Rediscovering the Heroic Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver
James Patrick Dimock [Part Two]
IN 1953, when Richard M. Weaver pub- lished The Ethics of Rhetoric, headvanced an argument with respect to the ideal conservative which has, since its original pronouncement and through the last half century, been misunderstood. The stan- dard reading of Weaver has understood him, both in rhetorical theory and in political philosophy, as idealizing Abraham Lincoln while Weaver consid- ered Edmund Burke, regarded by many asthe father of conservatism, as the ar- chetypal liberal.
The problem with this interpretation of Weaver’s work is the problem with contemporary political dialogue: the re- duction to simple bi-polarity. The con- servative sees his own position as right and all others as being wrong. Conversely, the liberal regards anyone who disagrees with his position as a conservative. Given his passionate insistence that ideas be taken seriously, it should not be surpris- ing that Weaver rejected this simplistic scheme and warned against its dangers. He did not suggest a Lincoln/conserva- tive-Burke/liberal dualism but rather that Lincoln and Burke were extremes to be avoided, while it is John Milton who, for Weaver, represents the ideal in conserva-
JAMES PATRICK DIMOCK teaches speech commu- nications at Minnesota State University in Mankato.
tive ethics and rhetoric.
A broad reading of Weaver’s other writ- ings reveals an essentially hostile view of Lincoln; furthermore, a critical look at the examples Weaver used to demonstrate the terms upon which conservatism is possible71 reveals that those examples express philosophical positions, such as the leveling of hierarchies, the elimina- tion of distinctions, and a singular and unitary vision of human nature, which Weaver rejected throughout his writings.
Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, which Weaver analyzed in the first chapter of the Ethics, suggests an organizational pattern or scheme for the whole of the Ethics. Where Plato offered three types of lover—the non-lover, the evil lover, and the noble lover—Weaver offered three types of orator: the neutered speaker who argues from circumstance, the base speaker who argues from definition not dialectically sound, and the noble speaker who argues from sustained and dialecti- cally secured definitions. Edmund Burke was, for Weaver, the liberal who posi- tioned himself as the victim of circum- stance. Lincoln was the collectivist who undermined individual distinction in fa- vor of mass society and centralized power. John Milton, whose place in Weaver’s ethical, rhetorical, and political philoso- phy has yet to be truly understood, is the conservative and the ideal orator, and it