Claes-G.-RynFirst of all, a conservative is acutely aware of the flawed nature of man. The capacity of human reason is limited. Our existence is ultimately a great mystery. Conservatives recognize that for these reasons we need the best of the human heritage to help guide us. Within the so-called American conservative movement intellectual and political confusion are today rampant. Hence the following attempt to sort out what is what.

The Jacobin suffers from no such humility. Who needs history when there are universal principles that are also self-evident? It’s all so clear. Traditions are but historical accidents, props for old elites that should be replaced by the enlightened and virtuous, people like him. Leo Strauss and his disciples have taught us to disdain “the ancestral” and heed only principles of reason. 

Conservatives and Jacobins differ profoundly on what ultimately commands our loyalty. Conservatives stand in awe of a higher power. The ancient Greeks spoke of it as the good, the true and the beautiful. Others refer to it as the will of God. This higher reality is, in any case, not some ideological blueprint. To feel obligated to look for and to do the right thing is not the same as to know just what it is in particular circumstances. The complexity and unpredictability of life disincline the conservatives to sweeping, categorical assertions.

The Jacobin is a true believer. He has access to universal principles, you see, and they demand “moral clarity.” You are either for his principles, which makes you virtuous, or you are against them, which makes you evil. It’s all so clear.

To have unquestioning faith in one’s own moral superiority is for Christians the cardinal sin. Only a profoundly conceited person could think that for another to oppose him is by definition morally perverse.

But the Jacobin assumes a right to have his way. Behind his moralism hides a desire to dominate. The hesitation or trepidation that may trouble men of conscience do not deter him. The will to power silences all doubt.

For the conservative, the universal imperative that binds human beings does not announce its purpose in simple, declaratory statements. How, then, does one discern its demands? Sometimes only with difficulty.

Only through effort can the good or true or beautiful be discovered, and they must be realized differently in different historical circumstances. The same universal values have diverse manifestations. Some of the concrete instantiations of universality take us by surprise.

Because there is no simple roadmap to good, human beings need freedom and imagination to find it. Universality has nothing to do with uniformity.

For the Jacobins, ahistorical, ideological precepts define universality, and these demand conformity. Comply with them, or else.

The conservative is attracted to both universality and diversity, because the two do, in a sense, need each other. He does not cherish diversity for its own sake, for much of the diversity in the world offends all higher values, but diversity of another type is how universality comes alive in the infinite variety of individuals and circumstances.

Because universality manifests itself variously, the conservative is no narrow-minded nationalist. He is a cosmopolitan. This does not mean that he is a free floater, at home everywhere and nowhere. That describes the Jacobin ideologue.

The conservative is a patriot, deeply rooted in the best of his own heritage. It is because he is so attached to what is most admirable in his own culture that he can understand and appreciate corresponding achievements in other cultures. He is able to find in different places variations on a common human theme. The culturally distinctive contributions of other peoples deepen and enrich his awareness of goodness, truth and beauty.

The Jacobin is not interested in diversity, only in imposing his blueprint. What history happens to have thrown up is just an obstacle to what ought to be. Only what is “simply right” deserves respect. It’s all so obvious.

Conservatives see in Jacobin principles a hair-raising obliviousness of life’s complexity. To implement such principles may devastate a society. A society may be wholly unsuited or unprepared for changes demanded of it. So what, say America’s neo-Jacobins. We need moral clarity. What was there before does not matter. “Democracy” must take its place. One model fits all. To ensure a democratic world, America must establish armed and uncontested world supremacy.

The will to power is here bursting at the seams. What argument could be better for placing enormous power in the hands of the neo-Jacobins than a grandiose scheme for remaking the world? At lunch yesterday we got to hear [from Max Boot] the pure, undiluted neo-Jacobin message.

All Jacobins warn of the Enemy with a capital “E.” The Enemy is the embodiment of evil, a force with which no compromise is possible. For the American neo-Jacobins the Enemy is Terrorism with a capital “T.” Though the only superpower, America must be in a permanent state of emergency, be armed to the teeth and relentlessly pursue the Enemy.

One current assumption about conservatives is nothing less than weird: that they are hawks, always looking for prey and always bullying. Conservatives are in reality normally doves, looking for ways to settle conflicts peacefully. They view war differently from neo-Jacobin desk-warriors. The suffering and destruction of war are frightful realities involving actual human beings. War is the very last resort.

Conservatives harbor no illusions about the international arena. Bad people behave badly. So conservatives want to be prepared to handle threats to their own society and civilization or to international peace. But their normal way of interacting with other peoples is to try to defuse conflict and to pursue a common human ground. This is the cosmopolitan way.

In domestic affairs, American conservatives have always feared unlimited power, partly because of their belief in original sin. Fallen creatures must be restrained by law. Government must be limited and decentralized, hence the separation of powers and federalism.

The spirit of constitutionalism forms the core of the American political tradition. Unchecked power is an invitation to tyranny. The framers even wanted the U.S. Congress, which was to be the preeminent body of the national government, to have divided powers. Needless to say they disdained democracy.

Jacobins see no need for restraints on virtuous power. Today American neo-Jacobins are promoting presidential ascendancy and great leeway for the executive. Old restraints and liberties must yield to the needs of the virtuous national security state.

Neo-Jacobins undermine American constitutionalism by radically redefining its meaning. They have little loyalty towards the culturally distinctive, historically evolved America. This country, neo-Jacobins assert, represents a sharp break with the past. They love to speak of the “Founding,” because that term suggests that America does not have historical origins but emerged afresh from enlightened minds. Harry Jaffa and others insist that to celebrate America is to celebrate radical innovation and revolution.

Conservatives cherish local autonomy and strong communities. As far as possible people should be able to shape their own lives, partly because the good life has to be lived differently in different circumstances. Jacobins resist anything that might interfere with ideological homogeneity. Individual and local autonomy could, they think, so easily get out of hand.

It should be obvious that, due in large part to barely masked neo-Jacobinism, American conservatism has in the last few decades been turned virtually inside out. In 1952 many conservatives regarded Dwight D. Eisenhower as too “liberal” because he was not willing to dismantle the New Deal. He would only prune it. Today, in all but rhetoric, people calling themselves conservatives accept a vastly larger and more intrusive central government. Under the current allegedly conservative president [George W. Bush] alone the federal government has expanded [as of 2006] by 25%. Yet representatives of the so-called conservative movement proceed as if nothing had happened and absurdly celebrate “triumphs of conservatism.”

Only a major intellectual or moral flaw in American conservatism could have made so many susceptible to the neo-Jacobin bug. Many who caught it were myopically preoccupied with practical politics and Republican partisanship. They lacked historical perspective and philosophical discernment. Others dimly recognized what was happening but went along to reap financial rewards and advance careers. They concealed almost from themselves that they had become hired guns advocating the positions expected of them. Both groups made alliances that will prove compromising. Historians will wonder how so many could have been so easily swayed and manipulated.

Today the utopianism, recklessness, cynicism and sheer incompetence of the neo-Jacobins are becoming obvious. Many of their fellow-travelers are trying to save what remains of their reputations by jumping ship. Intellectually challenged supernationalists just raise their voices and call critics unpatriotic. As for the neo-Jacobins themselves, they are blameless. It is those who implemented their policies who should be blamed. They didn’t do it right.

The neo-Jacobin virus should have been flushed out long ago.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This address was delivered at the 2006 national meeting of the Philadelphia Society and originally appeared in Epistulae (March 2012) and is reprinted here by the gracious permission of the author.

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9 replies to this post
  1. No doubt the conservatives who challenged the Iraq war were right, though having been one of the sceptics from the beginning, I must say that my scepticism was never a jolly one. It would have been a grand and good thing had it really been possible to achieve free government in Iraq simply by ousting the tyrant. Sadly, Iraq turned out to be a nation divided against itself. The vast majority of Iraqi deaths came at the hands of Iraqis – I do not even know anymore, given the deep ethnic and religious divisions there, whether one can speak of Iraqis as such. In fact, I fear I simply do not know anything about that part of the world.

    The tragedy of the war is that Americans sacrificed their blood, treasure and civil liberties for a people who did not want them there and had no interest in becoming a constitutional republic by and large. No successful republic has ever, in fact, sprung from without, via foreign imposition. The moment Paul Bremer was put in charge, the moment one knew there was no real Iraqi political community representative of the vast majority ready to build a country on sound and humane principles. It was all so much like Conrad's Heart of Darkness and all so far from lofty parallels to the liberation of France.

    It is almost as though we are reliving the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The American revolution, which was a restoration and refinement of British traditions in accordance with the very best of western thought has its' parallel in the Polish and Eastern European revolutions of 1989, where centuries old traditions of Christian liberalism reasserted themselves. Just as friends of liberty grew optimistic in the face of 1776 and were then horrified by the excess and terror of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic wars, so we moderns are horrified that Baghdad and Kabul are not Warsaw and Prague.

    Fine. But what now? Following Napoleon, conservative efforts at restoring the ancien regime failed because it was an untenable proposition – as proven by the fact that it could not absorb and calm revolutionary fervor. Thus the tilt to a realism and pragmatism in Europe which saw an effort at building a balance of power. Yet man is a spiritual being, and just as it is absurd to expect domestic peace if a family is founded simply on a pragmatic balance of power between father and mother, all the more so nations so organized will not resist the passions of peoples unsatisfied with their fate.

    The same spectacle is being played out today. Is not this Arab Spring, this great cauldron of blood and terror, not a direct parallel to the French revolution? Just as the Eastern Europeans had a moderate and successful replay of the American revolution?

    What then are we faced with? It is relatively easy given western might to alter the balance of power, but near impossible to alter men's souls so as to build a lasting peace. Perhaps then all we can do is to focus inward, repair not only America's soul, but the Western soul, as Bennedict XVI is trying to do. Yet there is ultimately always going to be something in our souls that reminds us that all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights and we will never be capable of being apathetic about the universal rights of man. The key is to match our eventual idealism with prudence and a more tragic and less enthusiastic view of humanity.

    Strauss, and especially Jaffa, were keenly aware that there was what Aristotle called politeae which meant the character of a people as moulded by custom and patrimony. This thing always superceded any written laws and would reassert itself mightily if tampered with. But this thing was also the result of the prudent application of some laws over time. The key is "over time". Sadly, we may not live to see the day when the Islamic world comes to terms with itself, just as the republicans and men of good will of the Founding era did not live to see a decent republicanism take hold in France, but instead witnessed the folly of placing all hope in abstraction.

  2. I consider Prof. Ryn's historical analysis to be accurate. I disagree with his implied definition of conservative – as one who lives by historically trained instinct, shunning all explicit principle – however. Historical experience (properly understood to include revelation) can, and should, guide the development of principles. I, for my part, believe in these principles:

    1) The dignity of the human person
    2) The dignity and autonomy of family
    3) Solidarity, in the sense of coming to the aid of the marginalized
    4) Option for the poor, in the sense of helping those in need get back on their feet
    5) Subsidiarity, or servant leadership, as articulated by Christ
    6) Noninterference – the school of hard knocks is a very good teacher – including when the marginalized or the poor, etc. insist on taking care of themselves
    7) The law of physical and moral entropy – without energy and enlightenment from outside, a closed system decays to the point of death.

  3. Ryn's book "America the Virtuous" sits proudly on my shelf and I look forward to reading anything he has to write about American conservative culture in the future.

  4. "All Jacobins warn of the Enemy with a capital “E.” The Enemy is the embodiment of evil, a force with which no compromise is possible. … Only a major intellectual or moral flaw in American conservatism could have made so many susceptible to the neo-Jacobin bug. … Today the utopianism, recklessness, cynicism and sheer incompetence of the neo-Jacobins are becoming obvious. … The neo-Jacobin virus should have been flushed out long ago." How's THAT for moral clarity … LOL!

  5. The trouble is is that if you begin with the presumption of sin you will inevitably create a sin-saturated world in which even the possibility of living a truly virtuous life becomes essentially impossible. We thus wonder why no won can find either the individual or collective motivation or power to even lift a finger against our soul and body-crushing "culture". No ecstasy. No beauty. No beautiful. No Realization permitted. Ecstasy outlawed.

    Indeed humanity is now in a state of self-created, self-reduced rubble. We have, and still are destroying the divine Gift. All is Energy, and Energy Is all there is. But we are using Energy as if it were mud.
    Look again, and find the Beautiful, the Unlimited, the Divine Conscious Light.

    Sin or the active denial of the Living Divine Reality is the worst cancer in the universe. It is the worst sickness. It is the most horrific disease. Its implications cover the entirety of everyone's life. The world is filled with its symptoms and reeks with its torments and potentials, coming from all directions, most of which people cannot even see.

  6. Well said, Mr. Rieth. One small point, however: I disagree that “no successful republic has ever, in fact, sprung from without, via foreign imposition.” There are actually quite a few examples of successful republics being created by the invasion and occupation of a foreign power. As far as the United States goes, I can think of at least one example- Japan. A good number of the world’s most successful republics blossomed as a result of British imperialism.

    My point is that the ever-hated neo-cons were not wholly misguided in believing that a powerful nation can create republican government in a country it controls. There is precedence. What the neo-cons did not realize is that American society lacks a very important virtue and a very important vice. Namely, we lack fortitude and pride. We lack the fortitude required to battle on because, as a society, we have trouble valuing one thing above another. We also lack pride: a vice that the British during their golden age had in spades! They knew what they believed, and they knew they were right.

  7. Claes Ryn, Paul Gottfried, Thomas Fleming, the late Thomas Molnar are far more arresting men of the Right (and ‘right reason’ even when they disagree with one another. I most often associate the term Jacobin– not with the revolting French, or the loyalists of James II– but as Russell Kirk referred to the introduction of the automobile in contemporary society in his ‘third-person’ autobiography, “The Sword Of Imagination.”

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