These are my ten favorite essays by Richard M. Weaver in which he discusses the relation of rhetoric to dialectic, the cultural role of rhetoric, and the notion of culture, per se. No thinker in the Western tradition has published a more trenchant, weighty, or nuanced discussion of these matters than Weaver. These essays should be of special interest to those who teach rhetoric and to those committed to the restoration of culture in our day.
[The reproductions of Weaver’s works sampled here, drawn from a variety of out of print collections and, sparingly, from other sources, are posted for educational value to the general public, for the sole purposes of individual and/or group study, scholarship, and research, in accord with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law.]
Drum roll, please . . ..
- Coming in at #10 does not, in this case, imply lesser value but, rather, that “The Unsentimental Sentiment,” Chapter One of Ideas Have Consequences, is a terrific “jumping off point” for contemplating culture. Weaver’s exposition of “the metaphysical dream” foreshadows his treatment, in “The Image of Culture” (Top Ten #7), of what he there refers to as “the tyrannizing image.” The ordering function of that dream, that image, itself gave rise to Weaver’s trenchant discussion of various aspects of cultural dynamics in Visions of Order (See #’s 3 & 1 below). His observation regarding “this grand source of ordering,” in the conclusion, that distinction and hierarchy provide the matrix in which restraint is actualized, provides the segue, in Ideas Have Consequences, to Chapter Two, “Distinction & Hierarchy” (Top Ten #6).
- Originally published, in 1959, as a pamphlet for The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, now The Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Weaver applies his considerable powers of discernment to the root problem of progressive education and, in the process, elucidates his robust humanistic “image of man.” The Imago Dei is the touchstone of Weaver’s cultural critique. Employing syllogistic logic, Weaver notes that “The liberally educated individual is the man who is at home in the world of ideas. And because he has achieved a true selfhood by realizing that he is a creature of free choice, he can select among ideas in the light of the relations he has found to obtain among them. . . . Freedom and goodness finally merge in this conception; the unfree man cannot be good because virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, and if this latter is taken away, there is simply no way for goodness to assert itself (emphasis in original).“
- A tour de force critique of the decline of the West in which Weaver demonstrates how the would be “doctor of culture” may profitably conduct a diagnostic of and prescribe remedies for societal ills on the basis of sweeping observations without coming across like a quack.
- Weaver’s philosophical ruminations on the nature of culture. He here elucidates the notion of the “tyrannizing image,” of which he observes “There is at the heart of every culture a center of authority from which there proceed subtle and pervasive pressures upon us to conform and to repel the unlike as disruptive. So culture too is faced with the metaphysical problem of freedom and organization, which rules out the possibility of uncircumscribed liberty. Like all forces which shape and direct, it must insist on a pattern of inclusion and exclusion. This is a necessity of integral being and a fundamental fact to deal with in any plan for its protection.”
- The most trenchant, cogent, and lucid critique of egalitarianism I can imagine. Included in this top ten list for the manner in which Weaver discusses the implications for culture (and the “enculturation process”) of the project of the levelers.
- Chapter Two in Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays, this treatise examines why “Culture grows from roots more enduring than those of the political state” and, therefore, those who produce “works of culture” (Weaver offers a deft and illuminating sketch of T.S. Eliot’s major works of poetry) should not be “hobbled by political and sociological dogmas (i.e., “political correctness.”) I find most valuable, for “shapers of culture” Weaver’s conclusion that “a society will not feel the need for much censorship unless it is somehow out of joint itself.”
- The University of Oklahoma invited Weaver to conduct an advanced summer seminar in rhetoric of which “Language is Sermonic” is the primary lecture, delivered “on a torrid July” in 1962 (50 years ago!) Weaver died in 1963, so this is among his most mature essays. He here completes a critique of the General Semanticists, begun in “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric” and advanced in “The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric,” in which he fleshes out those primary truths that constitute the optimal matrix within which rhetoric flourishes. “They are, in summation, that man is not nor ever can be nor ever should be a depersonalized thinking machine. His feeling is the activity in him most closely related to what used to be called his soul. To appeal to his feeling therefore is not necessarily an insult; it can be a way to honor him, by recognizing him in the fullness of his being.”
- This bold, monumental reflection illuminates the relation of dialectic to rhetoric like no other work in the Western tradition. Aristotle included.
- Building on “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” Weaver extends his critique of “General Semantics” (a scientizing approach to language that would result in a sanitized or “denatured speech for a denatured man”). In the process of extending that critique Weaver explores how rhetoric, insofar as it concerns itself primarily with the movement of the soul toward the Good, may be viewed as “the intellectual love of God.” Deep waters.
- Regarding “Education and the Individual” I assert that “The Imago Dei is the touchstone of Weaver’s cultural critique.” You will understand clearly why this is so once you enjoy Weaver’s final essay in the final, posthumous, collection of his essays, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time, in which this doctor of culture teases out why “Not only the character but also the degree of a culture is responsive to the prevailing image of man” as he develops a devastating critique of not one, but three, such images (promulgated by modernism, Darwinism, and behaviorism): “[Man] has been told of his cosmic insignificance; he has been informed that he must class himself as an animal, and he has been left in doubt as to whether he is a free agent.”