118 In Defense of Tradition

Having earlier read and relished the writing of Richard M. Weaver, most accessible in Ideas Have Consequences, I was delighted to recently acquire In Defense of Tradition:  Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis:  Liberty Fund, c. 2000), edited with a thorough Introduction by Ted J. Smith III.  The materials are rich, extensive (800 pp.), and inexpensive!

In the first of eight sections, “Life and Family,” we learn something about the young North Carolinian whose academic trajectory led him from the University of Kentucky (where he joined the American Socialist Party in 1934) to Vanderbilt University, where he soon jettisoned his sophomoric Marxism and went through a kind of “religious conversion” to the “Church of Agrarianism” under the influence of  the “Southern Agrarians” who so helped shape the nation’s literature in the pre-WWII era.  This “little band in Tennessee, made up of a few of the Fugitives and some others,” Weaver said, ” was almost the only force that challenged intellectually the presumptions of scientific positivism” (p. 758).  One of them, John Crowe Ransom, the author of God Without Thunder, taught Weaver and proved particularly influential in his development.

Looking back on this era, twenty years later, he wrote a key essay entitled “Up from Liberalism,” detailing his intellectual liberation from one of the dogmas of his era.  “The chief result of what I now think of as my re-education,” he wrote, “has been a complete disenchantment with liberalism that was the first stage of my reflective life.  Liberalism is the refuge favored by intellectual cowardice, because the essence of the liberal’s position is that he has no position” (p. 49).  Thus the “liberal” who blithely defends individual rights when they are popular quickly turns totalitarian when will-to-power polices become voguish.  “In times of peace, the liberal is often a shouter for pacifism, but let something he dislikes appear upon the horizon and he is the first to invoke the use of armed force.  In education, he believes in the natural goodness of the child and abhors the idea of corporal discipline, but he believes in spanking nations with atomic bombs until their will is broken” (p. 49).

Rejecting Liberalism, Weaver crafted a “Critique of Modernism” which exposed the flaws of its underlying scientism, deeply rooted in the dogma of Francis Bacon which treasures “knowledge as power” and freely cavalierly authorizes doing whatever one can do simply because it’s feasible.  Resisting its imperatives, engaged as an English professor at the University of Chicago, he treasured the power of language, cherished the civilizing power of the humanities, and worked hard to uphold the “liberal arts” tradition in higher education, where constant pressure to make students’ studies “practical” and “profitable” had undermined that traditional notion of education.

Modernism, Weaver argued, has precipitated a “crisis of the first magnitude,” preeminently evident in “a decay of belief in standards” (p. 98).  This is amply evident in the widespread embrace of relativism.  Weaver, italicizing his words for emphasis, provides us one of the most thorough definitions I’ve encountered:  “Relativism denies outright that there are any absolute truths, any fixed principles, or any standards beyond what one may consider his convenience.  A theory is true only relative to the point of view of the individual, or to the time in which it is asserted, or to the circumstances which prevail at the moment.  Truth is forever contingent and evolving, which means, of course, that you can never lay hands on it.  Relativism is actually the abdication of truth” (p. 99).

Illustrating his definition, Weaver cites such influential 20th century worldview architects as Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, who said:  “‘A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.’  And the late Chief Justice Vinson observed the following:  ‘Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that all concepts are relative:  a name, a phrase, a standard [and I may call attention to his use of the term “standard”] has meaning only when associated with the considerations which give birth to the nomenclature'” (p. 99).  Thinkers who embrace relativism, however, will ultimately resort to brute force, for nothing else proves decisive when ethical and epistemological absolutes disappear.

“Education” is the focus in section three of this volume, followed by “rhetoric and sophistic,” and  “the humanities, literature and language,”  in sections four and five.  Herein we find some of Weaver’s most profound insights and proposals.  In particular, he provides an incisive critique–indeed a ringing rejection–of John Dewey’s educational philosophy, which is still the guiding light for American educationists.  In shaping what is called “progressive education,” Dewey “applied his talents and longevity to wrecking the educational philosophy which had been built up through twenty-five centuries of classical and Christian experience” (p. 249).  His views have subverted “the discipline which has been used through the centuries to make the human being a more aware, resourceful, and responsible person” (p. 190).  Rather than prepare students to discern and live according to what’s real, Dewey hoped to condition them for “some kind of projected socialist commonwealth, where everybody has so conformed to a political pattern that there really are no problems any more” (p. 189).

Dewey and his disciples seek to use schools for political ends.  If you question this, check out the leading objectives outlined at the 2001 national convention of the National Education Association.  Dewey envisioned the schools as tools “for the implementing of social democracy or democratic socialism, whichever arrangement of the phrase you prefer” (p. 215).  Whereas the classical tradition valued learning simply as learning, to progressive educators academic “skills” and personal development have value solely insofar as they contribute to the making of a better world.

In a remarkably concise and incisive section, Weaver details the “chief assumptions and tenets” of progressive education:

1.  First, as to knowledge, there is no such thing as a body of knowledge which reflects the structure of

reality and which everyone therefore needs to learn.  Knowledge is viewed as an instrumentality which is

true or false according to the way it is applied to  concrete situations or the way it serves the purposes of

the individual.  Since most of these educators have embraced the notion that the essence of the world is

change, there is no final knowledge about anything.  The truths of yesterday are the falsehoods of today,

and the truths of today will be the falsehoods of tomorrow.

2.  This being so, the object of education is not to teach knowledge but to ‘teach students.’  What this

means is that everything should be adapted to the child as child,  to the youth as youth and to the

particular group according to its limitations.  There are no ideals or standards of performance which

these are bound to measure themselves by or to respect.

3.  As a corollary of the above principle, the child should be encouraged to follow his own desires in

deciding what he should study, and what aspects of what subjects, and at what times.

4.  The teacher must not think of himself as being in authority, because the very idea of authority is bad.

5.  The student should never be made  afraid of anything connected with the school.  Marks and competition

are evil because they result in feelings of inferiority and superiority, which are ‘undemocratic.’

6.  The mind is not to be exalted over the senses:  democracy requires that sensory and  ‘activist’ learning

would be valued on a par with intellectual learning.  The mentally slow or lazy are not to be made to feel

that they are lacking; it is better to impugn the whole tradition of intellectual education than to hurt the

feelings of the less bright and  the indolent.

7.  Consequently there should be less education through symbols like language and figures and more

through using the hands on concrete objects.  It is more important to make  maps than to learn, them,

said John Dewey, the grand prophet of this revolutionary movement.

8.  The general aim is to train the student so that he will adjust not to the now-existing society, as is

sometimes inferred from their words, but to a society conceived as a thoroughly secular social

democracy.  (pp. 491-492).

Opposing such an apostasy from authentic education, Weaver insisted that a good education is “education for goodness.”  Central to this educational philosophy should be the perennial questions “what is man?” and “what should he become?”  If he is more than a higher animal, contra Dewey,  man’s education must engage his real self, his soul.  If he is free to make moral decisions, to cooperate in the formation of character, his education must be more than social adjustment, preparation for a slot in his world.  Consequently, “education’s first loyalty is to the truth” (p. 193),  and it “has a major responsibility to what we think of as objectively true.  But it also has a major responsibility to the person.  We may press this even further and say that education must regard two things as sacred:  the truth, and the personality that is to be brought into contact with it” (pp. 193-194).   

                To know the truth, to live rightly in accord with it, also means speaking and writing the truth.  In an essay every teacher should digest, “To Write the Truth,” Weaver explains how a fateful decision took place in the 14th century when rhetoricians replaced vere loqui with recte loqui.  To speak truly or to speak rightly–that is the question.  In time recte loqui descended to utiliter loqui–useful speaking.  Consequently, modern teachers often assume the ancient Sophists’ mantles, teaching students how to use words in order to pursue personal or ideological agendas, “making speech the harlot of the arts” (p. 230).

Such harlotry pervades relativism, one of the major threats to our culture.  It emerges from the darkness in the subtle but profound prevarication of words’ meanings.  “We mark a growing tendency among certain groups of people to refer to alcoholics, moral delinquents, and even criminals as ‘sick’ people.  The violence that this does to the legitimate meaning of ‘sick’ is easily seen” (p. 402).  Moral responsibility disappears in the smokescreen of such prevarication.  Still more, and most importantly:  “It has always been thought that society is the victim of the criminal.  But now it is being implied, through a tendentious use of language, that the criminal is the victim of society, which did not take appropriate steps to keep him from getting ‘sick.’  But this verbal trick, what was formerly considered worthy of punishment is held up for indulgent sympathy” (p. 403).

Vere loqui!  Language truly matters!  In John Milton’s memorable words:  “‘Nor do I think it a matter of little moment whether the language of a people be vitiated or refined, whether the popular idiom be erroneous or correct. . . .  It is the opinion of Plato, that changes in the dress and habits of the citizens portend great changes and commotions in the state; and 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 or their 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'” (p. 388).

Should we, like Weaver, wish to promote vere loqui, we must begin by helping students rightly name what is real.  As Plato so wisely shows us in Cratylus, names enable us to teach (didaskalikon) and distinguish aspects of reality.  Teachers know how to name what is, to provide words which unveil the essence of what is.  Objective truth, truth regarding a real world apart from us, must exist of we can teach anything at all.  Consequently:  “There are two postulates basic to our profession:  the first is that one man can know more than another, and the second is that such knowledge can be imparted.  Whoever cannot accept both should retire from the profession and renounce the intention of teaching anyone anything” (p. 233).

Weaver also helps us understand how to construct an argument, to reason in accord with what classical thinkers labeled four topoi, or topics.  First, we sometimes rely on definitions, arguing from genus, accurately identifying what is.  Second, we sometimes argue from consequences, showing the nature of something as it is displayed in what occurs.  Third, we reason from metaphors and analogies, similarities and differences, understanding what is unknown in terms of what is more immediately known.  Fourth, we rely upon authority, as when we follow a skilled performer’s example, or trust an older person with experience in a certain area, or believe the information in an instruction manual or holy text.

In section six, “politics,” Weaver demonstrates the reason he was one of the guiding lights for the combative conservatism highly evident in William F. Buckley’s National Review, for which Weaver regularly wrote book reviews.  By mid-century, “liberalism” had clearly triumphed in significant spheres of America’s public life.  As in education, John Dewey, was its great guru, and his devotees, trumpeting their views in the pages of the Nation and the New Republic, “have undermined the basis of discipline and disparaged the authority of knowledge.  No man can estimate the ravages that have flowed from this misguided philosopher” (p. 471).  Spokesmen for the regnant intelligentsia “are not afraid to attack those things which our forefathers regarded with deepest veneration–the concept of truth, the feeling of patriotism, the idea of personal loyalty, the belief that there are great men” (p. 470).  As radicals, they sought to make their will their law and impose it on their world.  Knowing what they wanted, they wanted to make everyone else fit into their fantasies for progress and “social justice.”

As in education, Weaver proposes realism as the political antidote to modern errors.  “It is my contention,” he said, in one of the best definitions I’ve encountered, “that a conservative is a realist, who believes that there is a structure of reality independent of his own will and desire.  He believes that there is a creation which was here before him, which exists now not by just his sufferance, and which will be here after he’s gone.  This structure consists not merely of the great physical world but also of many laws, principles, and regulations which control human behavior.  Though this reality is independent of the individual, it is not hostile to him.  It is in fact amenable by him in many ways, but it cannot be changed radically and arbitrarily.  This is the cardinal point.  The conservative holds that man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things” (p. 477).

Conversely, modern liberalism, with its collectivist commitment to the welfare state, endeavors to improve upon reality, to re-vision and re-construct things, above all making life more comfortable for everyone.  The liberal “shows a definite antagonism toward all strenuous ideals of life.  The code of the warrior, of the priest, and even of the scholar, denying the self for transcendent ends, stands in the new lexicon as anti-Liberal.  . . . .  ‘For they are moderate also even in virtue–because they want comfort,’ says Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra” (p. 548).  It follows, then, that individuals are used (generally by subjecting them to a variety of ever-burgeoning bureaucracies ) as means to an exalted end, a “great society” of some sort.

In Weaver’s judgment, “the chief enemy of freedom and virtue (and the inseparability of these constitutes his chief affirmative point) is the Liberal-collectivist dogma, which is summed up [by Frank Meyer] in a brilliant paragraph:   Emotionally, it prefers psychoanalysis to the dark night of the soul, “adjustment” to achievement, security to freedom.  It preaches ‘the end of ideology,’ admires experts and fears prophets, fears above all commitment to value transcending the fact” (p. 533).

Healthy antidotes to the illusions of liberalism include the study of  history, dealt with in section seven, a subject which engaged Weaver’s scholarly attention throughout his life, and an appreciation for his beloved region, the South, the focus of the eighth and final section.  Due to its disinterest in history and contempt for the South, Weaver believed, “Liberalism is the death-wish of modern civilization.  In its incapacity for commitment, its nihilistic approach, and its almost pathological fear of settled principle, Liberalism operates to destroy everything and conserve nothing” (p. 715).