Our Jacobins

The text of Claes Ryn's Philadelphia Society talk is up at LewRockwell.com. I particularly like this part:

The Jacobin is a true believer. He has access to universal principles, you see, and they demand "moral clarity." You are either for his principles, which makes you virtuous, or you are against them, which makes you evil. It’s all so clear.

To have unquestioning faith in one’s own moral superiority is for Christians the cardinal sin. Only a profoundly conceited person could think that for another to oppose him is by definition morally perverse.

But the Jacobin assumes a right to have his way. Behind his moralism hides a desire to dominate. The hesitation or trepidation that may trouble men of conscience do not deter him. The will to power silences all doubt.

And this:

Because universality manifests itself variously, the conservative is no narrow-minded nationalist. He is a cosmopolitan. This does not mean that he is a free floater, at home everywhere and nowhere. That describes the Jacobin ideologue. The conservative is a patriot, deeply rooted in the best of his own heritage. It is because he is so attached to what is most admirable in his own culture that he can understand and appreciate corresponding achievements in other cultures. He is able to find in different places variations on a common human theme. The culturally distinctive contributions of other peoples deepen and enrich his awareness of goodness, truth and beauty.

The Jacobin is not interested in diversity, only in imposing his blueprint. What history happens to have thrown up is just an obstacle to what ought to be. Only what is "simply right" deserves respect. It’s all so obvious.

"Jacobin," of course, has to be taken rather loosely, much like "Jacksonian" as a description of Middle American conservatives (or radicals, as Sam Francis used to call them). David Gordon has reminded us that it was, after all, the Girondists who wanted to export the French revolution by arms. Nevertheless, there's great value in Ryn's analysis.

Ryn says that these "Jacobins see no need for restraints on virtuous power." This is one of the dangers I see in the religious right, even in its more genteel forms: the attempt to mix populist democracy (as to give expression to the General Will?) with virtue and state power. Since I don't think most Americans — including myself and the religious right — are very virtuous at all, this attempt can only lead to the self-righteous (with "unquestioning faith in one's own moral superiority") using whatever political power they can achieve to attempt to transform the country into a virtuous republic, which is going to require rather a lot of policemen. That doesn't mean that the U.S. would become the Britain of "V for Vendetta," still less that a Reign of Terror would be imminent. But it would further the politicization of life and further obscure virtue itself with politics — like John Ashcroft putting a burka over Lady Justice.

Luckily, while Americans don't have much appreciation for liberty or virtue, they do have enough of a gag reflex that they look set to turn on the Republican movement, starting this November.

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One thought on “Our Jacobins

  1. Ian April 5, 2006 / 3:59 pm

    N.B. Claes Ryn’s recent talk @ the Philadelphia Society provides an interesting bridge to the main topic ( “Who is Leo Strauss?” ) in the latest issue of HUMANITAS, an excellent journal under Ryn’s editorship: http://www.nhinet.org/hum.htm

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