Claes Ryn's fine essay asks perhaps the most difficult and important question of our decadent era, namely "how do we act morally in desperate times?" (1) As our republic reaches the nadir of governmental lawlessness, social chaos, and cultural disintegration, it is well worth considering how we can act as we ought. Being no ideologue, Ryn offers no pat answers, instead focusing on what he sees as a deep problem within the Western tradition. The problem? A tendency to define morality "as adherence to a preexisting rational or ideal standard." (2) There is much to this criticism and to Ryn's alternative of conscientious integration of imagination, reason, and historical experience. That said, I have a somewhat different understanding of tradition and especially of the role of rules in guiding proper conduct, such that a response may be worth making. In brief, I fear that Ryn's approach to morality in desperate times would undermine the rule of law and the promotion of virtuous examples necessary to maintain the habits of conduct and imagination needed to re-establish order and virtue. I may well be overstating my disagreements with Ryn as I follow through on some implications in his argument and welcome correction of any such errors in his reply.
The Problem of Ideology
The bulk of Ryn's fire is aimed appropriately at contemporary ideologues. Whether self-identified as on the left or on the neoconservative "right," those who see in any particular idea, principle, or value a model to be used in restructuring society undermine moral conduct. The monomania of the left is, of course, relatively easy to see, if difficult in corrupt times to combat. Any who would impose a vision of equality end by repressing those who disagree with them, presenting them as intolerant and dangerous in their obstructionism. The latter portrayal itself is as inevitable as the failure of the left's policies, which must fail because their principle cannot be "made real" given the varied nature of societies and human persons. Blueprints for a fundamentally changed society (and, hence, human nature) end up mere excuses for immoral conduct as reality and the people who inhabit it fail to live up to false ideals.
The neoconservative challenge to moral reasoning may be difficult to spot because it is wrapped in the trappings of patriotism. Neoconservatives constantly invoke the American founders and Abraham Lincoln as guides to proper moral conduct, especially in politics. Here, however, a second false reality is imposed as our constitutional order is reduced to a phrase ("all men are created equal") from the preamble to that lengthy, common law document through which the thirteen colonies declared their independence. That phrase is used as a single principle--"equality"--defined as an impossibly specific classical liberal form of equality of opportunity including some but not all aspects of the welfare and administrative state. The definition is meticulously fine-tuned as its partisans seek to distinguish themselves from more radical progressives whose fundamental assumptions and goals they share. The neoconservatives' Lincoln is a fitting interpreter, here. He adds to the preoccupation with equality an uncompromising nationalism that brooks no dissent and spurs the drive for "principled" empire. Such modulated progressivism is, of course, doomed in a time when its more radical adherents have a more coherent and attractive ideology.
This is not the place to go into any detail regarding the "West vs. East Coast" debates among neoconservative followers of Leo Strauss. It is worth noting, however, the claim made by some Straussians to superiority not only over modern ideology but also over traditional conservatism in eschewing mere opinion for Platonic objective truth. Yet, as Allan Bloom made clear in The Closing of the American Mind, Strauss himself did not believe in the truth of the principles of Plato or any other philosopher. Divine madness is the rule in Straussian philosophy, or rather erotic enjoyment in seeing how principles and precepts "play out" in various philosophies. Only in dealing with the mere statesmen of political life do (some) Straussian philosophers make truth-claims regarding these principles. The result, again, is what Eric Voegelin understood as ideology, the placing of a second, false reality onto the natural world.
Straussians are not the only thinkers who claim to have found an objective ground for ideological conduct. Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Finnis's follower Robert P. George have claimed to represent a "new" natural law eschewing metaphysics in favor of Kantian precepts. Reduction of the natural law tradition to an instinctive pursuit of "basic goods" is supplemented in this ideology by a detailed casuistry or logic of morality that leaves motive (Ryn prefers to write in terms of "will") as a matter of mere ratiocination. The result is a mechanized conception of virtue, allowing for hypocrisy, an abdication of judgment in obedience to assumed authority, and a preoccupation with the trappings of temporal power the likes of which few Christians from the supposedly servile Middle Ages would have tolerated.
The ideology of "new" natural law is especially relevant in light of another subject of Ryn's criticism, the self-conscious religious idealist who claims his virtue requires that he withdraw from public life. This "goody two shoes" as Ryn names him says in essence, "I am a perfectly religious person, my religion is the only true and worthwhile religion and is being treated badly, so society's problems are not my problems; if the world goes to Hell while I and mine go to heaven, then God's will is done." Ryn's point is that those who hide behind self-flattery in order to avoid the hard work (and grit) of engaging a decaying culture are abdicating their responsibilities to the public good, and so not acting virtuously. The point is well taken, though I would leave room for those few, most in holy orders, who genuinely desire to die to this world, serving it by example and prayer.
The question this criticism raises, again, is how those who recognize their duty to engage the world and act morally within it are to respond to a vicious culture. It is here that Ryn uses the example of Machiavelli to show what desperate times may require of us, namely imaginative re-conceptualization of moral norms to make peace and order possible again. It is an example that, while in my view poorly chosen, deserves to be considered for issues it raises concerning the inescapable nature of metaphysical foundations and the proper role of codes of conduct in public life.
The Machiavelli Problem
Probably the most controversial aspect of Ryn's argument is his partial endorsement of Machiavelli's morally ambiguous approach to desperate times. No doubt Ryn looks to Machiavelli in part for the shock value of so doing. It is easy in our era of terrorism to identify any form of personal, physical action as intrinsically evil--all the more so given decades of attacks on the very idea of masculinity and its physicality. Add to this the mind-numbing casuistry of some who claim to follow the natural law tradition (and use it to justify wars they happen to like) and you have a situation in which cynicism competes with barbarous ideology and...