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Weaver's Southern Christendom

On March 27, 1998, Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, hosted a two-day symposium to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Professor Richard Weaver's seminal book, Ideas Have Consequences. From that small gathering of 100 people nine speakers were asked to submit papers. These submissions make up a rather remarkable book entitled: Steps Toward Restoration, The Consequences of Richard Weaver's Ideas. The book was edited by Professor Ted Smith III, one of the symposium's organizers, and published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1998. As Professor Smith explains in the introduction, the purpose of the symposium and the essays that followed was to “... focus less on the content of Ideas Have Consequences .... (and) more on its origins and effects ....“

In the opening essay Professor Smith details how Weaver's book came to be published by the Chicago Press, Weaver's objection to, what he considered, an atrocious cover, and the critical reviews published in the liberal media. Smith also provides an excellent biography of Weaver, explaining his dalliance with, first, “progressive” Christianity, then with “international socialism,” culminating in his membership in the American Socialist Party. Smith explains that when Weaver went to Vanderbilt, to pursue his doctoral thesis, he found himself among prominent agrarians, particularly John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. While he was a socialist he didn't particularly like the socialists he met; on the other hand, while he disagreed with the agrarian philosophy, he enjoyed the company of those agrarians in his circle of friends. Weaver's conundrum, a conflict of “feelings,” was not a propitious start for a philosopher/rhetorician who would lead the charge against the statist barricades.

Not until 1939, Professor Smith points out, would Weaver finally make the break with socialism. Later, that same year he made the decision to halt his doctoral work at Vanderbilt and begin anew at Louisiana State University. His new doctoral dissertation, titled: The Confederate South, 1865—1910: A Study in the Survival of a Mind and a Culture, was begun under H. Arlin Turner but completed under Cleanth Brooks.

His dissertation would reveal a particular American culture that essentially was feudal, chivalrous, hierarchical, stable, and harmonious. A culture that educated its “gentlemen” to understand virtue, morals, and a “humanism” that defines “the classic qualities of magnificence, magnanimity, and liberality” and one, in which, its people practiced an “older religiousness” that was conscientious in its rituals and obedient to doctrine.

So we come to the crux of Weaver's argument. The South, rejecting materialism as an end in itself, believed in those things of higher value: in metaphysical absolutism, in an acceptance of universals, in the transcendent, and revealed Truth. Weaver understood the pernicious effects of Original Sin, that man's nature, while created good, is now corrupted, disposed more toward doing evil than doing good, and that this condition could not be relieved until man became subservient to God's Will and abandoned man's will. Then a society could perpetuate a “moral order.” All of these themes were writ large in Southern Christendom, rooted in the reality of the soil, in agrarianism. Her people conducted themselves with an eye toward God, and moral rectitude, with an understanding of the importance of the family, and the special relationship of the land and community. The South sought to re-create a non-materialist, moral, society and Weaver opined that, “Only this can save us from a future of nihilism, urged on by the demoniacal force of technology and by our own moral defeatism.”

Mark G. Malvasi, writes that, “The Southern tradition, in Weaver's analysis, offered a core of resistance to the most powerfully corrupting forces of the modern age: rationalism, positivism, materialism, egalitarianism, individualism, and science.” Malvasi argues that modernity had successfully “abolished both the past and the transcendent as dimensions of meaning.” Man may become materially rich and physically comfortable, Malvasi explains, but there is a dysphoria expressed by “the deep psychic anxiety” and dramatic increases in mental illness. A society does not attain greatness merely by achieving wealth, abundance, and power but rather through the “resilience, magnanimity, and piety of its people.”

And, for Weaver, as Malvasi points out, the best evidence of this “resilience” was the Southern people who, “Trusting in God to bless and keep them and their loved ones, ... acquired a penetrating wisdom and a tragic spirituality amid the wreckage of their world.”

Author and historian, George H. Nash, posits that Weaver sought to “reestablish belief in the reality of transcendentals.” But, first, Weaver was required to explain in Ideas Have Consequences that America in 1948 was in cultural decline. A decline began four hundred years earlier—in Weaver's opinion—when William of Occam espoused the “fateful doctrine of nominalism.” A doctrine that superseded medieval logical realism and in so doing was “the crucial event of the history of Western culture.” It was the virulent philosophical offspring of nominalism, relativism, empiricism, “the hubris of technology,” that Weaver so assiduously critiques.

Nash also points out Weaver's total belief in “unalloyed moral and metaphysical absolutism.” And, because of his apodictic defense of that faith, the nascent conservative movement would not be reduced to “expediency and mindless pragmatism.” Because of Weaver, contemporary conservatism would be anchored on “objective moral order,” and a firm belief in “the permanent things.” And, along with this foundational element Weaver presented a “Roman Catholic interpretation” of modernity by claiming that “The metaphysical right of religion went out at the time of the Reformation.” And, because of the Reformation “... every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.”

Weaver postulated that the primary component, that moving force in the reality of societies, was ideas. Nash explains that this theme provided encouragement to conservatives who may have felt overwhelmed by the stunning rise of American statism, and the corresponding cultural decline brought about by materialism and nihilism. Nash refers to Weaver as “eerily prescient” when he wrote; “We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.”

Professor Lawrence J. Prelli examines Weaver's book from a rhetorical perspective while utilizing The Southern Tradition at Bay as the “key” to understanding the depth and richness of his cogent arguments. Prelli's essay explains why Weaver's work so powerfully influenced some of the great intellects of the twentieth century and why his work continues to gain converts.

Marion Montgomery's essay is an exegetical tour de force. It is a magnificent and in depth historical and metaphysical examination of the rise of false doctrines and the “collapse of Western civilization.” In a profound passage, pregnant with the knowledge of the immanent nature of man, Montgomery tells us “We are born traditionalists, like it or not ... we are born original and regional, though we may make ourselves provincials in false pursuits of self-declared originality.” This essay is worth the price of the book. It should be published separately and distributed widely.

All of the essays in Steps Toward Restoration are incisively written, and sometimes poignant. They provide information that brings us to a deeper understanding of one of America's leading intellects, a man who changed America's political landscape forever and resisted the “demonic” forces at every opportunity.

There is, however, one point that none of the contributors spends much time with, and that's Richard Weaver's agrarian perspective. The significance of man's inveterate relationship with the soil—the earth—establishes an intellectual and, more importantly, a moral nexus to the awareness and comprehension of the “permanent things.” A contribution by Wendell Berry or Gene Logsdon would have provided a certain intellectual verification from someone who is actually a practicing “agrarian!” But that observation in no way detracts from a book that stands as a beacon in “the darkening twilight of Christendom.”