The air of melancholy that Roger Scruton says imbues Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France also permeates this reader, which gives us more than a glimpse—but not a full picture—of the mind of one of the most insightful thinkers writing today. Compiled by Mark Dooley, the author of a recent study of Scruton’s thought, it presents a portrait of a man who has spent a lifetime grappling with serious questions about art and education; marriage and sexuality; our responsibility for nature, animals in particular; politics, the state, religion, and culture; and above all, love. Such is the breadth of the philosopher’s interests that much has been excluded. Still, a slim volume like this might bring Scruton’s work to a larger readership—and more than 200-odd pages of melancholy might be too much for the ordinary reader to bear.
While this is a book brimming with observations and arguments, some surprising, many provocative, all engaging, the overwhelming sense is of sadness. Scruton is a conservative, and the business of a conservative is to strive—whether by advocacy or direct action—to conserve what is valuable but in danger of being forgotten, destroyed, or lost. This requires not only a willingness to defend the good but a proper understanding of what is good.
Scruton’s conception of this cannot be reduced to a few phrases, but the main elements of his thinking can usefully be identified. One important good is nature. Here his view is not simply that the natural world, along with the plants and animals that dwell within it, is worth preserving for its own sake, but that nature should be understood as an aspect of the world we inhabit, and an aspect to which we should be more attentive. To neglect or treat it with indifference would diminish us not merely because it might mean fewer landscapes to enjoy or plants and animals to delight in, but because it would amount to a kind of alienation of ourselves from one vital dimension of the world. Like Schelling, Hegel, and Holderlin before him, Scruton believes that nature is the whole of which we are part, and that our flourishing depends on having a proper relation to that whole. To be at home in the world, we have to care for the natural world.
The world of nature, in Scruton’s understanding, is not, however, easily distinguished from the human world—the world of artifice. By now, culture and nature are in important ways intertwined. In part, this is because the natural world depends upon our efforts to conserve it, and therefore upon our judgments about what belongs to it. But it is also because our very perception of the world as “natural” is an artifact, shaped by religion, literature, art, and the modern media. We cannot attend to nature without also at once attending to culture. This is the other good whose conservation dominates Scruton’s thought. If we are ever to be at home in the world, the preservation of our cultural inheritance is vitally important. But no less than with nature, this calls for judgment about what belongs in our culture and what ought to be jettisoned. That means making judgments about art, music, and literature, as well as about the institutions that govern our relations with one another. As a conservative, Scruton is wary, however, of making judgments grounded in nothing more than individual reason, though reasoning will always be required. Tradition and the store of knowledge it gives is, on the whole, a surer guide. It is the task of the conservative philosopher to make this clear.
Who, then, is Scruton taking on in his defense of conservatism? His most important targets are radicals and liberals. Among the radicals, he counts those, like socialists of various stripes, who look to remake the world in accordance with an ideal, whether that be equality, social justice, the classless society, or a world in which domination and coercion have been eradicated. Part of his criticism is directed at the communists and their sympathizers, who were responsible for so much death and destruction in the 20th century. Theirs was an ideology that was as dismissive of traditional ways of life as it was ruthlessly destructive of the natural environment.
Nowadays, of course, the communists are an easy target, since few people will stand up to defend the records of the Soviet era’s socialist experiments—though it bears noting that even when the Berlin Wall fell, there was no shortage of people prepared to make excuses for the failures of the various communist tyrannies. But Scruton targets a wider range of socialisms to include those that draw from the failure of communism not the lesson that the aspiration to create a new society is dangerous, but the conclusion that new ideals must be crafted and new methods of social transformation devised because what Eric Hobsbawm calls “the case against the present” remains compelling. Driven by the promise of escape from a tainted world, these radicals will lurch from scheme to crazy scheme.
Though he is less antipathetic to the liberals and their governing ideal of freedom, he is no less critical of their doctrine. This is because liberalism, whether in its egalitarian or libertarian guises, is suspicious of and even hostile to authority. It is, in the end, an individualist’s perspective on the world. For Scruton, this is a perspective unable sufficiently to appreciate the nature of society as something more than an aggregation of individuals. It is therefore unmoved by Burke’s understanding of society not as a compact among individuals in this generation but a relationship that encompasses the generations past and those yet to come. Liberals care about liberty and equality, but for Scruton, only a philosophy devoted to a proper concern for the health of society can guide us truly. The better ideal here is love: of society, of nation, of home.
What are we to make of all this? As a libertarian liberal, whose sympathies lie mostly with Hayek among modern thinkers, I am tempted to respond that many of Scruton’s conservative insights can be incorporated into a liberal worldview. The importance of traditional and local forms of knowledge I readily acknowledge; the danger of rationalism I think is plain to see, even if not easy to explain to social reformers. Yet it would be misleading not to recognize the real contrasts to which Scruton draws our attention. Liberals are not conservatives, and they are an especially long way from Scrutonian conservatism. What is distinctive about Scruton’s brand of conservatism?
There is not the space for a comprehensive answer to this question, but it might be useful to contrast Scruton’s philosophy with that of another distinguished English conservative, Michael Oakeshott. What both clearly share is an appreciation of tradition and an antipathy to rationalism. Though neither has been particularly religious, both have a keen sense of the importance of religion in society and in the development of European culture in particular. And each has placed an emphasis on seeing our engagement with one another in society not as a battle or a contest but as a conversation. Yet despite these sources of agreement, Oakeshott and Scruton have very different understandings of the human good. Here is Oakeshott on Hobbes in a passage I take to reflect Oakeshott’s own philosophical convictions: “Man is, by nature, the victim of solipsism; he is an individua substantiva distinguished by incommunicability.” He is the member of “a race condemned to seek perfection in the flying moment and always in the one to come,” whose “greatest need is freedom (not supplied by nature) from the distraction of illusion.” Humans are not beings who will reach fulfillment by finding a place in the world, for in civil society there is neither fulfillment nor wisdom to discern fulfillment. They are, rather, creatures that must try to solve the difficult problem of detaching themselves from each other in a world in which all are interdependent.
Scruton’s perspective on the human predicament is deeply at odds with this view. He is not Hobbes but Hegel, trying to understand how we can be at home in the world, and persuaded, ultimately, that this world has to be “loved for what it is.”
Perusing The Roger Scruton Reader, one cannot help feeling that its author does not feel he has succeeded. The underlying sense is of the world-weariness of a philosopher who thinks he has something serious to say but has been neglected or purposely marginalized. In this case, he is undoubtedly right: Scruton is an unjustly neglected thinker. The solemn air of this compilation may or may not serve his cause well. That depends on whether the source of the melancholy is the thinker or the doctrine.
Chandran Kukathas holds the Chair in Political Theory in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. He is the author of The Liberal Archipelago and Hayek and Modern Liberalism.
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