These are sentences that could have been written by any thoughtful conservative or traditional (ancient or Christian) student of truth. But then the crazy talk begins:

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.

Just these five sentences give us plenty to refute. Four quick points:

First, Leo Strauss is one of the key figures responsible for bringing back the serious study of ancient and Christian political philosophy over the last 100 years. This is a simple fact, accepted by those who completely disagree with Strauss and all of his students. Modern political science rejected the traditional study of politics, but Strauss sought to return to it.

Second, ancient and Christian traditional political philosophy, as opposed to modern political science, is concerned above all with what is good, right and true, not with what is ancestral or cultural. It doesn’t make much sense to blame Leo Strauss for what traditional political philosophy actually argued.

Third, to say that Leo Strauss, who is likely most famous for his claim, contra many modern thinkers, that reason is unable to disprove the claims of revelation, would have us heed “only the principle of reason” is manifestly absurd.

Fourth, we live in a regime where our tradition itself proclaims that it is based on truth. Either one thinks, given our particular historical circumstances, that what the Founders proposed is good and true, based on both reality and the transcendant (reason and revelation), or one rejects the founding. Either way, of course, you must give an argument if you want to do more than babble.

Dr. Ryn, I suppose, would have been happy to rid Athens of that pesky Socrates, who dared judge tradition by means of human reason. I suppose that Plato must have been the ultimate Jacobin, what with his obsessive striving to know what The Good truly is combined with his constant meddling in the politics of his day based on his radical, reason-based doctrines. And what about the Jacobinical screeds of Aristotle, who dared to argue about what the best possible regime might look like—even to the point of reasoning about the comparative merits of “the ancestral” in different nations? We will leave aside the likes of that arch-Jacobite [sic], Thomas Aquinas, who dared to use dirty human reason to say things about God himself. Of course, the ultimate Jacobinical political statement must be the Declaration of Independence, which makes some very specific claims about universal, self-evident principles. ~Matthew Peterson, The Remedy

The other day I asked what Mr. Peterson would make of Prof. Ryn’s remarks on “the Founding,” and now I get an idea. I suppose the attacks on Jaffa and Strauss were bound to elicit a response from the folks at Claremont, but I admit that it came more quickly and was a little more aggrieved (Mr. Peterson refers to it as a “rant”) than I expected. I see that it is called “Claes Ryn’s Cartoon Conservatism I,” so we can expect more installments along the same lines.

So, according to Mr. Peterson, Prof. Ryn’s conservatism is “cartoon conservatism.” Not really sure where that came from, but there it is. Cartoonish, apparently, because Prof. Ryn has cast doubt on “universal principles” perceived by unaided reason or questioned the wisdom of “principles” divorced from the lessons of historical experience? I can think of things one could call this, but “cartoon” is not one of them. The core of Prof. Ryn’s distinction between conservatives and Jacobins (or neo-Jacobins) may be found in this description of the conservative attitude towards how knowledge of the truth should be applied:

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.

Hence the importance of experience, history, tradition, all of which serve as guides to help a person possess some greater certainty about how to be just and how to live well. That this is more desirable than reinventing the wheel or remaking the world with the fashionable conceits of one or two or even ten generations should be plain.

I don’t propose to dispute about what Leo Strauss did or did not say, as this is an area in which I generally have little competence. In spite of being at U. of Chicago, my desire to read Leo Strauss has ranged between nil and zero, and consequently I am familiar with his ideas only at second hand through the Straussians at Claremont. Incidentally, I do not consider myself the worse for having neglected these readings.

Mr. Peterson says:

Third, to say that Leo Strauss, who is likely most famous for his claim, contra many modern thinkers, that reason is unable to disprove the claims of revelation, would have us heed “only the principle of reason” is manifestly absurd.

If someone claims that reason cannot disprove the claims of revelation, he has done nothing other than take a rational and empirical agnostic stand on the claims of revelation. He has admitted that there are things he cannot know by means of reason–this is not to say that anyone can know them by other means, or that, knowing them, anyone should do anything about what he has discovered.

He has neither endorsed nor rejected those claims and their content, and he has made no recommendations on how to make use of that content. Perhaps elsewhere Strauss affirms that we must embrace the claims of revelation as a function of an intellectual or spiritual faculty greater than reason, but as it stands here Strauss’ acceptance of the limitations of reason does not prove that he heeds anything other than reason as an authority or guide. If he then heeded nothing other than reason, he would have some famous company with many Enlightenment philosophers and their modern epigones, but his possession of a fully “conservative mind” would be less certain.

Dr. Paul Gottfried’s discussion of Leo Strauss’ thought a few years back in Chronicles leaves me with the impression that Strauss may be making claims in this area that are more involved than the call to “heed only the principles of reason.” Then again, he may be making just that claim. But Prof. Ryn also says that he said that we should disdain “the ancestral”–now, is this a true claim, or not? My sense, if Straussians are any measure of what Strauss believed (though I should note that Dr. Gottfried made a point of distinguishing between the two very clearly), is that this is true about Strauss, which creates a serious problem for a conservative.

Mr. Peterson tells us elsewhere in his post that philosophy has undertaken to investigate primarily the Good, True and Beautiful, not the “ancestral” and the “cultural.”

Second, ancient and Christian traditional political philosophy, as opposed to modern political science, is concerned above all with what is good, right and true, not with what is ancestral or cultural.

Of course, Mr. Peterson seemed less than enthused about investigations into the same in his comments on the “crunchy con” phenomenon, but let us set that aside for a moment. All philosophy is primarily concerned, broadly speaking, with truth. One will labour in vain to find Prof. Ryn suggesting otherwise anywhere in his talk or his other writings. Surely we can all see that Prof. Ryn is making claims of truth, and that he claims that the Jacobins, as he calls them, have an insufficient grasp of truth.

One will also labour in vain to find conservative thinkers worthy of the name who think that reason alone is a sufficient guide for the conduct of human affairs, that there are “self-evident truths” (a most unfortunate and silly phrase) or simply, universal abstract principles. Dismissing “self-evident truths” will provoke yelps of horror from some, I’m sure, even though few of the traditional philosophers Mr. Peterson invokes elsewhere on his side believed that any truths were “self-evident.” Knowledge might be principally inherently available to a mind and in need of being remembered, or it might be acquired principally through sensory experience, or a combination of these two, but truth has always been understood as the fruit of a process of reasoning, contemplation and memory in the light of experience. It is something that the mind discovers, or acquires or receives, but it is never really “self-evident.” If truth were self-evident, and truth is one, there would scarcely be any need for inquiry, education or revelation, but we do know that these things are necessary. Otherwise we would be left with a Rousseau-like dodge, “Truth is self-evident, but everywhere it is unknown!”

Ethics, which a few people have regarded as an important branch of philosophy, is precisely the inquiry into habits, customs and practice, which are part and parcel of culture. Hume had a few things to say about habits in his philosophical works. I would suggest that “the ancestral” and its cousin, tradition, are not only legitimate and necessary objects of philosophical study, but represent the frameworks of philosophical inquiry itself, which exists in the context of its own intellectual and historical traditions that define the place and reach of reason variously. Furthermore, as Prof. Lukacs has argued convincingly in his Historical Consciousness, every field of endeavour today is understood in terms of its history, which makes a concern for the study of the past and a sense of historical perspective vital for any enterprise, be it political, philosophical, scientific or what-have-you. No one, I imagine Prof. Ryn least of all, would suggest that anyone do away with the use of reason, which I don’t think is a fair reading of what he said, but rather he objects to heeding only the principles of reason. Which is, according to Mr. Peterson, something that any conservative or traditional thinker would affirm. So what is the problem?

If I understand him correctly, the critique Prof. Ryn levels against the “Jacobin” (a Jacobite would be a rather different character, whether we are speaking of the Syrian monophysites or the Highlanders called by that name) is aimed at those he believes have been working from a few fairly simple, abstract formulations of morality and truth and have set out to imprint the world with these few abstractions in such a way that they largely ignore history, lessons of experience or contrary traditions as remnants of a crude past that is better eliminated and replaced by a new, model arrangement that they will devise. Mr. Peterson may find Prof. Ryn’s application of this idea to some of our contemporaries unconvincing, but he should consider that it is against precisely this sort of thing that Burke was reacting and which also informed the very definition of modern conservatism in Europe and, through Kirk, here in America. Whatever else one might say about Prof. Ryn’s talk, referring to his conservatism as “cartoon conservatism” appears ludicrous in the light of our own intellectual tradition, as Kirk and most of his intellectual confreres would have to be similarly dismissed as “cartoonish” for saying much the same thing. This is not something I think Mr. Peterson wishes to do.

Then we come to the all-powerful Founding. Mr. Peterson challenges Prof. Ryn:

Fourth, we live in a regime where our tradition itself proclaims that it is based on truth. Either one thinks, given our particular historical circumstances, that what the Founders proposed is good and true, based on both reality and the transcendant (reason and revelation), or one rejects the founding. Either way, of course, you must give an argument if you want to do more than babble.

This begs a number of questions. What does it mean to say a regime is “based on truth”? Plato believed that the tyranny of Dionysius of Syracuse was potentially “based on truth,” and his ideal Republic would have been “based on truth,” but then some might regard aspects of Plato’s thought as being fairly radical and as potentially opposed to nature. Our “regime” is actually, legally “based on” the Constitution, which may happen to embody principles of government best suited to our people and culture, in which case the mixed regime we officially claim to possess can be judged the best regime for our people, and established, chartered liberties received from contingent, English constitutional history may indeed affirm, at least in part, eternal verities of justice and serve to protect the dignity of man as a creature made in the image of God. But that is to say something fairly different from saying the regime is “based on truth.”

One can, and I do, affirm the wisdom and justice of the arrangements of the Founders and one can, yes, regard those arrangements as good (and so, by extension, true) without imagining that they arrived at their good and true arrangements by reason alone or that there are, in reality, “self-evident truths” that appeared to Thomas Jefferson. To the extent that there is a real, historic difference between the Founders and the French revolutionaries (and, of course, there is), it is that in spite of the fact that they worked from much of the same flawed philosophical inheritance of the Enlightenment, and possessed many of the same false notions, the Founders did not allow those enthusiasms and errors to completely overwhelm them or trump their common sense and sense of their own constitutional norms.

It is their awareness of the historicity and traditional provenance of their constitutional rights that made our Founders sober and deliberative architects of a limited political project to establish republican self-government in the independent Colonies, and it has largely been generations of later Americans caught up in idealising and abstracting “rights” and “self-evident truths” from that concrete reality who have changed the very limited, sane project into a project of universal liberation based on the idea that our contingent experience is the map for all mankind. Aristotle, not one to disbelieve in the existence of truth, would have regarded such a project as ludicrous and bound to fail, and so would have, I believe, the Founders regarded such a mission as inherently impracticable and fundamentally dangerous to republican government. Are they also cartoonish? I don’t know, but if they are I will be glad to be a cartoon with them.