On Claes Ryn's Political Philosophy

By Byrne, William F. | Modern Age, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

On Claes Ryn's Political Philosophy


Byrne, William F., Modern Age


IN 2002, the Intercollegiate Review published an essay by Peter Augustine Lawler entitled "Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism." In it, Professor Lawler argued that "conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism." (1) Conservative thought and the postmodernism rampant throughout contemporary academia do have elements in common; for one thing, both offer critiques of modernity. But, most thought that bills itself as postmodern is of course really hypermodern; it accepts some of the most destructive aspects of modern thought and carries them to their logical (but sometimes absurd) extremes. Ultimately, it can do little more than "deconstruct."

In contrast to this hypermodernism, most authentic conservative thought assumes a more genuinely critical stance toward the modern project. It points not toward nihilism, but toward a recovery of sources of order and meaning. Although, as Lawler suggests, the term "authentic postmodernism" can be applied to conservative thought broadly, one might argue that the idea of a "conservative postmodernism" or "postmodern conservatism" is especially apt for describing the work of political philosopher Claes G. Ryn.

At its best, political philosophy takes in much more than "politics" narrowly understood. Great political philosophy is both broad and deep, touching on all aspects of the human condition. Such breadth and depth is evident in Ryn's work. To him, proper study of politics and society involves study of ethics, of epistemology, and even of aesthetics. Despite the highly philosophical nature of Ryn's work, it is proving to be increasingly influential, not just within academe but in the sphere of practical politics. But, despite growing recognition of the importance of Ryn's thought in addressing the problems of the contemporary world, controversy and confusion surrounds it.

Ryn explores problems of Western civilization and modern man from the Politics Department of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Although he can be counted among America's most important conservative scholars, he has some discomfort with the "conservative" label, which he considers inappropriate for philosophic thought. Nevertheless, Ryn's longtime association with the American conservative intellectual movement is clear. In 1971, he published in Sweden the first comprehensive study of modern American intellectual conservatism to appear anywhere. Recently, a monograph of his, Peter Viereck and Conservatism, was published together with a re-issue of Viereck's Conservatism Revisited. Conservative political figures such as Pat Buchanan have acknowledged some debt to Ryn's ideas. Ryn is no political hack, however; nor is he a simple chronicler of the achievements of others. He is a prolific political-philosophical writer whose work is noteworthy for its originality, its rigor, and its relevance.

Readers familiar with such conservative writers as Russell Kirk or, more seminally, Edmund Burke, would find much to recognize in Ryn. A typical observation of Ryn's is that "for Christians as for the Greeks, pride is the most dangerous human weakness...." (2) Yet, despite such traditional sensibilities, Ryn himself has noted that his work "manages to offend all major philosophical camps in some way." (3) He is a serious scholar, and not the sort to write in ways which are calculated to offend; the provocative nature of his work springs in part from his insistence on recognizing and tackling thorny philosophical problems that many conservative-leaning writers overlook, or would prefer not to acknowledge.

For Ryn, to address effectively the core issues of politics and society which concern us today, we must understand the sources of the attitudes and behaviors which shape human interactions. This means that we must develop a better understanding of the epistemological, aesthetical, and ethical basis of politics and society. In developing this understanding, Ryn integrates the wisdom of traditional thought with contemporary insights, and does so in unique ways which tend not to align closely with any major established school of thought.

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