In 2014, Claes Ryn wrote an intriguing novel titled A Desperate Man which dealt with the protagonist's reaction to what he understood to be the moral decadence of the West in general and the United States of America in particular. (1) Ryn followed this novel with an essay titled "How Desperate Should We Be?" in which he offers an explanation of the intentions behind his writing and the purpose of the novel. (2) Both the novel and the accompanying essay are quite provocative and suggest a series of questions that are central to the academic study of moral and political philosophy but are also relevant to considerations concerning moral and political action in circumstances of moral upheaval. These questions include concerns about the relation between moral philosophy and moral action, between the works of moral philosophers and the moral choices of a political community, between moral philosophy and political philosophy, and between moral philosophy and the political actions of a political community. Ryn is also interested in the perennial question of 'what is to be done?' Though this question is more often associated with radical and/or neo-Marxist theorists of praxis, Ryn appears to believe that, given the dire moral conditions of the Western world, it is imperative that some other kind of answer be given. (3) In this essay, I will address several of Ryn's questions concerning the relationship between theory and practice and between moral and political philosophy, while also examining some of the more specific claims that he makes in his descriptive and prescriptive essay concerning the state of moral and political philosophy and the state of moral decadence in the U.S. (4) I will suggest that some of the questions that he asks, such as 'what is to be done?' are not susceptible of definitive answers, especially answers provided by academic moral and political philosophers. However, I do believe that the relationship between theory and practice and between moral and political philosophy can be and has been adequately addressed in some manner by scholars, specifically in the last century by philosophers like Michael Oakeshott, Gilbert Ryle, Michael Polanyi, and the variety of thinkers associated with what has come to be called virtue ethics. (5) Like Ryn, these writers have all rejected the relevance and, in most cases, possibility of a moral philosophy which is composed of a single decision procedure productive of definitive and probative rules of conduct, instead insisting upon a morality of practical reason, contextual judgment, and character.
Before examining the various questions that Ryn's novel and essay raise, it would be useful to place both the novel and the essay in an appropriate historical context. In terms of the novel, Ryn writes that he wanted "to set forth a philosophical argument ... [about] the predicament of civilized persons who are caught in historical circumstances that seem to conspire against everything that they value." (6) Indeed, the crux of the novel is the moral and political question that confronts the main character, Richard Bittenberg, concerning what, if anything, he is to do about what he has adjudged to be the moral and political decay of his own country. The genre of the man out of his time, especially the man whose moral commitments seem to have become out of date in circumstances of rapid moral, social, and political change, is actually central to the American literary tradition and has been so since the beginning of the American Republic. Though not merely concerned with civilizational decadence, the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper exhibit an explicit nostalgia for a dying native civilization. Nathanial Hawthorne's works focus on the decadence and hypocrisy of late Puritanism. Henry Adams, in a novel which is a pessimist's version of Ryn's, offers an account of American social and political life in Democracy which suggests that the question, 'what is to be done?', is moot because American life has already decayed beyond repair. William Faulkner, in almost all of his novels, presents characters whose moral sensibilities have been formed by an older age which no longer exists. And, finally, even contemporary postmodernist writers like Thomas Pynchon portray their paranoid protagonists as being opposed to some mysterious malignant moral force that is destroying an older American ideal. The previous list is not meant to suggest that Ryn's novel is not original, but to suggest that, from the earliest days of the Republic, there has been an aspect of the American political, social, and aesthetic consciousness which is well aware of and disturbed by the rapid and often radical changes which have occurred in the American polity and in American mores. This history then also undermines the novelty of the character Bittenberg's moral perceptions, though perhaps not of his particular circumstances.
Like the novel, the essay also is a representation of a particular genre in American academic culture. The genre, like the history of the novel of moral alienation, stretches back to the origins of the American polity, but I will focus on more recent manifestations of it. Since World War II, a political movement which has described itself as conservative has emerged as a significant force in American political life. (7) Alongside of this political movement, there has developed a group of explicitly conservative professors, usually associated with political theory, intellectual history, or literature, which has existed in an uneasy alliance with the political movement, while also being marked by internal fissures concerning the nature of conservatism and the character of the American political tradition. Since the end of the war, there has been a long and variously compelling series of books, essays, and shorter commentaries about the decadence of American political culture. The works compose a long conversation concerning the question, 'when did the world go to Hell in a hand basket?' (8) The primary presupposition here is that the barbarians are already at the gate, and something needs to be done immediately about it (though some argue that the damage has already been done and their work reads more like a eulogy than a call to arms). In some ways, then, this type of approach is not really very conservative at all because, by the time the point of desperation has been reached, it is often believed that there is nothing left to conserve, or perhaps that it is impossible to conserve whatever is valuable. (9) This is one example of despair, but it is not exactly Professor Ryn's type of desperation because Ryn seems to believe that something can still be done. But what was and is broken?
According to Ryn, one of the primary difficulties facing Western civilization generally and America specifically...