Born in Weaverville, North Carolina in 1910, Richard Malcolm Weaver was raised in Lexington, Kentucky. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Weaver graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1932. In that year, he joined the American Socialist Party; however, from the outset, Richard Weaver was disenchanted with that association and his flirtation with socialism was brief: “I could not like the members of the movement as persons. They seemed dry, insistent people, of shallow objectives.” He attended graduate school at Vanderbilt University where he obtained his M.A. in 1934. At Vanderbilt, Weaver was influenced by the Fugitive-Agrarians who were assembled there. In particular, he was deeply moved by one of the most eminent of that group, John Crowe Ransom. Weaver contended that Ransom’s God Without Thunder, published in 1930, was “the profoundest of books to come out of the Agrarian movement.” The subtitle of Ransom’s work was “an unorthodox defense of orthodoxy,” and in his analysis, Ransom warned against “the watered theology of the advanced moderns;” he proposed that we “do what we can to recover the excellences of the ancient faith.” Weaver wrote his M.A. thesis, “The Revolt Against Humanism,” under the direction of Ransom.
Weaver obtained his doctorate in English from Louisiana State University in 1943. His dissertation, “The Confederate South, 1865-1910: A study in the Survival of a Mind and Culture,” was directed by Cleanth Brooks, who was assisted by, among others, Robert Penn Warren. Having joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1944, Weaver was a professor of English at that institution at the time of his death in 1963. At his death, one admiring colleague wrote, “His success was extra ordinary: he was, I think, the most distinguished teacher of writing this institution has had in the last twenty years.”
Weaver became a powerful intellectual force in the American conservative movement of the post-World War II period. His best-known work, Ideas Have Consequences, was published in 1948. Frank S. Meyer described this book as “the informing principle of the contemporary American conservative movement.” Subsequently, Weaver wrote The Ethics of Rhetoric, probably his most scholarly work, and Visions of Order, which Willmoore Kendall characterized as deserving “the political equivalent of biblical status” out of all American conservative books. Weaver’s dissertation was published in 1968 under the title The Southern Tradition at Bay, and he dedicated the book to “John Crowe Ransom, subtle doctor.”
Aside from these key works, Weaver published numerous reviews and articles. An anthology of among the best of the later is found in Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays. Included among the selections is Weaver’s “Life Without Prejudice,” originally published as the lead article for the first issue of Modern Age in 1957. Language ls Sermonic, appearing in 1970, is an anthology dealing exclusively with Weaver’s works on rhetoric. Unquestionably, Weaver’s work has had a profound impact upon the intellectual development of the American conservative movement; indeed, in keeping with Meyer’s and Kendall’s observations, it can be argued that intellectually he is the founding father. In the words of Russell Kirk, “Richard Weaver sowed deep his intellectual seed; and though there are no heirs of his body, the heirs of his mind may he many and stalwart.”
Weaver accepted the label “conservative” as descriptive of his philosophical position:
The modifier which has been most frequently applied to my own writings is “conservative.” I have not exactly courted this but I certainly have not resented it, and if I had to make a choice among the various appellations that are available, this is very likely the one that I would wind up with. I must say that I do not see any harm in it, and in this I am unlike some of my friends, unlike some people with whom I agree on principles, but who appear to think that we term is loaded with unfavorable meanings or at least connotations.
The principal components of Weaver’s conservatism are the Platonic and religious strains of Western thought. Weaver succinctly explained: “The way for any writer to show responsibility is to make perfectly clear the premises from which he starts…. I maintain…that form is prior to substance, and that ideas are determinants. I am quite willing to be identified with the not inconsiderable number of thinkers in the Platonic-Christian tradition who have taken the same stand.”
As Weaver viewed it, the “fearful descent” of the modern age had been precipitated by “nominalism,” which was a rejection of the Platonic-Christian heritage, and the formidable task of restoration rested upon the capacity of the West to rediscover the verities inherent in that heritage. In the American setting, Weaver looked upon the Southern legacy as uniquely valuable in providing the philosophical base needed for the imposing work of revitalization. To understand the conservative mind of Richard Weaver, it is essential then to analyze his positions on Platonism, religion, nominalism, and the significance of the Southern experience.
Throughout Weaver’s work is found a profound appreciation for Plato and his contribution to the Western heritage. Indeed, Weaver’s best-known and probably most influential work, Ideas Have Consequences, is a hook long lament that Western modernism has departed from the Platonic tradition. Plato, Weaver wrote, “possessed the deepest divining rod among the ancients.” In Plato, Weaver found the personification of that philosophical bent which pursued an understanding of “the structure of reality:”
From the time of the Greeks there have existed in most periods ‘wise men,’ philosophers, or scholars who make it their work to seek out the structure of reality, and to proclaim it by one means and another to the less initiated. The first Greeks began looking for the structure of reality in the constitution of matter: What was the prime element out of which all other things were made?
Weaver reasoned that a mature conservatism would follow in that tradition:
It is my contention 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 he here after he’s gone…. 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.
In keeping with the Platonic view, Weaver argued this “structure of reality” was composed of things which have “essential natures” and that these natures were “knowable.” Moreover, we have an “intuitive feeling that existence is not meaningless.” It is then the function of the philosopher to discern the realities—the essential nature of things—and hopefully to perceive, even though dimly and imperfectly, the meaning and purpose of existence. As it was with Plato, so it was with Weaver, that philosophy was the highest of callings whereby through “right reasoning” knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and ultimately Truth were to be pursued.
Consistent with the Platonic view, Weaver contended that basic and inherent in the “nature of things” was a dualism:
The first positive step must be a driving afresh of the wedge between the material and the transcendental. This is fundamental: without a dualism we should never find purchase for the pull upward, and all idealistic designs might as well be scuttled…. To bring dualism back into the world and to rebuke the moral impotence fathered by empiricism is then the broad character of our objective.
The material side of this dualism related to specifics and concretes, to the impermanent and transitory. The transcendental facet pertained to first principles, essences, universals, forms, and finally to unchanging ideals: truth, beauty, justice, and goodness. In Weaver’s words: “Plato reminded us that at any stage of an inquiry it is important to realize whether we are moving toward, or away from, first principles.” Similarly, Weaver wrote, “Belief in universals and principles is inseparable from the life of reason,” and he noted, “[W]e invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms.” In this regard, probably Weaver’s best-known observation was: “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.”
Weaver’s embracing of the Platonic concept of the transcendent led to his observation that “the conservative image of history arises out of primal affection and a desire to follow transcendental ideals of justice. And it is this that gives content to the philosophy of conservatism.” In the final analysis, the pursuit of ideals is the Platonic quest for standards and values:
Standard means, first of all, something of general application and validity. A standard is something that is set up as a measure for all. It is not contingent upon this man’s preference, or whim, or that man’s location in space and time…. A standard is, therefore, something of uniform and universal determination. This is one of the aspects of the meaning. But in addition to this, the term standard in its more general usage has the imperative sense of an ideal.
We must, Weaver argued, have ideals, standards, and values in order that we can distinguish and evaluate: “Before we can have the idea of relative evaluation at all, we must have a tertium quid, a third essence, an ideal ideal, as it were. This is why a humanism which is merely historical-minded can be learned, but cannot in the true sense be critical.”
“Evaluation”—this is the ultimate objective of our pursuit, and through this quest we are seeking to reassert “the ancient affirmation that there is a center of things:” “The reason for this is that every culture polartzes around some animating idea, figment, or value, toward which everything that it produces bears some discoverable relation.”
The most significant thing about a society, then, is its conception of value; this conception “imparts tone to the whole of society by keeping before its members a standard of right and not right.” In brief, according to Weaver, this conception of value is “the centripetal image of an ideal of perfection and goodness,” and “[t]he task in our time of the conservative is to defend this concentration and to expose as erroneous attempts to break down the discriminations of a culture.” Clearly, a key “conservative principle” is a “belief in the primacy of ideas and values,” and to the extent that anyone “tries to pull back toward a position of value, he becomes a conservative.”
In his concern for values and evaluation, Weaver, in the tradition of Plato, admonished, “There must he a source of clarification, of arrangement and hierarchy.” Or to state the matter otherwise: “In the final reach of analysis our problem is how to recover that intellectual integrity which enables men to perceive the order of goods.” And what is the position of conservatism on these matters of “hierarchy” and “the order of goods?” “The word is order. Order, or harmony as an expression of order…is the goal which most if not all conservative thinking has in view.” Undeniably, as Weaver perceived it, conservatism had “its passion for an order reflecting a meaningful hierarchy of the goods.” This is in keeping with that ultimate of the Platonic ideal which conceives of Justice as the proper ordering of things, which, in turn, is productive of balance, proportion, and harmony—all contributing immeasurably to the health and stability of the well-ordered society. In fact, Weaver concluded, “Civilization is measured by its power to create and enforce distinctions…. The man of a civilized tradition, therefore, will find nothing strange in the idea of hierarchy.”
With this Platonic emphasis upon the importance of a hierarchy of values, Weaver warned, “[C]onservatives should treat as enemies all those who wish to abolish the sacred and secular grounds for distinctions among men.” Egalitarianism and leveling were insidious ideas; in a statement that is the quintessence of Platonism, Weaver elaborated:
A just man finds satisfaction in the knowledge that society has various roles for various kinds of people and that they in the performance of these roles create a kind of symphony of labor, play, and social life. There arises in fact a distinct pleasure from knowing that society is structured, diversified, balanced, and complex. Blind levelers do not realize that people can enjoy seeing things above them as well as on a plane with them.
In sum, “It is an historic truth…that culture has developed from the liberty of the superior individual to love superior things.” Certainly, the founder of the Academy would not have dissented from these observations.
In addition to its roots in Platonism, Weaver’s conservatism is firmly based upon the religious heritage of Western thought. Reflecting this religious perspective, Weaver wrote, “Man has an irresistible desire to relate himself somehow to the totality, to ask what is the meaning of his presence here amid the great empirical fact of the universe,” and “[t]hrough religion [man] reveals his profoundest intuition regarding his origin, his mission on earth, and his future state.” Nor could there be any doubt that a religious bent of mind is found in Weaver’s rhetorical question: “How could simple environmental influence have called forth the giraffe, the centipede, the butterfly, the orchid, the sunflower?” Likewise, Weaver said, “I found myself [over the years] in decreasing sympathy with those social and political doctrines erected upon the concept of a man-dominated universe and more and more inclined to believe with Walt Whitman that ‘a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.'”  And could there be any question as to the religious character of this observation? “The final solution must accommodate the ideas lying behind our feeling that the appearance of man on earth was a destined miracle.” Moreover, with affection, Weaver wrote: “No one can study Greek philosophy or medieval Christianity or the other great religions of the world without realizing that these saw man as a creature fearfully and wonderfully made, and that each tried to lead him with appropriate imagination and subtlety.”
If any doubt lingers as to the religious base of Weaver’s thinking, it should be removed by Weaver’s unequivocal and moving instruction: “But the road away from idolatry remains the same as before; it lies in respect for the struggling dignity of man and for his orientation toward something higher than himself which he has not created.”
This religious character of Weaver’s mind perhaps could be explained as merely another manifestation of his Platonism, for, after all, Plato too yearned for glimpsing and understanding the mysteries of the transcendent and eternal; he, above all the ancients, had sought to escape beyond the material confines of his earthly existence. The more fundamental question is: Was Weaver a Christian? Weaver never concretely stated, “I am a Christian,” but then Weaver was too subtle in his thinking to resolve the ultimate questions in such a simple declaratory form. In Weaver’s words: “Literalism is the materialism of religion.” To Weaver, the truth of Christianity was not something resolved by dialectic; human reason and language were inadequate to that formidable task. Christianity is a matter of “rhetoric;” that is, it is a matter of the perceived, the felt, and the intuited. More particularly, the matter of faith is not resolved through the abstract dialectic of debate; rather, it is established by the mind’s grasp and reverence for the ineffable miracle of creation.
A careful reading of Weaver’s works yields up a position that is markedly, if not openly, Christian. For example, Weaver’s esteem for Christianity is reflected in his observation that there are “reasons for believing that Christianity made a cultural and ethical contribution surpassing even the high-water mark of the Greeks.” Similarly, with eloquence he maintained:
The Greeks could out-argue the Christians and the Romans could subject them to their government, but there was in Christianity an ethical respect for the person which triumphed over these formalizations. Neither the beauty of Greek culture nor the grandeur of the Roman state system was the complete answer to what the people wanted in their lives as a whole.
Elsewhere, Weaver asserted, “[B]ut being a great writer does entail having the Christian-like view of man, which sees him as a dual creature, possessing the capacity for glory and damnation.” Even more revealing was this sweeping observation:
It was inevitable that, lacking one vital element, the ancient governments should have collapsed into despotism. That vital element was introduced by Christianity. This was belief in the sacredness of the person and thus in a center of power distinct from the state. What the pagan philosophers in all their brilliance had not been able to do, that is, set effective barriers to the power of the state, was done in response to that injunction: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ This instituted a basis of freedom upon which the world since that time has been able to build.
Concerning a personal commitment to Christianity, perhaps most revealing was Weaver’s review of Bertrand Russell’s The Impact of Science on Society. In this work, Russell reluctantly acknowledged the indispensability of Christianity in dealing with the “wide diffusion of malevolence” in the world. Regarding Russell’s grudging admission, Weaver remarked: “It seems a long way around to find something which might have been discovered on the threshold. But sometimes we are firmer in our convictions for having surveyed the possible alternatives. Let us hope that this is true of all who like Lord Russell in this book make the long circuit to learn that society is not saved by bread alone.”
There is evidence Weaver considered Christianity the logical fulfillment of Platonism. Weaver had agreed that “Plato built the cathedrals of England,” and even more pointedly, he stated: “It is generally admitted that there is a strong element of Platonism in Christianity. But if Plato provided the reasoning, Paul and Augustine supplied the persuasion. What emerged from this could not be withstood even by the power of Rome.”  This reference to St. Augustine as the fulfillment of Plato is dramatically suggestive of St. Augustine’s own reasoning in The City of God: “For none of the other philosophers has come so close to us as the Platonists have, and, therefore we may neglect the others…. Some of our fellow Christians are astonished to learn that Plato had such ideas about God and to realize how close they are to the truths of our faith.” This striking similarity between St. Augustine’s and Weaver’s views does not end here. More specifically, the orthodox Christian concepts of original sin, evil, and “the tragic sense” go to the core of Weaver’s conservatism.
In his classic autobiographical essay, “Up From Liberalism,” Weaver wrote:
It has been said that disillusionment with human nature most often turns the mind toward Christianity. I know that in my period of jejune optimism the concept of original sin seemed something archaically funny. Now, twenty years later , and after the experience of a world war, there is no concept that I regard as expressing a deeper insight into the enigma that is man.
What is original sin?
Original sin is the parabolical statement that man is somehow originally flawed. He has the temptation, known allegorically as the curse visited upon the descendents of Adam, to do what he knows he ought not do. This flaw is no respecter of person or place or station.
This sin leads to evil in the world, and it is great error to believe “that man is by nature good, and therefore not responsible for evil;” in addition, it is error to assume “that man is merely the creature of circumstances, and again not responsible for evil…. The denial of evil is a very great heresy.”
Weaver contended evil and “the tragic sense” were inseparable: “Hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil.” Weaver was deeply religious and conservative in dealing with the problem of tragedy. Unequaled in this regard is the following assessment: “The herd man never grows reconciled to the fact that life is a defeat, and that this defeat is its real story…. It does finally require some discipline of mind to accept the fact that life is not a triumphal progress, but a sadly mixed affair with many a disenchantment.” Similarly, he wrote, “[M]an is born to suffer, to endure his passion, and to find redemption, if he finds it, through effort and struggle.” He summarized:
Perhaps there is nothing in the world as truly educative as tragedy. When you have known it, you’ve known the worst, and probably also you have had a glimpse of the mystery of things. And if this is so, we may infer that there is nothing which educates or matures a man or a people in the way that the experience of tragedy does. Its lessons, though usually in describable, are poignant and long remembered.
In fact, “education in tragedy” is a lesson “with which other educations are not to be compared, if you are talking about realities.” To Weaver, tragedy was the fundamental datum of the human experience. However, out of tragedy did not emerge anguish or despair; rather, Weaver’s position was remarkably similar to that articulated by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “[W]e rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” In Weaver’s words: “The noble view of life…tends always to be pessimistic…. It could not be otherwise, for…the…very plot of tragedy depends upon the ‘good’ man struggling in a net of evil.” The Pauline “hope” lies in the “good man” overcoming “the net of evil” by directing his vision to the transcendent and thereby ennobling and redeeming himself; thus, out of evil and tragedy comes Good. As Weaver explained in the final paragraph of Ideas Have Consequences:
It may be that we are awaiting a great change, that the sins of the fathers are going to be visited upon the generations until the reality of evil is again brought home and there comes some passionate reaction, like that which flowered in the chivalry and spirituality of the Middle Ages.
Together, the Christian ideal and Platonism produced in Weaver’s conservatism the final key concept of piety, which Weaver described as “one of the oldest and deepest human attitudes.” “I would define piety,” he wrote, “as an attitude of reverence or acceptance toward some overruling order or some deeply founded institution which the mere individual is not to tamper with.” Or to put the proposition somewhat differently: “Piety comes to us as a warning voice that we must think as mortals, that it is not for us either to know all or to control all. It is a recognition of our own limitations and a cheerful acceptance of the contingency of nature, which gives us the protective virtue of humility.” A thinker imbued with a sense of piety will realize “[i]n the figure once used by a philosopher, we are inhabitants of a fruitful and well-ordered island surrounded by an ocean of ontological mystery. It does not behoove us to presume very far in this situation….Therefore, make haste slowly. It is very easy to rush into conceit in thinking about man’s relationship to the created universe.” Weaver warned, “[Man] must not, like the child, expect all delights freely; he must not…expect all paradoxes to be re solved for him. He must be ready to say at times with Thomas Hooker: ‘The point is difficult and the mystery great.'”
Concerning Plato’s contribution to the “ancient virtue of pietas,” as an introductory quotation to his final chapter, “Piety and Justice,” of Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver quoted from Plato’s The Laws: “Let parents, then, bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.” In this chapter, Weaver discussed Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro which was devoted to the theme of “piety and impiety:”
It is highly significant to learn that when Plato undertakes a discussion of the nature of piety and impiety, he chooses as interlocutor a young man who is actually bent upon parricide. Euthyphro, a youth filled with arrogant knowledge and certain that he understands “what is dear to the gods,” has come to Athens to prosecute his father for murder. Struck by the originality of this proceeding, Socrates questions him in the usual fashion. His conclusion is that piety, which consists of cooperation with the gods in the kind of order they have instituted, is part of the larger concept of justice. It can be added that the outcome of the dialectic does not encourage the prosecution. The implication is that Euthyphro has no right, out of his partial and immature knowledge, to proceed contemptuously against an ancient relationship.
Elsewhere, Weaver wrote that in understanding the meaning of piety it had “proved impossible to dispense with appeal to religion;” he instructed:
Every legend of man’s fall is a caution against presuming to know everything, and an indirect exhortation to piety; and the disappearance of belief in original sin has done more than anything else to prepare the way for sophistical theories of human nature and society. Man has lost piety toward nature in proportion as he left her and shut himself up in cities with rationalism for his philosophy. 
The concept of piety permeates Weaver’s works, and it is the key to his philosophy. As Weaver explained, “The recovery [of a sense of piety] has brought a satisfaction which cannot be matched, as far as my experience goes, by anything that liberalism and scientism have to offer.” Weaver contended there was a “structure of reality” called creation. Man was not the Creator; he was not self-produced. Man is the creature; therefore, he is limited in his potential. Confronted with choices between evil and good, man frequently chooses evil with its accompanying anguish, and this condition is compounded by that ever-present matter of tragedy. In view of these imposing realities, would not wisdom and prudence dictate that man ought to be modest, restrained, and humble—in a word, pious? Should he not stand in reverence and awe before this miracle called life? Without equivocation, according to Weaver, the philosopher and theologian will answer that question in the affirmative, and the result is that “ancient virtue of pietas.”
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 1975).
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 Weaver, Richard Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965), 132 (hereafter cited as LTPP).
 Sewanee Review, Vol.18 (1950), 592.
 Georgia Review, Vol.27 (1963), 416.
 Modern Age, Vol.14 (1970), 243-4.
 Kendall, Willmoore Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum (1971), 393.
 Weaver, Richard Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (1964), ix (hereafter cited as VO).
 LWP, 157.
 The New York Times Book Review (March 21, 1948), 29.
 Weaver, Richard The Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), 4 (hereafter cited as ER).
 Academic Freedom: The Principle and the Problems (1963), Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) pamphlet, 3.
 LWP, 158-9.
 Sewanee Review, Vol. 62 (1954).
 Weaver, Richard Ideas Have Consequences (1948), 130-1 (hereafter cited as IHC).
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 23.
 ER, 112.
 Modern Age, Vol.4 (1960), 319.
 Relativism and the Crisis of Our Times (1961), ISI pamphlet, 3 (hereafter cited as Relativism).
 The Intercollegiate Review, Vol.7, Nos.1-2 (1970), 16.
 LWP, 17.
 VO, 13.
 Modern Age, Vol. 4 (1960), 317, 320.
 IHC, 19.
 lbid., 17.
 Modern Age, Vol.4 (1960), 318.
 Weaver, Richard The Southern Tradition at Bay (1968), 36 (hereafter cited as STB).
 IHC, 40.
 VO, 16.
 New Individualist Review, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1964), 21.
 LWP, 45, 15.
 VO, 140.
 LWP, 141.
 VO, 143.
 LWP, 155.
 VO, 91.
 STB, 43.
 VO, 99.
 Ibid., 88.
 Modern Age, Vol. 3 (1959), 420.
 Ibid., Vol. 5 (1961), 15.
 Commonweal, Vol. 57 (1953), 504.
 VO, 67.
 LWP, 146.
 Texas Quarterly, Vol. 2 (Summer, 1959), 139-40.
 Ibid., 127.
 IHC, 11.
 New Individualist Review, 22.
 Texas Quarterly, 137.
 New Individualist Review, 11-12.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 21.
 IHC, 187.
 LWP, 143.
 Southern Renascence (1953), 20.
 STB, 32.
 LWP, 141.
 IHC, 184.
 Ibid., 170.
 Ibid., 170-1.
 Ibid., 185; STB, 33.
 LWP, 144.