The Fearful Descent

Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, was one of the books that (so it’s often claimed) helped define postwar American conservatism. Today the title, which wasn’t even Weaver’s — he planned to call the book The Fearful Descent, but his publisher insisted on something less pessimistic (see also Kirk’s Conservative Mind, which was originally to have been The Conservative Rout) — is a cliche among movement conservatives, many or even most of whom have never read Weaver’s succinct, 190-page book.

How much of a relationship is there really between Weaver’s thought and latter-day conservatism? Perhaps a pretty strong inverse relationship. My host last week when I spoke on “Where the Right Went Wrong” at North Carolina State University was a very principled student named James Lawrence. Although I didn’t recognize his name immediately, I was familiar with his work from long before my talk: I’d seen footage of him at a YAF conference a year or two back taking Rich Lowry to task over David Frum’s “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” and I’d also seen Lawrence’s excellent LRC article “Rethinking Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He tells me he caught some flack over the latter, with a few warbot conservative friends of his calling him a leftist on account of it. After all, weren’t those American atom bombs incinerating an enemy people? You’d have to be a leftist to object to that, wouldn’t you?

If so, then Richard M Weaver was a leftist and ought to be taken out the right-wing canon forthwith. At the very least, Weaver was one of those “unpatriotic conservatives.” Just look what he wrote to a friend in 1945, a mere two and a half weeks after the the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, about the outcome of the war:

And is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them? I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible.

(The letter is cited in In Defense of Tradition: the Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver.)

It was that line of thinking that led Weaver to write Ideas Have Consequences. As he wrote in his introduction:

The book was written in the period immediately following the second World War, and it was in a way a reaction to that war–to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought.

If Richard Weaver — one could just as well say Robert Nisbet or Russell Kirk or Peter Viereck — were alive today and in his prime, would he want to call himself a conservative and associate with the Right — with the likes of, say, Max Boot?  I think the answer is pretty clear. And in any event, he would probably find himself coming in for denunciation from David Frum and have heroic warbloggers calling him a “traitor” or “blame  America firster.”


15 thoughts on “The Fearful Descent

  1. Tim September 11, 2006 / 6:46 am

    Interesting you should mention Peter Viereck (by some accounts the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm, but from the wrong side of the blanket (!)), I came across an old New Yorker article (see here) about his problems with McCarthyism (!) and the ‘New Right’ of William Buckley and co. circa 1962.

    It seems that, from the very beginning, the alliance of those ‘new conservatives’, the new wave of post-war intellectuals amongst the first happy to call themselves ‘conservatives’, almost all of them Burkeans, …and the ‘New Right’, was not all that close.

    Amongst this Burkean group I think Robert Nisbet is one of the most interesting. His writings show a continuous and unambiguous thread of anti-militarism all the way through, however despite quite scathing views on Wilson, Reagan and the warfare state in general in his books from that period, he did seem able to commune with the first generation of neo-conservatives (of the Kristol generation) fairly easily.

    I don’t know if this is a paradox or a sign of just how things were in the late 1970s and 1980s. That was during the ‘high tide’ of political correctness, before anti-political correctness was the new political correctness. Then we faced near total domination of the academe and intellectual life by the new left and their various fellow travellers. I can recall that the then newly minted ex-social democrat “neocons” were seen as a change for the better. Even by those of us who thought of ourselves as ‘Old Right’.

  2. Lee September 11, 2006 / 9:11 pm

    I think it’s Visions of Order which cotains an entire chapter on Total War. Weaver’s entire philosophical program rests on the making of distinctions and ties civilizational progress directly to the ability to make distinctions. As such, total war is a huge step backward. I somehow don’t think he’d be calling for preemptive nuclear strikes on Iran.

  3. Scott Lahti September 12, 2006 / 5:17 am

    From the Athanaeum to the FN-Land Station, or, Go away, Beltway Boy, you bother me: My friends on the Right – both of them, on a good day – will deride me for my ultimate stance of being, with regard to their “movement”, “in it but not of it”, a charge to which I must plead, in the most objecting tones possible borrowed from Eric Idle’s “Nudge, Nudge” inquisitor, “No, no, no, no – yes.” That part of me which aspires to develop that indispensable instrument the Victorian Darwinist Thomas Henry Huxley called a “clear, cold logic engine” nods in accord with every passing demonstration of the futility of socialism and the precise delineation of the course of the business cycle, from credit expansion to boom to liquidating downturn, and salutes every day the superiority of individualism over every form of tribalism and aggregative thinking, in social-science methodology and in practical politics alike. But as, speaking of powerful logic engines, the great economist of liberty Ludwig von Mises stressed time and again, that preference and stance relates to means rather than ends – it suggests an organizational framework or social template rather than the concrete content with which to occupy it. The latter must be supplied us by those who, thanks to the necessity of the division of labor and the invincible and ever-renewed force of human ignorance in all but a few limited spheres in each person – genius included – will always be innocent of a grasp of the economic principles governing us, whose grasp entails a chain of reasoning taxing even to the most gifted among us. And Mises, pariah though he was in the world of postwar American academe, possessed more than most scholars from any specialty a grasp of the broader historical, philosophic and even literary and artistic currents which together have marked man’s slow ascent from the peat bog to the stars: his exquisitely sourced if relatively few footnotes are a marvel even for the most jaded, and a kaleidoscopic research program worthy of respect even from those allergic to his uncompromising laissez-faire doctrine. He knew that, at the end of the day, it was those larger fields to which economics formed an indispensable yet finite ally that we had to embrace should we wish to awaken in us all that was most human and enduring. His works, even in their rare journalistic turns, take next to no notice whatever of topical partisan politics or particular personalities, inspiring instead the profoundest respect for the European traditions of scholarship and culture which reached their peak in the Austro-Hungarian and Germanic lands during Europe’s long period of relative peace and ascending prosperity from roughly 1815 to 1914, a world scorched to blackest ash in the crucible of both World Wars and the state-worshiping collectivist materialism which came to fruition with them. It was a world without passports and body searches, where gentlemen carried pistols across town and across national borders without remark, and one in which penicillin and anesthetics were but the phantom hopes of an undreamed tomorrow.

    I once tried to imagine Mises judging as fit for a grown-up any discussion containing the phrases “red state” or “blue state”, or watching CROSS(ON)FIRE, CHARREDBALL, SCARRED BROW COUNTRY, O’REILLY FAXED HER, or CAN A’ TEA & HOLMES [9pm FNC: the houndstoothed Baker Street sleuth discusses cocaine legalization with William Bennett, while his sidekick, a tin of Earl Grey, sits in desiccated and compact silence in failing to get a word in edgewise], or reading TREASON, SLANDER, LIAR!, SO’S YOUR OLD MAN, I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I ?, or THAT’S NOT WHAT YOUR MOTHER SAID LAST NIGHT. I tried – I really did – ‘cos I knew it would do me a world of good.

    I was right. Fresh tears and I are still the best of friends, and my sore stomach has yet to abate. To purloin from one of the heroines of the age, “It’s a good thing.”

  4. Scott Lahti September 12, 2006 / 5:40 am

    “But the fact that many many many more people today call themselves conservatives than during Buckley’s time is a damn good thing in my book. And we have Rush and O’Reilly and Hannity and the like to thank.” – comment, “Crunchy Con” blog,

    Yet another cultural sleight-of-hand prompting suicidal triumphalism.

    “Rush and O’Reilly and Hannity”, et al, retain part of their respective audience under the pretense that they are “conservatives” just like them, People’s Tribunes in defense of Truth, Justice and The American Way of Death [RAISES HAND IN BENNY HILL SALUTE].

    Others watch or listen, if they do, seeing in them a variant flavor served up by the great corporate entertainment-industry ice-cream parlor, no more of their “team” values than their moral equivalents at CBS/NBC/ABC “news” – they’re all in showbiz, selling soap, dog food, and best-selling (often unintentional) humor “books”, while gulling some into the belief that they are noble servants of a public trust and/or a respectable political tendency – yeah, tell that to the GE Generalissimos, Murdoch Moloch, and Viacom vampires…

    Take the left-wing comic actress Ann Coulter, prized recruiting poster for the DNC and objective agent of the VLWC – not since Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING has a beloved gift for tragicomic derangment found such canonic popcorn incarnation. Someday she’ll diversify the acting chops she picked up at New Canaan High big-time when Mel Gibson offers her the chance to stretch in mounting the casting couch in pursuit of an uncredited cameo in his next vehicle, where her portrayal of a human being will have jaded jaws hitting sticky floors in every multiplex from Tokyo to Times Square…

    Q. Where is the most formidable enemy facing conservatives today, blocking their progress in finding greater traction in the culture?

    A. You’ll find it within the prime constituency toward which Rush/O’Reilly/Hannity pledge their lives, fortunes and *scared* honor – just wipe the steam and cream off the morning mirror for a better look.

    Like the rest of us, conservatives largely get what they deserve, whether well-earned success or instructive frustration. Someday they’ll get over themselves, too: wake me in about 2306 when, say, NATIONAL REVIEW follows up its anti-Clooney cover piece (“Get Over Yourself, George”) with a like takedown of Hannity & Co.

    Now if you’ll ‘scuse me, I must go – can’t wait to see what Hugh and the Powerline boys have to say about the latest from Jonah and the gang over at The Corner – whoops, mustn’t forget Tarantulo over at the WSJ, Little Seen Footfalls, and the Best of the Rest from the very cream of the self-fellating glob-ooze-fear:

    Arianna Huffanpuff wonders whether GOP wolves will blow her house down (1) (tip: Insteadipunnedit).

    The Smith Brothers wonder (2) if long Victorian beards will make a comeback.(3) (tip: Ricola Alpenhorn)(4)

    Two Stark Raving Loonies debate whether cancelled smirking neo-neocon hipsters have a future on the news channels (5) (tip: Denni Smiller’s Sense of Snow)

    Jonah Goldbrick, grown weary of his lead in off-Beltway’s The Little Shoptalk Around “The Corner”, is quitting Simpsons punditry to blog from the vantage of his true calling – furniture sales – launching

    Retro on the Metro: female Beltway interns respond to the tight job market with time-tested tactic no less so: wearing tight sweaters braless (tit: Petite Perky Pundette).(7)

    Andrew Sullivan argues that same-sex weddings performed by gay Army chaplains will both reduce prisoner abuse ( in the military and strangle recruiting efforts by Islamist militants, while encouraging Catholic ecumenical outreach (9) in softening the heart of Pope Benedict.

    Christopher Hitchens says: you lost me after the Islamist-recruiting part.(10)


  5. Daniel McCarthy September 14, 2006 / 7:36 am

    Lee has primpted me to pull Visions of Order down off the shelf — I’d forgotten about that chapter on total war, even though looking through my copy I see I annotated it pretty heavily. Here’s one passage I noted:

    After total war, a belligerent is on an immensely lower plane than that on which it began. Means have been “saved,” but ends have been changed or forgotten. Conditions in the United States after the Civil War and in Western Europe after the First World War will provide plenty of evidence for anyone who desires historical confirmation of this fact. As for the Second World War, it has ended in a situation in which we make “perpetual war” in order to have a distant “perpetual peace.” The means have taken over complete control of the ends.

    That remarks about perpetual war for perpetual peace is enough of a cliche that I overlooked its significance the first time I read it: that’s a direct criticism of the Cold War. I need to read this chapter again anyway, I’ve forgotten much too much of it!

  6. Scott Lahti September 14, 2006 / 8:15 am

    Compare that “lower plane” passage from Weaver with this one from Albert Nock’s MEMOIRS OF A SUPERFLUOUS MAN, a book Robert Nisbet, according to George Nash (in THE CONSERVATIVE INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENT IN AMERICA: SINCE 1945), “practically memorized” while stationed in the Pacific during the Second World War:

    A few months ago a member of the Administration asked me if I thought we were “gypped on this war (WWII),” and I replied briefly that I did. I could not enter into any discussion of the matter, for my questioner would not have understood a word I said; or perhaps might not even have believed me if 1 had explained that anything like military victory or military defeat was farthest from my thought. I could not explain that a boatman moving around in the Gulf of St. Malo or in the Bay of Fundy is not at all interested in what the waves are doing, but is mightily interested in what the tide is doing, and still more interested in what it is going to do. After the war of 1914,Western society lived at a much lower level of civilisation than before. This was what interested me. Military victory and military defeat made no difference whatever with this outcome; they meant merely that the waves were running this way or that way. The great bulk underlying and carrying the waves, the tidal mass, was silently moving out at its appointed speed. So likewise I might have told my question that we are “gypped on this war” because not victory, not defeat, not stalemate, can possibly affect the tidal motion of a whole society towards a far lower level of civilisation.

    MEMOIRS, 249-50

    Trying to Google for the passage above to save a wee-hours trip upstairs, I was amazed to see that FEE has after all these years posted the whole of its COGITATIONS FROM ALBERT JAY NOCK for free online. Every time I think of the chance I blew, about fifteen years ago, to buy from the Nockian Society as many copies of that wonderful Nockian appetizer as I wished at three for a dollar when briefly proffered thus, I “get all hot” – to second Nock’s emotion in recalling some blackguard’s having beaten him at billiards! Now if FEE could only make its version a bit less choppy (e.g., its prefatory Note by one “Jacques Harzun”!).

  7. Daniel McCarthy September 18, 2006 / 1:22 am

    Ahh… I just a month or two ago went on-line and bought an old copy of Cogitations. Well, it’s good to have in print, even if it is available free now, and I think I just paid $10 or so for it.

  8. mr skin October 17, 2006 / 12:29 am

    So Clooney is thinking about running for office? I know he’s pretty politically active, but with his party past I can’t see him going far.

    • Tobias June 1, 2016 / 5:31 am

      This is wildly misleading on some points. Weaver would almost certainly have changed his mind re the Bomb if he had known about two things: 1) the firebombings of Tokyo were MUCH more powerful, destructive, and deadly than either of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.. 2) The conservative estimation of an American invasion of Japan was about 1 million — 250k of them women and children. That estimation was hardly known when Weaver first remarked on the bomb. To use a specific, and flawed, application of Weaver’s thought to represent his principles is simply untrue to those principles. It would be impossible to imagine Weaver choosing, out of his own principles, to knowingly embrace the alternative to the bomb — which we now know would have been far more savage, “modern,” and ruthless. Can we really believe that Weaver’s commitment to “chivalric” warfare would have allowed for more dead children? Also: Weaver also criticized America’s fight against Nazism — only a similarly hasty reading of Weaver would lose sight of the fact that he criticized that fight because it wasn’t as strong as it should have been.

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