To the Virginian conservative the figure of Richard Weaver is at once curious and compelling. Curious, because his life and work are virtually unremarked in the political councils of self-described conservatives. Compelling, because no one has better identified the principles of the conservative individual or society and the intellectual currents within the modern era against which the conservative, socially, politically, economically, and religiously, contends. In other words, Weaver answers the two crucial questions-rarely asked-that the conservative must-and rarely does-answer, namely, What does the conservative seek to conserve? And, to what principles can the conservative appeal in advancing his argument against the dominant ethos of our era, that is, liberalism?
Weaver is a central figure in what George Nash has well described as “the conservative intellectual movement in America since World War II.” It was the work of the writers of this “movement,” including James Burnham, Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, Russell Kirk, the young William F. Buckley, Jr., and Weaver that gave intellectual ballast to anti-totalitarianism and directly informed the political careers of the young Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and, most especially, Ronald Reagan. To a small band of writers associated with such magazines as Chronicles, Modern Age, and (less so) National Review, Weaver retains a legendary status if a greatly diminished direct influence. But there is not a single reference to Weaver in the biographies of Virginia’s leading political leaders, most notably Harry Byrd and Mills Godwin, of the same era, nor does Weaver’s name appear in such major works on the political history of post-war Virginia as The Crisis of Conservative Virginia, by James W. Ely, Jr., or The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Virginia’s Republican Party Since 1945, by Frank B. Atkinson. (Harry Byrd’s life spanned the years 1887 and 1966, and he served in the U.S. Senate from 1933 to 1965. Weaver was born in 1910 and died in 1963. In other words, Weaver was a principal spokesman for conservative intellectual credibility during precisely those decades that political figures such as Byrd, or Senators Robert Taft and John Bricker of Ohio, espoused in the United States Senate what were at the time described as conservative political purposes.)
It is this chasm between the intellectual lineage of conservative principles and the actual political lineage of purportedly conservative political endeavor in Virginia that a reading of Richard Weaver’s work could, if only in part, bridge. (Probably the only Virginian political figure of recent times acquainted with Weaver’s work was the late Richard Obenshain. Certainly Weaver’s writings were a profound influence in the life and labors of Obenshain’s contemporary and friend, Donald Huffman of Roanoke, long-time chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.) Which is why the publication of Weaver’s collected shorter writings is an occasion for rejoicing.
Weaver was born in North Carolina and reared in Kentucky. (He deemed Southside Virginia to be “the most Southern place in the South.”) As a young student he became a Socialist after the manner of Norman Thomas, and he retained a gnawing concern that capitalism unchecked by social custom and religious conviction would issue in an individualism, materialism, and hedonism that would dissolve the very things-family, community, society, church, and polity-that the conservative seeks to conserve. Responding to the triumph of collectivist ideologies in political affairs in both Europe and the United States during the 1930s and ‘40s, Weaver devoted his studies to an exhaustive examination of the philosophical and historical grounds of both conservative and liberal thinking. The first fruit of these studies brought him national renown in 1948 when the University of Chicago Press published Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, a taxonomy of the false notions about human nature and existence that led directly to the catastrophes of the twentieth century. (Weaver located the source of such modern ills in the nominalism of William of Ockham, 1300-1349.) Subsequently Weaver published a series of essays collected in such volumes as The Ethics of Rhetoric, Visions of Order, and Life Without Prejudice, and his dissertation was published after his death as The Southern Tradition at Bay. All the while, Weaver was a professor of English in the University of Chicago.
The scope and reach of Weaver’s work was astonishing, as In Defense of Tradition demonstrates. Here are to be found-and savored-nearly a dozen essays never before published, and scores of shorter book reviews and letters that appeared in long-defunct magazines of modest circulation. As a result, for the first time, all of Weaver’s work is available to the confessing conservative who would test his political policies against the sword of Weaver’s philosophical principles. For example, to Weaver the Southern tradition was worth conserving because “the South [is/was] the last non-materialist civilization in the Western world.” Does anyone in Atlanta-or Richmond or Fairfax-believe that today? Or, “The true conservative is one who sees the universe as a paradigm of essences, of which the phenomenology of the world is a sort of continuing approximation. Or, to put this in another way, he sees it as a set of definitions which are struggling to get themselves defined in the real world.” Not for Weaver was the stock market a reliable barometer of American well-being-except, perhaps, in some inverse proportion.
In Defense of Tradition is the accomplishment of Professor Ted J. Smith III of the Mass Communications department in Virginia Commonwealth University. Previously Professor Smith produced Steps Toward Restoration: The Consequences of Richard Weaver’s Ideas, and he is at work on what surely will be the definitive biography of his subject. Not only have his years of labor completed the presentation of Weaver’s great work, but in a lengthy Introduction Professor Smith illumines the personal history and intellectual pilgrimage of a man whose example and writings demand a principal place in the consideration of every individual who is striving to be worthy of participation in the polis of the Commonwealth, whether as conservative, liberal, or-as is so often the case today, for reasons Weaver brilliantly identifies-neither, which is to say moderate. The riches to be found in this massive volume are indicated by titles of the eight sections into which they have been arranged: “Life and Family,” “The Critique of Modernity,” “Education,” “Rhetoric and Sophistic,” “The Humanities, Literature, and Language,” “Politics,” “History,” and “The South.”