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conservatismHere is my interview with Dr. Claes G. Ryn. On this show we discussed numerous topics including modern “conservatism” (or “Neo-Conservatism”) and traditional conservatism.

Mike: So let me start by asking you to flesh the question out a little bit, so maybe those that didn’t hear me talking about it and haven’t read your essay will understand, there is a difference between, I guess we would call it, or I’ll let you define it, traditional conservatism and what passes as conservatism today, which is filled with admiration, it seems, and acceptance of a very large state, and certainly a very large state abroad that wishes to have its way with the world, that’s willing to use military force in order to gain it. That’s not the kind of conservative or conservatism that is traditional, though, is it?

Claes Ryn: If a conservative is interviewed on television, it’s likely to not be a conservative of the kind you’re talking about, but a neoconservative. As you indicated, the neoconservatives make some assumptions that are radically different from those of traditional conservatives. To give you an example, one very famous political theorist who has contributed to the thinking of American neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, is a very sharp critic of Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke, of course, was the great favorite of Russell Kirk and many other leaders of the post-war American intellectual conservative movement.

In any case, the neoconservatives are different from the genuine conservatives, most especially because they regard history, tradition, the ancestral in a much different way from the genuine conservatives like Burke or Russell Kirk. They tend to view history as the bad old days. This is when we didn’t yet have equality of opportunity. This is when oppressive traditions stopped people from thinking freely.

If you take an example here, one Harry Jaffa, who is closely identified with the Claremont Institute, he insists that to celebrate America is to celebrate revolution. He loves the idea that America was born in revolution. Others who are more historically oriented would call this the American war of independence. There was nothing revolutionary about that war in the sense that the so-called revolutionaries were not about the business of flushing out their old civilization, replacing Christianity with something else. They were not for a fresh start, as Harry Jaffa would have it. They were really for a return to their age-old righteous Englishmen, the common law. They were regarding the English king and the parliament as breaking away from the tradition that they had come to rely upon.

What the Jaffaites, many of the Straussians, and what the neoconservatives love about America is an America that didn’t really exist historically but which they have invented. This is an America based on what they called universal principles. It offers a clean break with the past to people in the Western world. America is all about innovation and, as Jaffa says, it’s about revolution, breaking away from the past. Right there, you have a major difference between genuine conservatives and what should really have another name. The neoconservatives have been called that for idiosyncratic historical reasons.

Mike: Professor Claes Ryn is on the Dude Maker Hotline with us. His essay is “Where in the World Are We Going?” That’s a great explanation. Thank you very much. When you wrote “Where in the World Are We Going?,” what did you have in mind? Is this reactionary to what you see going on and you’re like Ronald Reagan, you wanted to throw you hand up, like he said in his famous speech, or his farewell address?

Claes Ryn: You should know that, in a sense, these writings are a sideline of mine. I am a professor of political philosophy, intellectual history, Western political thought, ethics and politics and such. Starting in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I started to be concerned that this movement, which later become known as neoconservatism, was not only becoming very influential, but it was receiving very little attention for what it really was. I was wondering what’s the matter with this so-called conservative intellectual movement that it cannot see what is happening here?

I started writing and warning about these trends. There was an article in National Review in 1989. Then I wrote the first edition of The New Jacobinism in 1991. This is just because nobody else was doing it, or almost nobody else was warning about the neocons. This particular article to which you referred and which was republished in Humanitas by the National Humanities Institute the other day, it was actually a speech at something called The Philadelphia Society. It’s kind of an elite organization of, shall we call it movement conservatives.

At that meeting, I was telling the assembled people, “Don’t you understand that there’s a world of difference between many of the neoconservatives and the more traditional conservatives?” I’ve been doing this not because it was my life’s work to try to do something like this, but because so very few others wanted to do it. It does seem that people are finally, finally catching on, and that they’re starting to understand that although no two neoconservatives are the same, they have certain inclinations that run counter to traditional conservatism.

Mike: This was maybe why Melvin Bradford titled his book A Better Guide Than Reason. He was referring to tradition. Would you explain to the audience, just from a philosophical point of view, why is it that the conservative should turn and look at the historical and the traditional as opposed to just inventing something new as they go along?

Claes Ryn: The Straussians have tried to create the impression that if you are favorable to tradition the way Burke was, or Russell Kirk later, then you are undermining or giving up the idea of universality. You are no longer relying upon reason. Now, this is closer to my own bailiwick, what I’ve really spent my scholarship on. This notion is completely artificial. I would argue, and have in some of my books, the only way that we can acquire a genuine sense of the universal higher values, if you like, is to have a strong sense of the best of the human tradition, so that there’s a kind of mutuality or whatever you want to call it, between a strong sense of history and a strong sense of the universal. The two need each other. You can’t really come to an adequate understanding of what higher values are without knowing the human past, knowing what human beings are, and what is noblest in the Western tradition.

The Straussians, and of course the neoconservatives, want us to have this prejudice against tradition or convention. Strauss is very critical of theorists who abide by the ancestral. He makes it seem that to be a genuine philosopher, you have to rely on merely ahistorical, abstract rationality. That is not what genuine conservatives have done. That’s just about the opposite of what Burke wanted. That, of course, is why Burke is so severely criticized by Leo Strauss.

Mike: Let me ask you a follow-up question. Republican candidates might say: “Now I’m conservative. I want you to know that I am and I always have been.” As you look at that and you look at — it’s almost a litmus test now, that the voting public seems to have, that you define someone who is conservative by certain things that have transpired in just the last 20 years.

Claes Ryn: I do wonder, for example, if what they are saying about foreign policy, which is not encouraging, is what they think they have to say in order to get the nomination. Something that’s been inherited from the Cold War is that Republicans in particular feel that to be rock ribbed, you have to be a hawk. You have to be an interventionist, that that’s what it means to be a conservative.

As I tried to point out in “Where in the World Are We Going?,” that’s not a conservative disposition if you go by historical standards. Conservatives, on the contrary, are acutely aware of what war brings. It’s the very last thing you would want to resort to. You negotiate. It’s only if your interest is sharply threatened and you simply cannot work out a deal with the others that you resort to military conflict. Republican candidates, with few exceptions, seem to think that it would be something less than manly not to have this attitude of belligerence. So common is that attitude that it may be necessary to at least feign that attitude in order to get the Republican nomination. There’s something very wrong here. Needless to say, it has much to do with the Cold War, at which time it may have been necessary to show a great deal of firmness.

History changes. The historical situation is completely different. The United States is the only superpower and we’re supposed to tremble in our boots the whole time because various countries are posing a threat? This is very unsound and indicates very many propagandists. It’s very ideological and utopian. It’s very discouraging that an entire party should be so captivated by these kinds of things.

Mike: But they are captivated. This is what gives me — I have hope on the one hand, because I, too, walked down the neocon path. That was mainly because of my own laziness, professor. I have to confess, I was lazy. I did not perform my due diligence and read too much modern prose. When I began to read source materials and older writings from people that may have been, and I don’t know that they called themselves conservative in the 19th Century, but when I started to read the actual source materials and some of their works, I came to the conclusion very quickly that there’s something seriously wrong here.

What these gentlemen wrote, the way they lived their lives, the way they expressed themselves in public is absolutely antithetical to what we see here today, which is what you just pointed out. I wonder, is my situation unique or is it that those that call themselves conservatives today, like I just admitted, basically are relying on I guess what you would call hearsay in modern terminology, as opposed to actually enjoying and participating and discovering those traditions?

Claes Ryn: Well, the elites, the media elites at least, have a tremendous influence. If you hear day in and day out in the national media or in papers that you read that a conservative is this sort of thing, if you hear the propaganda for war day in and day out, it’s not surprising if you start thinking, “Yeah, we probably should clean things up.” There was once a neoconservative who felt maybe we should have the fourth world war. He counted the Cold War as one of them. Let’s take care of the Muslims before they become militarily more potent.

What I’m trying to say here is people are getting hooked into something which is not just unrealistic but utopian. What disturbs me, and has been disturbing me for almost 30 years, is that these ideas do catch on and they have practical consequences. All of a sudden, U.S. foreign policy is being dominated by this kind of mindset. Think back to the war in Iraq. The war party people, including David Brooks, for example, at The New York Times and of course Bill Kristol, Paul Horowitz and the other neoconservatives, they were telling us that this would be a cakewalk, the Iraqis would welcome Americans with flowers and democracy would bloom.

After a very short time, David Brooks, to take an example, admitted in a column in The New York Times that this had been a childish fantasy. Give him credit for having that kind of honesty. Imagine that. This is a mindset that dictated U.S. foreign policy. This is a mindset that when it encounters reality has to say, “I admit to having a childish fantasy.” There are people who set or decide U.S. foreign policy, who order out the troops, have to learn the most elementary truths about politics and human existence on the job. That is really amazing and it’s scary.

This is what, for such a very long time, made me wonder, why is it that so few people are trying to unmask what is happening? It has to do, I think, with a weakness right within post-war American intellectual conservatism. The lack of discernment, and perhaps also a propensity to always look for political unity, so that intellectual differences were sort of put under the carpet.

Mike: We talked about the state of modern conservatism. One of the things that I noticed, that I picked up on, and I hope that you wanted me to pick up on this in the “Where in the World Are We Going?” essay — by the way, the professor has a great new book out, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.

Claes Ryn: I’m sorry for interrupting, but that book is a few years old. There is a new edition of a book called The New Jacobinism: America as a Revolutionary State, a new edition with a large new afterword that brings the book up to date. That’s recently released.

Mike: That’s the new one, okay, or recently re-released. My observation is, and this is totally left out of our modern discourse, I noticed the word beauty often. You referred to beauty. I went back and read some of my old Kirk essays that Winston Elliott has, and you know Winston from The Imaginative Conservative. The word beauty occurs when Kirk writes. If you read Melvin Bradford, you find the word beauty. What is it about beauty that modern conservatives, or those that fancy themselves conservatives, that we’re missing?

Claes Ryn: I shouldn’t be so sweeping, but a little hyperbole. Many conservatives are not interested very much in the beautiful. They don’t read poetry. They don’t care all that much about the arts. They largely stick to public policy and maybe they’ll read a book of history. The arts, the beautiful, seems not to matter to them. In my own teaching and research, politics and the imagination has been key. I think the imagination really runs the world. It shapes our sensibility, our basic comprehension of reality. How our imagination works predisposes us to certain political attitudes, for example.

A profound problem with our modern culture is that it conveys a polluted, perverted imagination. That’s one of the reasons we’re so prone to this neocon or Obamaite utopianism. We dream the impossible dream the whole time. That dream keeps blowing up in our faces and we seem not to be able to learn anything from it. The imagination obviously has everything to do with beauty. Beauty is a fairly flexible term. If you want to be a highfalutin aesthetician, you can talk about adequate expression, that is the artist manages to capture something, say in just a few words, what would have taken the rest of us hours. That is they give us an intuition of what things are really like.

That ability in our civilization is something that we will always treasure. That’s been a central part of education, to familiarize the rising generation with the greatest works of literature. That’s an integral part of education. I understand that Limbaugh has gone after classical education. I guess he wants more economics-oriented, practical education. If you don’t educate people according to the older, classical tradition, you’re not going to get any human beings. You’re going to get technocrats and automatons. Beauty is needed to refine and ennoble our imaginations to lift our lives, give them some more elegance, give them some more appeal. This is extremely important and must not be neglected. That’s actually one of the central themes of the National Humanities Institute. Your readers might want to go to their website, which is a treasure trove of articles and other material.

Mike: Just following up on that theme, Professor Ryn, there’s a very popular movie called The Hunger Games. I wonder, the gentlelady that wrote the book seems to be following some of the other modern works of fiction that we have today where there is a substantive lack of the beautiful. If we look back in the same fantasy realm, back into the 1930’s or so, we see the great Tolkien, the great C.S. Lewis writing very fantastical stories. The whole Narnia chronicles and Middle Earth thing, but they still maintained a firm attachment to some beautiful things in those worlds. Can you explain the disconnect?

Claes Ryn: Well, this is what one of my favorites, Irving Babbitt, calls the “moral imagination.” Russell Kirk took over that phrase. There is a kind of imagination that is anchored in reality. It takes flight, in a sense. It portrays possibilities of life. It’s not about history. Nevertheless, reading real works of the moral imagination, we say, “This is life. Now I understand it better.” You have a deeper, richer, more profound sense of reality. Standing against that are other qualities of the imagination, the kind of pollution that we tend to get from Hollywood, for example. You mentioned the ‘30s. The ‘30s also saw the rise in Germany of Hitler. Now there was a man with a perverted imagination.

You need to understand, in other words, that the imagination holds tremendous power. If you don’t watch the utopian strains, the various perversions of the imagination, tremendous consequences will follow. If you don’t watch it, people who dream the impossible dream will be running U.S. foreign policy.

Mike: They are running U.S. foreign policy. There’s no indication that they’re going to surrender. Okay, final question for Professor Claes Ryn of Catholic University on our Dude Make Hotline. I am referring often to his essay, which we now know is taken from a speech, “Where in the World Are We Going?” There are two books out that we referred to here, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire and The New Jacobinism, which is in a new edition here.

One of the other modern issues that we’re dealing with right now today, is front and center in the public’s mind, is this of who’s going to pay for our healthcare and who’s going to pay for the other gender’s birth control, so much so to the point that the President of the United States felt compelled to issue executive orders attempting to compel Catholic institutions to, if they offered health insurance policies to their employees, that they would have to offer the abortifacients and the birth control pills. How do you think the church has handled it thus far? What do you say or think about the reaction that we have seen from the ruling elite?

Claes Ryn: Well, the church is being somewhat ambivalent on this issue, because there are any number of Roman Catholics who would like to portray Obama in the most favorable light possible. There’s no question but that this has most Roman Catholics up in arms against what the Obama Administration is doing. They’re doing it very deliberately. I’m sure it’s based on focus groups.

They want to create the impression that they’re in favor of providing free contraception and all of that. They think that there are as many Roman Catholic women as others who will want to have that service. I think they’re actually calculating that they may make a net gain. I think they may have made a mistake there. Clearly this is a hot-button issue. This is probably part of a strategy of painting the Republicans into a corner. They will be made to appear opposed to contraception and such. This is a political gimmick in part.

Mike: I guess my follow-up to that would be, how does one hold in one’s mind the thought that you could be a practitioner or a devotee or a true believer in the church that was established by our lord and savior Jesus Christ, that’s the Catholic Church, and that you believe the canon, you’ve actually sworn your baptism and accepted the tenants and canon of the church. At the same time, you could be a conscientious objector, I guess, like Ms. Pelosi or Ms. Sebelius, and be openly and outwardly what I believe would have been called in earlier centuries a heretic. Where has the term heretic gone?

Claes Ryn: This is a very problematic time for the church. I think that it has very often spoke in such a mealy-mouthed way and behaved in such a contradictory way that the flock is pretty confused at times. This particular issue, even among liberal Catholics, may trigger a certain resentment. That is many liberal Catholics may want their contraception and even have it paid for by the federal government, but they’re not sure they like the federal government, a certain political administration, pressuring their church into doing something or pressuring their institutions to do something.

Mike: In your estimation, Professor Ryn, as in the words of my good friend Professor Gutzman, does hope spring eternal for the conservative cause?

Claes Ryn: Well, as my old friend Russell Kirk used to say, cheerfulness keeps breaking in.

Mike: We could use a lot more cheerfulness, I think. Professor Ryn, I appreciate your time. This was a fascinating conversation. I didn’t interrupt you a lot because I was just enjoying listening to you talk.

Claes Ryn: Thank you.

Mike: it was very enjoyable. I’m sure that the audience will feel the same way. We shall invite you back again real soon. Thank you for your time, professor.

Claes Ryn: It’s been my pleasure.

Books related to this topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Claes Ryn is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and is Professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He is chairman of the National Humanities Institute, editor of Humanitas, and president of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters. His most recent books are The New Jacobinism: America as Revolutionary StateAmerica the Virtuous and A Common Human GroundEssays by Claes Ryn may be found here.

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Published: May 9, 2013
Mike Church
Mike Church is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He is the host of The Mike Church Show on Sirius Satellite Radio. A radio talk show host, author, filmmaker, and singer/songwriter, he is best known for his fearless ability to skewer liberals and fake conservatives with searing, in‐depth analysis. He was named “The Most Radical Man On The Radio” by “The American Conservative.” He can be heard on Sirius XM Patriot Channel 166 & 14 from 6:00-9:00 a.m. (EST) Monday through Friday.
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3 replies to this post
  1. An intetesting conversation, although a bit saddening because it seems once again that Leo Strauss has been transformed from a political philosopher who wrote excellent books into a demi-urge who apparently spent his life writing about why Iraq ought to be invaded. I do not blame critics of neoconservatism for this as I blame Strauss’ apologists who seem to be allowing an injustice to be done to a fine teacher.

    Whenever Strauss discussed anyone in writing, he would provide ample footnotes because it was important to let the reader follow the argument. While I respect that this is a transcript from a radio show, it presumes too much about Strauss’ views on Burke without giving any references. Insofar as I am aware, he primarily treats of Burke in Natural Right & History, a 326 page book of which 35 pages total are referenced as dedicated to Burke.

    I strongly recommend that everyone read pages 194-223 from Natural Right & History and consider them in light of the teaching of the whole book. Strauss distinguishes clearly between Ancient, classical Natural Right and Modern Natural Rights. He praises Burke’s opposition of the latter in the French Revolution and praises Burke’s suppport of the former in the American revolution. He defends Burke’s prudent notion that we ought to be mindful of history or risk tragedy in construing artificial notions of natural rights. However, Strauss wisely makes the point that to be mindful of history, we need a standard by which our minds can evaluate history. Strauss proposes the ancient standard of Natural Right, going so far as to suggest Burke to have been a guardian of its Thomistic variant. Strauss oppposes modern Natural Rights in favor of Burkean prudence, rooted as it is in ancient Natural Right. Why do so many people critique Strauss for discarding the ancestral in favor of nature, when Strauss himself harkens towards the ancestral by very forcefully distinguishing modern from ancient concepts of Nature? This is, in its self, an essentially historical distinction in favor of “the ancient” (albeit because it was true, not merely ancient). Strauss’ lifes work was the recovery of ancient Natural Right, which is the ancestral par excellence.

    As for Harry Jaffa: Jaffa tells us in one or another place that he disagreed with Strauss’ forceful critique of modern (especially Lockean) Natural Right when Jaffa wrote Crisis of the House Divided. Jaffa has subsequently realized Strauss was right, and concluded that America is a reestablishment of ancient political virtue, that the Declaration was more ancient than modern. This is reflected in his New Birth of Freedom.

    How any of this relates to invading Iraq – I fail to grasp. Most conservatives were for it not because they read Strauss, but because of three factors: 1) America was attacked thereby jolting us into a militaristic impulse to fight back, 2) the entire press from left to right was sold on WMDs which turned out to be false, and for which the press has not suffered a loss of credibility and 3) because we wanted to believe that the Iraqi people had the same rights to self government as we do. Sectarian differences do not lead us to car bomb our neighbors in Kansas or Royal Oak MI, so the last thing anyone expected was that Shiites and Sunnis would be at eachothers throats.

    So Pat Buchanan and Russell Kirk were right, very tragically right. But this has nothing to do with Strauss who, insofar as I can tell, was above all concerned with fostering the Best City – not fighting wars.

    • Mr. Rieth,
      I agree with you that Strauss was a complex and sophisticated thinker. There are tensions within his thought, and part of the problem–and part of what Ryn is responding to–is the direction in which his thought was taken by his followers. Also, neoconservatism by no means comes only from Strauss. But, it should be realized that it is not just Strauss’ remarks on Burke that are anti-traditional. Many of Strauss’ writings point in a hard-core Enlightenment rationalist direction, even though other writings appear to reject this. Strauss also maintained that one cannot be both a philosopher and a Christian, and his embace of the “ancient” is in part a rejection of the Western tradition as it developed in the medieval world.

      As for Strauss’ footnotes, I don’t know if you’ve ever actually looked at his notes on Burke, but they are unusable. First, he puts a long string of citations in a single footnote at the end of each long paragraph, so you can’t tell what goes with what. Second, he does not indicate which works of Burke’s he is drawing on, but merely cites volumes and pages in an old British edition of Burke’s writings that is virtually impossible to obtain. In a number of cases he makes claims that are directly contradicted by explicit statements of Burke’s.

      Re the press and WMD’s: Why are you blaming the press, and not those who “sold” them? The press did fail miserably — I, and many others, did not believe the WMD claims when they were made. But, don’t we have to think about who made these false claims, and why they did so? And, if those people were “conservatives,” why did they viciously attack widely recognized conservative commentators like Robert Novak who questioned them?

      And, I have to come down on this: “Sectarian differences do not lead us to car bomb our neighbors in Kansas or Royal Oak MI, so the last thing anyone expected was that Shiites and Sunnis would be at each others throats.” This is just plain false. I was teaching an intro comparative politics course during the fall semester before the invasion, and I discussed in class how the Iraqis would very likely be at each others’ throats if the US took down Saddam. And I make no claim to brilliance or special insight– it was plain from reading the textbook chapter on Iraq! This was in fact very widely — almost universally — recognized by experts on the region and by those who listened to them, but those were not the voices that were heard in the media or government. Again, the question is: Who claimed that Iraq would be a cakewalk, and why did they think so? They thought so, in part, because they had convinced themselves that liberal democracy is the natural “end of history” and that this would trump all other factors, a highly ideological and anti-historical belief.

  2. “The Straussians have tried to create the impression that if you are favorable to tradition the way Burke was, or Russell Kirk later, then you are undermining or giving up the idea of universality. You are no longer relying upon reason”

    Au contraire Mr Rieth,

    As Strauss observes in Natural RIght and History: “Philosophy is only possible if there is an absolute horizon or a natural horizon in contradistinction to the historically changing horizons…” But for all of Burke’s talk of custom and order, Strauss believed that there was still an underlying commitment to historicism and a rejection of absolute eternal order. In rejecting the philosophical root of the west (classical political philosophy) Burke repudiates the classical commitment to a need for an unchanging political order; In other words, Burkes British constitution is just as ‘prescriptive’ and relative as the regimes of the French Revolution.

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