Instead of considering contemporary political issues, or politicians, Roger Scruton attempts to rebuild conservatism by looking seriously at its past…
Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, by Roger Scruton (176 pages, All Points Books, 2018)
In his Conservatism, An Introduction to the Great Tradition (2017), long-time Anglo-American conservative champion and author Sir Roger Scruton says that, “I have written this book in the hope of encouraging well-meaning liberals to take a look” at the arguments for conservatism. In seeking to appeal to such liberals, he distinguishes them from the contemporary Left, who with their “isms” exist “to abuse those who cling to the existing social order” and who have conservatives on the “run from the noise.”
Prof. Scruton asserts that the internet and social media have “disrupted the political process” and political institutions to the extent that politics can now be a matter of a “one-click response on a smartphone.” He says memorably that “the separation of powers has become the antagonism of powers.” (And what could be a better proof of that than the Kavanaugh hearings?). A deeply worried Scruton holds that today “conservatism has a beleaguered air” as the “institutions, procedures and values on which it has relied one by one vanish into air.” As an answer—and instead of considering contemporary political issues, or politicians—Prof. Scruton has attempted in this book to rebuild conservatism by looking “seriously at the past of conservatism.”
Prof. Scruton argues that conservatism was born as a rebuttal to the Enlightenment and its “universal ideals.” Alarmed at politics based solely on ideals and ideology, conservatives arose to maintain and argue that “settlement, the contingent and attached” are indispensable parts of society. Conservatism was part of the modern world’s emphasis on the individual, but it became an identifiable philosophic and political movement when it began to contend that politics is fundamentally grounded in each country’s traditions and origins. “Freedom is not a set of axioms but an evolving consensus,” Prof. Scruton concludes. In addition, conservatism is based on universal aspects of the human condition and is “heir” to the Western philosophic tradition, beginning with Aristotle.
The natural basis for conservatism
Prof. Scruton says that human beings “live naturally in communities, bound together by mutual trust. We have a need for a shared home.” Echoing Aristotle, who in his Politics and Ethics was the first, of course, to systematically consider and then establish the fundamental truth that we are “political” animals—that is, we live together not in isolation—Prof. Scruton sets out the natural basis for conservatism based on five “features of the human condition.” First is social membership, of which worldwide there continue to be three kinds: tribal, religious, and political. In modern times, especially in the West, political membership is governed not only by law but by law made through elected representatives. Second is individual attachments, based on motherhood, the family, and the household, as well as the household’s setting in “places, networks, and institutions.” Social memberships and individual attachments join together to create the needed setting for human “cooperation.” But, third, as Prof. Scruton says, people not only cooperate, “they also compete.” Competition both creates and solves problems, and a main purpose of society is to “ensure that competition is peaceful.” Fourth, referring to Aristotle again, Prof. Scruton argues that though conservatives agree that humans are rational beings, they maintain that human rationality thrives in the political sphere only because of “customs and institutions that are founded in something other than reason.” This, which he calls “the principal contribution that conservatism has made to the self-understanding of the human species,” is Prof. Scruton’s principal thesis. In politics, reason is not autonomous.
Fifth, however, along with the emphasis on community and custom, is the “countervailing” emphasis on the “freedom of the individual.” Despite sources in the Renaissance and in Christianity, individualism and its doctrine of “consent” in Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, together with the legacy of the Enlightenment became a uniquely modern phenomenon, with political order being “founded on a contract.”
Naturally, Prof. Scruton begins his post-Enlightenment discussion of conservatism with Edmund Burke, but Burke is so familiar to the readers of these pages that it is permissible to move on to other personages emphasized by Prof. Scruton. Prof. Scruton has a major chapter on Hegel and three Frenchmen. For most of us, perhaps, who think of Hegel as the inspiration for Marx and who are not in the habit of thinking about Hegel’s connection to conservatism, this is an interesting and challenging chapter. To Hegel Prof. Scruton attributes “the most systematic presentation that we have of the conservative vision of political order.” Holding forth on the Philosophy of Right rather than what extant lecture notes we have of Hegel’s philosophy of history, Prof. Scruton points to Hegel’s setting out of the separate spheres of family, civil society, and the state—and a conservatism whereby conflicts within and between the family and civil associations are resolved in and by the state, “the highest of institutions,” but without extinguishing them and without state totalitarianism. Some may regard that last conclusion as arguable.
Prof. Scruton goes on to note the contributions of three nineteenth-century Frenchmen to modern conservative thought: Joseph de Maistre, a royalist, who argued that constitutions cannot be invented but must spring from the already-existing spirit of the people; François-René de Chateaubriand, who in his Genie du Chritianisme was perhaps the first counter-Enlightenment attempt to not only defend the teachings of Christianity but also to demonstrate its beneficial impact on society; and, of course, Alexis Tocqueville, for both Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution.
Prof. Scruton highlights the “classical liberal [Friedrich] Hayek as the chief of the Twentieth Century’s opponents of socialism. More clearly than others, Hayek, Prof. Scruton says, proved that “no political system provides as real an instance of collective choice as that provided by markets.”
Prof. Scruton notes that in 1944, George Orwell, essentially a socialist himself, wrote “a largely favorable” review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. In addition, Prof. Scruton emphasizes James Burnham’s criticism not only of the managerial economy but also “managerialism” in general for its failure to understand “the nature of civil society” and its “blindness to those aspects of the human condition” which are directed towards “things of intrinsic value, and away from getting and spending.”
The first cultural conservatives
At least since the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion in Roe v. Wade—that is, for 45 years—our country has been engaged in moral divisions that have been sanitized as “culture wars.” In a separate chapter, Prof. Scruton takes on and goes into the longer background of the subject of cultural conservatism.
Prof. Scruton begins with the historical fact that industrialization and urbanization changed the way people lived, that is, it “detach[ed] people from their religious and social roots.” (He makes the interesting observation for those of us who are not Brits that the Anglican Church “had always been a predominantly rural institution.”). Keeping to his theme of describing history and its sources, Prof. Scruton says that cultural conservatism began as a reaction to Bentham’s and Mill’s substituting happiness for liberty and to the disciples of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution replacement of liberty by social advancement, progress, and utopianism. In alarm and as critics of these new ideas arose three British cultural conservatives. Coleridge criticized British empiricism and the utilitarianism of Mill and maintained that culture and tradition must be guarded. He described and insisted upon the importance of a nation’s “clerisy,” the learned leaders of all areas of culture, including the Church. Painter and writer John Ruskin grounded his defense of culture in the fields of art and architecture. The third, of course, was Matthew Arnold, who left us with the working definition of culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Moreover, in the early and mid-twentieth century, there was Anglo-American T.S. Eliot’s campaign in his poetry and prose claiming the primary place for the artistic over the political. The only Americans whom Prof. Scruton mentions in any detail in this chapter are the Southern Agrarians and their champion and successor, Allan Carlson, and Leo Strauss and the Straussians for their devotion to natural right. Likewise, he does not deal with any specifics of the “culture wars” of today.
In his final chapter, “Conservatism Now,” Prof. Scruton remarks that, after its modern history of defending religion and high culture, conservatism is now defined by the necessity of defending freedom of expression and Western civilization itself.
Since World War II, there has been a “few redoubts” of conservatism in England, although he maintains, citing Michael Oakeshott, himself, Kenneth Minogue, T.E. Utley, Maurice Cowling, and F. W. Maitland, “there is a real conservative intellectual class in modern Britain.” As for America, Prof. Scruton points to some institutional advantages for conservatism. First, there is the federalist Constitution which, according to Prof. Scruton, allows the state governments to attempt to recover power from the federal government and which still allows for the influence of customs and traditions. Along with that, Prof. Scruton recognizes the abiding influence of Tocquevillian civil associations in American life. And, overall, Prof. Scruton thinks that America “is also a place where you can confess to being a conservative without being socially ostracized.” He cites William F. Buckley, among all American conservatives, as the indispensable leader of the movement after World War II; and also Russell Kirk, who, in combining tradition, culture, and politics even without a “systematic” political philosophy, was a fundamental influence and source for the conservative views of “generations of post-war Americans.”
Regardless of Prof. Scruton’s stated purpose (perhaps an ironic one?) to convince “well-meaning liberals” to listen to the conservative position, this book has value for more than one kind of reader. Despite and even on account of the book’s short length (155 pages), which obviously is deliberate, Prof. Scruton accomplishes a survey of what can be called conservatism, roughly from the dawn of the 1700s until today. As such, it allows convinced conservatives, including academics, a chance to review and assess their own conclusions and allegiances. And its short length makes for its suitability as a gift and, as an Introduction, per the title, of conservatism to possible future conservatives.
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The featured image is a photo of Sir Roger Scruton from his website.