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Weaver of Liberty

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03/06/2001Joseph R. Stromberg

Attachment to tradition and attachment to free-market sensibilities are often thought to be in conflict. What, then, are we to make of traditionalist Richard M. Weaver’s recommendation, in a newly published collection of essays, that the works of Ludwig von Mises be a staple of a good university education? It suggests the possibility that the supposed conflict has been wildly exaggerated. 

Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963) was a contributor to that strand of American thought that be called "libertarian conservatism."  He was not just someone who wrote, now and then, on politics; he was a student of the essential Western traditions in philosophy and rhetoric, professor of English at the University of Chicago, and--not least--a Southerner capable of making an internal critique of Southern history and society without conceding much to the enemies of the "region."  

Weaver was a great critic of modern society--its modes of speaking and thinking, its approach to warfare, its abandonment of real education in favor of Deweyism and worse. In short, his subject was the conscious abandonment by Western intellectual and political leaders of their own cultural heritage and, indeed, of their own metaphysical premises. A new collection, In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, edited by Ted J. Smith III, sheds fresh light on the content and sheer range of Weaver’s thinking.1

Before turning to the new book, I would like to survey Weaver’s views as found in his previously published works.

Metaphysical Default  

Weaver’s writings include Ideas Have Consequences (1948), The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953),  Visions of Order (1964), and Life Without Prejudice (1965), the latter two being published after his death. A kind of neo-Platonist realism runs through the first two works, but by the late 1950s, Weaver had moved to a more explicitly Christian form of realism. His tireless critique of modernism may remind some of postmodernism, but one suspects that if he were alive today, Weaver would view most of the postmodern fads as perfect examples of the intellectual fragmentation and disintegration already visible within modernism at mid-century.

Weaver was convinced that among the abiding sins of modernism, as practiced since before the French Revolution, were the inability to make real distinctions about anything, relativism, and an  obsession with method (technique), all adding up to refusal to take the ontological order as real. In the hands of conservative writers less serious and less careful, this might have seemed a tedious retelling of an old story with William of Occam as its central villain. With Weaver, however, we find a serious scholar undertaking to show the deep significance to our everyday lives of seemingly abstract debates over our fundamental assumptions.  I cannot prove that claim here and only refer interested readers to Weaver’s own work.

For Weaver, the decline of religiousness of any deep sort was central to the unraveling of Western Man.  But he did not write about theology, as such, and there is much that even secularists interested in liberty (and related matters) can learn from him.  A few points must suffice. Weaver writes that "the goal of social democracy is scientific feeding"--and wasn’t that the central theme of the last election campaign?  Further: "The most insidious idea employed to break down society is an undefined equalitarianism."  Well, just watch the 6 o’clock news. Yet once the egalitarians achieve their nearby goals, "they merely substitute a bureaucratic hierarchy" for natural social differentiations.2   In our times, this ideologically-driven class of techno-bureaucrats then does the empirical "research" needed to "prove"the unaccountable persistence of human differences and declares yet another war on actual existing society in the name of finishing its utopian project. (And they get paid for doing this!)                          

Blinded by Science

In our intellectual life, Weaver noted, there is much talk of amassing data accurately so as to draw conclusions, but, in fact, "the judgments are never made."  Scientism-- the worship of the assumptions and methods of natural science carried over into the study of society and culture--went hand in hand with a technocratic attitude that "because a thing can be done, it must be done." Specialization, the concentration on small bits of knowledge, reinforced that notion. Hence, the atomic bomb: "The bomb was an unparalleled means; was this not enough?"   

Weaver speculates that if the specialists had "known that their efforts were being directed to the slaughter of noncombatants on a scale never before contemplated, or to a perfection of brutality....," a few "might have refused complicity."  "Perhaps [these few] would have had some concept of war as an institution which forbids aimless killing...."  But for the most part, he believed, they would have taken the same attitude as those scientist who loyally served the Third Reich.3 

Here I have already overshot my mark and begun talking about war. But Weaver’s writings are like that. He saw no neat separation between morality, metaphysics, and workaday reality.  I mean, it’s been awfully nice of Jürgen Habermas to worry about the abuses of "instrumental reason" for us all these years, but think what he might have done with a different metaphysical jumping-off point.  

The Great Cultural Smörgåsbord

Take, for example, Weaver’s views on cultures as actually existing phenomena. He writes that cultural freedom implies "two rights must be respected: the right of cultural pluralism where different cultures have developed, and the right of cultural autonomy in the development of a single culture."  I take this to be libertarianism-rightly-understood, where cultural questions intrude. He does not recommend that we pull down our own house out of guilt or egalitarian fervor, nor does he suggest inviting everyone in the world to move here and see how it works out.  Where differing cultures already exist, however, they ought to be accommodated. Weaver’s wide reading and reflection on Southern history clearly have some bearing on this formulation.4 

Meditating on the moderns’ tendency to view cultures as big restaurant menus from which to pick items or traits to reassemble into something new, Weaver wrote: "Syncretistic cultures like syncretistic religions have always proved relatively powerless to create and to influence; there is no weight of authentic history behind them."5   So much,, then for the U.S./Eurocrat project of post-Western Man, however many new weapons of mass destruction the spetsialisty may invent and field, without, of course, first inquiring into the morality of their practices. 

Of Moral Midgets and Total Warriors   

Weaver commented in 1948 on "the paradox of materialist Russia expanding by the irresistible force of idea [emphasis added], while the United States, which supposedly has the heritage of values and ideals, frantically throws up barricades of money around the globe."6 He was not exactly surprised, having already begun his critique of modern, Total War. This is perhaps most developed in Visions of Order. Here, Weaver notes that wars formerly had been part of civilization; that is, they had been conducted on the basis of commonly understood rules for limited ends. The ability of the French Revolution to field massive armies on the basis of conscription helped destroy the old rules of war.  A major turning point was the way in which the United States (the North) conducted its war against Southern secession, 1861-65.  World War I enlarged the criminal remodeling of warfare, and World War II--the Only Good War, waged by the Greatest Generation, as we now say--perfected it.  World War II "reduced the word ‘noncombatant’ almost to meaninglessness."7           

The very notion of "victory" had changed into something that the Good Side already possessed by right, from the outset, "or rather would have except for the inexcusable resistance of a totally depraved opponent." Hence: "No excuse can arise for not waging the war by any and all means."

Do you have a new weapon that throws used circular saw blades?  Use it!  Do you have jellied petroleum (NAPALM), developed by the nice folks at Harvard?  Use it!  Is your uranium depleted?  The answer is clear. To the claim that use of any-and-all weapons of mass destruction "shortens the war" and thereby "saves lives" (net), Weaver makes the obvious reply that "If the saving of lives were the primary consideration, there need never be any war in the first place."  As it was, our crusade of 1941-45 had "ended in a situation in which we make ‘perpetual war’ in order to have a distant ‘perpetual peace’"--a nice echo of Harry Elmer Barnes.8

Weaver’s was not a pacifist position. He arrived at it from the premises of his own civilization. There might be wars, but they ought to be conducted by inherited rules of civilized conduct, at least so long as we had any claim to civilization. Civilization grew by learning to make distinctions--metaphysical and otherwise--and by developing internal restraints "slowly and painfully... through patient example and exhortation."9 

Brought into relation to war and other matters, those difficult notions like ontology don’t seem quite so medieval, do they?                                      

I have to say that, given everything Weaver wrote about making distinctions and, indeed, about the just conduct of war, he would not be found today in the Establishment conservative chorus baying for a bigger military establishment with mega-colossal funding or for the much-ballyhooed missile defense system. He would agree with the critique of feminism and egalitarianism as forces undermining the armed forces. But even with the Bushies in town, he would want to know what the armed forces, of whatever size, were for, in the first place, and whether the big spenders’ overarching conception of the military’s mission was, well, moral.

Weaver Regained 

The new Weaver compilation gives us even more reason to appreciate this essential but neglected libertarian conservative. In the introduction, Ted Smith III attempts to sweep away sundry tall tales that somehow have stuck to Weaver’s reputation. Some, eager to overstate Weaver’s agrarianism, spun tales about his plowing his land with a horse, those times he was actually in North Carolina. Others made much of his supposedly living like a recluse in a near-garret in the vicinity of the University of Chicago.10 On the basis of thorough knowledge of the primary sources, Smith cuts these legends down to size. He sketches out Weaver’s education (University of Kentucky, Vanderbilt University, Louisiana State University), his teaching career, and his early influences, and does an admirable job on the development of his ideas and writings. A complete bibliography of Weaver’s published works finishes out the book.

A Cook’s Tour of the Restored Oeuvre

The body of the book is 763 pages of Weaver’s essays that were published in National Review; Human Events; various scholarly publications, including The Suwanee Review, Modern Age, and The Intercollegiate Review; and newspapers, including the Nashville Tennessean, along with a few  speeches before sundry audiences. The work is divided into eight sections: Life and Family (pp. 1-58), The Critique of Modernity (pp. 59-164), Education (pp. 165-267), Rhetoric and Sophistic (269-370), The Humanities, Literature, and Language (pp. 371-452), Politics (pp. 453-607), History (pp. 609-670), and The South (pp. 671-763), which will give the reader some idea of Weaver’s major interests.  (One wonders if Weaver could even be published, today, in National Review and if the readers could make anything of it, if he were.)

I can only give here a sample of Weaver’s insights and style, as found in In Defense of Tradition.  In the autobiographical "Up from Liberalism," Weaver remarks of the University of Kentucky that it "was what would be called in Europe a ‘provincial university,’ but I have since come to believe that if it had been more provincial in the right way and less sedulously imitative of the dominant American model, it would have offered better fare." (p. 33). 

He characterizes the modern American "liberal" thus: "He is a defender of individualism and local rights, but let some strong man appear, who promises salvation through ‘leadership,’ and the liberal becomes indistinguishable from the totalitarian. Hence the totalitarian liberal of our times, a contradiction in terms, but an embodiment in the flesh, and a dire menace to government based upon rights."  As if to clear things up long beforehand for those puzzled, two years ago, by the liberal bombers of Serbia, he adds, "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" (p. 49). 

 "In Relativism and the Crisis of Our Times," Weaver remarks, on the basis of his teaching experiences, that "Somewhere along the line the students have been given the notion that they should discard all general propositions – reject them.  If they did so actually, of course, we would never be able to teach them anything."  But it wasn’t just students.  The same rejection could be found in the highest level.  Justices Holmes and Vinson had both stated that concepts lacked permanent reference points; everything, it seemed,  depended on circumstances (p. 99).  

In the end, the relativist had "no outside authority, no constraining transcendent idea to appeal to or to be deterred by." Thus "relativism as a doctrine must eventually lead to a regime of force" (p. 104).  After Ruby Ridge, Waco, and much more, it is harder to ignore this insight. Weaver seems more and more a prophet, although what he really did was to give careful heed to the logical implications of the philosophical errors of his day.

In "Reflections of Modernity," a talk on regionalism given, interestingly, in Provo, Utah, Weaver noted: "But an international culture is a contradiction in terms.  There are no international roots.  Cultures are sometimes national or roughly co-extensive with the nation (if the nation is not too big a one), but in most instances they are geographically regional.  In proportion as on tries to stretch a culture wide, it gets thin" (p. 113, his italics).   The war on authentic regions is Jacobin in character.  The German regime of the 1930s was was a Jacobinism of the Right, a fact obscured by refering to it as "Nazi" rather than "National Socialist."  Further" "Jacobinism hates the past, and hating the past it really hates humanity. Its zeal is all for power, systemization, regimentation…." (p. 115).  Here, I think one can locate the ongoing campaign to erase all symbols of Southern history and life.  Weaver, of course, was a great student of earlier attempts to deconstruct his homeland.

Weaver was very good at sticking pins in the overinflated baloons of "social science." Thus:  "Too often the discoveries of ‘the science of human relations’ are but new phrases, murkier than the ones they are intended to supplant" ("On Social Science," p. 139).  In "Social Science in Excelsis" he dealt with attempts to make history scientific: "History is not primarily concerned with abstracting, but with reconstructing unique events that happened in irreversible time."  Worse, "a basic tenet of this branch of social science is that man is always pushed but never pulled; he has ‘drives’ and ‘strains,’ but neither freely willed goals nor a destiny." The practitioners were hard at work reducing values to mere data.  Hence:  "Social science, because it has leaped to a premise of the infinite predictability and infinite manipulability of man, looks forward to some millenial reconstruction of society" (p. 142).

Weaver’s essay "On Social Science" was written for a symposium on Scientism and Values organized by Dr. Helmut Schoeck of Emory University in 1958. 11  Murray Rothbard, another contributor to the symposium, wrote a memo on the various papers in August 1958 for the Volker Fund.  He called Weaver’s paper "excellent and stimulating… about a field – rhetoric – largely revived in the modern world, to my knowledge, by Professor Weaver."  Weaver’s essay was "pure delight" and looked toward development of "a metaphysics of society" in the Natural Law tradition.12 

Weaver believed that the kind of society likely to be created by earnest social scientists would not be particularly liberal. Reviewing a history of the Eastern Roman Empire, Weaver writes:  "Strange though the thought may at first appear, there are nations of the modern world which, in their bureaucratic and industrial organizations, seem to be falling into the Byzantine pattern" – a comparison also made by Old Right writer Felix Morley at the beginning of the Cold War ("Proud ‘City of God’," p. 153).

Skewering another typical social scientist in a book review, Weaver comments that Professor MacIver "thinks that the pursuit of happiness requires philosophizing, yet he does not believe that philosophy can ever arrive at any real truths.  The image it evokes for me is that of a man trying to warm his hands before the fire of his own skepticism" ("Cold Comfort," p. 154).

Weaver cared deeply about education in the classical sense.  Seeking to sort out whether communists should be allowed to teach, he comes to this judicious conclusion: "indoctrination can be recognized and checked only by those societies which accept the objectivity of truth. If truth is regarded as dependent upon the will of the local or national government, nothing that it wishes taught can be called indoctrination.  But in a society where truth is regarded as something having objective status, many things can and will be taught which run counter to the views of a given political administration" ("Education: Reflections on," p. 173).

As for education as actually practised in the United States,  friends of the "new education" wish "to teach the young to adjust to life."  Now "we begin to wonder what kind of thing they imagine life to be."  Apparently, it is "life lived in 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).  This seems a fair summary of everyone and everything from John Dewey to our new "education" President.  

By contrast, Weaver believed that an appreciation of real, existing individual differences was the chief justification of democratic systems of rule ("Education and the Individual," p. 197).  Not surprisingly in the light of this defense of individuals, Weaver – the supposed anti-commercial agrarian - mentions favorably those economists who reject the "defeatist economic [outlook] of thirty years ago," naming Mises, Hayek, and Roepke ("The Role of Education in Shaping Our Society," p. 222).

While I am on the subject of free-market economics, I should mention that in a panel discussion with Stuart Gerry Brown, a modern liberal, and Aaron Director, a pro-market economist, Weaver is always found on the same side as Director in oppositon to state economic planning ("Who Are Today’s Conservatives?," pp. 457-467).  In "Conservatism and Libertarianism: The Common Ground," Weaver speaks of laws which are part of "the structure of reality" and specifically discusses the "praxeology" [of Ludwig von Mises] in a favorable manner (p. 480).   (The whole essay is nine or ten times friendlier to libertarianism than anything Russel Kirk ever wrote.) 

Weaver believed that "a free society is by definition a pluralistic one" where "there are many different centers of authority, influence, and opinion, competing with one another, arguing with one another,… and producing a great variety, richness, and animation" ("Responsible Rhetoric," p. 191).  It took a real public, genuinely educated, to sustain such a society – an educational model which is, in fact, the polar opposite of today’s enforced multicultural "diversity."

Weaver insisted that social "facts" are not given, but correspond to categories imposed by the sociological worker, who therefore is a concealed political philosopher or advocate pretending to scientific objectivity (p. 322).  "On the other hand, a large part of the subject matter of the student of society does consist of the subjective element in human beings. This has to be recognized as a causative agent" and "studied but it cannot be simplistically quantified" ("Concealed Rhetoric In Scientistic Sociology," p. 331, my italics).

In an anticipation of all the recent babble by the postmodern sects, Weaver noted that, for relativists, there are "no fixed significations." Thus: "Meaning is contingent and evolving," hence no stable right and wrong (p. 390).   Granting that the units of language (words) are arbitrary, Weaver concludes: "The real task is always to find the right construction for the real order in the logical order" ("Relativism and the Use of Language," p. 399).  

Weaver’s views on culture are particularly important these days:  "Culture grows from roots more enduring than those of the political state" and "the very fact that it has not chosen to embody [political] abstractions is evidence that they are extraneous."  Hence, the state’s attitude toward culture should be one of laissez faire ("The Importance of Cultural Freedom," p. 408).  Someone should mention this idea to our current crop of rulers.  One might pass it along, as well, to those libertarians who imagine that someone like Weaver was itching to "impose" his vision of culture by political means.

Weaver was not the stereotypical conservative of liberal fable, fretfully striving to censor dear old artists.  Instead, he commented:  "We are still suffering from the Puritan gnosis, which operates by rejecting totally certain parts of reality and then reacts hysterically when these parts come slipping back in the forms of artistic representation" (p. 414).  A culture should judge  artists "in the name of art, identifying but not forcibly suppressing, the faulty, which may be meretricious, didactic, or ideologically inspired" ("The Importance of Cultural Freedom," p. 421).  Weaver seems quite the classical liberal here, allthough he would doubtless be found in league with Jesse Helms where the work of publicly funded anti-Western art-phonies is concerned.

Two more items must suffice.  In a review of Amaury De Riencourt’s The Coming Caesars, Weaver complains that the book fails to "isolate with some degree of clarity the cause of Caesarism, as Garet Garrett did so brilliantly in The People’s Pottage" (p. 607).  This is more evidence that Weaver was closer to the Old Right on foreign policy than he was to the New. In a essay on Kentucky newspaper editor Henry Watterson, Weaver says – in passing – that "all ‘New South’ men are pragmatists just beneath the skin"("Person and Journalist,"p. 752). This calls to mind one of Weaver’s abiding themes: the need for an internal critique of the South, by Southerners and on Southern terms.

Here are 763 pages worth of reasons why libertarians and conservatives alike should take a second look at Richard M. Weaver.  With Leftists claiming to be so interested in rhetorical studies these days, perhaps they should look at him, too.


  • 1. See, especially, Ted J. Smith III, ed., In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). Smith’s introduction, pp. xi-xlviii, rescues Weaver as much from his "friends" as from his detractors and will kick off a new era in the study of Weaver’s achievement.
  • 2. Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 40-41.
  • 3. Ibid., pp. 60, 64-67
  • 4. Richard M. Weaver, Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965), p. 19.
  • 5. Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Bryn Mawr: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), p. 11.
  • 6. Ideas Have Consequences, p. 122.
  • 7. "A Dialectic on Total War" in Visions of Order, pp. 92-112. Quote from p. 98.
  • 8. Ibid., pp. 102-104.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 103.
  • 10. Smith, "Introduction,"  In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, pp. xiii-xviii.  Further references to this volume will be found in the text in parentheses).
  • 11. The final product was Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins, eds., Scientism and Values (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1960).
  • 12. In MEMOS, Aug. 1958, Rothbard Papers.
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