Claes G. Ryn: Democracy and the Ethical Life

A Philosophy of Politics and Community

The Catholic University of America Press, 1990 (1978)

Back Cover:

RynThis study of democracy goes to the heart of ethics and politics. Strongly argued and lucidly written, the book makes a crucial distinction between two forms of democracy. The author defends constitutional democracy as potentially supportive of the ethical life, while he criticizes the plebiscitary form of democracy as undermining man’s moral nature. The book includes an extensive interpretation and refutation of the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and offers a new perspective on the American Constitution and the relationship between moral community and self-interest. This edition includes an important new section on the common good and the state of Western democracy.

“One of the more important studies in critical thought to be published in recent decades…Claes Ryn, like Alexis de Tocqueville, understands the American social edifice better than do those reared within it.” – Russell Kirk in The Review of Metaphysics

“One of the best books on the terrain where politics and morality precariously overlap, recommended vigorously to all who are concerned with the loss of political morality. Combines scholarly research with an ornery independent mind.” – Peter Viereck

Front Flap of the Cover of the First Edition (Louisiana State University Press, 1978):

RynThis lucid synthesis of classical Greek, Judaeo-Christian, and modern ideas poses a challenge to positivism and moral relativism in modern sociopolitical thought. The true science of social life, Claes Ryn contends, is based on a humanistic and philosophical grasp of the moral nature of man.

Viewing democracy in the light of such an understanding of human nature and politics – an understanding gained in part through an extensive interpretation and refutation of Rousseau’s view of man and politics – Ryn develops here the idea that constitutional democracy is potentially supportive of ethical ends, whereas plebiscitarian democracy undermines the pursuit of such ends by basing public policy on the momentary majority.

Ryn presents an interpretation of human nature, stressing the tension within man between higher and lower potentialities and explaining “ethical conscience” as a check on spontaneous responses. Constitutionalism in its highest dimensions, he argues, is the political counterpart of moral self-discipline. Constitutional provisions must be used to ally the self-interest of man with the moral ends of society.

In this defence of constitutional restraints on the majority, Democracy and the Ethical Life offers not only a subtle and penetrating theory of democracy but also a philosophy of man.

JOB’s Comment:

Readers of this blog will be familiar with Ryn from a number of posts in the category Value-Centered Historicism. Here I wish to draw the reader’s attention to the briefly formulated supplementation with regard to the definitions of and distinction between constitutionalism and plebiscitarianism in view of the case of corruption of formally constitutional government, which I provide in my Swedish post Till frågan om populismen and elsewhere in this blog. These additional considerations do not involve any rejection of Ryn’s position but only a kind of extended application.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi