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Ryn – Introductory Remarks for the 2001 Regional Meeting

Claes Ryn
Catholic University of America

Introductory Remarks for the Regional
Meeting
of The Philadelphia Society
September 21, 2001, New Orleans


Allow me to offer some
brief reflections on the purposes of the Philadelphia Society in relation to the
atrocities of last week and in relation to the larger problems that those events
brought into such terrible relief.

In a time of national
crisis, it is proper and necessary that a country should recall its most
cherished and enduring symbols and traditions.
In the uncertainty, confusion and passion of the moment it needs to take
its bearings, repair to the deepest sources of its national identity.
It is natural in a situation like the present to ask, what are the
country’s defining and unifying allegiances and purposes.
At its best, what does it really aspire to be?
Without an historically rooted sense of self, a country and its leaders
are adrift, potential victims of surges of emotion or the machinations of
demagogues and opportunists. For a
country truly to know itself and to find its way, it needs to remind itself of
the convictions that have guided it and given it strength in the past and remind
itself of the historical efforts that gave the country its life, its unity and
distinguishing attributes.

The Philadelphia Society
was founded to promote a deepened understanding of the origins and conditions of
American liberty, as expressed and implied in the work of the Framers of the
Constitution. The Society exists to
articulate beliefs that are at the very core of the traditional American
self-understanding. Among these is the belief that restraint, moral and
constitutional, is indispensable to civilized freedom and is a necessary counter
to the abuse of power.

Your
officers in the Society started planning this year’s programs about five
months ago. We decided early on
that the theme for the national meeting in April was going to be “Sources of
American Renewal.” The
traditional American identity has long been under attack.
Some have attacked it openly, making no attempt to hide their hostility
to the view of human nature and society that shaped the thinking of the Framers.
Some claim to defend “American principles” but give them a new,
ahistorical definition that makes them look much like the principles of the
French Jacobins. The effect has
been to loosen the restraints on power, to invest government with an ideological
mission to remake society and perhaps even the world.

The Philadelphia Society
is about the business, here and now, of contributing to a renewed sense of
national unity and purpose. This regional meeting on “The Taming of
Leviathan” forms part of the intended inventory of sources of renewal.
We are not here to bemoan yet again the expansion of the Central State
and the erosion of federalism and local government, and to bemoan the continuing
destruction of the old American understanding of life.
We are here to reflect on how destructive trends might actually be
reversed, to assist in charting a course for the revitalization of liberty.

The horrendous deeds of
September 11 call for action. They call for a strong response.
The specifics of that response are being considered at this moment. We
all hope that the actions of the United States will be firm, but also that they
be bounded by foresight, discernment and a well-founded sense of direction and
limits. We in the Society are, for
the most part, intellectuals. Indignant and grief-stricken though we are, we
have the high responsibility of trying to maintain some critical distance from
the emotions of the moment. We are
in a position to provide an historically informed perspective on the events of
the day. We can help steady the
course. This is a time when
rashness, superficiality, ignorance, and opportunism could do terrible and
long-lasting damage, not only abroad but in the United States, where inherited
liberties are already in danger.

We of the Philadelphia society
have long pointed to and warned about the appetite for power and privilege in
Washington. We have criticized the
kind of voracious, grasping personality that tends to dominate the institutions
of government. Not very many of the
politicians and intellectuals who profess to want limited and decentralized
government can be counted on actually to try to adhere to the Constitution and
to turn down new power for themselves or for the government of which they are a
part. A dynamic of empire-building
operates in Washington. Domestically,
the Tenth Amendment is virtually a dead letter.
How ironical that the Constitution almost was not adopted
because of fears that the proposed new central power would swallow up State
sovereignty and local independence. Only “iron guarantees” against such a
possibility got the Constitution accepted. Still, today, there is no aspect of
American life that is not touched by Federal power, not even the sphere called
“private.” In foreign policy,
the most respected leaders in America’s founding period warned, not against
trade and relations with other countries, but against involvement in causes
which are, in the words of George Washington’s Farewell Address,
“essentially foreign to our concerns.”
Today, many American politicians and intellectuals are prone to making
almost anything “our concern.” Some
harbor a seemingly limitless ambition, a desire even for uncontested American
global hegemony.

We all hope that extreme views
will not prevail in the counsels of government.
Unfortunately, times of crisis often give people of extremes an influence
in inverse proportion to the quality of their judgment.
Worrying about and trying to head off arrogant, immoderate power-seeking
is nothing new for members of this Society, but now the stakes are very high.

The gradual
transformation of the American people and their leaders since the days of the
writing of the Constitution and the sometimes drastic consequences of that
transformation brings up the question why and how the American national
character has changed. More and more people in our circles are coming to realize
that the disturbing economic and political developments in the United States and
the rest of the Western world are not autonomous forces, but are particular
manifestation of deeper, more pervasive changes that have already taken place in
the moral and cultural life of the nation.
Before we got the politics of unlimited ambition, we got the unleashing
of the spoilt, grasping, partisan, aggressive self.

Some might say that it is
too late now to try to reawaken in America’s leaders and opinion-molders some
of America’s old self and thereby to affect the shaping of America’s
reaction to September 11. Perhaps
so, but many of our members can make a difference even in the present,
partly because our kind of thinking is often a part, if only a part, of
the inner make-up of many of those who are making the all-important decisions.
That part can be articulated and boosted.
We must not underestimate the danger that intense emotion and aggressive
pressures will overpower restraint and balance and sweep everything before it.
We of the Society can help temper determination with wisdom and humility.

For the longer run, our
mission must be to proceed with the work of renewal.
The defenders of liberty have expended a great deal of effort
and a great deal of money in recent decades.
They have had at their disposal many a think tank, but they have not been
very successful in reversing the trends towards bigger government and growing
government commitments abroad. The
grasping personality has found ever new outlets for the desire to control
others. Defenders of liberty have avoided too much the root causes of these
destructive trends. They have been too preoccupied with politics and economics
narrowly construed. Political and
economic developments, good or bad, are not self-generating. They are outflows
of the moral and cultural life of a people, are in a sense after-effects.
If you want to change political and economic trends, you must first
change the moral and cultural orientation of a people.

We are told again and
again that various economic, political and military measures will create a
better society and a better world. What is much more seldom discussed is that,
in the final analysis, well-being at home and peace abroad have moral and
cultural preconditions. These
issues are more subtle and difficult, but they are, in the long run, even more
important. They are issues
that the Philadelphia Society is well-suited for addressing and bringing into
the forefront.

Let me try to summarize
the unmet need about which I am speaking. I
hope you will not be too offended if I quote from something I just published.
The passage in question connects the need for new thinking with the
present crisis and its larger context. I
will quote the very first paragraph of a brand new book.
Paradoxically it was published not in the United States but in China, in
Chinese translation.
The book is based on a lecture series I gave at Beijing
University. In a case of grim
coincidence, the book appeared in print just a few days before the Horror of
September 11. I quote:

Probably the
greatest challenge facing mankind in the twenty-first century is the danger of
conflict between peoples and cultures. There is an urgent need to explore in
depth possibilities for minimizing tensions and to undertake efforts to reduce
them. Horrendous consequences can result from superficiality, carelessness and
naivete in defining the dangers and from delay in trying to lessen them. Yet the
all too human desire to avoid painful self-scrutiny and reorientation of action
makes human beings indulge a seemingly unlimited capacity for wishful thinking.
Many in the West and elsewhere trust in scientific progress and general
enlightenment to reduce the danger of conflict, but we need only look to the
century preceding this oneóthe most murderous and inhumane in the history of
mankindóto recognize that the spread of science and allegedly sophisticated
modern ideas do not reduce the self-absorption or belligerence of human beings.
It only provides them with new means of asserting their will. Others in the West
trust in political and economic schemes to alleviate tensions, “democracy”
and “free markets” being the two most popular at the moment. These
prescriptions for how to promote good relations between peoples give short
shrift to a subject that may in fact be far more important, one that requires
greater depth and subtlety of mind and that is also not fashionable: the moral
and cultural preconditions of peace. Whatever the importance of other factors,
attempts to avoid conflict among peoples and individuals are not likely to be
successful without a certain quality of human will and imagination. That this
subject is receiving so much less attention than proposals for introducing
technology and manipulating political and economic institutions is a sign that
our societies are not now well-equipped to deal with the most pressing problem
of the new century.

I am suggesting to you
that the moral and cultural condition of a society is what ultimately shapes the
political and economic direction of that society, for good or ill.
For that reason we must not shy away from dealing with these matters in
depth. If we do not confront the moral and cultural prerequisites of liberty, of
constitutional government, and of peace, we will never get to the heart of the
matter, and we shall never effect the deeper change in American society that is
necessary for a new birth of freedom.

The Framers at
Philadelphia understood human nature pretty well.
They knew that we have every reason to fear ourselves.
Original sin always threatens to infect human behavior. The impulse of the
moment needs to be checked, for all too often it gives vent to the least
admirable human traits: egotism, ignorance,
recklessness, arbitrariness, etc. Just as, in the individual sphere, virtue
should temper the inclination of the person, so, in the public arena, the
Constitution should check the popular passions of the moment and the weaknesses
of political leaders. Though
constitutional checks-and-balances may restrain the worst excesses of partisan
self-indulgence even in bad times, those checks cannot operate as intended
without leaders and people of character. Where
are such people to come from? The
Framers of the Constitution thought they would be bred by the moral and cultural
traditions that had nourished them.
People like themselves would continue to sustain the
Constitution and American liberty.

We all know that the
traditions in which the Framers trusted have been terribly weakened.
The checks on the lower potentialities of human nature have weakened
correspondingly. The effects are
everywhere to be seen, and we can only hope that those now making decisions for
the American people and, indeed, for the rest of the world have in them still
some of that older American personality.

In the international
arena a civilized leader ultimately seeks peace.
But genuine peace and mutual respect are not possible without
there being leaders who are able to rise above narrow partisanship and the
perspectives of the moment. Peace
assumes peaceful individuals. It is
forever threatened by individuals of voracious appetites, perpetually pushing
their own advantage. In the end,
the prerequisites of peace in the international arena are the same as the
prerequisites of social harmony at home. Both
require leaders who are peaceful at the center, even when they are forced to
take drastic action.

The spirit of American
liberty and constitutionalism is moderation rooted in humility regarding human
nature. A purpose of the
Constitution written in 1787 was to check ruthless ambition and give America’s
better self a chance to prevail. The
Philadelphia Society can best serve the cause of liberty today by helping to
revive and renew the moral and cultural heritage that made liberty and
constitutional government possible in the first place.

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