Ryn is descended from the political alliance that defeated Napoleon, and celebrated the ancien regime. Its main themes were taken from Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. Burke’s critique of the so called rationalism of the French Revolution has ever since been a mainstay of the school Ryn represents. Russell Kirk is perhaps the best known American adherent of that school. Kirk’s notable contribution to the conservative movement, was his 1953 book The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana. A later edition extended the Mind to T.S. Eliot. But the conservative mind, properly so called, did not originate with Burke. Burke himself embodied a tradition whose roots and branches were in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, John Locke, Jefferson, Madison, the Federalist, and Abraham Lincoln. Burke fits within this galaxy but is not apart from it. Lincoln called the principles of the Declaration of Independence his “ancient Faith.” That faith, however, embodied an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” ~Harry Jaffa

This is a good display of the sort of distortions by critics that traditionalists have to contend with all the time.

Jaffa opens up the post by attributing to Prof. Ryn a “Manichean” division of the political world into conservatives and Jacobins, showing fairly clearly that Prof. Jaffa is using the word Manichean pejoratively and without regard for its proper meaning. He is also apparently neglecting that almost all of modern Western politics has been divided between the heirs of 1789 and the heirs of those who oppose the principles of 1789. Prof. Ryn did not divvy them up this way–this is the way things have been for more than 200 years. The introduction of this division inside the walls, so to speak, of the conservative city is more recent.

Call the heirs of 1789 Jacobins and neo-Jacobins or don’t, but they are still fundamentally opposed to conservatism, whether of the Burkean or of one of the Continental varieties. There is every reason to hold that a specially conservative mind did not exist before the Revolution, or that its characteristics were much less clear before then. The Revolution in France precipitated a consciously conservative attachment to things that had once been considered the objects of the natural affinities and duties of men when those things came under obloquy, ridicule and, often enough, physical assault. If Burke was the first or most notable in the English-speaking to formulate a more specifically conservative response to the Revolution, Kirk’s thesis defending Burke as the “beginning” of the specifically conservative mind stands.

When Prof. Jaffa points out the obvious that the assumptions, culture, philosophy and religious truths, among other things, that cultivated Burke’s “conservative mind” derived from an extensive tradition (into which he randomly smuggles Locke, whose idea of the social contract I am fairly sure Burke did not accept and explicitly rejected in his anti-Jacobin works, Whig though he was, and Lincoln, who destroyed more “little platoons” in his career than the actual Jacobins), he is saying something that Kirk also said on numerous occasions. Prof. Jaffa seems to proceed from the mistaken belief that those who generally accept Burkean counter-revolutionary thought are fixated on Burke as the font of our tradition, which could not be more wrong. Unlike those who are, for example, unduly enamoured of our sixteenth President, traditionalists do not latch on to a few historical figures, endow their every word with transcendent meaning and make our intellectual work into kitschy shrines to their memory.

It was something that Kirk was taking as already established that the conservative mind honoured and defended those things received from a very long and venerable tradition. Continuity with that tradition could not be all that it was (as the Jacobins, too, could claim a kind of continuity with the ancients whose ideals they were distorting, and each person belongs to even those traditions he rejects), but the adherence to its norms and the right understanding of its precepts. When Prof. Ryn identifies certain people as neo-Jacobins, I believe he is making a statement about their lack of adherence to and right understanding of the best of the Western tradition; they have joined with the renegades who would, like the Jacobins, “purify” it.

If Lincoln held the Declaration to be his “ancient Faith,” Burke and a good many conservatives after him rather held Christianity to be theirs. Conservatives can choose who is the more authentic and genuine conservative and whose understanding of society and government they would rather have.

There is also in his post the constant reiteration that unless one accepts certain implausible forms of Enlightenment universalism or one of its derivatives, such as Mr. Lincoln’s “abstract truths,” one has cut himself off from acknowledging the truths of revelation given to us by God. Thus Prof. Jaffa:

Ryn writes that “For the conservative, the universal imperative that binds human beings does not announce its purpose in simple, declaratory statements.” But Jesus said, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” As we would say, “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” This is said to embody the whole teaching of the Bible. It is, however, a quintessential example of what Ryn calls Jacobinism!

Yes, obviously traditionalists must think Our Lord is a Jacobin. That is the only conclusion left. Jaffa has spoken. Prof. Ryn has managed to remain very civil amid all the suggestions that he rejects reason and truth and this latest that he is apparently a blasphemer of sorts, but I’m not sure why he goes to the trouble of engaging the criticism when this is what it always becomes. If anything demonstrates the fruitlessness of this “debate,” it is objections like that one. It is a frequent riposte, all the more unfortunate because it suggests that the universalists haven’t given the problem much thought. It is the sort of thing I encountered in undergraduate Christian ethics classes, but I had hoped that there would not now be those who still treat it as some sort of telling argument.

Truth correctly arrived at through inquiry and remembrance is true but relative in comparison with Truth Himself, Christ. Truth received by means of revelation and inspiration is absolute and has enduring significance, and the significance of such truth is tested and confirmed by time and the experience of generations and then incorporated into a tradition and vested with the authority of long-established truth. The only truly Absolute Truth available to men is Truth Himself, Who is intelligible insofar as He has revealed Himself in His activities and His works and insofar as our intellect is like His, and Who, as the Logos, has made it possible by creating us in His image and likeness that we are able to reason and come to a limited knowledge of the truth. The Lord’s own sayings clearly fall under a category of divine revelation, since He is God speaking to us, which lend them a certainty and veracity that Prof. Jaffa, we may hope, does not attribute to the pontifications of Locke or the musings of Lincoln. We may speak rationally about those things that God has revealed to us, but the final test for all our discussions will always have to be in their agreement with the content of revelation. Likewise, because truth is one, we cannot maintain something as philosophically true but which is at odds with revelation. I submit that, in significant measure, the “self-evident truths” that were Mr. Lincoln’s “ancient Faith” are not in agreement with the actual, ancient Faith, try as some may to blur or ignore the differences.

Propositions that men claim to be universal on the basis of speculation conducted largely in opposition to most of that experience and in defiance of traditional authorities, and which these men claim moreover to be “self-evident” (because they consider them to be true and so declare them self-evident), may or may not be true, but in the hostility to tradition and experience that such men usually exhibit (again usually in the name of an unfettered reason) they are liable to recapitulate any number of old errors that the tradition had already satisfactorily addressed and ruled out. Claiming that a truth if self-evident is not an expression of rational inquiry but the abdication of inquiry itself.

That sort of objection is often associated, as it is elsewhere in this post and other posts at Claremont’s blog, with the objection that you can only discern among traditions and within a tradition by means of reason and traditionalists have allegedly forsaken reason. How do we know that they have done this? Well, don’t you know, because they’re traditionalists and place rather more importance on the instruction of the inherited wisdom of generations than on the use of the individual’s unaided reason. Since this preference for the witness of tradition and the experience of history over the speculations of any one person or of a few people is what we keep arguing for as a surer path to understanding, and some of the Straussians keep insisting that this means we have abandoned reason, it is not a leap to assume that “reason” for these Straussians means the unaided reason of the individual alone, independent of and in some cases hostile to all traditional authorities. They will assuredly object that this is not what they mean, but they have certainly given us every reason to think that it is.