A Desperate Man: A Novel, by Claes Ryn (Athena Books, 2014)
What ought a man be willing to do to save his country from corruption and ruin? Die? Subvert the ruling order? Kill? Participate in killing on a significant scale? On one level these deep moral questions are at the center of political philosopher Claes Ryn’s fine and engaging first novel, A Desperate Man. At a deeper level, however, this book is about character. As such it quite rightly is a disturbing book, and one well worth the attention of serious readers concerned with the state of their country—and of their own souls.
A Desperate Man is part political thriller, part introspective study of the makings of good character. It follows Helen Bittenberg as she tries to track down her husband, who has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared during a family vacation in Paris. She throws herself wholeheartedly into the search, alternately acting as detective, spy, and femme fatale. Eventually she makes a set of shocking discoveries about her husband and his double life. Important and interesting as it is, however, Helen’s story is not the most important part of this novel, but rather a kind of introduction, guide, and moral counter to the story of her husband, Richard—a history professor who is the book’s main protagonist.
For years Richard has been obsessed with the chaos and corruption rotting out the core of his nation. That nation is a near-future America not very different from that of our own time, suffering from riots, government dependence, and rule by a political class divorced from its people and its sense of responsibility. Deepening concerns combined with ongoing introspection and a series of seemingly chance events have brought Richard into a circle of high-level conspirators contemplating radical action against America’s corrupt oligarchy. It is in this company that Richard must answer questions of politics and morality too often swept under the rug of democratic pieties in our age of plebiscitary presidential rule.
Most Americans today merely assign their wills to elites in Washington, pretending that casting a ballot every now and then makes them sovereign. But Richard is more self-aware than this, and must decide whether to do what is necessary to help move events, or acquiesce in the lie of self-rule by a corrupt people with corrupt rulers. To make this decision he must determine how far he should—or must—go in attempting to save a constitutional republic that has been reduced to a sham democracy.
Much of A Desperate Man concerns Richard’s long-term struggle to make up his mind, or rather orient his will in extreme circumstances. In telling his protagonist’s story, Mr. Ryn reformulates questions asked by that “teacher of evil,” Niccolò Machiavelli, as well as the ancient fathers of political philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. But he refuses to provide answers in the form of mere philosophical abstractions. If there is a lesson he draws from Machiavelli in particular, it is that the circumstances in which one finds oneself often must, to a great degree, dictate one’s actions in pursuing proper ends.
If it sounds as if Mr. Ryn is presenting a moral ethos in which the ends justify the means, this reviewer has some sympathy for that interpretation of the book. But then so does Mr. Ryn, provided the person choosing the ends has disciplined himself to choose truly good ends and to pursue them out of true concern for the common good, rather than for one’s own advancement, however defined. What makes A Desperate Man different from the typical political thriller, and especially the typical political program set forth by would-be philosophers and statesmen, is that it sees right action as the result of rightly-ordered character rather than “right” principles. The strength of this book lies in the author’s consistent application of his philosophy of mind and character to concrete actions within a largely believable fictional situation. Richard, like Mr. Ryn, rejects the modern, ideological notion that one should posit an ideal blueprint for the perfect society and then make it happen. He also rejects the more traditional, natural-law understanding of right action as rooted in a rational understanding of certain permanent goods toward which one is naturally moved, provided one exercises prudence and avoids being corrupted by sin.
What, then, is the alternative to natural-law reasoning, with its clear statements of objective good and evil? Mr. Ryn’s lodestar is the New Humanism formulated during the first half of the twentieth century by such important thinkers as Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and, in his way, Benedetto Croce. Rather than rehearse philosophical arguments, however, in this novel Mr. Ryn shows how one might attempt to make the insights of the New Humanists one’s own—in the deep sense of inculcating them into one’s own character. Early on we are told of how Richard has sought to get his will in order. That is, he has worked on himself to create proper habits and, more, a consistent orientation toward a life of order, dignity, and respect for tradition and those with whom he lives his life. Perhaps most important, Richard has sought to be guided by an objective vision of what it means to lead a good life. Catholic readers (like this reviewer) will have important disagreements with Mr. Ryn’s characterization of right-thinking on the part of his protagonist. His is no traditional natural-law vision. Indeed, in his philosophical work Mr. Ryn repeatedly rejects what he considers the casuistic natural-law reasoning of too many Catholics in favor of a less rules-based rationalism. In A Desperate Man the result is a great deal of often painful introspection for the protagonist. Richard must constantly recalibrate his attitudes, his actions, and his near-term goals in accordance with changes in particular circumstances and new facts throwing new light on his motivations.
Richard’s life is presented as a good one, though clearly not an easy one. Every aspect of his life is thought out and placed within a conception of moral propriety. He is a very careful, controlled person who judges himself and others on their manners, their clothing, and their attention to the details of public and private life. But the goal is not formalism for its own sake; it is dignity and mutual respect as inculcated and reinforced through outward actions.
Despite the concern with appearances, it is what happens inside Richard’s own mind that is central to his character and being. Richard reasons with himself much more than with those who are his companions in the dangerous, common enterprise he has undertaken. Even in regard to the most crucial questions of political morality there is little reasoning together. Clearly, Mr. Ryn wishes to avoid feeding into the rationalistic talk one often hears regarding just war, situational ethics, and the like. And he makes the point, through the mouths of tough, generally military characters, that such talk too often is mere abstract posing. Still, some of us remain convinced that moral discussion and debate serves to clarify men’s minds and allow them to understand one another as well as what is required of the good man.
It is no accident, this reviewer is sure, that Richard gets himself into deep trouble when he relies on an ill-conceived, self-referential and rather emotional understanding of “conscience.” Mr. Ryn makes clear that Richard and the proper goals he seeks would be better served by his placing trust in the judgment of the right people. Those who have shown the right character and attitudes in facing difficult circumstances in pursuit of the right ends deserve a kind of deference, certainly more deference than the assertion of subjective conscience.
Conscience, for the natural-law thinker, is not subjective, but a faculty allowing one to perceive and understand the nature of being and its requirements for virtue (to pursue a good life in this world and the possibility of beatitude in the next). It is refreshing to read a novel presenting in full, introspective detail a vision that rejects modern nihilism yet does not partake of the—in the hands of some practitioners overly rationalistic, and in the hands of others highly subjective—natural-law model. Disagreeing with Mr. Ryn’s conception of the origins of right order in the soul, this reviewer recommends his novel as a moving introduction to his vision. It is a rather Spartan and quite demanding vision (neither of these being necessarily bad things). Moreover, Mr. Ryn’s understanding allows an integrated conception of moral reasoning and action toward which more people might strive with good results. It is capable of providing guidance for self-improvement for every reader, even those whose faith, being more personal than that portrayed here, leads them to a conception of right character that also is more personal.
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