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The Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver * - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver*
With the death of Richard M. Weaver last year, American traditionalism lost one of its most respected and sensitive representatives. Besides being a professor of English at the University of Chicago for many years, he was the author of two books which gained him wide regard as a conservative critic of modern society and culture: Ideas Have Consequences and The Ethics of Rhetoric. His works display the distinctive character of his thinking and his concern for values shared by few of his fellow intellectuals. . They have contributed a great deal to the intellectual renaissance of American conservatism in the widest sense. We are pleased, therefore, to be able to present two of his unpublished articles, with the kind permission of his brother-in-law, Mr. Kendall Beaton, and Mr. Louis Dehmlow, the executor of his literary estate.
The Foundations of Weaver’s Traditionalism
LIKE OTHER AMERICAN traditionalists, the late Prof. Richard Weaver expressed an “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing conformity and equalitarianism of most radical systems.”1 He envisioned human existence as possessed of an element of mystery, and from that he derived his moral beliefs and his regard for tradition; however, in many respects his ideas were different from those of other conservatives. First, he was oriented not toward the Christian religion, although he certainly respected particulars of its doctrine, but rather toward Platonism. Secondly, he was influenced by the Southern agrarian tradition much more than by the British conservative tradition as expressed by Burke. On some policy questions Weaver agreed with non-conservatives, but his agreement was coincidental, and it followed from his particular ideas, not from actual similarities with other doctrines.
To elaborate, Weaver adhered to the concept of universals which are valid without respect to time or place. He referred to universals as “objective truth” and included standards of human conduct and transcendental goals of human action prescribed by Providence. He believed that universals provided the only true knowledge—“the reality which is perceived by the intellect,” not “that which is perceived by the senses.”2 As a consequence of these initial postulates, he envisioned the ideal of humanistically developed man: development of all creative human faculties in an orderly fashion. He opposed human development and expression which did not respect order, and thus he valued forms highly. Man, he thought, is a chaotic organism by nature and does not achieve meaning and worth until discipline is imposed upon him and his actions are rendered intelligible; meaningful human action presupposes conformity to some forms. To Weaver forms were qualitative; they provide the measure for human achievement. Universals provide just such forms, or conventions, that alone elevate human existence to a civilized level.
Weaver asserted in his book Ideas Have Consequences that the concept of universals has been progressively abandoned by Western man, who adopted in its stead what he termed “modernism.” He traced the origin of Western decline to the acceptance of nominalism in the Middle Ages. Nominalism denied that there were universals, and it superceded the logical realism of the scholastics—which was a development of Platonic thought. “For four centuries,” Weaver lamented, “every man has not only been his own priest but also his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.”3 From the rejection of universals he traced a growing cultural disorder; man has devalued achievement as he has ignored forms, and the West—inevitably—has waned. He argued that education no longer tends to develop recognition of moral values or to induce intellectual faculties to conform to standards; in many cases man has abandoned such standards and has adopted “pragmatic,” “materialistic” ones. He pointed to the same sort of trend away from forms in art and in literature, particularly in the romantic phases of each: “That man is the product of discipline and of forging, that he really owes thanks for the pulling and tugging that enables him to grow—this concept left the manuals of education with the advent of Romanticism.”4 Weaver concluded that intellectually nominalism has produced chaos.
He pointed to indications of decay in human relations. As one, the posture of mass media—sensationalizing the obscene and violating privacy—defies “every definition of humanity.” Further, since people value privacy and peaceful reflection less, they are much less intrigued, involved and stimulated by personalities and regard other human beings as mere associates. How to win friends and influence people is one publicized concern; yet: “to one brought up in a society spiritually fused—what I shall call the metaphysical community—the idea of a campaign to win friends and influence people must be incomprehensible. . . . And the art of manipulating personalities obviously presumes a disrespect for personality.”5 A disrespect by man of man has followed only too naturally from a disrespect of universals.
HE INSISTED THAT in political and economic affairs were the most telling evidences of Western decline. The democratising influences of the past century have promoted a primary concern among masses of people for quantity rather than quality. The democratic preoccupation with the wants of majorities entails, he argued, severe restriction of the aristocratic concern for manners, taste, oratorical distinction and political competence. Democratic politicians have typically catered to the crude tastes of majorities and have offered them whatever they have wanted, even at the sacrifice of prudence; aristocratic men of affairs, such as Randolph of Roanoke, have, by contrast, tended to act according to canons of reason and restraint. Randolph, in fact, represented to Weaver the ideal representative of American individualism.6 But democratic writers have mercilessly assailed aristocratic ideas and have eroded their former respectability and influence.
Weaver scorned the consumer democracy of the free market and its necessary concomitant—commercialism. His first objection was that continually fluctuating market values readily convince those who deal with economic affairs that there are no absolutes. On the market some things prevail at one time and others at another time; similarly in the market of ideas, there is no guarantee of permanent dominance for the concept of universals—or for any other one. Second, in the place of concern for universals, a flourishing commercialism offers people material goods; in effect, in Weaver’s view, it encourages materialism. Third, the free market allows multitudes of consumers to judge which things will prevail and which will not. That Western man has been “his own priest” and “his own professor of ethics” explains the decline of the West, and so the first premise of the market—the sanction to free choice—is itself a cause of the difficulties of modern man.
Paradoxically, though, Weaver vigorously defended an institution that provides the foundation for the free market, the inviolable right to private property, to him “the last metaphysical right.” He so called it because it does not depend upon social usefulness for its acceptance. His valuation of property derives from his view of a natural connection between honor, responsibility and a personal relationship to property. He referred to the “honor of work” and seemed to have in mind the notion that work, honorable in itself, accumulates property, and hence property is merely an extension of one’s labor—and of oneself. And people would tend to be more responsible if they have a material stake—real property—in the course of human affairs. Thus, private property enables that sanctuary of privacy which Weaver felt was so essential for worthwhile human development.
THE SECOND POINT in favor of property is that in an age when defenders of universals are few, the institution of private property makes resistance to the ideas and pressures of a majority physically possible; property thus affords minorities the liberty to think and to act as they so choose. As there is danger that the modern and efficient state can achieve close surveillance over the affairs of citizens, and that human development will be smothered, there is crucial need for a means of frustrating such invasion of privacy; Weaver felt that private property was the last bulwark against intrusion, and that as such it acquires particular value. It provides the most hopeful method of salvaging the pluralistic social development which results only from unhampered privacy.
However, Weaver’s defense of private property per se is not to be construed as a defense of finance capitalism; for by “private” he meant “personal,” and corporate property certainly is not owned by individual persons. “Such property is, on the contrary, a violation of the very notion of proprietas. For the abstract property of stocks and bonds, the legal ownership of enterprises never seen, actually destroys the connection between man and his substance without which the metaphysical right becomes meaningless. . . . Property in this sense becomes a fiction useful for exploitation and makes impossible the sanctification of work. The property which we defend as an anchorage keeps its identity with the individual.”7 Not only was he apprehensive of encroachments upon privacy by corporations, but he also thought that aggregations of corporate power—property—would entail further enlargement of government and diminuition of liberty. He opposed the institution of corporate property because he thought it stripped property of privacy. Hence, Weaver opposed industrialization which produced urbanization, the extension of the market and economic concentration. Weaver’s solution to the problem of governmental and corporate power was to have “distributive ownership of small properties: these take the form of independent farms, of local businesses, of homes owned by the occupants, where individual responsibility gives significance to prerogative over property.”8
FROM THE IDEAS which we have discussed followed directly the kind of tradition which Weaver revered: the agrarianism of the Old South. It was infused with aristocratic qualities—education, refinement, honor, provincialism. Each person owned property, ideally, and he mingled his own labor with the soil. His environment was peaceful and reflective, and his spiritual concerns were uninterrupted by the strains of an urban, commercial and materialistic civilization. Schools provided true education—not mass instruction—that enabled a person to develop restraint, taste and refinement. Such a way of life was honorable, but it was, again, possible only in a society in which each person owned some property.
Weaver aimed “to draw a line between respect for tradition because it is tradition and respect for it because it expresses a spreading mystery too great for our knowledge to compass.”9 “There is something in its [the South’s] sultry languor,” he continued, “and in the stubborn humanism of its people, now battling against the encroachments of industrialism—and with so little knowledge of how to battle—which tells me that for better or for worse this is my native land.”10
IN SPITE OF the atypical nature of some of his basic ideas, Weaver was, after all, a part of the traditionalist movement. His thought, therefore, is to be distinguished from that of writers oriented in a libertarian direction, who are the heirs of the classical liberal tradition. He was in the first instance concerned with societal wholes rather than with individuals. He valued highly a “sense of community”: loyalty by a people to a set of traditional ideas and beliefs. And it was from his concern with wholes that his regard for liberty followed.
But he valued “rational liberty,” not liberty qua liberty such as J. S. Mill once did.11 Weaver opposed the notion of progress which aroused enthusiasm in such writers as Macaulay and Spencer. While agreeing with certain liberals on some matters—such as with Acton’s anti-democratic attitudes—his traditionalist point of view was radically different from a liberal one.
His major contribution, it appears to me, was that of being an effective spokesman for a point of view too little articulated today, and thus a contributor to the vigorous libertarian-traditionalist dialogue.
WEAVER ON SOCIETY, PAST AND PRESENT:
THE SOUTHERN TRADITION
MANY YEARS AGO the historian Francis Parkman wrote a passage in one of his narratives which impresses me as full of wisdom and prophecy. After a brilliant characterization of the colonies as they existed on the eve of the Revolution, he said, “The essential antagonism of Virginia and New England was afterwards to become, and to remain, an element of the first influence in American history. Each might have learned much from the other, but neither did so til, at last, the strife of their contending principles shook the continent.” If we take Virginia as representing the South and New England as representing the North, as I think we may fairly do, we can say that this situation continues in some degree down to the present. Each section had much to learn from the other: neither was willing to learn anything and that failure produced 100 years ago the greatest tragedy in American history. Today it appears in political friction, social resentment, and misunderstanding of motives despite encouraging signs of growing amity.
This amity will clearly depend upon an appreciation, which Parkman found so sadly lacking, of what each has to offer. You certainly never get anywhere in mutual understanding among peoples or nations by assuming in advance that the other fellow has nothing whatever to offer. We would never think of assuming that in the case of the English or the French or the Chinese, or even the American Indians. But I only report what I have observed if I say that there appears a tendency on the part of a good many Americans to assume that the American South has nothing to offer—nothing worth anybody’s considering. That is a proposition in itself, and it needs to be examined in the light of evidence.
My principal theme, therefore, will be those things the South believes it has contributed to this great, rich, and diversified nation and which it feels have some right to survive and to exert their proportionate influence upon our life.
Before I can do this, however, I shall have to say something about what the South is—what makes it a determinate thing, a political, cultural, and social entity, which by the settlement of 1865 is going to be part of the union indefinitely.
IT IS VIRTUALLY A TRUISM in American political thinking that the South has been a kind of nation within a nation. You have no doubt learned that “nation” is a hard thing to define in any ultimate sense. But taking the term in the practical, working sense usually employed, we can say that there are a number of evidences of Southern nationalism. The political unity of the section often referred to by the phrase “the solid South” is a fact of considerable notoriety. Its ideological unity, or its community of belief about certain ideas, certain institutions, and certain figures of history is only a little behind the political unity. And the unity of its culture, expressed in its way of life, it speech, its cookery, and its manners, has maintained itself surprisingly in the face of a variety of conditions on the inside and considerable pressure from the outside. I am inclined to think that Southern culture shows a degree of centripetalism, or orientation toward a center, which is characteristic of all high cultures.
In dealing with the factors which have produced this unity of thought and feeling in the South, it seems best to take them in the order of their historical emergence.
The first step toward understanding the peculiarities of the Southern mind and temper is to recognize that the South, as compared with the North, has a European culture—not European in the mature or highly developed sense, but more European than that which grew up north of the Potomac and Ohio rivers, in several respects, even more European than that of New England.
The South never showed the same interest in seceding from European culture that the North and West showed. It played an important and valiant part in the Revolution, but this was a political separation. After the Revolution it settled down quite comfortably with its institutions, modelled on eighteenth century England. A few stirrings of change, I believe, there were in Virginia, but not enough to alter the patterns of a landowning aristocracy. While Emerson in New England was declaiming, “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” the South was contentedly reading Sir Walter Scott, not, as Russell Kirk has shrewdly pointed out in his The Conservative Mind, just because it liked romance but because in Sir Walter Scott it found the social ideals of Edmund Burke. And Burke is one of the great prophets of conservative society. The European complexion of Southern culture showed itself also in other ways. It showed itself in the preservation of a class society—one might more truly say in the creation of a class society—for very few who settled in the South had any real distinction of family. It appeared in the form of considerable ceremonial in dress and manners. It was manifested in the code duello, with all its melancholy consequences. It appeared in the tendency of Southern families who could afford it to send their sons to Europe for their education—even Edgar Allen Poe received some of his schooling in England. And it appeared in a consequential way in their habit of getting their silver, their china, their fine furniture and the other things that ornamented Southern mansions from Europe in exchange for their tobacco, cotton and indigo.
Whether the South was right or wrong in preserving so much of the European pattern is obviously a question of vast implications which we cannot go into here. But I think it can be set down as one fact in the growing breach between South and North. The South retained an outlook which was characteristically European while the North was developing in a direction away from this—was becoming more American, you might say.
There are evidences of this surviving into the present. A few decades ago when Southern Rhodes scholars first began going to England, some of them were heard to remark that the society they found over there was much like the society they had left behind. England hardly seemed to them a foreign country. This led to attempts by some of them to reassert the close identity of Southern and Western European culture, to which I expect to refer again later.
THE SECOND GREAT FACTOR in the molding of Southern unity and self-consciousness was the Civil War. Southerners are sometimes accused of knowing too much about the Civil War, of talking too much about it, of being unwilling to forget it. But there are several reasons why this rent looms very large in the Southerner’s memory, and why he has little reluctance in referring to this war, although it was a contest in which he was defeated.
To begin with, Southerners, or the great majority of them, always have believed that their part in this war was an honorable one. Far from regarding themselves as rebels, they felt that they were loyal to the original government, that is to say, they believed that they were fighting to defend the government as it was laid down at Philadelphia in 1787 and as recognized by various state ordinances of ratification This was a government of restricted power, commissioned to do certain things which the states could not do for themselves, but strictly defined as to its authority. The theory of states’ rights was a kind of political distributism which opposed the idea of a powerful centralized government. The Southern theory then as now favored the maximum amount of self-determination by the states and it included, as a kind of final guarantee that states’ rights would be respected, the principle of state sovereignty, with its implied right of secession.
In the Southern view, it was the North that was rebelling against this idea which had been accepted by the members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Or to put it in another way, the North was staging a revolution, the purpose of which was to do away with this older concept of the American government. The South refused to go along with the revolution, invoked the legal safeguards which it believed to exist, and then prepared to defend itself by force. You may recall that the late historian Charles A. Beard found enough substance in this to call the Civil War “the Second American Revolution” in his Rise of American Civilization. Thus in this second American Revolution the Northerners were in the role of patriots, the Southerners in the role of English, if we keep our analogy with the Revolutionary War.
In all great crises of history where you have a legal principle challenged by a moral right, you find people flocking to both standards. The one side says it believes in the duty of upholding the law. The other side says it believes in the imperative necessity of change, even at the expense of revolution. Though the Civil War may not look quite so simple to us now, this is the way many people saw it. A number of years ago, Gerald Johnson wrote an ingenious little book on Southern secession, in which he referred to it as the struggle between the law and the prophets. The South had the law and the North had the prophets, in the form of the abolitionists and also of the advocators, both heard and unheard, of a strong central government, unimpeded by theories of states’ rights.
The legal aspects of an issue which has been so long decided can now have only academic interest. But if any of you wish to see a statement of the South’s legal position on state sovereignty and secession, the best source is a little book by a man named Bledsoe—A. T. Bledsoe—Is Davis A Traitor? Bledsoe was a Kentuckian, and he brought to the task of writing this defense an interesting set of qualifications. He was a lawyer, a professor of mathematics, and for ten years he had been a colleague of Lincoln at the bar of Springfield. Also—and probably this is pertinent to mention, since we are talking here about a metaphysical debate—he had written a book-length refutation of Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will. I do not know whether this is true or not, but it has been said that the appearance of Is Davis A Traitor? in 1866, was one of the things that made the North decide not to bring Davis to trial. At any rate, the failure to bring Davis to trial was naturally taken by the South as a sign that the North’s legal case was too weak to be risked in court.
These are the chief things causing Southerners to feel that, whatever the claims of moral right and wrong, they had the law on their side.
Now we come to the fact of the Civil War itself. It was impossible that a struggle as long and bitter as this should not leave deep scars. Americans, particularly those of the present generation, are prone to forget the magnitude of this civil conflict. The United States lost more men from battle wounds and disease in the Civil War than in any other war of its history, including the Second World War. The battle front stretched from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, and included also the seven seas. A good many of the wars of history have been decided by two or three major battles. In our Civil War at least eighteen battles must be accounted major by reason of the number and resources involved. The minor battles run into scores, and the total number of engagements—somebody once counted them up—is as I recall, something more than 2200. Of this eighteen major battles you might call five or six “critical” in a sense that, with a more decisive result, they might have ended the war right there or have turned it in favor of the side which eventually lost. I would include in my list of critical battles Shiloh, the Seven Days, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. So you can see it was really a knock-down drag-out fight.
THERE IS A FURTHER FACT to be noticed in discussing the effect of this war. Nearly the whole of it was fought on Southern soil. With the exception of the Gettysburg campaign, and John Hunt Morgan’s raids into Indiana and Ohio, and the small but famous St. Albans raid in Vermont—a group of Confederates in disguise came down from Canada, shot up the little town of St. Albans in Vermont, took the bank deposits and got back across the border—the North was physically untouched. There is a great difference between reading about a war your boys are fighting 500 miles away, and having the war in your midst, with homes being burned, farms being stripped, and your institutions being pulled to pieces. I’ll bet any Japanese or German today will testify to this. The war was much more a reality to the people of the South than to those of the North, and it has remained such down to the present.
A natural question to come up at this point is, why should anybody care to remember or write histories about a war which left his country a hollow shell? In order to explain this, I shall have to tell you something else from the Southern credo, something that goes along with this faith in the legal case. It has been a prime factor in preserving Southern morale and in maintaining that united front of the South which I am afraid has been such a vexation to the rest of the country. And the only way I can really tell this is by an anecdote, even though I have to explain the anecdote.
The story goes that a ragged Confederate soldier was trudging his way home from Appomattox. As he was passing through some town, somebody called out to him by way of taunting. “What’ll you do if the Yankees get after you?” And his answer was, “They aren’t going to bother me. If they do, I’ll just whip ’em again.” The point of the anecdote, which may need to be explained, is that the answer was at least half serious. It was a settled article of belief with the Southern soldiers—echoed in numberless Confederate reunions—that although they had lost the war, they had won the fighting—that individually they had proved themselves the equal, if not the superior of their adversary and that the contest had finally been decided by numbers. There is no point in going into the merits of the argument here. But it is easy to see how, right or wrong, it had a great effect in preserving Southern pride, and even in maintaining a spirit of defiance which to this day characterizes a good bit of Southern policy.
It also helps to explain why the South has written so voluminously about the war, and why in libraries today, for example, you can find a biography of practically every Confederate General of any eminence whatever, and sometimes three or four. A quick check of the card files in Harper library reveals ten full-length biographies of William Tecumseh Sherman, but fourteen of Stonewall Jackson, plus biographies of Stoneman, Pleasanton, Grierson, Bedford, Forrest, Stuart, and a definitive biography of Lee by D. S. Freeman; but no definitive biography of Grant. The remark has been made that in the Civil War the North reaped the victory and the South the glory. If you consult the literature of the subject very extensively you find a certain amount of truth in that.
Evidently there was enough substance in the legend to nourish the martial tradition of the South, and to support institutions like VMI, the Citadel and the A & M College of Texas, which do not have counterparts in other sections of the country.
This brings the story down to Reconstruction; which somebody has described as “a chamber of horrors into which no good American would care to look.” If that is an exaggeration, it still seems fair to say that this was the most dismal period of our history—a bitter, thirty-year sectional feud in which one side was trying to impose its will on the other, and the other was resisting that imposition with every device of policy, stratagem and chicanery that could be found. We must realize that no people willingly accepts the idea of being reconstructed in the image of another. That is, in fact, the ultimate in humiliation, the suggestion that you must give up your mind, your inherited beliefs and you way of life in favor of that of your invaders. There was a critical period when, if things had been managed a little worse, the South might have turned into a Poland or an Ireland, which is to say a hopelessly alienated and embittered province, willing to carry on a struggle for decades or even centuries to achieve a final self-determination. That was largely forestalled by the wisdom of a few Northern leaders. The work of Lincoln toward reconciliation is well known but that of Grant, at Appomattox and also later, I think has never been sufficiently appreciated. And the act of Lee in calling for reunion once the verdict of battle has been given was of course of very great influence.
IT WAS AN immeasurable calamity that Lincoln was not allowed to live and carry out his words in the lofty and magnanimous spirit which his speeches reflect. He was himself a product of the two sections, a Kentuckian by birth, an Illinoisian by adoption. He understood what had gone into the making of both. As it was, things were done which produced only rancor, and made it difficult for either side to believe in the good faith of the other. It is unfortunate but it is true that the Negro was forced to pay a large part of the bill for the follies of Reconstruction.
By all civilized standards the period was dreadful enough. George Fordt Milton has called his history covering those years The Age of Hate. Claude Bowers has called this The Tragic Era. If you desire a detailed account of what the South experienced in these years probably the best source to go to is Why the Solid South, Reconstruction and Its Results, (ed. Hilary Herbert) by a group of Southern leaders, including a number of governors of states. This is of course, a Southern view, but it tells you from the inside something about the financial, political, and social chaos that prevailed in those years.
Unquestionably Reconstruction did something to deepen the self-consciousness of the Southern people, to make them feel less American rather than more so. They became the first Americans ever to be subject to invasion, conquest, and military dictation. In estimating the Southern mind it is most important to realize that no other section of America has been through this kind of experience. In fact it is not supposed to be part of the American story. The American presents himself to the world as ever progressing, ever victorious, and irresistible. The American of the South cannot do this. He has tasted what no good American is supposed ever to have tasted, namely the cup of defeat. Of course, that experience is known to practically all the peoples of Europe and of Asia. This circumstance has the effect of making the mentality of the Southerner again a foreign mentality—or a mentality which he shares in respect to this experience with most of the peoples of the world but does not share with the victorious American of the North and West. He is an outsider in his own country. I have often felt that the cynicism and Old-World pessimism which the rest of the country sometimes complains of in the South stems chiefly from this cause. The Southerner is like a person who has lost his innocence in the midst of persons who have not. William A. Percy, going from a plantation on the Mississippi Delta to the Harvard Law School found that Northern boys were “mentally more disciplined” but “morally more innocent” than Southern boys. His presence is somehow anomalous; he didn’t belong.
It is sometimes said, with reference to these facts, that the South is the only section of the nation which knows the meaning of tragedy. I am inclined to accept that observation as true and to feel that important things can be deduced from it. Perhaps there is nothing in the world as truly educative as tragedy. Tragedy is a kind of ultimate. 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 indescribable, are poignant and long remembered. A year or so ago I had the temerity to suggest in an article that although the South might not be the best educated section in the United States, it is the most educated—meaning that it has an education in tragedy with which other educations are not to be compared, if you are talking about realities. In this sense, a one-gallon farmer from Georgia, sitting on a rail fence with a straw in his mouth and commenting shrewdly on the ways of God and man—a figure I adopt from John Crowe Ransom—is more educated than say a salesman in Detroit, who has never seen any reason to believe that progress is not self-moving, necessary and eternal. It would seem the very perverseness of human nature for one to be proud of this kind of education. But I do believe it is a factor in the peculiar pride of the Southerner. He has been through it; he knows; the others are still living in their fool’s paradise of thinking they can never be defeated. All in all, it has proved difficult to sell the South on the idea that it is ignorant.
In a speech made around the turn of the century, Charles Aycock of North Carolina met the charge of ignorance in a way that is characteristic in its defiance. Speaking on “The Genius of North Carolina Interpreted,” he said,
Illiterate we have been, but ignorant never. Books we have not known, but men we have learned, and God we have sought to find out.
[North Carolina has] nowhere within her borders a man known out of his township ignorant enough to join with the fool in saying “There is not God.”
You will note here the distinction made between literacy and knowledge—a distinction which seems to be coming back into vogue. You will observe also the preference of knowledge of men over knowledge of books—this is where our Southern politicians get their wiliness. And you will note finally the strong emphasis upon religiosity.
(It has also been claimed that this tragic awareness perhaps together with the religiosity is responsible for the great literary productiveness of the South today. That is a most interesting thesis to examine, but it is a subject for a different lecture.)
For a preliminary, this has been rather long, but I have felt it essential to present the South as a concrete historical reality. One of the things that has prevented a better understanding between North and South, in my firm belief, is that to the North the South has never seemed quite real. It has seemed like something out of fiction, or out of that department of fiction called romance. So many of its features are violent, picturesque, extravagant. With its survivals of the medieval synthesis, its manners that recall bygone eras, its stark social cleavages, its lost cause, its duels, its mountain flask, its romantic and sentimental songs, it appears more like a realm of fable than a geographical quarter of these United States. Expressed in the refrain of a popular song, “Is It True What They Say About Dixie,” the thought seems to be that the South is a kind of never never land from which the nation draws most of its romance and sentiment, but to which, for this very reason, you do not assign the same weight in the equation as you do to the other sections. Well the sentiment and the romance are there, in considerable measure, but there is a substratum of reality too. People are born and die in the same way as elsewhere: if you prick them, they bleed. The vast majority of them have to work for a living and in a hot climate too. The South also votes in national elections. For this reason, especially, it is important that the nation should see it as a reality and not a fiction, understand it better, both with respect to its likenesses and its differences. (And I certainly would assent to the proposition that the South ought to understand the nation better.) In the foregoing I have tried to present to you something of the peculiar history and formation of the South. In the time remaining I shall try to explain some of the peculiar—in the sense of being fairly distinct in this country—attributes of mind and outlook. It is scarcely necessary to add that these have many connections with that history.
I shall begin by saying something about the attitude toward nature. This is a matter so basic to one’s outlook or philosophy of life that we often tend to overlook it. Yet if we do overlook it, we find there are many things coming later which we cannot straighten out.
Here the attitudes of Southerners and Northerners, taken in their most representative form, differ in an important respect. The Southerner tends to look upon nature as something which is given and something which is finally inscrutable. This is equivalent to saying that he looks upon it as the creation of a Creator. There follows from this attitude an important deduction, which is that man has a duty of veneration toward nature and the natural. Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a modus vivendi—that is, a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it. The important corollary of this doctrine, it seems to me, is that man is not the lord of creation, with an omnipotent will, but a part of creation, with limitations, who ought to observe a decent humility in the face of the inscrutable.
THE NORTHERN ATTITUDE, if I interpret it correctly, goes much further toward making man the center of significance and the master of nature. Nature is frequently spoken of as something to be overcome. And man’s well-being is often equated with how extensively he is able to change nature. Nature is sometimes thought of as an impediment to be got out of the way. This attitude has increasingly characterized the thinking of the Western world since the Enlightenment, and here again, some people will say that the South is behind the times, or even that it here is an element of the superstitious in this regard for nature in its originally given form. But however you account for the attitude, you will have to agree that it can have an important bearing upon one’s theory of life and conduct. And nowhere is its influence more decisive than in the corollary attitude one takes toward “Progress.”
One of the most widely received generalizations in this country is that the South is the “unprogressive section.” If it is understood in the terms in which it is made, the charge is true. What is not generally understood, however, is that this failure to keep up with the march of progress is not wholly a matter of comparative poverty, comparative illiteracy, and a hot climate which discourages activity. Some of it is due to a philosophical opposition to Progress as it has been spelled out by industrial civilization. It is an opposition which stems from a different conception of man’s proper role in life.
This is the kind of thing one would expect to find in those out-of-the-way countries in Europe called “unspoiled,” but it is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in America. Therefore I feel I should tell you a little more about it. Back about 1930, at a time when this nation was passing through an extraordinary sequence of boom, bust, and fizzle there appeared a collection of essays bearing the title I’ll Take My Stand.1 The nature of this title, together with certain things contained, caused many people to view this as a reappearance of the old rebel yell. There were, however, certain differences. For one thing, the yell was this time issuing from academic halls, most of the contributors being affiliated in one way or another with Vanderbilt University. For another, the book did not concentrate upon past grievances, as I am afraid most Southern polemic has done, but rather upon present concerns. Its chief question was, where is industrialism going anyhow, and what are its gifts, once you look them in the mouth? This book has since become famous as “The Agrarian Manifesto.” As far as content goes, I think it can fairly be styled a critique of progress, as that word is used in the vocabulary of modern publicity and boosting.
Although the indictment was made with many historical and social applications, the center of it was philosophical; and the chief criticism was that progress propels man into an infinite development. Because it can never define its end, it is activity for the sake of activity, and it is making things so that you will be able to make more things. And regardless of how much of it you have, you are never any nearer your goal because there is no goal. It never sits down to contemplate, and ask, what is the good life? but rather assumes that material acquisition answers all questions. Language something like this was employed by John Crowe Ransom, one of the most eloquent of the spokesmen, in his chapter, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate.”
“Progress never defines its ultimate objective but thrusts its victims at once into an infinite series,” Mr. Ransom said. And he continued, “Our vast industrial machine, with its laboratory center of experimentation, and its far-flung organs of mass production, is like a Prussianized state which is organized strictly for war and can never consent to peace.”2 “Industrialism,” he declared, “is rightfully a menial, of almost miraculous cunning, but no intelligence; it needs to be strongly governed, or it will destroy the economy of the household. Only a community of tough conservative habit can master it.”3 The South, Mr. Ransom felt, was such a community, and he went on to praise it for its stability, its love of established things, its veneration of the past—for all of those qualities which are generally thought to make up Southern backwardness. Mr. Stark Young, the well-known novelist and theatrical critic, defended the ideal of aristocratic indulgence and aristocratic leadership. “We can put one thing in our pipes and smoke it,” he wrote, “there will never again be distinction in the South until—somewhat contrary to the doctrine of popular and profitable democracy—it is generally clear that no man worth anything is possessed by the people, or sees the world under a smear of the people’s wills and beliefs.”4 There are many other pungent passages which might be quoted, but these should be enough to show that it was a militant book. As you can see, its bias was anti-industrial, anti-scientific, anti-popular. It defended the values of a culture rooted in the soil. Just what the effect was, however, is hard to estimate. But no one conversant with Southern history and culture will deny that it expressed some feelings which survive pretty strongly into the present and which may be found any where from the mansions of the nouveau riche in Atlanta to the mountain cabins of East Tennessee and Kentucky.
ANOTHER CARDINAL POINT, touched on here and there in the volume, is the Southerner’s attachment to locality. The Southerner is a local person—to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. You might say that he has lived by the principle that it is good for a man to have a local habitation and a name; it is still better when the two are coupled together. In olden days a good many Southerners tried to identify their names and their homes: thus we read in history of John Taylor of Caroline, of Charles Carroll of Carrollton; of Robert Carter of Nomini Hall; of the Careys of Careysbroke; of the Lees of Westmoreland County. With the near liquidation of the old land-owning aristocracy this kind of thing became too feudal and fancy to keep up. Nevertheless, something of it remains in a widespread way still; the Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth. If he is of the lucky few, it may be to an estate or a plantation; if not that, to a county; and if not to a county at least to a state. He is a Virginian, or he is a Georgian in a sense that I have never encountered in the Middle West—though the Indiana Hoosiers may offer a fair approximation. Very often the mention of a name in an introduction will elicit the remark, “That is a Virginia name” or “That’s a South Carolina name,” whereupon there will occur an extensive genealogical discussion. Often this attachment to a locale will be accompanied by a minute geographical and historical knowledge of the region, a loving awareness of details, of the peculiar physiognomy of the place. Andrew Nelson Lytle once complained in an article that in the world since 1914, nobody has known who he was or where he was from. The South has certainly felt the pressure toward rootlessness and anonymity—which are sometimes named as among the chief causes of modern psychic disorders—but I believe it has resisted the pressure better than most parts of the United States and Europe. It still looks among a man’s credentials for where he is from, and not all places, even in the South, are equal. Before a Virginian, a North Carolinian is supposed to stand cap in hand. And faced with the hauteur of an old family of Charleston, South Carolina, even a Virginian may shuffle his feet and look uneasy.
THE PRIDE OF local attachment is a fact which has two sides; it is a vice and a virtue. It may lead to conceit, complacency, and ignorance of the world outside. It frequently does lead to an exaggerated estimate of the qualities and potentialities of the particular region or province. The nation as a whole is acquainted with it in the case of Texans, who have developed this Southern attribute in an extreme degree. I was teaching out in Texas about the time we were ending the Second World War. A jocular remark that was passed around with relish was: “I know we are going to win the war now. Texas is on our side.” It was a fair gibe at Texan conceit.
But on the other side, provincialism is a positive force, which we ought to think about a long while before we sacrifice too much to political abstractionism. In the last analysis, provincialism is your belief in yourself, in your neighborhood, in your reality. It is patriotism without belligerence. Convincing cases have been made to show that all great art is provincial in the sense of reflecting a place, a time, and a Zeitgeist. Quite a number of spokesmen have pleaded with the South not to give up her provincialism. Henry Watterson, a long-time editor of the Louisville Courier Journal, told an audience of Kentuckians, “The provincial spirit, which is dismissed from polite society in a half-sneering, half-condemnatory way is really one of the forces of human achievement. As a man loses his provincialism he loses, in part, his originality and, in this way, so much of his power as proceeds from his originality.” He spoke caustically of “a miserable cosmopolitan frivolity stealing over the strong simple realism of by-gone times.” He summed up by asking, “What is life to me if I gain the whole world and lose my province?”
Thirty years later Stark Young, writing in the agrarian manifesto to which I referred earlier, pursued the same theme. “Provincialism that is a mere ramification of some insistent egotism is only less nauseous than the same egotism in its purity . . . without any province to harp on. But provincialism proper is a fine trait. It is akin to a man’s interest in his own center, which is the most deeply rooted consideration that he has, the source of his direction, health and soul. . . . People who give up their own land too readily need careful weighing, exactly as do those who are so with their convictions.”5 What often looks like the Southerners’ unreasoning loyalty to the South as a place has in this way been given some reasoned defense. Even Solomon said that the eyes of a fool are in the ends of the earth. One gives up the part for the whole only to discover that without parts there is no whole. But I have said enough about the cultural ideal of regionalism. If you would be interested in a book which brings these thoughts together in a systematic treatment, see Donald Davidson’s The Attack on Leviathan.
Despite what I have said about this love for the particular, which is another name for love of the concrete, the Southern mind is not by habit analytical. In fact the Southern mind has little capacity for analysis and I think one could almost say that it is opposed on principle to analysis. There seems to exist a feeling that you do not get at the truth of a thing—or that you do not get at a truth worth having—by breaking the thing in pieces. This explains undoubtedly why the South has always done so poorly in business and technology, which demand analytical methods. The Southern mind is, on the other hand, synthetic and mythopoeic—it seeks out wholes, representations, symbols. Especially is it mythopoeic, or given to the creation of myths and stories. The American tall tale was a creation of the Southern frontier. And one cannot go into a mountain community in Eastern Kentucky or to a plantation in say, Alabama, and open his ears to the talk of the people without having borne in upon him an amazing wealth and variety of stories—dramatic, intense, sometimes grotesque. As a mine of material for the creative writer there is nothing to compare with it anywhere else in America. I have heard people ask where William Faulkner gets that stuff that goes into his novels—whether he dreams it in nightmares, and so on. No one who had spent any time in Mississippi with his ears open would have to ask that question. He would know to what extent incidents and stories of this kind enter into the imaginative life of Mississippians. This mythopoeic or poetic—in the Aristotelian sense—faculty is surely behind the present flowering of the Southern novel and short story. It has already given us an interesting body of fiction, and it may one day give us a great literature. The South is not so much sleeping as dreaming, and dreams sometimes beget creations!
FINALLY SOMETHING MUST be said about the South’s famous conservatism—famous or infamous, depending upon your point of view. It is certainly a significant fact, but it has not gone wholly uncriticized at home. Walter Hines Page, growing up as a young man in North Carolina, spoke bitterly of what he called “an unyielding stability of opinion.” Having failed in his effort to do anything with it, he declared that “the only successful rebellion was an immediate departure.” He then fled North, to become editor of The Atlantic Monthly and eventually our ambassador to Britain during the Wilson Administration. Ellen Glasgow satirized it in her urbane novels of Virginia life. Thomas Wolfe took a few hefty swings at it in his description of old Catawba. And there have been others who have complained of a stifling uniformity of thought on many subjects.
With some of these specific protests I would gladly agree, yet there is perhaps another light in which we can see this “unyielding stability of opinion.” Stability has its uses, as every considerate man knows, and it is not too far-fetched to think of the South as the fly-wheel of the American nation. A fly-wheel is defined by the science of mechanics as a large wheel, revolving at a uniform rate, the function of which is to stabilize the speed of the machine, slowing it down if it begins to go too fast and speeding it up if it begins to go too slow. This function it performs through the physical force of inertia. There are certain ways in which the South has acted as a fly-wheel in our society. It has slowed down social change when that started moving rapidly. And, though this will surprise many people, it has speeded up some changes when change was going slowly. Without judging the political wisdom of these matters, I merely point out that without Southern order, the New Deal probably would have foundered. Without Southern votes, the Conscription act would not have been renewed in 1941. Generally speaking the South has always been the free trade section. It is not very romantic or very flattering to be given credit only for inertia. But conservatism is not always a matter of just being behind. Sometimes conservatives are in the lead. I could give you more examples of that if I had time. It requires little gathering up of thread to show that a mind produced by this heritage is diametrically opposed to communism. With its individualism, its belief in personality, its dislike of centralized government, and its religiosity, the South sees in the communist philosophy a combination of all it detests. If that issue comes to a showdown, which I hope does not happen, there will never be any doubt as to where the South stands.
I suspect that a good many of you entertain thoughts of changing the South, of making it just like the rest of the country, of seeing it “wake up.” It seems to me that the South has been just on the verge of “waking up” ever since I have been reading things about it. My advice is to be modest in your hopes. The South is one of those entities to which one can apply the French saying, “the more it changes the more it remains the same.” Even where you think you are making some headway, you may be only heading into quicksand. It waits until you are far enough in and then sucks you under. It is well to remember that the South is very proud of its past, hard as it has been; it does not want to be made over in anybody else’s image, and it has had a century of experience in fighting changes urged on it from the outside. I agree with W. J. Cash that the Southern mind is one of the most intransigent on earth; that is, one of the hardest minds to change. Ridiculing its beliefs has no more effect, as far as I have been able to observe, than ridiculing a person’s religious beliefs—and the Southerner’s beliefs have been a kind of secular religion with him: that only serves to convince him further that he is right and that you are damned.
INTRANSIGENCE IN ITSELF, however, is not good, of course. No mind ought to be impervious to suggestions and the influence of outside example. Intercommunication and cross fertilization are necessary. I covet a chance to talk someday to a Southern audience on what they need to learn from the North. But these express two-way relationships. It is a peculiar blindness to assume that the factors which have produced you are real, whereas the factors that have produced the other fellow are unreal. Those succeed best who go forward in the spirit of inquiry, seeking to understand the lines of force, and above all, realizing that there is something to be learned wherever complete lives are lived. With this kind of attitude it is possible for Virginia to learn from New England and New England from Virginia with a happy result that Parkman visualized but did not live to see.
THE HUMANITIES IN A CENTURY OF THE COMMON MAN
THE CURRENT DEFENSE of humanities does not take into account the depth of the tide running against them, probably because it is politically unsettling to do so. But if we wish to acquaint ourselves with prospects we shall soon be grappling with as pressing realities, we shall have to look more candidly at what is undermining this historic body of study. If certain forces continue unabated, humanistic training as we have known it is not likely to survive another generation.
The first point to take into account is the paradoxical fact that the humanities are a discipline. I say paradoxical because there is a certain anomoly in asking the human being to undergo a regimen in order to become more human, or more humane, if we may give a focused meaning to the latter word. For the humanities are not the spontaneous, loose, and thoughtless expression of the human race, but on the contrary a highly difficult, concentrated, and directed expression which aims at a center—man at his best, not man transmuted into an angel, which is the proper study of divinity, but man incarnate, which is today, man in this world, making the best of his estate as he responds to its colors and configurations. That is why we can today admire the humanism of Greece and Rome, with indifference to the other tendencies of this civilization. Like every humanism, theirs was an achievement in sensibility and expression, and their brilliance was such that the modern world has up until now been glad to emulate. But it has always been accepted as a starting point that this emulation required education and effort, so that he who engaged in it sought to make himself over in accordance with an ideal superior to his untutored self. That would seem to be the premise of all humanistic study: the best which has been thought and said in the world was not uttered in a babble, but came slowly and often at the cost of self-torture, or at least of the mortification of passing desire. Education in the humanities has always meant a study of the classics, and a classic is a sort of cultural leader, to whom we submit ourselves out of our faith in edification.
Those who have been brought up on a humanistic education assume that there is something in the monuments of humanism which compels a respect. I fear that they are only taking a constant of their own lives to be a universal constant, which does not exist. Once before a long night descended upon these monuments. They were there to plead their case, but you cannot plead to those who will not hear. I should like to echo Whitman here, and say that if to have great poets, there must be great audiences, to have a victorious humanism, there must be a humanized audience. Enough has been said elsewhere of the dehumanizing pressures under which we labor; and acute observers have long detected in modern men, and not solely among those who are low-placed, an impulse to reach for the metaphorical pistol when the word culture is mentioned. There seems to be growing up an attitude of truculence, and nothing is more fatal to an appreciation of past accomplishment. There are plenty of signs that the traditional respect for artistic and intellectual distinction is being displaced by reverence for political power and institutions. The first of these requires a belief in personality, and the second tends to require a disbelief in it. That may prove the fundamental difference between them.
It is a commonplace of recent history that about 1930 our age turned sharply political. The impluse has been so strong in the 30’s and 40’s as to carry along with it, like some engrossing wave, a large part of all artistic expression. Artistic work came to be judged by whether or not it contributed to a conception of progress, and the term progress implies, of course, a direction. If we had to give a name to that direction, we would not have to seek beyond “social democracy.” This is a quite elastic term which covers, on the one extreme, the palest social amelioration, and on the other the strictest type of state-managed economy, requiring total regimentation. But whatever the form, social democracy exhibits two tendencies which are serious for the future of the humanities. One of these is a change in the structure of society, and the other a disposition of society’s income.
The first tendency works to break down the categories which have hitherto existed in favor of an undifferentiated mass. Without raising the question of whether these classes which have been privileged in the past have deserved their fortune, it can be asked whether society is not thereby sacrificing its strength. It seems to be incontrovertible that all progress in the higher meaning of that term—the progress which is the carrying out of an enlightened moral ambition—has not come from society fused as a mass, but from society held in a kind of counterpoise. Aristotle has illustrated this truth through an analogy with music. A state ceases to be a state when what is harmony is allowed to pass into unison. Now the mass seems to be this state of unison, which is with out the principle of counterpoise. In the other type of society, which has proved creative, we have numberless arrangements in which men are functionally placed against men, since this is in very fact its integrating principle. There is a substratum of unity, of course, for without that even our definition would collapse. The principle of counterpoise works in such a way that one element plays its part and gets its living by being poised against another element. The one is commissioned to get as much as it can out of the other, more than would ever be granted without the pressure of its demand. The requirement is always made in the name of some higher order, or liberty, or degree of enlightenment. For example, in this functional counterpoise we have teachers against students, policemen against citizens, buyers against sellers, managers against employees. It is the pluralistic kind of arrangement, in which one group stands for and enforces an ideal of performance like a competitor in a contest, viz., especially teachers and policemen, and the rest of us profit by their necessary though at times irksome office. The effect of this arrangement is to make society vertebrate, if we may vary the figure. I do not see what social democracy is going to substitute for this structure. What has been suggested or exhibited thus far is a more simple and more rigid pattern, which is without the flexibility of the healthy organic body. Now the humanities have in the past exerted their authority from a kind of limited autonomy; they have been one of the weights holding us in a counterpoise. In the new state, what is going to “enforce” the humanities? It is becoming clear that if the state does not do it, it will not be done; and yet if the state does it, it will likely be done in a way that will prove fatal.
This brings us to the second tendency, which is the economic transformation accompanying the process we have just sketched.
Everyday observation brings home to us that as the modern state expands its power, it becomes more jealous of the rights of individuals. It grows more rigorous in the exercise of the authority it owns; and secretly, one fears, it determines to extend its reach. It is inevitable that in this development it should become more curious about what individuals do with their incomes. Its level of understanding here is pretty low; expenditures for food, clothing, and shelter it can grasp, but as it seeks to placate the greatest number, things beyond these will be sold to it with increasing difficulty.
Let us consider for a moment the way in which it has brought the individual’s economic life under surveillance. First, the state somewhat timidly lays an income tax, applied at the outset to the wealthy, who are few and conspicuous. Next, on a plea of emergency, or extended social welfare, it increases the rates sharply, making them virtually confiscatory on the upper levels. This fact is not presented in defense of an unregenerate capitalism; its relevance to the argument appears when one recalls what has happened in this country to private donations to universities. As someone has remarked, you cannot eat up your millionaires with taxes and have them too.
The state finally adopts the withholding tax, which has the practical effect of putting everyone on the government payroll, since the government first looks at the salary, decides what fraction of it the individual shall have, and then passes on the remainder. Thus the private company becomes in effect a kind of disbursing agent for the government. This circumstance, which seems to have gone largely unnoticed, is symbolic in the highest degree of the trend even in “free” countries toward state collectivism. The bearing upon the case of culture is just this: what is going to happen to the supernumerary, non-utilitarian part of our activity when every individual is virtually on a government expense account? The inescapable conclusion is that the sum which goes for “brave, translunary things” is going to be politically determined—and inspired.
The modern world is creating an ideology whose hero is the satisfied consumer. He is the common denominator, and the offices of the state are to serve him, and not some imponderable ideal. This state serves, moreover, with an ever-increased efficiency. Today, everything is under control; nothing slips through; there is less chance than ever before that the state will fail of its announced aim. Populations have been numbered, incomes have been listed; techniques have become machine-like. We must therefore consider the chance of the humanities in a social democracy whose policies will be efficient, as far as its light goes, but whose ideals encounter an insistent pull downward.
At this certain point objections arise. “Culture,” which in common parlance stands for the humanities, is still a word with a great deal of prestige; it yet has associations of value which would induce politicians to sponsor it even if they felt no attachment to it. It is frequently seen that social democratic parties are more liberal than others in recognizing the claims of culture. They pledge large outlays for education and a better deal for the artists and intellectuals under their regime. The promise is fair, but it has to be distinguished from the performance for the plain reason that it is uttered as part of the ideal, and does not reflect the forces which will mold the actual. It is one thing to promise in the name of the people reverence for great art and intellectual distinction, but this is a situation in which the will, or it might be more accurately described, the impulse, of the people is going to determine. After all, one of the chief aims of social democracy is the removal of those barriers which in traditional or formalized societies stand between the people and an immediate fulfillment of their wishes.
What is likely to happen is this: in the primitive or heroic days of social democracy we would very likely get commissars or administrators who believe genuinely in the humanities and who would put up a battle for them. One is compelled to suppose that they would be battling as individuals, against indifference from above and poorly educated taste from below. For a time they might do much, but it would be foolish to mistake in this case accident for essence. For these men would be individualists, and sooner or later they would be supplanted by others closer to popular sympathy. It is likely that their very success would be held against them, so refined are the arts of political detraction. They would be described as aloof from the people, or as thwarters of the popular will; for, in fact, they would be representing an “undemocratic” force. Their successors would be the political type, who know all too well how to commit a murder while concealed under the cloak of popular sentiment. They will give the public what it wants and provide the rationalization. This is the fate in store for all state-controlled culture.
Anyone who thinks this is a fanciful alarm should reflect upon what has been done to public education in the United States. The boast of the innovating “progressive” schools is that they prepare the youth for a changing world. Would it not be incomparably more sensible to prepare the youth to understand why the world is changing? This is what the humanities do. There is little appeal here to the exponents of progressive education because they have no desire to rise above the confusion. If they did, they would soon be at odds with the weight and mass of general opinion. Consequently, in our present educational system, popular pressure and specious doctrines have almost extinguished the idea of discipline. Yet I am inclined to think that this system has been better protected than one could expect the humanities to be in a pure social democracy.1
There are further reasons for saying that we have reached a point at which these dangers are not purely speculative. We are able to examine three years of socialist rule in Britain, which indicates that we have not been expressing undue alarm. I shall cite two passages from a “Letter from England,” by D. S. Savage, appearing in the Spring, 1946, issue of the Hudson Review. “A Labour government is in power and, so far from fostering the arts and subsidizing artists as some of its more gullible adherents among the intelligentsia had hoped, it is proving on the whole inimical to cultural values; an implicit doctrine of ‘bread alone’—that is, bread and guns—prevails.” Mr. Savage ventures a prediction of his own. “It seems possible that as the social order hardens into shape we shall witness the emergence of two cultures—an official and an unofficial, the one well-paid, flashy, and sterile, drawing upon the talent of debauched artists and intellectuals, and the other surviving only through extreme enthusiasm and devotion.”
It is an historic truth which holds good for the past several centuries of our life that culture has developed from the liberty of the superior individual to love superior things. Whether these individuals established foundations, or whether they merely sustained a market for works of distinction out of their earned or unearned surpluses, the result was as we have seen. The essential condition was that the individual had a power of decree. We have observed that the new social regime does not permit the individual much power of decree, and it is very jealous of these surpluses. Its present humor is to describe them as theft and to appropriate them on one pretext and another. We arrive then at a state in which the single, sensitive, imaginative person cannot project his will in this fashion. As Paul Valery has suggested, liberty in the modern “free” state is simply a liberty to be like the masses because political control is vested in them. They feel “free” because what they will is made law. The more one resembles the mass man, the freer he is because his impulses run the same channel as theirs. And if he is antipathetic to the idols of the mass, he may be very unfree, because mass law and mass ethos are enforced with peculiar rigor, and there is no court of appeal. Traditional forms of government now in disfavor provided a better haven for the individualist because they felt some distrust of their own power and often relaxed it in administration. It is the special mark of the mass that it has not such feeling about its power, and is exhilirated to see it brutally exercised. For its attitude toward the non-conventional, see our daily tabloids.
In summary, we face a future in which the mass is going to determine with increasing power what is done with the total productivity of the nation. There is little chance that it will devote a substantial part of that productivity to the development of pure science (unless science can be hitched to some wagon like preparation for defense in war), or to the creation of works of art which baffle or offend it.
It is now time to look at one or two aesthetic difficulties which will prove handicaps in an age dominated by this new mentality. I shall consider the first of these as the aesthetic plebeianism. There is an aesthetic of common life and an aesthetic of noble life, and the two are far from meeting. To find a principle that distinguishes them it is only necessary to point out that they correlate closely with optimism and pessimism. The noble view of life, which is the view that has conditioned art in the past, tends always to be pessimistic for the plain reason that life “does not measure up.” It is not satisfactory when compared with that clear pattern which the believer in excellence has in his soul. This is clearly proved by the fact that the arts of tragedy and satire have flourished in ages which were predominantly aristocratic, that is to say, ages which accepted as a reality the distinction between good and bad men, or actions. It could not be otherwise, for satire is the reproof of man, and the very plot of tragedy depends upon the “good” man struggling in a net of evil. Whoever thinks he knows how the world ought to be feels a certain melancholy that it is not so. In all great art therefore there is a certain pessimistic overcast. Art is a kind of protest, a transfiguration. It has been remarked that if one looks below the surface of two of the most dazzling periods of creativeness in history, the Greek and the Elizabethan, he finds a well of melancholy. Shakespeare’s plays deepened in gravity as the man matured.
But what occurs when life is made not the subject of a critique, but an occasion for relaxed joyousness and animal abandon? There have been signs for years that we are passing out of one climate of belief into another. A significant witness is that tragedy has all but disappeared. And if this is but a beginning, it may be no exaggeration to say that the new climate is to be anti-artistic and anti-cultural. We may be faced with a time when the root-idea of standards, which is the anchor of all humanistic discipline, is to be eradicated. Indeed, our expression here may be too cautious, for the extent to which knowledge has been displaced by opinion makes this almost now an actuality.
The aristocratic view of life is waning because the mass everlastingly insists that the world be represented as pleasant. One quality which the crowd is never able to acquire is a hardheadedness sufficient to accept the realism of the world. For this reason it falsifies whatever it touches, and there is no hope for true art where the principle at work is falsification. To foretell the kind of art expression which the mass is going to demand, and demand effectively by reason of its economic power, one has only to look at today’s media of mass circulation. The preferred themes are romantic love (this seems to be a modern version of the Aphrodite Pandemos, which is distinct from the Aphrodite Ouranios of the ancients, and from the courtly love of the mediaevals), success stories, fantasies, comedy with elements of violence and sadism. I suspect that the truest index to this mentality is the comic strip, whose offenses against taste and aestheic theory it would be impossible to number. But present in all of them is the unrelenting demand that the world be subjectivized to accord with our humor. The herd man never grows reconciled to the fact that life is a defeat, and that this defeat is its real story. He wants instead a pleasing fiction by which his hopes are ingeniously flattered. It is not pressing the matter too far to say that what he wants is deception.
What we are actually contending with in these aesthetic plebeianisms is the mass’ deep-seated and enduring hostility to the idea of discipline. 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. When Arnold talked of seeing things steadily and seeing them whole, he must have had reference to just this evasiveness and flabbiness of mind which it is the function of culture to remove—where it can. It will never do that where the ideal is the thing made easy.
The psychological springs of this hostility are not far to seek. The mass can never grant that there is something superior to its habitus and its way of conduct. For as soon as it grants the existence of such, it is under a theoretic discipline. The mass is a jealous sovereign. Those who challenge it from a superior level it seeks to destroy with the ad hominem attack. It is daily verifiable that in a culture so maintained, the best rewarded of those who work in the arts are soothers and entertainers.
A secondary problem posed by the aesthetic plebeianism is the impossibility of maintaining a meaningful criticism. Obviously this aesthetic can never circumvent the criterion of popularity. It finds itself always in the tautologous position of saying that because a thing is popular, it is good; and because it is good, it is popular.
Art criticism is here in the same dilemma as political democracy when the latter sets up the voice of the people as the voice of God. Either it must accept its own proposition and say that the people is infallible, and can never for one minute, or in one action, go wrong; or else it must yield its whole position. If one admits that the people can even for a minute be deluded; that is to say, that one man or one minority can be right for a minute and the people wrong, then he admits the existence of a right that is not determined by the people. I feel this to be so important that I shall try to put it in another way. The moment one grants that the people can sometimes err, even temporarily, even when bamboozled by demagogues or the press, he has scuttled the thesis of the popular determination of truth. For he has already admitted that the people may be one thing and the truth another, and this could never be if popular opinion were the sole determinant of what is true.
Now when we apply this finding to the humanities in a mass society, the same interesting thing is revealed. Either popular impression is infallible, and the people are the only judge of what they should have, or else one must admit the existence of an independently grounded aesthetic. As soon as the latter is admitted, however, the beautiful and the non-beautiful become constants, and there is something superior to the popular taste, which may be applied to it. But I fear the mass is too intractable an animal to grant these existences after it has sensed the way they are tending.
Put into language, its denial seems to take this form: it does not matter if we disdain the moral earnestness of Christianity; it does not matter if we refuse to think with the clarity of the Greeks; it does not matter that we cannot dramatize with the success of the Elizabethans; it does not matter if we fall below the eighteenth century in elegance of manner. It does not matter? I suppose one can argue here only by begging the question and saying that it is blasphemy not to prefer the good and obey its commandments. And possibly it is as much as we can do about the condition of modern man to say that he is blasphemous. In the past he has blasphemed idols that were set up for him; and now he blasphemes those which he set up for himself when he repudiates the humanities.
The second difficulty may be, at some deeper level, the source of the first. As a teacher of humanities, I have grown disturbed over an attitude which is appearing in students, including those with some endowment of sensibility. I could describe it briefly by calling it a distrust of all rhetoric. The great passages of the past, the flights of Milton, of Burke, of Arnold, are lost upon them; and they show an active distrust of contemporary matter which is rhetorically presented. The power of language to stir, or to direct the feelings of man, seems only to provoke them to an antagonism. This has gone so far that the once-familiar rhetoric of pulpit and platform is beginning to seem an anachronism. Two different interpretations can be put upon this development.
The first is that the new generation has become scientific-minded and is insisting upon pure notation in all discourse. That is to say, it has accepted the advice of the semanticists and has resolved to have no traffic with words whose objective reference is dubious. They are impatient of anything which lacks the objective correlative, and so when language passes from a sort of literal correspondence with what is signified, to metaphor, as all rhetoric must, they simply cease to accept. Since they cultivate the scientist’s detached outlook upon the world, emotion is for them mere disturbance in what ought to be clear communication. Pure notation will give them knowledge in the same way that mathematics does, or nearly so. And as for making up their minds about how to feel about a thing, well, that can wait—perhaps upon the development of yet another science.
The second interpretation, which I believe to be the true one, is that our generation is losing faith in the value of value. It will appear on a moment’s reflection that this is the same as losing faith itself. Ours is not so much a generation of vipers as a faithless generation. Since the whole of humanistic study is based upon the acceptance of value, here is where the decay has its source. People have suffered much in the past decades, and they have not often been told the truth by their political leaders. It may be that there has set in as a defense a kind of psychic numbness. Since all feeling brings imposition in its train, there is a will not to feel. (I have noted among more than one student a kind of shrinking from propaganda as though it were a dreaded plague loose in the world—which in a way it may be.) Now we approach the ultimate in disenchantment.
Here would be cause for rejoicing if it were possible for man to live in a devalued world, but man is simply not that kind of animal. He has got to show his inclinations. And with the death of value there is every possibility that he will do it in grotesque, unintelligible ways, in fetishism and explosions of hard feeling, in demonism and vandalism. There is not the slightest possibility that he is less a creature of feeling than before. But the old gods have gone and the new gods have not arrived. It may be that in the interim he will turn into an idol smasher. The humanities seem high on the list of the things he will rudely reject, or allow to drift into obscurity. I fear that this is the meaning of the hatred of the old spacious rhetoric, with its tendency to elevate all that is described.
Most surveys of the plight of the humanities I have seen fall into wishful conclusions.
One supposition is that the colleges will be able to save them by a reform of curriculum. In response to this we see the inauguration of courses in general education. But this seems to be in essence only a streamlining. The courses are recast, made more compact and better integrated. The new conception, however, is hardly a discipline in the humanities such as used to season the graduates of our universities. It may easily degenerate into another requirement like the ubiquitous English composition. The intention is good, of course, but the hope is not great. There was a time when a cultural education was income-producing for the legions that take it, and that means inevitably a different kind of education. Statistics on what the returned veterans have studied in our universities will prove the point.
Or it is supposed that larger grants to this and that will restore the balance. These will be gratefully received, and they will help, but it is sanguine to suppose that they will restore the balance in a displacement so huge as the one taking place before our eyes. I have already shown that public sources of such grants have a very limited independence and could not long survive political attack. A grant to the humanities today is like a contribution to a church whose doctrines we have no thought of honoring with practice. I doubt that anything large and vigorous can be sustained on this.
Teachers of the humanities are going the way of teachers of Latin and Greek and elocution unless we have something like a Second Coming of faith in the values.
New Individualistic Review welcomes contributions for publication from its readers. Essays should not exceed 5,000 words, and should be type-written. All manuscripts will receive careful consideration.
[* ] James Powell is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, majoring in economics and the history of ideas, and an editorial assistant of NEW INDIVIDUALIST REVIEW.
[1 ] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Regnery, 1953), p. 8
[2 ] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), page 3
[3 ]Ibid. p. 3
[4 ]Ibid. p. 114
[5 ]Ibid. p. 31
[6 ] Weaver, “Two Types of American Individualism,” in Modern Age, vol. 7, Spring, 1963, pp. 119-134.
[7 ]Ideas Have Consequences, p. 133.
[8 ]Ibid, p. 133.
[9 ] Weaver, “Up from Liberalism,” in Modern Age, vol. 3, Winter, 1958-59, p. 28.
[10 ]Ibid, p. 28.
[11 ] In another contribution to Modern Age he asserted that cultural freedom is defensible because man by nature must develop a culture, and culture cannot develop in a repressed environment. Hence, culture has rights, e.g.,: “For the freedom of cultures as wholes, 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. In a word, cultural freedom on this plane starts with the acknowledgement of the right of a culture to be itself,” from “The Importance of Cultural Freedom” in Modern Age, vol. 6, Winter, 1961-62. We should note that this line of argument is radically different from that of any one of a number of liberals who talk in terms of individual rights and development. The issue of cultural freedom would seem to be another instance of coincidental agreement between a conservative and a liberal view.
[1 ] P. Smith, I’ll Take My Stand; the South and the Agrarian Tradition, by 12 Southerners (New York: Harper Brothers, 1930).
[2 ]Ibid., p. 8.
[3 ]Ibid., pp. 15-16.
[4 ]Ibid., p. 338.
[5 ]Ibid., pp. 343-345.
[1 ] Let us look at a special example which should serve to define the issue. Will anyone reasonably contend that the money which has been expended by the Rockefeller Foundation on education and research would have accomplished as much if it had passed through the hands of publicly elected officials? The fact that it was a privately managed corporation able to define what it wanted and above all, able to wait for long-term results, has made possible its great contribution.