For those still interested in the futile “debate” with the Straussians (in which their critics make arguments of greater or lesser power, and they baselessly accuse their critics of abandonding reason, truth and, now, the entire Western intellectual tradition for lack of being able to make an argument of their own), Joseph Baldacchino of the National Humanities Institute has taken up for his colleague, Prof. Claes Ryn, here, and the ever-excitable Mr. Peterson provides us with this.

To make sure that I had not gone out on some untenable limb in supporting Prof. Ryn’s position, I got a copy of his America the Virtuous and discovered, much to my satisfaction, that my initial sense of fundamental agreement with Prof. Ryn was right. In that book one of the guiding principles is the common sense view that the good, true and beautiful can only be known in their concrete and particular forms. It also affirms the importance of continuity across time in understanding things that are of lasting value and for knowing whether something opposes natural law or not. Traditions serve as important sources of evidence, if you like, in discerning what truly endures, because it is in agreement with nature, and what does not. Anyone reading Prof. Ryn’s book could be forgiven for finding himself constantly thinking of similar things that Russell Kirk had written or would have written, and the affinity of Ryn’s understanding with that of Kirk should give the Ryn-bashers pause.

Prof. Ryn echoes Prof. Lukacs when he discusses what is basically the historicity of knowledge (nothing can be understood apart from its time, place and circumstances, all knowledge is historical knowledge at bottom, and we ourselves come to know things in our own historical context that shapes how we will receive and understand what we learn). He is also pointing to the relatively new phenomenon of historical consciousness, arising only in the last few centuries, as the means for understanding absolute truths in their particular manifestations in time. This is not so very different, in fact, from the moderate realist epistemology of Aquinas, whose name has frequently been invoked by certain polemicists on the Straussian side as if they could claim his mantle simply by repeating his name often enough.

Contrary to the caricatures to which Prof. Ryn’s view has been subjected, his view of the importance of the Declaration of Independence centers on its list of concrete grievances against the Crown expressed in terms of violated chartered rights of Englishmen. (It was noteworthy that I had recourse to describing constitutional liberties in terms of the “inherited rights of Englishmen” before reading Prof. Ryn’s book, and yet found to my delight that he and I used the exact same language in describing these chartered rights.) These grievances over the violations of inherited rights of Englishmen were the actual reasons behind the political break with Britain rather than the rhetorical flummery about self-evident truths (so self-evident in political philosophy that almost no one had heard of any of them in these forms before the 17th century); otherwise he does not credit it with more importance than it possessed in the minds of the Framers, which was relatively little, and refuses to make a few choice phrases of Jefferson (whose mind he correctly identifies as idiosyncratic and in some ways unrepresentative and in some other respects at odds with the mind of the Framers) the ground of all inquiries into American constitutionalism. In other words, he has proceeded as an historian would in judging the claims of the document, which means that he cannot read into the document elaborate metaphysical schemes or assumptions that the overwhelming majority of colonists c. 1776 did not possess.

In his critique of the idea of equality, he correctly associates the privileging of the idea of equality with an impulse towards plebiscitary, majoritarian democracy (opposed to limited, constitutional democracy) in sections of his book that are reminiscent of the best of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and find confirmation in Stephen Tonsor’s entry on equality in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Approving of equality and popular sovereignty, the two building blocks of plebiscitary democracy, is to align oneself with Rousseau (and, I would add, also with Locke) against a constitutional republican system in which a fundamental law, not “the people,” constrains government and “the people” alike. To be clear, it is also to align oneself with two false ideas (I would say they are self-evident falsehoods, except that I do not for a minute believe that truth and falsehood are “self-evident” in the way that partisans of these claims seem to imagine).

I would add that to take that Rousseau-like stand for equality and popular sovereignty is to stand in some real measure against the Constitution of the Framers and to embrace the drive towards the unitary national state created by the forces of consolidation and the elimination of intermediary political powers in the States. We have a name for this, and it is not conservatism.