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February 27, 2001

Richard M. Weaver on Civilization, Ontology, and War

by Joseph Stromberg

Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963) was a contributor to that strand of American thought which might be called "libertarian conservatism." He is only now coming to be properly appreciated.1 But Weaver was much more than just an intelligent man who wrote, now and then, on politics. He was much more: he was a student of the essential Western traditions in philosophy and rhetoric, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, and – not least – a Southerner capable of making an internal critique of Southern history and society without conceding much to the enemies of the "region" (that is, captive nation).

Weaver was a great critic of modern society – its modes of speaking and thinking, its approach to warfare, its abandonment of real education in favor of Deweyism and worse. In short, his subject was the conscious abandonment by Western intellectual and political leaders of their own cultural heritage and, indeed, their own metaphysical premises. I shall look briefly at some of these matters, before turning to Weaver’s views on civilization and war.


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

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

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


In our intellectual life, Weaver noted, there was much talk of amassing data accurately, so as to draw conclusions, but in fact "the judgments are never made." (C. Wright Mills made the same observation with respect to sociology.) Scientism – the worship of the assumptions and methods of natural science carried over into the study of society and culture – went hand in hand with a technocratic attitude that "because a thing can be done, it must be done." Specialization, the concentration on small bits of knowledge, reinforced that notion. Hence, the atomic bomb: "The bomb was an unparalleled means; was this not enough?" Weaver speculates that if the specialists had "known that their efforts were being directed to the slaughter of noncombatants on a scale never before contemplated, or to a perfection of brutality....," a few "might have refused complicity." "Perhaps [these few] would have had some concept of war as an institution which forbids aimless killing...." But for the most part, he believed, they would have taken the same attitude as those scientist who loyally served the Third Reich.3

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


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

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


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

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

Do you have a new weapon that throws used circular saw blades? Use it! Do you have jellied petroleum (NAPALM), developed by the nice folks at Harvard? Use it! Is your uranium depleted? The answer is clear. To the claim that use of any-and-all weapons of mass destruction "shortens the war" and thereby "saves lives" (net), Weaver makes the obvious reply that "If the saving of lives were the primary consideration, there need never be any war in the first place."

As it was, our crusade of 1941-45 had "ended in a situation in which we make ‘perpetual war’ in order to have a distant ‘perpetual peace’" – a nice echo of Harry Elmer Barnes. 8

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

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

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

I suppose I could be wrong. But I feel rather close to Weaver. After all, I had a Richard M. Weaver Fellowship, myself (1970-71).


  1. See, especially, Ted J. Smith III, ed., In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000). Smith’s introduction, pp. xi-xlviii, rescues Weaver as much from his "friends" as from his detractors and will kick off a new era in the study of Weaver’s achievement.
  2. Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 40-41.
  3. Ibid., pp. 60, 64-67
  4. Richard M. Weaver, Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965), p. 19.
  5. Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Bryn Mawr: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), p. 11.
  6. Ideas Have Consequences, p. 122.
  7. "A Dialectic on Total War" in Visions of Order, pp. 92-112. Quote from p. 98.
  8. Ibid., pp. 102-104.
  9. Ibid., p. 103.
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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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