Richard Weaver made a similar criticism of Edmund Burke in The Ethics of Rhetoric, which is not as popular as, but is a more important work, if you ask me, than Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver contrasts Burke’s “arguments from circumstance” with Lincoln’s “arguments from definition” to make the case that Lincoln was the more conservative of the two. Indeed, Weaver seems to doubt that Burke should be called a conservative at all, much less be seen as the “father” of conservatism. Weaver maintains, like Ross, that a “conservatism of stasis” cannot prevail against an adversary culture, because it cedes the framing of the debate to its enemies. ~Mitch Muncy, Crunchy Cons

Weaver had a wonderful distinction between argument from circumstance and argument from definition, but unfortunately applied this distinction rather badly in the two chapters of Ethics of Rhetoric Mr. Muncy mentions. Weaver made a very compelling claim that arguments from circumstance (which are roughly what we would in today’s parlance call pragmatic arguments) are not compelling nor should they be, as these sorts of arguments object only to the means of a thing and do not argue about fundamentals. This is why most opposition to the Iraq war, to use a contemporary example, was so pitifully weak and easily bowled over–it had the rhetorical power of weak tea. Practically everyone on the antiwar side would always concede that, yes, Hussein was evil, and, yes, someone really ought to do something to get rid of him and, yes, he is dire threat, but let’s just stop and think about this some more. The initiative and the rhetorically stronger, albeit cruder, argument remained with the pro-war folks until today. Someone who argues from definition will not only make the better rhetorical argument, but he will also be making an argument based in some universal definition or principle. Given Weaver’s commitment to Platonic idealism, it was almost inevitable that he would prefer the man who invokes universal definitions to the man who identifies all sorts of practical flaws in an idea. But, if I may say so, this was always Weaver’s (and Plato’s) mistake, as if practical flaws had no bearing on the worthiness of the idea itself.

Where Prof. Weaver went horribly wrong (in addition to his fairly inexplicable choice of Lincoln as conservative exemplar) was in assuming that someone who holds to some kind of general principle, or accepts some definition of, say, human nature, is therefore always the person who is the “true” conservative. Whether he has the right definition or not seemed not to enter into the discussion, yet it is surely in right definitions and the correct use of language–as opposed to Lincoln’s rhetorical and demagogic maneuverings–that a greater part of a conservative sensibility resides.

Russell Kirk very gently and amicably pointed out to Weaver in a review of his book that Bolsheviks make arguments from definition, too, and this does not make them conservative, and that, I think he would have agreed, arguments from circumstance may be rhetorically weak but may still very well be the morally right view of the matter. Of course, Kirk could not have liked the shot taken at his man, Burke, but it was a fairly clumsy and not very well-aimed shot that was actually one of Weaver’s least impressive efforts.

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