With intellectual force, a learned wit, and a bracing way with words, the English philosopher Roger Scruton trains his conservative philosophy on the arts, the environment, social media, and more pokes as he pokes at liberalism’s weaknesses in a new collection of essays. Nearly everyone may find something to disagree with in Confessions of a Heretic (Notting Hill Editions, 2016) – which might more accurately have been titled Invective from a Grouchy Old Man with a Twinkle in His Eye – but its pages glow with admirable thinking, a crusty kind of likability, and welcome appeals to rationality.
Scruton is harsh on the errors of modern culture’s ways: modernist architecture and urban planning, abstract and conceptual art, pet fetishism, and even DJ-era dancing all feel the sting of his arrows. In his most nostalgic vein, he uses dance as an implied metaphor for society at large, lamenting the disappearance of traditional dances which were “social activit[ies], in which we exalt and idealise our rational nature.” By contrast, the bodies of today’s young dancers, jerked into motion by DJs who use “pre-packaged computer sounds” to “manipulate the movements of the crowd…become sexual objects, voided of personality, since personality is a relational idea, and no relation exists on the [contemporary] dance floor except that between bodies.”
Scruton applies this “relational idea” of the social construct to fields far beyond the dance floor. He trains the wisdom of a lifetime of reflection on the visual arts – “Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself, and to wake up to the world of others” – and on cities, where “order emerges by an ‘invisible hand’ from the desire of people to get on with their neighbors.” In a deeply felt meditation on death and dying, he reflects that it’s our relations with others that give meaning to living: “The wholeness and fullness of our lives…has its origins in the judgement and affection of those whom we encounter.”
He acknowledges that small-scale human relations can’t manage large polities entirely, that governments are needed. Conservatives’ job, he says, is to defend government against the failures and abuses of the Left, such as the “left-liberal belief that only the wealthy are accountable” while the poor and vulnerable are “inherently blameless” since they have, per his notion of left-wing philosophy, “not been ’empowered’ to be responsible.” He calls for a better form of government, one that “embodies all that we surrender to our neighbours, when we join with them as a nation.”
That sounds very nice, but it takes no account of the systemic biases against the poor and minorities that in many parts of the world pose tremendous and unfair obstacles to taking meaningful responsibility. It may be that the few years Scruton spent living in the U.S. weren’t enough to give him a full understanding of this country’s deeply ingrained legacies of racism and cruelly regressive policies that intentionally keep the underprivileged in their place by stifling their ambitions and neglecting and abusing their living environments.
Widening his scope to the world at large in the essay “Defending the West,” Scruton observes the cultural clash between the Islamic world and what used to be called Christendom. He identifies a number of features central to European civilization that tend to distinguish it from Islamic culture. Significantly, the first is “citizenship,” under which law is not decreed by God but made “by man, following the instinct for justice that is inherent in the human condition. It is not a system of divine commands, but a residue of human agreements” (italics mine).
While targeting liberalism’s flaws and excesses he betrays weaknesses in his conservative philosophy as well. Laudably claiming environmentalism as a cause that ought to be a natural one to conservatives, he blames environmental degradation on “the crazy idea that power and other facilities should be seen as ‘public goods.'” He posits instead that the “public good” approach has taken away people’s sense of personal responsibility and obligation “to make the kind of deals with their neighbours that would produce sustainable solutions to real problems.” Alas, to many observers of the state of the world, Scruton’s faith in people’s smarts and good will might seem sadly misplaced.
But Scruton’s style and point of view should appeal to thinking people of almost any philosophical or political stripe, to whatever extent one may agree or disagree. Liberals and progressives should read it as a little primer on some of the intellectual foundations of the “other side.” Meanwhile, to the thinking conservative disillusioned with the disorder and infantility of today’s political right wing it may provide some reassurance that cooler heads are still out there.