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JAMES POWELL, The Foundations of Weaver’s Traditionalism - 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 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.
[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.