A Political Philosophy
By Roger Scruton
Hardcover: 214 pp | Continuum | ISBN 0826480365 | UK£17; US$29.95
Subtitled, “Arguments for Conservatism”, this book is a collection of essays and papers written in the last few years. It should not be seen as the political manifesto of the modern Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, which the author rebukes for the “thinness” of its philosophy and its failure to make an impact in the world of ideas. Its scope is much wider and deeper than this. Scruton, currently Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia and for long one of the most able and articulate critics of the runaway liberal, humanist society of western Europe, seeks to make a reasoned case for “the conservation of our shared resources – social, material, economic and spiritual.”
Such conservation is not a clinging to past custom for its own sake as a liberal mindset would see it, but the recognition that we are inheritors of a complex, rich and ancient set of values, tried and tested over time, which we should preserve for future generations. Central to Scruton’s vision, influenced by his mentor, Edmund Burke, is our debt to the dead who have bequeathed to us this heritage and our responsibility to the unborn. “Societies endure only when they are devoted to future generations, and collapse like the Roman Empire when the pleasures and fancies of the living consume the stock of social capital.”
In these chapters he examines the patrimony that modern society (England being his particular focus) is bent on dismantling: the nation state, the distinction between men and animals, respect for the elderly and the dying, traditional marriage and so on. He also provides a searching analysis of the reasons why intellectuals are so often tempted to espouse totalitarian creeds and seeks to define the true meaning of the word “Evil” (as opposed to its careless contemporary usage, as in “Mrs Thatcher is evil” — as I was informed in the 1980s by a socialist friend). The concluding essay, “Eliot and Conservatism”, discusses why T S Eliot, “indisputably the finest poet of the twentieth century”, is so significant to this debate.
Scruton’s opening chapter, “Conserving Nations”, defends the idea of the nation-state against those who would renounce national sovereignty in favour of a pan-European union. Rightly distinguishing “national loyalty” from a narrow “nationalism” (of the kind prone to aggressive warfare), he argues that the common law of England, refined over centuries, has made a profound contribution to the freedom and peace of its citizens. Like Burke, Scruton is anxious to defend the “little platoons” and institutions of local and national civic life, believing they are a more effective protector of human rights than those so-called rights “declared by trans-national committees” which are not worth the paper they are written on and which Jeremy Bentham once wittily described as “nonsense on stilts”. Echoing the Roman author Terence, Scruton looks at the swollen, often corrupt and certainly unaccountable bureaucracy of the European Parliament and asks: “Who will guard the guardians?”
The concept of “loyalty” crops up often in the author’s argument; we are loyal to our homeland and not towards multinationals, for “human beings are creatures of limited and local affections”. He accurately observes that many immigrants today put tribal or creedal allegiances above their loyalty to the country that has offered them a home, with devastating results; such people are not “the King’s good servant, and God’s first”, as St Thomas More so memorably stated. They are abetted wholesale by the media and the intelligentsia for whose repudiation of inherited values and traditions Scruton has coined the word “oikophobia”. This, he says with deliberate irony, is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes “but in which intellectuals tend to become arrested”.
Again, the author rescues ecological concerns from the high moral ground occupied by left-wingers or members of the Green Party, pointing out that it is socialist economies like Russia and China which, in their ruthless central planning, have produced the greater ecological catastrophes. It is more natural for conservatives to wish to “conserve” nature than to destroy it. At this point someone might mention unbridled capitalism and, for example, the Amazonian rain forests; to this Scruton would perhaps reply that unlicensed capitalism is as bad as the opposite and has nothing to do with a philosophy of conservatism.
Alongside “loyalty” he often deploys the word “piety” in these essays, defining it as recognition of our “dependence” and our requirement “to face the world with due reverence and humility.” Such piety does not mean sentimentality towards other species. Here the author emphasises that though we have a duty of care towards animals it is meaningless to speak of their “rights” and to eat them is not wrong; we are not simply more evolved members of the same species. Challenging the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose notorious book Animal Liberation (1975) became the bible of animal rights’ activists, Scruton shows with a philosopher’s exactitude that “liberation” in this context is unintelligible. Living on a farm himself, owning horses for hunting (surely an act of aggression against the fox “community”?) and surrounded by working farms he makes a plea for good husbandry — another ancient practice — and deplores both battery farming and the gluttony of the “vicious carnivore” who would rather consume a solitary hamburger than share the ritual Sunday roast with family and friends.
Scruton makes it clear that his love of tradition is not a romantic nostalgia for the past but a defence of permanent and enduring values that we jettison at our peril. These values which “have developed during centuries of religious consensus and under the influence of Christian ideas of the nature and goal of human life” have now been dismantled; at first gradually by the first wave of post-Enlightenment secularism in the nineteenth century – poignantly expressed in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” – and then rapidly in the twentieth century. Modern man is now situated “among his technological discoveries, unshackled, empowered, but without a destination”, inhabiting a culture of “widespread desecration in which human relations are voided of the old religious virtues — innocence, sacrifice and eternal vows.”
Those of a like mind will see all this as a depressingly accurate picture of the present state of affairs. What is to be done? If conservatism is more than an eloquent jeremiad addressed to those it perceives as barbarians it must be creative, engaged, offering a real alternative to the contemporary cultural and moral wasteland. And in his concluding essay it is to the author of “The Wasteland”, the poem that single-handedly brought poetry out of its Georgian twilight and into the modern world, that Scruton turns. Clearly T S Eliot is his hero, both as poet and as critic, for he believes that it is these two callings that a healthy civilisation will always require: the poet to express in metaphor and the critic to understand the underlying reality of the world in which they live. “The poet who takes words seriously is the voice of mankind, interceding for those who live around him, and gaining on their behalf the gift of consciousness with which to overcome the wretchedness of secular life.” Alongside this, the task of the critic is “to restore…a language in which words are used with their full meaning, in order to show the world as it is, without veiling it in a mist of cliché-ridden sentiment.”
These quotations can only give a flavour of this thought-provoking essay in a wise and thoughtful book. The latter’s underlying weakness is not, as “oikophobes” might think, a certain intellectual hauteur or high-minded disdain for the grubbiness of life, but Scruton’s hesitation to take his arguments to their rightful conclusion and state outright that a vibrant culture of conserved and transmitted values is not possible without faith. Although he asserts that “religion…is an immovable part of the human condition” and although it is clear that his own sympathies lie with the High Anglicanism espoused by Eliot — “Little Gidding” from Eliot’s Four Quartets is the poetic statement of his creed — there are rather too many coy and airy references to “the old gods” of custom and ceremony and not enough argument as to where these “gods” surely come from — and how they might speak to us today.
The task is urgent and I do not think that Eliot can help us; he spoke in a patrician idiom no longer available, for an England that no longer exists, to an audience that is no longer listening. Anglicanism is slowly tearing itself apart; if Eliot were alive today, would he wish to remain its High priest? And is this the mantle that Scruton wishes to assume?
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.