Reader, if you live in the Baton Rouge area, please come to LSU tonight to hear the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton speak about conservatism and the environment. When it comes to exercising good stewardship of the natural world, he believes that the conservative tradition offers a reasonable third way between statism and market fundamentalism. His lecture, “How to Think Seriously about the Planet,” will be on Tuesday, October 1 in Howe Russell Hall, Room 130 at 5 P.M.
For those who aren’t familiar with Scruton’s writing and thinking, here’s a good interview with him from a few years back. Excerpts:
MG: What deleterious consequences result from the ‘free market ideology’ you mention? Are there particular economic arrangements that conservatives ought to prefer?
Scruton: The free market is a necessary part of any stable community, and the arguments for maintaining it as the core of economic life were unanswerably set out by Ludwig von Mises. [Friedrich] Hayek developed the arguments further, in order to offer a general defence of ‘spontaneous order’, as the means to produce and maintain socially necessary knowledge. As Hayek points out, there are many varieties of spontaneous order that exemplify the epistemic virtues that he values: the common law is one of them, so too is ordinary morality.
The problem for conservatism is to reconcile the many and often conflicting demands that these various forms of life impose on us. The free-market ideologues take one instance of spontaneous order, and erect it into a prescription for all the others. They ask us to believe that the free exchange of commodities is the model for all social interaction. But many of our most important forms of life involve withdrawing what we value from the market: sexual morality is an obvious instance, city planning another. (America has failed abysmally in both those respects, of course.)
Looked at from the anthropological point of view religion can be seen as an elaborate (and spontaneous) way in which communities remove what is most precious to them (i.e. all that concerns the creation and reproduction of community) from the erosion of the market. A cultural conservative, such as I am, supports that enterprise. I would put the point in terms that echo Burke and Chesterton: the free market provides the optimal solution to the competition among the living for scarce resources; but when applied to the goods in which the dead and the unborn have an interest (sex, for instance) it wastes what must be saved.
MG: Shifting gears, an important theme in your book is that the notion of a social contract, ‘a recent and now seemingly irrepressible political idea,’ cannot ground political life as we experience it. Can you say a little about the contrasting idea of the ‘transcendent bonds’ that you say give rise to our social obligations?
Scruton: My point was simply to emphasize that the most important obligations governing our lives as social and political beings — including those to family, country and state — are non-contractual and precede the capacity for rational choice. By referring to them as ‘transcendent’ I meant to emphasize that they transcend any capacity to rationalise them in contractual or negotiable terms. They have an absolute and immovable character that we must acknowledge if we are to understand our social and political condition. The refusal of people on the left to make this acknowledgement stems from their inability to accept external authority in any form, and from their deep down belief that all power is usurpation, unless wielded by themselves.
MG: You are often described as a ‘paleoconservative,’ a term that Russell Kirk, who was described the same way, eschewed. Do you accept this designation?
Scruton: I am not hostile to American neo-conservatism, which seems to me to show a commendable desire to think things through and to develop an active alternative to liberalism in both national and international politics. But I suppose I am more of a paleo than a neo-conservative, since I believe that the conservative position is rooted in cultural rather than economic factors, and that the single-minded pursuit of competitive markets is just as much a threat to social order as the single-minded pursuit of equality.
MG: What do you make of the critique of industrial society presented by the Southern Agrarians, or by contemporary agrarians such as Wendell Berry?
Scruton: Things have moved on since the Southern Agrarians, who were able to enjoy the last twilight glow from a way of life which now barely glimmers in the ashes. Of course people like Wendelll Berry will awaken a strong feeling of loss, and a longing for homecoming, in many Americans. But the real conservative is the one who wishes to recuperate the lasting sense of life and its value, even in circumstances that seem unpropitious — such as those that prevail in a modern city. Industrial society was rightly criticised from both the right and the left; but industrial society has all but disappeared. The future lies with the self-employed, and it is for them to form the new communities, on the model of the old.
MG: The sort of conservatism you espouse is not easily expressed in slogans, nor do the arguments for it seem as easily mastered as those advanced in behalf of more populist varieties. What hope, if any, does your vision of conservatism have for gaining ascendancy?
Scruton: Of course it is not easy to put my kind of conservatism into slogans. That is a defect in slogans, and not in my conservatism. You cannot put Hayek’s theory of the common law, Kant’s theory of republican government, or Hegel’s theory of civil society into slogans. But they are true, for all that. A philosophy is nothing if it does not aim at truth. (That is why Jacques Derrida and Giles Deleuze are not philosophers.)
To aim also to persuade is commendable, and for this reason it is necessary for a political thinker to learn how to write. Marx solved this problem, unfortunately, but then so did Burke. Good writing affects the minds of the literary elite, and ideas in the minds of that elite will eventually filter down, to the point where some slick but ignorant journalist will find the slogans that correspond, at his level of mental life, to those distantly and vaguely perceivable notions. This is in part what Plato had in mind, when he advocated the noble lie. Not ‘noble’ but elegant; not a ‘lie’ but journalism.
What exactly do we Europeans lose, as the Christian faith recedes from us? Is there any discipline that will compensate for that loss, and grant us consolation in the face of it? This question is not addressed to society as a whole, but to each of us individually. And the fact that the mass of mankind may be unable to live without religion, or may be liable, in the absence of religion, to stray into the terrible nihilism that has twice swept across our continent, is no proof that the loss that we have suffered is for each of us either unbearable or final, or that the loss is not offset by gains. In recent years I have constantly asked myself what I have lost, and whether the loss is irreparable. And by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion, endorsing it — but with its own reflected light.
Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be ‘members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.
This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.
Faith is not therefore content with the cosy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community — the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.
At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude. Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by Rene Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things. (Rene Girard La violence et le sacré, Paris, 1972) I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children — to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words.  Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely — the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.
In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labour, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce. Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness — only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.
Except that the loss need not occur. This is the lesson that I draw from my own experience, and that has caused me to revisit the Christianity of my youth.
The Romans warned against impiety not only because it would bring down judgement from heaven but because it was a repudiation of a fundamental human duty — the duty to ancestors and progeny. The ills of modern civilization have their origins in the loss of piety, and we should take a lesson from the Romans, who had such a clear perception of why piety matters. The important thing, in the ancient world, was not theological belief, which was hidden behind the plethora of gods, but the cult. Religion was first of all a practice, a habit of worship, a humble setting aside of self and a deep genuflection in the presence of the divine — as Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, finally bows down before Isis, and is reborn to the world. Faith may or may not step into the ensuing silence. But it is the silence itself that matters: the silence of the penitent soul. Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace.
Moving to the country ten years ago I went out of curiosity to our local church, no longer as a thief but as a penitent. And because the little church announced the use of the Book of Common Prayer — in whose idiom my prayers are invariably expressed — I joined the congregation, and volunteered to play the organ. The truth contained in the words of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion is not directly there on the page, but revealed in the silence of the soul that comes from speaking them. It is a truth that reaches beyond words, to the inexpressible end of things.
Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. It was by reflecting on this psalm that I came to see how its pure and unsullied idiom contains the answer to the lamentations of Michael Stipe. The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. It is a notable fact of our modern civilization, in which duties to God are ignored or forgotten, that there is very little gladness and still less singing. ‘Losing my Religion’ is a moan, not a song, and the idiom of heavy metal expressly forbids its followers to ‘join in’ when the music starts.
Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature — these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.
The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology. It is reminding us first that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarized in a statement of identity. We know God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God. Christians believe that they have three ways of knowing God: as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. But they also believe that our knowledge of God is a matter of personal acquaintance, which cannot be conveyed in the language of science.
The psalmist is also reminding us that we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the world in which we live. Such is the presumption of modern science that it strives to deny even this evident truth. Scientists are endeavouring to unravel the secret of creation, so as to take charge of it and to turn it in some new direction. This project — hailed by all forward-looking people as promising the final victory over disease, suffering and even death itself — was foretold and rejected by Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. Huxley’s message was really a religious one. If human beings ever unlock their own genetic code, he foretold, they will use this knowledge to escape the chains of nature. But having done so, they will bind themselves in chains of their own.
The chains of nature are those that God created. They are called reason, freedom, morality and choice. The human chains foretold by Huxley are of a quite different composition: they are made entirely of flesh and the pleasures of the flesh. They bind so tightly that reason, choice and moral judgement can find no chink in which to grow and corrode them. So completely do they encircle the human soul that it shrinks to a tiny dot within the organism. There is no suffering in the Brave New World; no pain or doubt or terror. Nor is there happiness. It is a world of reliable and undemanding pleasures, from which the causes of suffering have been banished, and with them all striving, all hope, and all joy.
But love is a cause of suffering; so too are freedom, judgement and choice. Hence these things too will disappear from the Brave New World. As a result, confronted with the inhabitants of this world, we do not recognize ourselves. We instinctively reject this new form of life as monstrous, inhuman, meaningless. And that is because we seek in vain for God’s image, in a world where man has presumed to be in charge.
You’ve got to come hear this man, if you can. He’s giving two lectures tomorrow in New Orleans, by the way.