The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism

By Ryn, Claes G. | Modern Age, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism

Ryn, Claes G., Modern Age

A quarter of a century ago Modern Age asked me to assess the state of American intellectual conservatism for its 25th anniversary issue. (1) I had been a student of the subject for twenty years. In 1971, five years before George Nash published The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, I and a co-author brought out a similar but shorter book--in Stockholm, Sweden, of all places. It covered the movement's historical background, central ideas, main figures, books, and publications, its economic and foreign policy thinking and organizational and political influence. (2) As a professor in the United States I have for many years taught a graduate course on conservatism, including its American varieties, and have written much on that and related subjects. From the beginning, this study of conservatism formed part of larger philosophical objectives, and I pursued it with an emphasis on ideas and history rather than day-to-day politics. Having now been invited to assess American intellectual conservatism on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Modern Age, I mention these facts to indicate the nature and extent of my interest.

The article for the 25th anniversary issue noted that, although American intellectual conservatism could celebrate great successes and strengths, it had to address several problems if it were to avoid stagnation and decline and have a chance to realize its potential for changing America for the better. As a prelude to offering a critical appraisal twenty-five years later, I should like briefly to restate the points that I made the first time. In summary form these may look obscure and less closely related to each other than they are, but the rest of the article should help explain their meaning.


The points made in the 25th anniversary issue were as follows: (1) American conservatism lacked philosophical continuity and maturity. Its development had been choppy and fragmented, intellectuals of different orientations showing little interest in really learning from their predecessors and each other. The movement had not quite absorbed the ideas of those of its thinkers who were most original and insightful. A prejudice favoring certain German and other European thinkers over American ones compounded insufficient attention to a major figure like Irving Babbitt. In general, American intellectual conservatism needed more philosophical incisiveness and conceptual precision. It needed a better sense of priorities. It had to resist an exaggerated interest in the practical politics and "public policy" issues of the day. The future is decided more by society's fundamental moral, aesthetical, and intellectual trends than by politics in the narrow sense.

(2) The failure or success of American conservatism would ultimately depend on whether it was able to spread "a new spirit of ethical realism." It needed better to understand that genuine morality is first of all a matter of personal character, of acts of will, and that moral virtue shows itself most especially in admirable conduct towards people up close. American conservatism had to guard against the danger of morality being mistaken for the kind of merely sentimental benevolence for the world's unfortunate for which Jean-Jacques Rousseau set the pattern. This self-congratulatory, pseudo-moral "virtue" hides dubious motives--usually the will to power--behind compassionate-looking, ambitious schemes for remaking society and the world. Some of the most passionate "lovers of humanity" have done great damage in the name of helping their fellow human beings.

(3) In spite of its frequent statements about the importance of history and tradition, American conservatism had achieved no more than a fumbling philosophical grasp of the connection between history and the moral and other universality that it affirmed. Specifically, it had not seriously considered that there is a form of "historicism"--represented, for example, by Edmund Burke--that recognizes the inescapable historicity of human existence but is nevertheless compatible with the notion of transcendence. …

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