the Stoic there is no real hope. His finest hour is to sit tight-lipped and ironic while the world comes crashing down around him.” If Percy is fair to the Stoic here, perhaps we should be hesitant to see Weaver as such a stoic figure. For if the Stoic can simply sit tight-lipped without hope, at the heart of Weaver’s writings lies a certain hope of cultural renewal. And again, perhaps Weaver has been influenced by a key Christian tenet—the resurrection. For no-one who believes in the resurrection can be satisfied to sit hopelessly and tight-lipped. For Weaver does hold forth the hope of cultural restoration and renewal. I suspect the reality of cultural restoration and renewal is one that requires the gospel itself as a necessary precondition. And while Weaver does not state things quite that way, he does hold out hope for the restoration of culture. For unless one is a Gnostic—in which case one has to sequester the reality of the resurrection from any notion of cultural renewal—then one believes that the resurrection lies at the heart of the transformation of all things. And this is Percy’s point as well:
The Christian is optimistic precisely where the Stoic is pessimistic.
One might also think of Allen Tate’s essay, “A Southern Mode of Imagination,” where Tate argues that the Southern “mode of discourse” has traditionally been rhetoric, and not dialectic. Indeed, writes Tate, “The Southerner has never been a dialectician.” Tate can also speak of the “notorious lack of self-consciousness of the ante-bellum Southerner,” and Tate can write that “the failure of the old Southern leaders to understand the Northern mind (which was then almost entirely the New England mind) was a failure of intelligence.” In short, it is suggested that in the South there is a generally antipathy to theological exactness or theological inquiry.
Perhaps there is no gospel in Weaver’s work because there is ultimately no vision of man as sinner. Weaver does hold forth the necessity of the “tragic vision.” But the “tragic vision” does not appear to flow from a Pauline or Augustinian vision of man as fallen and in dire need. Weaver does speak of the “tragic vision,” which man must face if he is to be able to respond rightly to the world in which he lives. But it may be that Weaver’s “tragic vision” is simply not “tragic” enough. Christian orthodoxy has historically held that man’s dilemma is due to an act of human willing, indeed of human rebellion. While Christian theologians have debated the exact nature and origin of human sinfulness, virtually all orthodox Christians have rooted our dilemma in a fundamental rebellion which extends to all of us.
What is intriguing is Weaver’s use of “tragic vision,” for it is exactly at that point—at the point of human vision, that historic Christian theology has so much to say. For Weaver, man—as far back as Ockham and nominalism—began to cultivate an inferior and mistaken vision of things. Part of the genius of Ideas Have Consequences is the way in which Weaver traces the consequences of nominalism out over time. This nominalist move initiated a trajectory leading to and culminating in modernism, and only an intentional recovery of something like realism, and an openness to transcendentals, along with (1) the recovery of property rights, (2) a recovery of the nature and meaningfulness of language, and (3) and an appropriate understanding of piety and justice, can lead the way in the restoration of culture.
But again, perhaps Weaver is not tragic enough. For the tragedy of our human situation is that we have enslaved ourselves because we have wanted to be slaves. We did not simply make a wrong turn in the middle ages with the trajectory of nominalism. We have loved wrong things, and we have loved the right things in the wrong way. We are fundamentally disordered because we want to disordered. This is a tragic situation indeed. And we lack vision because of our spiritual state.
To illustrate, Augustine could write that creation is objectively and really beautiful. Beauty is not an “imposition” on the created order. Creation really is beautiful. But then Augustine asks the obvious question: if creation really is beautiful, why do not all persons see this beauty? Augustine’s answer is that persons do not see the beauty that is there because of disordered loves. We love the created order in an inordinate way, and because of our disordered loves we do not see what is there. In short, for Augustine the ability to know is linked to our spiritual state—to the nature of our loves. In this realm at least, Pascal is a thoroughgoing Augustinian. Nietzsche quotes Pascal: Without the Christian faith, you, no less than nature and history, will become for yourselves un monstre et un chaos.” Indeed, “Our inability to know the truth is the consequence of our corruption, our moral decay.
What Weaver does not explore at great length—as far as I know—is the themes of sin and redemption. In fairness to Weaver, I should note that in the closing chapter of Ideas Have Consequences (“Piety and Justice”) Weaver does in fact begin to use some of the language and concepts that strike me as essential for understanding a more thoroughly Christian way of thinking about the modern era. Weaver can assert that modernity is a “rebellion”; however, it is a rebellion primarily against nature. Weaver can also speak of modern man’s problem as a “disease” of sorts—approximating in such language one way historic Christianity has spoken of the reality of sin. Particularly interesting, we note that in this final chapter Weaver can again speak of modern man’s apparent “suicidal impulse.” Indeed, man’s problem—and here Weaver sounds a bit more Augustinian—is that perhaps he simply does not want to get better.
Nonetheless, this more Augustinian way of speaking of these things seems to be more the exception than the rule. These are indeed serious lacunae in Weaver’s utilization of Christian themes. Perhaps if Weaver had explored the themes of sin and redemption in more depth, Weaver may have been had led to ask why nominalism became attractive to many persons in the West. But as far as I can tell, this is just the question Weaver does not ask—why nominalism became attractive in later middle ages, and why something like “nominalism” continues to be persuasive today. For Weaver, it is essentially a mis-step in relation to ontology—the misstep of denying the centrality of universals in favor of the primacy of particulars—which is the fatal wrong turn in the western intellectual tradition. Thus, modernity is fundamentally rooted in an ontological misstep.
Others—in attempting to understand modernity—have emphasized the importance of epistemology. That is, modernity is understood as fundamentally flowing from, or rooted in, certain epistemological shifts that occurred in say, the 17th and 18th centuries. Now, I will certainly get off base if this paper morphs into an analysis of different understandings of modernity. But I briefly raise these issues simply to place Weaver a bit. He clearly sees modernity as rooted in a wrong understanding of the nature of universals. Modernity, for Weaver, is fundamentally rooted in a certain ontological shift. Others stress that modernity is fundamentally rooted in a certain epistemological shift. But it may be that both the ontological and epistemological emphases miss the point, or at least are simply a part of a larger problem, and to that potential problem I now turn.
In his penetrating analysis of the origin and nature of modernity, Stephen Williams suggests that whereas many persons point to epistemology as the key watershed issue that is central to modernity and the Enlightenment, in fact there is a deeper problem. That is, Williams argues that modernity was about more than simply an epistemological issue where different persons debated whether knowledge of the supernatural was possible, or indeed, whether knowledge was possible at all. Williams suggests—and here I suspect he has Scripture and much of the Christian tradition in his corner—that at the heart of the modern malaise lies a problem of the will. Neither ontology nor epistemology are the key; but rather a will issue or moral issue is key. That is, modernity was a resistance (and rejection) of the fact that we are fallen creatures in need of reconciliation. In short, in Augustinian fashion, Williams suggests that the problem is not simply a particular intellectual conundrum—i.e., a misunderstanding about universals, but a deeper problem of the human will. Williams quotes Kierkegaard approvingly:
People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.
In short, the problems of modernity center—at least to a large degree—on the human will. As Williams notes, “Western atheism may be understood as a spiritual movement of the soul as well as intellectual movement of the mind.”
While there is not time to trace out how such a construal might be justified historically (and here I would point folks to the work of Williams), it does seem that Williams here likely has both Scripture and the Christian tradition on his side. When Paul says in the first chapter of Romans that all persons know God, but suppress the knowledge of God, we see that this suppression of the knowledge of God is not rooted in an epistemological mis-step, or ignorance, but that this suppression of God is a willful act for which man is culpable. Indeed, this suppression of the knowledge of God—as Paul understands it—leads to such things as futile thinking and foolish, darkened hearts (Romans 1:22). If we turn to Proverbs we see that fools actually hate knowledge (Proverbs 1:22), and that “evil men do not understand justice“ (Proverbs 28:5).
Karl Barth could speak of the modern dilemma in similar terms as found in Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. Barth, in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, could write:
Fine and impressive reasons are given so that men in the modern world can no longer believe the teaching of Christianity in its traditional form, without a deliberate intention to deceive, but in fact because people no longer want to believe it. Man makes the opposition to older Christianity which had come about through his new moralism into a contrast between the modern and the obsolete presuppositions for cosmology and epistemology—in order to justify himself.
And Barth sees this same trend in Friedrich Nietzsche himself:
[That] everything should finally become a formal crusade against the cross, is not immediately apparent, but has to be learned and noted from a reading of Nietzsche. Yet it must be learned and noted if we are to understand him.
As Williams concludes, modernity is less a battle of “reason versus revelation,” but rather a “moral-religious sufficiency versus reconciliation.”
If Williams is right, and modernity is more about a problem of the will—a moral problem, than an ontological or epistemological problem, then we find ourselves inching toward an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Weaver’s attempt to restore culture, and more particularly, the nature of his utilization of Christian themes. Weaver appropriately sees the centrality of certain key Christian themes: creation, the logos, faith seeking understanding, and eschatology and the importance of history. But Weaver does not—as least as far as I can tell—see the problem as a problem of “disordered loves,” or as an issue of moral rebellion, or as a willful suppression of the truth, a situation which can only be set right through atonement. We might turn to a certain medieval thinker, Hugh of St. Victor (d. A.D. 1141), who could write: “the eye of the heart must be cleansed by the study of virtue, so that it may thereafter see clearly for the investigation of truth in the theoretical arts.” The “eye of the heart” indeed must be cleansed, and this only happens through atonement—through the gospel of a very particular first-century Jew crucified and risen.
Augustine could argue in De Trinitate some seven-hundred years earlier that in order to see God face to face, one must be cleansed by the cross of Christ. And even to truly “see” beauty in this life requires that one’s loves be ordered correctly—and this of course also requires the type of transformation brought about by atonement.
Weaver desired to “restore culture” and countless twentieth and twenty-first century pilgrims have been helped by the wisdom of Weaver, particularly his Ideas Have Consequences. Many have certainly moved from despair to hope (or from naïve utopianism to a more profound hopefulness) because of Weaver. But to restore “culture” means of course to restore persons. And not just “persons” in the abstract, but particular persons. My neighbor, and your neighbor. You and me. And the restoration of persons is serious—and hard—business. We should desire the restoration of “culture.” Jonah was indeed rebuked, for example, for not caring for “the city.” But he was rebuked for not caring for a particular city—Ninevah. The restoration of culture begins with the restoration of persons. And to be restored means having to understand something of how and why we have been deformed. The Christian tradition—upon which Weaver depended so heavily—has always taught that restoration begins with a particular person—the risen Jesus. Through faith in, and union with Him, restoration has begun. And this restoration entails a proper construal and understanding of such things as creation, the logos, faith seeking understanding, and eschatology and the importance of history. But one must begin with the restoration of persons—this person and that person. Your unpleasant neighbor and my unpleasant neighbor.
Weaver was spot on to recognize—even if he never quite said it this way—that the verities of the Christian tradition were the necessary “first things” in his own hopes of restoring culture. Weaver appears to have maybe stumbled over the rock of offense, for indeed the gospel is at its heart offensive, and strikes at our pride. Perhaps it was simply too difficult to think that a fleshly, first-century Jew from the backwater town of Nazareth—a particular man, of a particular race, in a particular time—was, and is, the key to the restoration of culture. Weaver’s own southern tradition—at its best—has admirably paid attention to particulars, and appropriately so. In his attempt to outline the possibility of a restoration of culture, I suspect Weaver ignored the central particularity which is the key to the whole affair—a particular first century Jew. Ideas indeed do have consequences, but sometimes the key is found by giving attention to the particulars, and it is by giving attention to a particular first century carpenter’s son that we find the true key to the restorations of persons—and of culture.
Books by Richard Weaver and others mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
This essay was published in Thriving in Babylon: Essays in Honor of A.J. Conyers, ed. David B. Capes and J. Daryl Charles (Wipf and Stock, 2011). It appears here by permission of the author.
1. When I was first asked to contribute to this festschrift for Chip Conyers, my mind went immediately to this paper, which I had been working on. Those who knew Chip will recognize the ways in which the themes of this essay intersect with Chip’s interests. There are three components of the essay which were all of interest to Chip: the thought of Richard Weaver, the Southern intellectual tradition, and the possibility of living faithful Christian lives in our age.
2. Richard M. Weaver, “Gnostics of Education,” in Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995; reprint, 1964), 126.
3. Ibid., 117.
4. Ibid., 117-18.
5. Ibid., 118.
6. Ibid., 118ff.
7. Ibid., 120.
10. Ibid., 123.
12. Ibid., 125.
13. Ibid., 124.
14. Ibid., 126
15. Historic Christianity roots the “truth of things” in the fact that we live in a good, created and orderly world. Marion Montgomery, The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999).
16. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), 51.
17. Ibid., 35.
18. Richard Weaver, “Relativism and the Use of Language,” In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver 1929-1963, ed., Ted J. Smith, III (Indianapolis, IN: 2000). 389. Weaver is quoting Milton from a correspondence with Benedetto Bonomatthai, September 10, 1638, from The Prose Works of John Milton (London, 1806), I, xi-xii.
19. Weaver, “The Power of the Word,” in Ideas Have Consequences, 148.
21. Ibid., 148-49.
22. Ibid., 150.
23. Weaver, “Language is Sermonic,” in In Defense of Tradition, 362.
24. Weaver, “The Power of the Word,” 150-51.
25. Weaver, “Language is Sermonic,” 368-69.
26. Ibid., 369.
27. Weaver, “Relativism and the Use of Language,” 403.
28. Ibid., 404.
30. Weaver, “The Unsentimental Sentiment,” in Ideas Have Consequences, 18-34.
31. Ibid., 18.
33. Ibid., 21.
35. Ibid., 34.
36. Weaver, “Gnostics of Education,” 120.
37. Weaver, “The Attack Upon Memory,” in Visions of Order, 52.
38. Weaver, “The Attack Upon Memory,” 42.
39. Ibid., 43.
41. Ibid., 35.
42. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction 6 (quoted in the introduction to David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp), 11.
43. Weaver, “Gnostics of Education,” 132-33.
44. On this general theme, see the excellent essay by the late Mel Bradford, “Against the Barbarians,” in Against the Barbarians and Other Reflections on Familiar Themes (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1992): 7-16.
45. A.J. Conyers, The Eclipse of Heaven: Rediscovering the Hope of a World Beyond (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992); reprinted in 1999 by St. Augustine’s Press.
46. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 49.
47. Weaver, “The Image of Culture,” in Visions of Order, 4.
48. Weaver, “Education and the Individual,” in In Defense of Tradition, 187.
49. Marion Montgomery, “Consequences in the Provinces: Ideas Have Consequences Fifty Years After,” in Steps Toward Restoration: The Consequences of Richard Weaver’s Ideas, ed. Ted J. Smith, III (Delaware, IN: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998), 177.
50. Ibid., 183.
51. Ibid., 190.
52. Ibid., 231.
53. Ibid., 233.
54. Ibid., 242.
55. Ibid., 242.
56. Weaver, “The Older Religiousness of the South,” 135.
57. Weaver, Ibid., 135.
58. Weaver, Ibid.
59. Weaver, Ibid.
60. Weaver, Ibid., 141.
61. Weaver, Ibid., 140.
62. Weaver, Ibid., 141. He here references Allen Tate, “Religion and the Old South,” Tate’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977; originally published in 1930), 155-75.
63. Weaver, “The Older Religiousness of the South,” 141.
64. Weaver, Ibid., 146.
65. Walker Percy, “Stoicism in the South,” Signposts in a Strange Land (New York: Picador, 1991), 83-88.
66. Percy, Ibid., 86.
67. Percy, Ibid.
68. Allen Tate, “A Southern Mode of Imagination,” Essays of Four Decades (Chicago, IL: The Swallos Press, Inc., 1968), 577-92.
69. Ibid., 583. Tate’s words on southern conversation (p. 584) are worth quoting in full: “The Southerner always talks to somebody else, and this somebody else, after varying intervals, is given his turn; but the conversation is always among rhetoricians; that is to say, the typical Southern conversation is not going anywhere; it is not about anything. It is about the people who are talking, even if they never refer to themselves, which they usually don’t, since conversation is only an expression of manners, the purpose of which is to make everybody happy”).
70. Ibid., 585.
71. Ibid., 587.
72. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), I.83.
73. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, 182.
74. Weaver, Ibid., 184.
75. Weaver, Ibid., 185.
76. Weaver, Ibid., 186.
77. Williams, Revelation and Reconciliation, 6. Williams is quoting Kierkegaard, Works of Love, eds., H. and E. Hong (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 11.
78. Williams, Revelation and Reconciliation, 8.
79. Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, New Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 94.
80. Quoted in Williams, Revelation and Reconciliation, 80.
81. Williams, Revelation and Reconciliation, 81.
82. Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, Appendix A, “Division of the Contents of Philosophy,” trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 154. Hugh of St. Victor could also write, “The subject matter of all the Divine Scriptures is the work of man’s restoration” (3). See his De Sacramentis (On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith), ed., Roy J. Deferrari (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), Prologue.I (p. 3).