Richard Weaver’s Legacy: Can We Revive the Lost Virtue of Piety?

I often have lamented the lack of enthusiasm our children have shown for the study of history. Since that pursuit has always been a favorite of mine, I have been sorry that the romance and excitement of the human drama unfolding through the ages has not touched our children any more than it has. The reason, however, for their tepid response is no mystery. One look at the U.S. history text currently used by one of our daughters bears the answer. It is typical of the history texts now in vogue, and it would chill anyone’s ardor for study.

As we have come to expect as a matter of course from so many textbooks, there is no aim in this book to present historical truth. Its program is rather to promote the agenda, now de rigueur, of race, gender and class. There are no heroes, naturally, no models of greatness who could be seen in any way as rising above adverse circumstances or as sacrificing their own welfare to achieve a noble aim. There are no noble aims, no loftiness in the view of these drudging texts, no great men, great ideas, or great events — merely the forcing of every event and idea into the struggle of race, gender and class against oppressive “patriarchs” or “aristocrats.” Distinctions must be eliminated, the human endeavor reduced to a broad, flat common denominator of democracy — which, ironically, as its proponents naively describe it, turns out to be a form of totalitarianism minus the fangs. This is the program of the ordinary history textbook. The topical rather than chronological format adds to the confusion of historical order; the “case studies” at the end of chapters underline the silliness. Fortunately the young readers of these texts have an instinctive aversion to the dry poverty of such books.  They study enough to take the exams, put the book aid the course out of their minds after finals, and get on to other things, only perhaps remarking what a shame it was that their American history course made great men look so small.

History textbooks have joined those of literature and other disciplines in the modern zeal to deny any standard beyond the one that man sets for himself; there is no moral authority greater than the individual human will. As a result we conclude that what happened in the past was probably wrong and ought to be changed according to our superior vision. The intellectual error in this assumption is that of relativism. Behind the error, however, lies a deeper ailment of the soul, something the classical world diagnosed most astutely.

The pride in this brazen proclamation of self-will is a violation of an old virtue that deserves to be re-introduced into our vocabulary, the ancient Roman virtue of pietas or piety. Piety is more than anything else reverence — reverence toward an order of things greater than we are, an order not of our making that we approach with utmost respect and reluctance to disturb. The Romans looked upon piety as a part of justice, aequitas, giving each thing its due. But our modern difficulty, according to the late Richard Weaver, is that we have lost all sense of obligation and do not know what is due to anything, and therefore we hardly know what to affirm.

No one in our day has so eloquently written of pietas as did Weaver, in whose thought piety was a central principle. When I was a young woman, I became captivated by the writings and the quiet, scholarly personality of the brilliant Weaver, who taught not history but English at the University of Chicago. Of all the thinkers I encountered in my early formation, he was the most profound influence. I met him only once, when I was but 18 and he must have been about 50, only three years away from his premature death. Although there were other speakers at that conference, his was the lecture that had me sitting on the edge of my chair. His lecture could not have been dazzling, for he wrote far more easily than he spoke. Yet when the dinner hour came round, I scrambled to secure a place across from Professor Weaver. There I sat looking into the plain, homely face of this short, painfully shy man with his bulldog jaw and crooked teeth, who nevertheless carried a sweetness and kindness in his expression. I have no idea what I said to him. As I recall, the talk did not come easily. But I remember no one else there but him, and I cared only to hear what he had to say. Somehow I had sense enough to know that I was in the presence of a man of great mind and goodness.

Later I began to make my way through his writings. I know now that although I read all of his books and many of his essays, I could not possibly have understood the depth of his philosophy; I had no background to do so. But I think that what entranced me about Weaver’s works was not only their depth but their beauty, so rare in our day, and their reverence, the pietas that permeated them. Weaver wrote with utter humility, with dignity and simplicity, never showing off, writing with the profundity that is attainable only by a master who has lived with an idea for years and has faced down all its hard ramifications. As a teacher of English composition, he revered the sanctity of words as an emanation of Word. As a guardian of the word, he taught the English language on the high plane where it merges with philosophy.

Weaver’s southern emphasis on pietas led him to be much concerned with form, tradition, and the order of history. He treated with respect what was larger than he was, especially the transcendent. He believed the West was in decline but believed that the rediscovery of the discipline of virtue gave hope of reversing the decline. He defined piety as “a discipline of the will through respect.” He understood that because piety is a check upon the ego, it exercises a necessary corrective on us; piety “admits the right to exist of things larger than the ego, of things different from the ego.” In order to hope for renewal of harmony in our world, Weaver said, “We shall have to regard with the spirit of piety three things: nature, our neighbors — by which I mean all other people — and the past.”

The first of these things, nature, Weaver simply defined as “the substance of the world.” To remake the world into something other than what has been created, that is, to substitute a new world for the world of physical and human nature that we have been given, Weaver considered the gravest form of impiety. In “Piety and Justice,” the last chapter of Ideas Have Consequences, he wrote, “This immersion in the task of reconstructing nature is an adolescent infatuation. The youth is an intellectual merely, a believer in ideas, who thinks that ideas can overcome the world. The mature man passes beyond intellectuality to wisdom; he believes in ideas, too, but life has taught him to be content to see them embodied, which is to see them under a sort of limitation. In other words, he has found that substance is a part of life, a part which is ineluctable. This humbler view of man’s powers is the essence of piety.”

Although Weaver died 25 years ago and never saw feminism in its full politicization, he believed “the foolish and destructive notion of the ‘equality’ of the sexes” to be the worst impiety against nature.

“What but a profound blacking-out of our conception of nature and purpose could have borne this fantasy?” he asked.

 “Here is a distinction of so basic a character that one might suppose the most frenetic modern would regard it as part of the donnee to be respected. What God bath made distinct, let not man confuse! But no, profound differences of this kind seem only a challenge to the busy renovators of nature.”

As part of his medieval and southern code of chivalry, Weaver held woman in high regard. He considered her new masculinization and dislocation to be a severe injustice to her, a violation of her nature exhibited in such natural gifts as “her superior closeness to nature, her intuitive realism, her unfailing ability to detect the sophistry in mere intellectuality.” The philosophy of activism, according to Weaver, had misled woman into forgetting that for her, as custodian of the permanent things, “it is better to ‘be’ than to ‘do.'” He believed that woman could only “regain her superiority when again she finds privacy in the home and becomes, as it were, a priestess radiating the power of proper sentiment.” Woman’s life, said Weaver with his astonishing insight, “at its best is a ceremony.” Few men — or women — in our time have understood as well as Weaver how twisting the nature of woman has demoralized western civilization. He bemoaned the “modern displaced female … who has lost all queenliness and obtained nothing.” Her loss is an impiety against nature.

In addition to the first kind of piety that accepts the substance of the world, the second kind of piety respects the substance of other beings. Other people really do exist apart from us and have a right to exist. At its heart chivalry is the basic charity that disciplines the ego to recognize the brotherhood of beings in creation. Weaver makes a great point of the sanctity of personality, the irreducible character given to each of us, “that little private area of selfhood in which the person is at once conscious of his relationship to the transcendental and the living community.” Each of us is “a particular vessel,” but each of us also “carries part of the universal mind.”

The transcendent  character of personality, that mysterious alliance of man with his creator, is under attack in our mechanistic and rationalistic age. As Weaver recognized, “the determination of our day to make all things uniform and all things public cannot forgive this last citadel of privacy.” The impiety against personality is the refusal to acknowledge any distinction between persons.

Finally, the third aspect of pietas is respect for the substance of the past. Our ancestors really did live, and their world was real. They are not hazy beings who do not matter to us; we inherit their very substance. They died for us. Their ideas and their institutions form the stuff of our world. Do we have the right, then, to act as if those things never existed or as if they were all wrong? Piety accepts the words and deeds of our ancestors as part of the total reality that includes both past and present. As Weaver cautions us, insofar “as we are creatures of reflection, we have only the past. The present is a line, without width; the future only a screen in our minds on which we project combinations of memory.” Common sense leads us to recognize that if we pay no attention to our past, then we can anticipate nothing of our future.

Weaver asked the question, which he insisted was not an idle one, “Are those who died heroes’ and martyrs’ deaths really dead?” He believed they are not dead, that they live on as forces to help us order our lives. However, “the spirit of modern impiety would inter their memory with their bones and hope to create a new world out of good will and ignorance.” Yet if we are to be anything but egotistical or shallowly optimistic, we must be aware of the past. Reverence toward history “restrains optimism because it teaches us to be cautious about man’s perfectibility and to put a sober estimate on schemes to renovate the species.”

My daughter’s high school history text in Weaver’s view would surely be classified not as history but as anti-history. In our western world, where the institutions of our civilization have become fragile and tentative, our stewardship demands that we reject such impious texts that corrupt the young. If Richard Weaver were with us today, I think he would quietly remove the offensive U.S. history book and instead assign his students to read Plutarch’s Lives.

By

Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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