tions for how Weaver and his rhetorical and political philosophy is understood. Indeed, one of the far-reaching conse- quences of the misinterpretation of Weaver’s Ethics has been the irrelevance of his position to rhetoricians and to conservatives.
In particular, Weaver’s rhetorical theory has not received much attention from rhetorical scholars, in part because the assumption is that the argument from definition is not only superior but also more ethical than other forms of argu- ment. It is a difficult position to sustain. Russell Kirk ably pointed out the logical problems of this formulation:
Lincoln is a better conservative than Burke because Lincoln frequently referred to ab- stract assumptions; and Robespierre is a better conservative than even Lincoln be- cause Robespierre always guided himself by reference to abstract definition, with indifference to particular circumstance. By corollary, Robespierre is a better rhetori- cian and a sounder ethical thinker than Burke or Lincoln.82
Repositioning Milton as Weaver’s ideal and denigrating Lincoln as the base and evil orator demand substantive rethink- ing of Weaver’s entire rhetorical philoso- phy, which, in turn, demands a reconsid- eration of his political theory and his place within conservative scholarship and the new conservatism.
The Rhetorical Vision of Richard Weaver
In order to redefine Weaver’s rhetorical theory, it is important to make sure that his understanding of rhetoric itself is understood. For most, especially those who are unfamiliar with rhetorical study, the term “rhetoric” is pejorative. Rhetori- cal questions are not questions at all but statements disguised as questions. Rheto- ric is contrasted negatively with substance, and the practice of rhetoric is a dressing-
up of ordinary speech. It is often under- stood, to paraphrase Plato, as the art of making the stronger case look weaker and the weaker appear stronger. At the onset of the Ethics, however, Weaver warned against this assumption when he suggested that the richness and the depth of Plato’s Phaedrus, and also the inability to grasp its singular theme, resulted “be- cause most readers conceive rhetoric to be a system of artifice rather than an idea.”83
Weaver’s definition of rhetoric is not intelligible apart from his understanding of the nature of the human being, which cannot be reduced to a mere biological entity and “which breathes and moves and nourishes itself.”84 The human being’s essential nature evolves from the spirit and “is made up of wishes and hopes, of things transfigured, of imaginations and value ascriptions.”85 At the core of man’s spiritual self lies an image not of what he is but what he ought to be:
It is the nature of the conscious life of man to revolve around some concept of value. So true is this that when the concept is with- drawn, or when it is forced into competition with another concept, the human being suffers an almost intolerable sense of being lost. He has to know where he is in the ideological cosmos in order to coordinate his activities. Probably the greatest cruelty which can be inflicted upon the psychic man is this deprivation of a sense of tendency.86
This is a vision of the world which is both descriptive in the sense that it incor- porates all that is and all that is possible, and prescriptive to the degree that it assumes that which is Good and that which ought to be.
This vision, moreover, is embedded in language, and to use language presup- poses a set of assumptions about the world. The type of argument one uses assumes certain things about the world. In a world where there are no absolutes there can only be circumstances. Those who find the brute force of material con-