Richard M. Weaver

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For other people of the same name, see Richard Weaver (disambiguation).

Richard Malcolm Weaver, Jr (March 3, 1910 – April 1, 1963) was an American scholar who taught English at the University of Chicago. He is primarily known as an intellectual historian, political philosopher and a shaper of mid-20th century conservatism and as an authority on modern rhetoric. Weaver was briefly a socialist in his youth, a lapsed leftist intellectual (conservative by the time he was in graduate school), a teacher of composition, a Platonist philosopher, cultural critic, and a theorist of human nature and society. Described by biographer Fred Young (1995: 4) as a "radical and original thinker," Richard Weaver's books Ideas Have Consequences and The Ethics of Rhetoric remain influential among conservative theorists and scholars of the American South. Weaver was also associated with the "New Conservatives," a group of scholars who in the 1940s and 1950s promoted traditionalist conservatism.


Weaver was the eldest of four children born to a middle-class white Southern family in Asheville, North Carolina. His father, Richard Sr., owned a livery stable. Following the death of her husband in 1915, Carolyn Embry Weaver supported her children by working in her family's department store in her native Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington is the home of the University of Kentucky and of two private colleges.

Despite his family's straitened circumstances following the death of his father, Richard Jr. attended a private boarding school and the University of Kentucky. He earned an A.B in English in 1932. The teacher at Kentucky who most influenced him was Francis Galloway. After a year of graduate study at Kentucky, Weaver began a master's degree in English at Vanderbilt University. John Crowe Ransom supervised his thesis, titled The Revolt against Humanism, a critique of the humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. Weaver then taught one year at Auburn University and three years at Texas A&M University.

In 1940, Weaver began a Ph.D. in English at Louisiana State University (LSU), whose faculty included the rhetoricians and critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, and the conservative political philosopher Eric Voegelin. While at LSU, Weaver spent summers studying at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the Sorbonne. His Ph.D. was awarded in 1943 for a thesis, supervised first by Arlin Turner then by Cleanth Brooks, titled The Confederate South, 1865-1910: A Study in the Survival of a Mind and a Culture. It was published in 1968, posthumously, under the title The Southern Tradition at Bay.

After one year's teaching at North Carolina State University, Weaver joined the English department at the University of Chicago, where he spent the rest of his career (Young 3-4), and where his exceptional teaching earned him that university's Quantrell Award in 1949. In 1957, Weaver wrote the first article in the inaugural issue of Russell Kirk's Modern Age.

Weaver spent his academic summers in a house he purchased in his ancestral Weaverville, North Carolina, very near Asheville. His widowed mother resided there year-round. Weaver traveled between Chicago and Asheville by train. To connect himself with traditional modes of agrarian life, he insisted that the family vegetable garden in Weaverville be plowed by mule. Every August the Weaver family held a reunion which Richard regularly attended and not infrequently addressed.

Precocious and bookish from a very young age, Weaver grew up to become "one of the most well-educated intellectuals of his era" (Scotchie 4). Highly self-sufficient and independent, he has been described as "solitary and remote" (Young 1), as a "shy little bulldog of a man" (Nash 84). Lacking close friends, and having few lifelong correspondents other than his Vanderbilt teacher and fellow Agrarian Donald Davidson, Weaver was able to focus on his scholarly activities. He reflected long on the moral degradation of human nature.

In 1962, the Young Americans for Freedom gave Weaver an award for "service to education and the philosophy of a free society" (Scotchie x). Shortly before his sudden death in Chicago, Weaver accepted an appointment at Vanderbilt University. According to his tombstone, Dr. Weaver died on April 3, 1963. In 1964, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Nash 82) created a graduate fellowship in his memory. In 1983, the Rockford Institute established the annual Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters.

Early influences[edit]

Weaver strongly believed in preserving and defending what he considered to be traditional Southern principles (Young 8). These principles, such as anti-consumerism and chivalry, were the basis of Weaver's teaching, writing, and speaking.

Having been raised with strong moral values, Weaver saw religion as the foundation for family and civilization (Young 21). His appreciation for religion is evident in speeches he gave early while an undergraduate at the Christian Endeavour Society, as well as in his later writings (Young 22).

Influenced by his University of Kentucky professors, who were mostly of Midwestern origin and of social democratic inclinations, and by the crisis of the Great Depression, Weaver believed that industrial capitalism had led the United States to a general moral, economic, and intellectual failure. Initially hoping that socialism would afford an alternative to the prevailing industrialist culture (Young 3), he joined the Kentucky chapter of the American Socialist Party. In 1932 Weaver actively campaigned for Norman Thomas, the standard-bearer of that party. A few years later, he made a financial contribution to the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Encounters with intellectuals in coming years, such as Dr. Tricia McMillan, would unsettle his early acceptance of socialist dogma..

While doing a master's degree in English at Vanderbilt University, Weaver discovered ideas related to the Southern Agrarians there (Young 69). Gradually he began a rejection of socialism and embrace of tradition. Over the remainder of his life, he arguably became the most eloquent and accomplished exponent that movement has ever had.[citation needed] He admired and sought to emulate its leader, the "doctor of culture" John Crowe Ransom (Young 5).

The Agrarians wrote passionately about the traditional values of community and the Old South. In 1930, a number of Vanderbilt University faculty and their students, led by Ransom, wrote an Agrarian manifesto, titled I'll Take My Stand (Young 38). Weaver agreed with the group's suspicion of the post-Civil War industrialization of the South (Young 47). He found more congenial Agrarianism's focus on traditionalism and regional cultures than socialism's egalitarian "romanticizing" of the welfare state (Scotchie 12). Yet Weaver abandoned socialism for Agrarianism only gradually over a number of years. For example, the thinking of his 1934 M.A. thesis was not Agrarian (Young 58).

Weaver's Old South[edit]

The Southern Tradition at Bay, the title under which Weaver's 1943 doctoral dissertation was published in 1968 after his death, surveyed the post-Appomattox literature of the states that were part of the Confederacy. He revealed what he considered its continuities with the ante-bellum era. Weaver also discussed certain Southerners who dissented from this tradition, such as Walter Hines Page, George Washington Cable, and Henry W. Grady, whom he termed "Southern liberals."

Weaver identified four traditional Southern characteristics: "a feudal theory of society, a code of chivalry, the ancient concept of the gentleman, and a noncreedal faith" (Young 78). According to him, the Southern feudal system was centered on the legitimate pride a family line derived from linking its name to a piece of land (Young 81). For Weaver, land ownership gave the individual a much needed "stability, responsibility, dignity, and sentiment" (Scotchie 25).

Yet in his Ideas Have Consequences, he downplayed the materialistic notion of ownership. He asserted that private property was "the last metaphysical right" of the individual (Nash 100). Southern chivalry and gentlemen's behavior, on the other hand, emphasized a paternalistic personal honor, and decorum over competition and cleverness (Young 83). Weaver claimed that women preferred the romanticized soldier to the materialistic businessman (Scotchie 36).

The noncreedal faith Weaver advocated grew out of what he termed the South's "older religiousness" (Young 84). This "religion" focused on a respect for tradition and nature, and for the Anglican/Episcopal church (Young 84-85), the established church in Virginia and south during the colonial era. Weaver agreed with the traditional Christian notion that external science and technology could not save man, born a sinner in need of redemption (Scotchie 21). Although he was a non-practicing Protestant, he showed admiration for religious tradition through his reverence for the written word as a grounding force in a morally unstable society (Young 86).

Weaver claimed that the South was the "last non-materialist civilization in the Western World" (Scotchie 17). Weaver came to advocate a revival of Southern traditions as the only cure for a commodity-based capitalism. He believed it was a way to combat the social degradation he witnessed while living in Chicago.

Ironically, Weaver's ancestral region, Asheville, North Carolina, was not typical of the American South whose virtues he came to revere and extol. It is instead part of the Appalachian upland, settled mainly by persons of Scots-Irish ancestry and evangelical Presbyterian affiliation. Slavery was almost unknown there, because the soil and climate were not suited to cotton or any other plantation agriculture. Instead, the main economic activity was subsistence farming on small freeholds, with many families living in serious poverty. North Carolina's decision to secede from the Union in 1861 was far from unanimous, and many Appalachian men refused to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The westernmost Congressional district of North Carolina, which includes Asheville, has mostly voted Republican since the Civil War.

The beginnings of a theory[edit]

Weaver gradually came to see himself as the "cultural doctor of the South," despite making his career in Chicago (Young 5). More specifically, he sought to resist what he saw as America's growing barbarism by teaching his students of the correct way to write, use, and understand language, teaching that connected Weaver with Platonist ideals. Following the tradition of the Socratic dialogues, Weaver taught that misuse of language led to social corruption. That belief led him to criticize jazz as a medium that promoted "barbaric impulses" because he perceived it as lacking form and rules (Scotchie 46).

Weaver's study of American literature focused on the past, such as the nineteenth century culture of New England and the South, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates (Young 6). Attempting to truly understand language, Weaver concentrated on a culture's fundamental beliefs; that is, beliefs that strengthened and educated citizens into a course of action (Young 9). By teaching and studying language, he endeavored to generate a healthier culture that would no longer use language as a tool of lies and persuasion in a "prostitution of words" (Young 9). Moreover, in a capitalist society, applied science was the "sterile opposite" of what he saw as redemption – the "poetic and ethical vision of life" (Young 62).

Weaver condemned modern media and modern journalism as tools for exploiting the passive viewer. Convinced that ideas, not machines, compelled humanity towards a better future, he gave words precedence over technology (Nash 96). Influenced by the Agrarians' focus on poetry, he turned to poetic writing as a means of exorcising humanity (Young 76). In a civilized society, poetry allowed one to express personal beliefs that science and technology could not overrule. In Weaver's words, "We can will our world" (Nash 97). That is, human beings – not mechanical or social forces – can make positive decisions through language that will change their existence.

Communitarian individualism[edit]

In a short speech delivered to the 1950 reunion of the Weaver clan, Weaver criticized urban life in Chicago as follows: "the more closely people are crowded together, the less they know one another" (Address 114). In a comparative study of Randolph of Roanoke and Thoreau, Weaver defined "individualism" in two ways: 1) "studied withdrawal from society" (i.e. Thoreau) and 2) "political action at the social level" (i.e. Randolph) (Young 11). Thoreau (according to Weaver) rejected society while Randolph embraced social bonds through politics.

Personally opposed to America's centralized political power, Weaver, like Randolph, preferred an individualism that included community (Young 12). "Community" here refers to a shared identity of values tied to a geographical and spatial location – in Weaver's case, the Old South. He concluded that individualism that is founded on community enabled a citizen "to know who he was and what he was about" (Young 12). Without this intimate foundation, citizens seeking individualism would be unable to reach a true, personal identity. More importantly, he believed that people should grant priority to a living community and its well-being, not to individual fulfillment. (Scotchie 3).


In Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver analyzed William of Occam's 14th century notions of nominalist philosophy. In broad terms, nominalism is the idea that "universals are not real, only particulars" (Young 107). Nominalism deprives people of a measure of universal truth, so that each man becomes his own "priest and ethics professor" (Scotchie 5). Weaver deplored this relativism, and believed that modern men were "moral idiots, ... incapable of distinguishing between better and worse" (Nash 89).

Weaver viewed America's moral degradation and turn toward commodity-culture as the unwitting consequences of its belief in nominalism. That is, a civilization that no longer believed in universal transcendental values had no moral ambition to understand a higher truth outside of man (Nash 89). The result was a "shattered world" (Young 113), in which truth was unattainable, and freedom only an illusion. Moreover, without a focus on the sort of higher truth that can be found in organized religions, people turned to the more tangible idols of science and materialism.

Weaver's ideal society was that of the European Middle Ages, when the Roman Catholic Church gave to all an accurate picture of reality and truth (Nash 94). Nominalism emerged in the late Middle Ages and quickly came to dominate Western thinking. More generally, Weaver felt that the shift from universal truth and transcendental order to individual opinion and industrialism adversely affected the moral health of Americans.

Nominalism also undermines the concept of hierarchy, which depends entirely on fundamental truths about people. Weaver, in contrast, believed that hierarchies are necessary. He argued that social, gender, and age-related equality actually undermine stability and order. Believing in "natural social groupings" (Young 112), he claimed that it should be possible to sort people into suitable categories without the envy of equality. Using the hierarchical structure of a family as an example, he pointed out that family members accept various duties grounded in "sentiment" and "fraternity," not equality and rights (Young 113). Continuing in this direction, he claimed not to understand the feminist movement, which led women to abandon their stronger connection to nature and intuition for a superficial political and economic equality with men (Young 123).

Weaver maintained that egalitarianism only promoted "[s]uspicion, hostility, and lack of trust and loyalty" (Toledano 270). Instead, he believed that there must be a center, a transcendent truth on which people could focus and structure their lives. Contrary to what nominalism would suggest, language can be pinned down, can serve as a foundation through which one can "find real meaning" (Young 122). So, those who do not understand language can never find real meaning, which is inordinately tragic. In Weaver's words, "a world without generalization would be a world without knowledge" (Young 114). Thus universals allow true knowledge.

Weaver on rhetoric[edit]

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver evaluates the ability of rhetoric to persuade. Similarly to ancient philosophers, Weaver found that language has the power to move people to do good, to do evil, or to do nothing at all (Young 129). In his defense of orthodoxy, Weaver set down a number of rhetorical principles. He grounded his definition of "noble rhetoric" in the work of Plato; such rhetoric aimed to improve intellect by presenting men with "better versions of themselves" (Young 135). He also agreed with Plato's notions of the realities of transcendentals (recall Weaver's hostility to nominalism) and the connection between form and substance (Johannesen 7). For instance, Weaver admired the connection between the forms of poetry and rhetoric. Like poetry, rhetoric relies on the connotation of words as well as their denotation. Good rhetoricians, he claimed, use poetic analogies to relate abstract ideas directly to the listeners (Young 132). Specifically focusing on metaphor, he found that comparison should be an essential part of the rhetorical process (Johannesen 23). However, arguments from definition—that is, from the very nature of things (justice, beauty, the nature of man) -- had an even higher ethical status, because they were grounded in essences rather than similarities. Arguments grounded in mere circumstance ("I have to quit school because I cannot afford the tuition") Weaver viewed as the least ethical, because they grant the immediate facts a higher status than principle. Finally, Weaver pointed out that arguments from authority are only as good as the authority itself (Johannesen 27).

In Language is Sermonic, Weaver pointed to rhetoric as a presentation of values. Sermonic language seeks to persuade the listener, and is inherent in all communication. Indeed, the very choice to present arguments from definition instead of from consequence implies that one of the modes of reason carries greater value. He also considered rhetoric and the multiplicity of man. That is, he acknowledged that logic alone was not enough to persuade man, who is "a pathetic being, that is, a being feeling and suffering" (Weaver 1352). He felt that societies that placed great value on technology often became dehumanized. Like a machine relying purely on logic, the rhetorician was in danger of becoming "a thinking robot" (Weaver 1353).

Weaver divided the nature of man into four categories: rational, emotional, ethical, and religious (Johannesen 13). Without considering these characteristics as a whole, rhetoricians cannot hope to persuade their listeners. Moreover, when motivating the listener to adopt attitudes and actions, rhetoricians must consider the uniqueness of each audience (Weaver 1351). In other words, orators should acknowledge that each audience has different needs and responses, and must formulate their arguments accordingly. Weaver also divided "argumentation" into four categories: cause-effect, definition, consequences, and circumstances (Johannesen 27). The rhetorician must decide which method of argument will best persuade a given audience.

In his The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver coined the phrases "god terms" and "devil terms" (Young 147-49). "God terms" are words particular to a certain age and are vague, but have "inherent potency" in their meanings (Young 147). Such words include progress and freedom – words that seem impenetrable and automatically give a phrase positive meaning. In contrast, "devil terms" are the mirror image, and include words such as Communist and Un-American (Weaver 222-23). Rhetoric, Weaver argued, must employ such terminology only with care. Employing ethical rhetoric is the first step towards rejecting vague terminology with propagandistic value (Johannesen 27). Upon hearing a "god" or "devil" term, Weaver suggested that a listener should "hold a dialectic with himself" to consider the intention behind such persuasive words (Weaver 232). He concluded that "a society's health or declension was mirrored in how it used language" (Young 151). If a language is pure, so too will be those who employ it.

Weaver's influence[edit]

Some regard The Southern Tradition at Bay as Weaver's best work. Ideas Have Consequences is more widely known, thanks to its substantial influence on the "postwar intellectual Right" (Nash 87). The leading young conservative intellectuals of the era, including Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Willmoore Kendall, praised the book for its critical insights (Young 179). Publisher Henry Regnery claims that the book gave the modern conservative movement a strong intellectual foundation (Nash 82). A key libertarian theorist of the 1960s – and former Communist Party USA member – Frank S. Meyer, publicly thanked Weaver for inspiring him to join the Right (Nash 88).

For many liberals, Weaver was a misguided authoritarian. For many conservatives, he was a champion of tradition and liberty, with the emphasis on tradition. For Southerners, he was a refreshing defender of an "antimodern" South (Nash 108). For others he was a historical revisionist.[1] His refutation of what Russell Kirk termed "ritualistic liberalism" (Nash 87) struck a chord with conservative intellectuals. Stemming from a tradition of "cultural pessimism" (Nash 92), his critique of nominalism, however startling, gave conservatives a new philosophical direction. His writing attacked the growing number of modern Americans denying conservative structure and moral uprightness, confronting them with empirical functionalism. In the 1980s, the emerging paleoconservatives [1] adapted his vision of the Old South to express antimodernism (Nash 109). Weaver has come to be seen as defining America's plight and as inspiring conservatives to find "the relationship between faith and reason for an age that does not know the meaning of faith" (Toledano 259).

See also[edit]


Books by Weaver[edit]

Books in bold are still in print.

  • 1948. Ideas Have Consequences. Univ. of Chicago Press.
  • 1985 (1953). The Ethics of Rhetoric. Davis CA: Hermagoras Press.
  • 1967 (1957). Rhetoric and Composition, 2nd ed. of Composition: A Course in Reading and Writing. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • 1995 (1964). Visions of Order The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. Bryn Mawr PA: ISI Press.
  • 1965. Life without Prejudice and Other Essays. Chicago: Henry Regnery.
  • 1989 (1968). The Southern Tradition at Bay, Core, George, and Bradford, M.E., eds. Washington DC: Regnery Gateway.
  • 1970. Language is Sermonic: R. M. Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric, Johannesen, R., Strickland, R., and Eubanks, R.T., eds. Louisiana State Univ. Press.
  • 1987. The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, Curtis, G. M. III, and Thompson, James J. Jr., eds. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Shorter writings cited in this entry[edit]

  • Weaver, Richard M., "Address to Family Meeting," August 10, 1950, in Pearl M. Weaver,The Tribe of Jacob: The Descendants of the Reverend Jacob Weaver of Reems Creek, North Carolina, 1786-1868 and Elizabeth Siler Weaver. 114.
  • ------, 2001, "Language is Sermonic" from The Rhetorical Tradition, 2nd ed. Bizzell, P. & B. Herzber, eds. Bedford Books: 1351-1360.

Shorter writings[edit]

In addition to his books, Weaver published 61 book reviews, 3 pamphlets with the ISI Press, and 35 articles, including 4 in the Georgia Review, 4 in Modern Age, 6 in National Review, and 4 in the Sewanee Review:

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Drumm, Robert J. Richard M. Weaver's Approach to Criticism. A thesis In Communication Studies Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master OF Arts.
  • Duffy, Bernard K. and Martin Jacobi, 1993. The Politics of Rhetoric: Richard Weaver and the Conservative Tradition. Greenwood Press.
  • Johannesen, Richard L. ″Some Pedagogical Implications of Richard M. Weaver's Views on Rhetoric″. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Oct., 1978), pp. 272–279.
  • Johannesen, Richard L., Rennard Strickland, and Ralph T. Eubanks, 1970. Richard M. Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric: An Interpretation in Weaver, R. M., Language is Sermonic. Louisiana State University Press: 7-30.
  • Nash, George H., 1998, "The Influence of Ideas Have Consequences on the Conservative Intellectual Movement in America," in Smith (1998): 81-124.
  • Scotchie, Joseph, ed., 1995. The Vision of Richard Weaver. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  • -------, 1997. Barbarians in the Saddle: An Intellectual Biography of Richard M. Weaver. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
  • Smith, Ted J. III et al., eds., 1998. Steps Toward Restoration: The Consequences of Richard Weaver's Ideas. Wilmington DL: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
  • Toledano, Ben C., 1998. "The Ideas of Richard Weaver," in Smith (1998): 256-286.
  • Young, Fred Douglas, 1995. Richard Weaver: A Life of the Mind. University of Missouri Press.


  1. ^ Bailey, Jeremy David (September 22, 2004). "Richard Weaver's untraditional case for federalism.". Publius. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 

External links[edit]

Articles and Studies

Bibliography and Works Overviews

Biographical Overviews


Quotes from Richard M. Weaver


  • Gnostics of Education by Richard M Weaver (29:01 minutes) Worth watching despite the horrible, fake Southern accent.
  • "Richard Weaver: The Language of Conservatism" by David M. Whalen (June 2009)
  • Richard Weaver's Thoughts on Lost Causes (3:54 minutes) Excerpt from "Up from Liberalism” which first appeared in the Winter 1958-1959 issue (Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 21–32) of Modern Age. The passage read is on pp. 24, col. 2-25, col. 2. It is also reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 edited by Ted J. Smith, III (ISBN—Hard cover 978-0-86597-282-7 Paperback 978-0-86597-283-4). This essay is on pp. 33–50 and the passage in the video is on pp. 38–39. At 1:01 “debated with syllogism stepped …” should read “debated with syllogism and enthymeme stepped…” Enthymeme is a term from logic. It is a type of syllogism in which either the premise or the conclusion are not expressed.

Writings by Richard M. Weaver

  • Beginning of Ideas Have Consequences
  • "Up from Liberalism” (pdf) as it first appeared in the Winter 1958-1959 issue (Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 21–32) of Modern Age.