Book Review: Claes Ryn’s ‘A Common Human Ground’

I thoroughly enjoyed Claes Ryn’s book ‘A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World.’ It is shocking to me he is not more famous as a thinker. Apparently he has a fan base in China but not as much of a following elsewhere.

Ryn comes to the real problem of both rejecting missionary assimilationism and absolute universalism as well as postmodern/clashing relativism by creating a synthesis point where universal self-betterment is assisted rather than sabotaged by cultural and intellectual diversity. Different groups of people can not only learn about their own blind spots by studying and interacting with others, but in so doing learn to interact with each other more proficiently. Though he does not use this analogy, its a bit like viewing politics and culture like the Olympics at their collaborative best. These themes also dovetail well into previous topics I have talked about such as ‘Cosmopolitan Chauvanism.’

Ryn is writing as a universalist (albeit a rare non-messianic one) and I am reading it as a relativist (albeit very much NOT a postmodern/idealist one but rather as a materialist-anthropology influenced one a la The Human Swarm) and its remarkable how much we come together despite our different origin points. Perhaps proving the thesis of the book, we couldn’t be more different in how we approach the issues of societal cultivation, but come to many of the same conclusions based on the utility of the deep historical perspective and our mutual scorn for Leo Strauss and his ahistorical and idealist acolytes.

Which is not to say that I endorse all of his views. In fact, since I reject abstract concepts of ‘the good’ or the desirability of ethical convergence on many things, I would say we still have some fairly significant differences. One instance would be my objection to conservative historiography’s rejection of accepting big dramatic political breaks as part of the holistic story of how societies evolve-I happen to think they are almost as important as the continuities in creating the whole.

However, while Ryn talks about a true cosmopolitanism being the acceptance of difference and the ability to learn from it, our purposes are the same. I see this book being vital for diplomats in particular in underlining how their profession relies on both the acceptance of divergence but for mutually constructive benefit. After all, even if I think societies learn from others not just for self-betterment but also to heighten difference and compete, all societies have a certain set of shared interests. Keeping local wars from becoming global, management of climate change, and maintaining a diplomatic standard everyone can negotiate from.

While there was more than one section I wanted to quote, there was one section in particular that stood out to me I will directly cite here:

It hardly needs saying that all traditional societies have notable weaknesses and that some are much less admirable or humane than others. Much time has already been spent in this book explaining that a properly traditional society is always trying to select and extend the best in its own traditions and to discard whatever blocks the development of its higher potentialities…

As we have seen, today many want to replace the diversity of historically evolved peoples and civilizations with a ‘universal’ global culture. They do not grieve any lost historical opportunities of the kind just mentioned, for their view of humanity is flat and prosaic. To these globalists, a good society or world is one in which all live in the same way, the way that the globalists themselves deem to be superior. They do not recognize the conceit of the presumption that the world should be transformed according to their own ideas, for they have little awareness of the depth, complexity, and richness of humanity, formed as it is by histories extending in complex ways back to the beginning of time. These globalists cannot see any need for human beings to cultivate their distinctive origins. After all, the model of society that they advocate is recognized by all enlightened persons as the one for which mankind has always been seeking. What is cultural distinctiveness but an obstacle to achieving the desirable social arrangements and ideological homogeneity? The efforts of the globalists to substitute a new world order of their own for historically rooted societies will efface not only what they may think of as the quaint and superficial ‘charm’ of various traditions, but will gut mankind’s deeper, shared, though highly diverse, humanity. These efforts will rob mankind of a rich source of value and self-understanding. They could benefit only people who have something to gain from each others losing their creativity, strength, and self-confidence.

It was because of this that I overlooked the author’s old man comments on contemporary vs classical genres of music when listing aspects of civilizational self-improvement.

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