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plato-head-shotClaes G. Ryn’s “How Conservatives Failed ‘The Culture’” provides a bracing challenge to the intellectual sedimentation of conservative activism, a challenge no less apt today than it was when he originally made it fifteen years ago. But those fifteen years have taken us further down a road that reveals the shortcoming of his argument. He is right to point out that political victory can never guarantee human flourishing. But without it, our chances of flourishing will be more and more diminished as the structure of liberty dissolves.

Professor Ryn argues persuasively that the deepest human flourishing requires an encounter with eternal realities that are best approached by the hard road of philosophy and the arts.

Whitehead’s saw that Western philosophy constitutes footnotes to Plato here invites an appeal to Plato’s allegory of human learning: It seems we are born as prisoners in a cave, chained up so that all we can see is one wall. From our birth, all we know are the shadows, the images cast upon that wall by men who hold artifacts in the light of a fire fixed behind us. Learning the good, then, is getting unchained, moving past the image-makers, and finding the true light of the sun.

Plato’s cave suggests that, whatever the efforts of the propagandists casting images on the wall for the benefit of all, no political program can substitute for the individual student’s climb toward the light. In short, human happiness depends upon a classical education, something that cannot be mass-produced without doing violence to the intensely personal nature of the experience.

But does that mean that those casting images – the political ideologues Ryn seeks to correct – serve no legitimate purpose?

The fact that such people often make intellectual errors in their attempts at applying the verities of the Western tradition does not mean that leadership does not require a certain amount of ideology. Ryn acknowledges in passing that ideology is required to achieve practical objectives, but he fails to discuss the implications of the kind of ideology. He lumps all ideologies together in a bundle for the compost heap, content to have them ferment as long as they are far enough away that the flies won’t come near the house.

It is precisely the kind and the quality of the ideology that determine whether the shadow-casters are useful. For not all shadow-casters cast the same shadows. And I take to be useful those who project healthy images of freedom to those chained below, even if those images must needs be imperfect.

We have found ourselves, perhaps, in a new age of politics. The ancients were obsessed by the alternative of democracy v. oligarchy. The moderns with secular v. cultural rule. Today we ignore the relevant question at our peril. It’s compulsion v. persuasion. Without a philosophically robust – and shared – account of what constitutes the legitimate use of collective force, i.e., of government, we will continue to fall victim to a creeping democratic authoritarianism. One might call that creeping danger a philosophy, or merely a rationalization for cupidity, but it certainly explains debt crises all over the world.

So we need the ideologues, the popularizers of philosophy. For popularization is precisely the task of rhetoric and of leadership. It is true that we would want such practitioners themselves to have been the products of classical education, so that they might (however imperfectly) nudge their fellows in the direction of the truth that awaits outside the cave. But in the absence of such leaders, we shall have to do the best we can. If we can improve the climate of liberty, then we can educate better statesmen, who can improve he climate of liberty, and so make possible the better statesmen who will follow.

And so, do I hope that we can revitalize philosophy and the arts in the academy, as Professor Ryn pleads? I certainly do. But without the help of those political ideologues, we will lose our freedom to do so before such an ambitious project has a chance to bear fruit. Their doctrines of classical liberalism may well be imperfect, the shadows of artificial things, but they say something that is real, even if it is imprecise. And they may well be the only things that can separate us from our chains.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I recall my dismay, nearly 30 years ago, when Dr Kirk debated EMRv Kuehnelt-Leddihn on ideology and most Hillsdale students voted against Kirk. Leddihn said the Right needs an ideology to simplify the arguments against communism and the Left. Kirk said that any ideology is bad because it is an ideology, and as such numbs us to analysis and critique by putting us into a mental box (he said it more elegantly of course). A broad education makes thinkers who are not so constrained, who are able to apply values, see historical or cultural parallels, and perceive weaknesses in one's position or in that of an ideologue. Slogans and crowds can be turned by the wicked or foolish. Leddihn said we have no time for that: the peril was too imminent. It is always too imminent.

    I would propose an experiment to see if popularising and simplifying (ideologising) conservative values might work better than Liberal Education in the Permanent Things — except that the experiment has already taken place. The dumbing down, ideologising and simplifying of conservative values began with National Review and has lasted more than 60 years – what this author seems to propose gave us what Dr Ryn complains about. Simplification can beget simple minds who see all through a political lens, and we now have it aplenty from conservatives who perceive Western Civilisation in sound-bites. An example is the recent Bush Debacle, and the confusion of self-identified conservatives over how to react to it, and how their misbegotten support was driven by the overly-simplified, partisan polemics of us-versus-them.

    So, at a guess, I would say that if one believes that temporal salvation lies in politics, by all means go into politics. If one believes that any national ediface stands on a foundation of knowledge that must be ever renewed; if one reckons that sustaining the repository of wisdom is more important than any election-cycle; then work to become a Brad Birzer or a Winston Elliott or (God willing) a Russell Kirk. Me, I stand beside my old master whether or not he won the debate by popular acclaim.

  2. By all means, sir, stand by your old master, but don't suggest that I believe "that temporal salvation lies in politics." In the first paragraph I acknowledged that political victory alone cannot guarantee human flourishing — but to some degree it is necessary in order to preserve the possibility of it.

  3. Exactly, Stephen. The debate about ideology really seems esoteric to me. The majority of Americans are apolitical and many more than that are not intellectuals. Without ideas being popularized or simplified they will never gain broad cultural traction. This isn't an either/or deal, and only idealists or Utopian sorts would insist that it were so.

    I would argue that culture broadly considered is more important than politics to the direction and health of a nation, but that doesn't mean politics isn't critically important as well. I think our Founding generation had it about as right as humans can get it in a fallen world: maximize ordered liberty and a limited government of enumerated powers.

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