Sunday, June 01, 2008

William F. Byrne, On Claes Ryn's Political Philosophy

On Claes Ryn's Political Philosophy
William F. Byrne

Ryn’s political-philosophical stance influences not just his views on public policy, but his broader historical understanding of the United States. He dislikes talk of an American “founding,” as that term is most often used; he understands the U.S. more in terms of its long British and European inheritance than in terms of any particular events that occurred in 1776 or 1787. If pressed to select a key founding document, Ryn would certainly select the Constitution over the more-celebrated Declaration of Independence, which is typically read selectively and out of its historical context. The Jeffersonian language in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration, as interpreted by devotees today, represents for Ryn a particular brand of Enlightenment thought which is only one component of a much broader American tradition, and which, to a degree, exists in tension with other important elements.

Given Ryn’s uncommon and, in some circles, unpopular view of the U.S., its “founding principles,” and some of its policies, it may seem odd that one of his graduate students was heard to remark that, despite his Swedish origins, “Ryn is more American than most Americans.” The truth of this statement may hinge on the fact that America’s usual self-understanding does not quite hit upon its true character, or, at least, its best character. For example, Americans have tended to portray their country as highly “modern” and innovative, but in some ways they are quite old-fashioned and traditionalist. They like to talk about “democracy” and “liberty,” but in practice tend to care more about constitutionalism and the rule of law.

One may argue that Ryn’s outlook is highly compatible with the basic political conservatism and the ethically-centered, principled pragmatism which historically has distinguished the American character at its best. Indeed, a purpose of Ryn’s work is the preservation of these endangered qualities of the American polity.

Also from First Principles: a review of Bill Kauffman’s Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism by Jason R. Edwards

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