Arguments for Conservatism: A Political Philosophy by Roger Scruton.
Conservatives always need to be on the look-out for new arguments to defend their positions, despite their conviction that there is “nothing new under the sun.” They may wish to live unreflectively by following the customs of their ancestors, but circumstances require that they also be vigilant culture warriors and defiantly critical intellectuals simply to preserve what is best in the past. That is because conservatism arises in response to modernity—as a defense of tradition against the modern spirit of revolution and its insatiable desire to remake society according to utopian ideologies and even to transform human nature through social engineering. A conservative thinker is driven by a kind of reluctant necessity to oppose these trends and often feels like a lonely knight from an ancient chivalric order battling against overwhelming historical forces. Yet, strangely, this means that a conservative thinker is more a modernist than a naive traditionalist, and it may even imply that conservatism is the highest form of modernism in the sense of being the most thoughtful and self-conscious way of living in the modern world.
One of our chivalric knights who has wrestled with this riddle and can explain it better than anyone else is Roger Scruton— a gentleman farmer, political philosopher, novelist, composer of operas, and fox hunter—who may well be brightest light of English conservatism today. He is someone whom American conservatives need to study more carefully. In an earlier book, The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Scruton made a splash in British politics by challenging the Tory party’s emphasis on economic principles that reduced conservatism to a critique of the welfare state and a defense of free-market capitalism. He emphasized culture and morality as well as economics in his understanding of conservatism; in more recent works he suggests that conservatism is nothing less than the defense of Western civilization. For Scruton, the West is the unique blending of Christianity and Classical culture that distinguished God’s realm from Caesar’s realm and allowed Caesar’s realm to evolve into the modern nation state based on the consent of the people. Scruton continues these themes in his latest book, Arguments for Conservatism, which offers a surprisinglypositive vision of conservatism as the mode of thinking best adapted to living in the modern world without accepting the premises of modernity.
Scruton states explicitly that his primary inspiration is Edmund Burke: “the core belief of modern conservatism [is] the belief in the Burkean contract between the living, the dead, and the unborn…[and] the most important thing that future generations must inherit from us is culture…the experience of a community sanctified by time.” In the eleven chapters of this volume, Scruton shows how rich and adaptive this Burkean principle can be. It provides conservative arguments in favor of patriotism and the nation state, Christianity and the Anglican Church, English country life, a localist version of environmentalism, traditional marriage, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. It also provides conservative arguments against secularism, assisted suicide, vegetarianism, gay marriage, postmodern academics, totalitarianism, and the bureaucratic ‘newspeak’ of the European Union. Along the way, Scruton develops and deepens Burkean conservatism by adding philosophical insights from Aristotle (the rational soul of man) and even from Kant (the special dignity of the human person) and Hegel (the organic state) that Burke himself might have resisted or preferred to keep in the background in order to avoid the dangers of abstract theory. Scruton goes beyond Burke and delves into metaphysics and theology because modern problems require more than appeals to tradition, even though he ultimately affirms the wisdom of English traditions and the high culture of the West. Scruton’s daring thesis is that “conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this lies the secret of its success. What distinguishes Burke from the French revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past but his desire to live fully in the present, to understand it in all of its imperfections, and to accept it as the only reality offered to us.”
A few examples will have to suffice to show Scruton’s originality. In chapters one and two, “Conserving Nations” and “Conserving Nature,” Scruton defends the modern nation state against both false universalism and narrow tribalism and shows that nationality includes a Tory version of environmentalism. The key is to see nationality as “a form of territorial attachment… that contains the seeds of sovereignty.” In other words, nationalism is not based on race or ethnicity or shared religious faith; it is based on love of a particular place and the land itself which inspire loyalties that over time evolve into a shared way of life and permit a degree of freedom and tolerance normally prohibited by ethnoreligious nationalism. Scruton is describing the English sentiment of patriotism that sees “all British subjects—recent immigrants included—[as] heirs to the deep historical experience of England as a homeland and territorial jurisdiction, a place of uninterrupted settlement under the rule of common law.” By seeing the nation as a territorial jurisdiction of citizens with sovereignty over their fate, Scruton tries to resist the forces of cosmopolitanism and of the phoney, bureaucratic unity of the European Union, while also resisting the equation of nationalism with the “we” of tribal identity or the “we” of faith.
His version of territorial nationalism also includes environmental conservation based on love of the land as a common inheritance: “this thesis, which environ-mentalists are apt to express as ‘sustainability’ is better expressed Burke’s way,” as a contract between the living, the unborn, and the dead which is “stronger than social justice or rational management because it is motivated by love of the beauty of the homeland.” In reflecting on Scruton’s argument for preserving a national territorial inheritance, I can certainly sympathize with his plea for “an Ecologist magazine that makes room for the old Tory values of loyalty and allegiance,” but I am not sure these arguments are strong enough to meet the challenge of assimilating recalcitrant Muslims or multinational corporations to the English way of life. Scruton must also explain why traditional virtues are intrinsically good or right; in other words, he must go beyond Burkean traditionalism to arguments based on natural law or divine law.
Some of those arguments begin to appear in chapter five on “Meaningful Marriage,” where Scruton forthrightly defends marriage as a lifelong union of a man and a woman for the purpose of having and raising children. In characteristic fashion, he first argues that traditional marriage is the only institution that upholds Burke’s generational contract; conversely, he notes that “by admitting gay marriage, we deprive marriage of its social meaning, as the blessing conferred by the unborn on the living”; and by promoting progressive sex education, we turn “the sexual urge away from erotic passion, marital commitment, and child bearing towards disposable pleasures.” Scruton then goes beyond Burke by delving into the metaphysics, theology, and anthropology of marriage, showing that it arises from the unique combination of sacramental, erotic, and social elements in the nature of man. Here, Scruton draws upon personalism—the modern philosophy of the human person—to distinguish the human realm from the animal realm: human sexual desire is “not a desire for sensations but for a person…conceived as an incarnate subject…who confronts me eye to eye and I to I…in a shared surrender.” Hence, marriage among human beings combines biological desire with ritual and sacramental bonds and the desire for something immortal or eternal in the form of children—all of which are denied by the de-natured and desacralized ethos of sexual liberation and the legalistic view of civil unions. This is a profound and poetic analysis of eros and the family that greatly strengthens the conservative case for traditional marriage. I wonder then why Scruton concludes pessimistically that “it will not be possible to resist” the current trends toward accepting gay or civil unions. Has he not made a strong case showing that the nature and dignity of man includes an eros for the eternal and that present trends are merely temporary distortions of natural, and therefore permanent, longings?
Similarly, Scruton argues in chapter seven, “Religion and Enlightenment,” that the secularization of modern society has moved through several phases during recent centuries and that it too is against the nature of man yet appears difficult to resist successfully. Scruton displays a deep awareness of the “death of God” literature and offers sad but beautiful insights into the futile efforts of modern art and architecture, from Wagner to urban planning, to the fill the void left by the secularization of Christian culture. He argues that “the Enlightenment view is profoundly wrong” because religion—understood as the sacred rituals of a community expressing the longing for transcendence, mystery, and sacrifice—is deeply rooted in human nature. Yet Scruton ends by pleading with secularism “to be gentle with its victims” by leaving the remaining religious believers alone. Perhaps Scruton could have ended more positively by moving from social anthropology to “apologetics”—to arguments for the truth of Biblical revelation based on the Thomistic formula that reason and science are perfected in faith. Surely, the Enlightenment view of natural causality can be challenged by observing that we cannot reasonably account for the origins of the universe without the miracle of creation, nor understand the true nature and dignity of man without the doctrines of original sin and the image of God in human beings.
Having faulted Scruton for his theological shortcomings, however, I would like to conclude by saying that his anthropological and artistic approach to human nature pays off splendidly in the last chapter, “Eliot and Conservatism.” Scruton explains brilliantly the paradox of T.S. Eliot who was both a Tory conservative in his politics and religion (a high-church Anglican and monarchist) and the inventor of modernist poetry. Scruton’s thesis is that Eliot’s paradox is the fulfillment of Burke’s conservative modernism because it meant defending English high culture based on the sacred texts and liturgies of the Christian religion while enabling Eliot to create an inverted version of Dante’s Divine Comedy—a poetic expression in modernist verse connecting the modern feeling of loss of faith with the generations of past believers. Not surprisingly, Scruton’s favorite lines of Eliot are these: “And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” These lines from Four Quartets perfectly express “the paradox of T.S. Eliot…. Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward looking nostalgia…and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision to live in the modern world.” Scruton may not quite convince us that Eliot’s poetry is as great as Dante’s, but Scruton’s view of conservatism as the continuation of living traditions in the modern world is ultimately a hopeful vision of the past, the present, and the future.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “View of a Small Town from the River” by Lev Lagorio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.