For freethinkers as much as anyone stereotyped as a typical conservative, this laconic invitation will inspire reflection.
The abusive language deployed by the Left encourages this veteran of the culture wars to muster up a riposte. Rather than invective, political philosopher Roger Scruton replies with an offer to his opponents. As the subtitle of his primer Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition suggests, the professor examines arguments set up by his rivals.
Scruton has often been excoriated in the English press for his defense of his position as emanating from the Enlightenment, illuminating a “distinctly modern outlook,” but he stands against the collective “we” of socialism, championing the “I” of “individual ambition.” Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, Samuel Johnson all, in his rapid survey over conservatism’s origins, ground their ideal of political order as issuing from individual liberty. Liberals invert this cause and effect. Scruton avers that conservative legitimacy derives “not from the free choices that create it, but from the free choices that it creates.”
Such careful delineation typifies his steady, if dry, style. The author’s past forays into the defense of the aesthetic legacy of Western Europe is erudite in The Face of God and brisk in his memoirs Gentle Regrets and Confessions of a Heretic,Conservatism is far less lively, aimed squarely at the university seminar. One will learn here neither Scruton’s upbringing in a tough area of Manchester, nor his rise through scholarships into completion of a Cambridge Ph.D. He broke with those he viewed as self-indulgent bourgeois rabble-rousers after seeing the French protests in 1968 Paris devolve into vandalism. This is necessary context. Newcomers or challengers to this “distinct way of being human” outside of the ivory tower, however, may benefit from this compact guide in accessible language which is refreshingly free of jargon or cant.
What links this new book to the previous 50-odd titles from this prolific critic and novelist is Scruton’s defense of the “beautiful settlements” which demonstrate the ideals of Jeffersonian civilization. Free-market destruction of the landscape and utilitarian obliteration of municipal beauty exhibit the dangers of efficiency. For Scruton, Adam Smith’s analogy of the “invisible hand” offers a possible solution to the degradation around us. This hand balances control over freedom with its expression supported “by the moral and legal structures that issue from our shared fund of sympathy.” This captures the rounded tone Scruton sustains from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Burke, eschewing flippant phrasing or trendy slang.
An excellent section differentiates Burke’s critique of the French Declaration vs. the Constitution and Bill of Rights as an extension of Smith’s hand into Burke’s “socially engendered knowledge of generations.” This discussion is less mandarin than readers with attenuated attention spans may suppose. For Scruton warns against rather than celebrates Tom Paine’s radical individualism, surprisingly. This illustrates “the burden under which conservatives have always labored, which is of defending a position that is rich in demands, but poor in promises.” The elegant balance of his sentences should not distract from their message. Scruton expects our close attention.
Scruton clearly explains how Friedrich Hegel “rescued the human individual from philosophy of individualism” by placing constraint within the values of freedom. He ties this to Alexis de Tocqueville’s caution that nascent American liberalism elevated “equality above liberty in the scheme of ultimate values.” Given Scruton’s skill at juxtaposing French and American revolutionary sentiments and statements, more space should have been granted for his elaboration of this portion. In a time when activists defend similar preferences as ideals which the body politic must accept, Scruton’s reminder of previous eras of global unrest and popular anger is apt.
A rapid march past British cultural conservatives Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold counters the dominant utilitarian ethos propounded by social reformers and the “mechanistic belief” in “material ‘progress.’” These Victorian do-gooders in Scruton’s perspective loom as boorish philistines who toppled a rich heritage of literature, music, architecture, belief and art, as lamented by T.S. Eliot. Scruton notes astutely how Henry David Thoreau’s idealized Walden Pond failed to align with Jeffersonian visions of political order and self-sufficient smarts.
Once more, too scant a glance at the Southern Agrarians, more congenial heirs to the third President’s hopes, as well as present-day Kentucky farmer-activist Wendell Berry, betray the compression of this thin volume. Scruton shifts sharply to the main force driving cultural criticism into “its last redoubt,” that of academia. Socialism dominates the last century-and-a-half of pedagogy—and the indoctrination of billions, Scruton claims. Many leftists would counter this immediately. But the author shows how the norm to conform to this received truth of socialist good intentions has redefined liberalism as leftist, rather than as the inheritance left by the Enlightenment.
The American left is certainly not averse to the power of the State, provided that this force is exerted by liberals. For Scruton, this contorted policy distorts conservatism into a caricature. Meanwhile, battle lines move classical liberals into the ranks of cranks—as depicted by the mass media–which agitate for the free market. These individualists square off against the liberals’ dependable defense of the welfare state. This gets complicated, as this summary reveals. Yet Scruton navigates through this narrow strait into a deft maneuver again as Smith’s “invisible hand” is revealed within Friedrich von Hayek’s theories of market-driven “spontaneous order.” This organizing scheme recalls the Southern Agrarians and Ruskin, acknowledging imperfection in its blueprint while nonetheless tracing its patterns back to neo-classical legal architects.
Given Scruton’s experience behind the Iron Curtain, the neat track which joins anti-Soviet post-war intellectuals with French and Spanish spiritual critics Simone Weil and Jose Ortega y Gasset reminds one of many directions in which a reader curious about these thinkers might next pivot. Scruton wisely sticks to primary sources and tested theorists rather than fussing over whomever might be tweeting against him.
This concentration upon serious formulations continues with George Orwell, Maurice Cowling, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Samuel Huntington and Pierre Manent. These scholars, journalists, think-tank residents and/ or historians represent some of the chattering classes which liberals mock. Manent found himself marginalized after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo-related Parisian murders. So has Sir Roger Scruton post-9/11 for his scrutiny of how Islamist extremism intersects with “progressive” groupthink. Scruton thoughtfully if tersely considers this predicament. “Is political correctness simply the final stage of liberal individualism—the stage at which all barriers to a self-chosen identity are to be removed? If so, which of these barriers can conservatives still defend against the onslaught, and how can they justify the attempt? Or is this rather a derogation from the great liberal tradition, a way in which equality has become so urgent and dominating a cause that nothing of liberty remains, and all social life is absorbed into a relentless witch-hunt against the defenders of social distinctions?” One hears hints of the Communist Manifesto’s rhetoric, as it too captured the relentless advance of capitalism, wiping out all custom and all resistance.
Scruton contrasts ostracism in the British media with a few redoubts which may shelter dissidents. Along with small liberal arts colleges, he welcomes the National Review as a haven apart from Twitter Wars, daily outrage and Social Justice Warriors. But Scruton regards American conservatism in a post-Goldwater campaign as “fighting rear-guard actions ever since.” This may surprise SJW’s. Careful reflection suggests that Scruton’s ideals are not those of the current White House.
Scruton defends reasoned voices among his colleagues who struggle against “silencing.” More than one scapegoat regime or blustering administration is to blame. Saudi-funded Wahhabite propaganda sways a vast French Muslim polity. This is one example of the dangers of “habitual self-censorship” which pressure politicians, pundits and the press into a public silence of “self-castigation.” This fear spreads to millions on social media speaking whatever’s on their mind, unaware when a hidden camera or lurking troll spies, or simply those who honestly doubt whatever breaking news which is being pushed up on their screens. For freethinkers as much as anyone stereotyped as a “typical conservative,” this laconic invitation will inspire reflection.