How to Be a Conservative by Roger Scruton and the cultural battle for the West.
If you are like me and fed up of all the news articles and Facebook posts telling you that your support for Brexit reveals you as racist, jingoistic, selfish, economically illiterate, small minded or just plain stupid, then I have the antidote for you: Roger Scruton’s How to Be a Conservative.
In this small book he offers a brilliantly thought out practical philosophy of moral and compassionate patriotism, that cares deeply about the liberty and floursihing of poor and the rich alike, and sees a culture of beauty as absolutely necessary to transmit and sustain the core principles and values that bind the nation together (and frankly, make life worth living). It is a religion neutral, natural-law case for a just society that is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Catholic social teaching. Scruton is an Englishman and his discussion is mostly in reference to the English situation; however, he admires and visits the US regularly as well and at various points he adapts what he is saying to the American situation.
His is a philosophical argument, that is, one that is argued rationally from the starting point of observations how people are. He is an acute observer of human nature and so his arguments convince by appealing to ordinary to common sense as much as anything else. He tells us first that his conserative instincts came in part from his father, whom he observed growing up in High Wickham in southern post-War England. Jack Scrution, we are told, was a committed socialist who sought the redistribution of wealth, but, as Scruton junior pointed out, ‘we are all conservative about the things we know about’. And what his dad knew about and loved was local history, and especially the beautiful architecture and the area around High Wickham in Buckinghamshire. This love of the local heritage compelled him to campaign for the preservation these beautiful signs and symbols of traditional English culture and way of life.
Now in his seventies (and made a Knight in the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list!) Sir Roger Scruton still follows his fathers instincts in this regard even though he never shared his political views. He has had a long academic career which began as an undergraduate at Cambridge, but which steadily saw him become an independent academic as it was obvious that he had no career in the faculties of the universities of England, dominated as they are by a left wing and intolerant intelligentsia.
He does not seem the slightest bit bitter however, his writing exudes a gentle and optimistic outlook and it it is clear that he understands and accepts that no men are perfect, liberal or conservative, believing or nonbelieving.
Scruton does not tells us his personal religious beliefs, for this is philosophy, not theology. Nevertheless, his is a philosophy that sees the necessity of both religion and religious tolerance. Faith is seed ground from which grow the mores that every society must have in common if people are to feel that they belong to it. And in the West, that pattern of living is dominated by Christianity.
The picture of a society that he builds up with this natural law approach is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Catholic social teaching. One could have as easily quoted St Thomas on the natural virtues of religion, of family piety and devotion to nation to support his conclusions if the desire was to persuade Catholics of the point, but he has a wider audience in mind.
Scruton is a cultural conservative as well as political and economic. Culture is important in his philosophy because it is the pattern of daily living that communicates the mores of the society to the non-religious in a way in which they can absorb them naturally and comfortably, without being forced to be adherents to the religion. It is culture that is the principle of inclusion and which makes a country nation – a society in which the citizens feel they belong. It is the beauty of a national culture that tells its citizens that ‘they are at home in the world’.
Furthermore it is tradition, the steadily developing accumulation of what is good from the past, that passes on that culture to us. This is why the conservative spirit always respects what we have and even if critical, looks for modification rather than revolution. It seeks to improve by building on what is good, even in the worst situations, rather than by destroying the present in order to reinstute the past, or a new future.
And for Scruton, society is not an arbitary grouping. Man has a natural inclination to associate with others, which he must be allowed to do freely and those associations – the clubs, societies, sports clubs and so on are the sub-cultures that together form the national culture. The most important associations that are common to all people are faith, family and nation. Even those who are not people of faith, he argues, will in the well ordered society subscribe passively to it by participating in the culture of faith that binds that nation together.
This is why supra-national projects such as the European Union will always fail – without a common culture to keep them together eith either they will fragment as the national cultures within its artificial border clash; or will have to resort to tyranny to stop it happening, as happened in the former Yugoslavia and will happen in he EU if it does not disintegrate first (we can only hope).
It is also why a strict multiculturalism in which there is no absorption of the cultural practices of immigrants into a the national culture, but separation and the formation of ghettoes on non British cultures within the national boundaries. During the Brexit debate, some of the intellectual elite who seek to destroy traditional British culture deride those who wish to preserve a sense of Britishness in Britain as jingoistic, racist and ingnorant. But it is natural for those who care about Britain as it has been to wish to retain a cultural identity. What gave the greivances of those who are not happy with the changes even greater legitimacy is that the British had no choice in whether or not those changes were made. The changes were being imposed on us by the law created by unelected beaurocrats who were not themselves British and so naturally didn’t care at all about the cultural concersn of those who live there.
To object to these changes does not automatically make someone racist or even anti-immigrant (though no doubt some were both). Immigration is not a problem provided those who come are willing to become culturally British. This is not racism or jingoism, but a natural and legitimate response for anyone who loves his country. The ad hominem attacks that those who dare to talk of the value of traditional British culture have to put up with tell us a great deal about what their accusers and their attitudes, figures such as Bod Geldoff an Irishman who shouted and gestured at out of work Cornish fishermen on the Thames, feel about British culture.
All cultures and subcultures are the aggregated effect of personal interractions and so are always formed from the bottom up. It is one of the great paradoxes of man and society that individual actions that are driven by free will, and therefore apparently random and sitting outside the natural order that is described by the scientific laws of cause and effect, but they can nevertheless give rise to a discernible pattern and order when the society as a whole is observed. Generally the best influence of government can have on a culture is to protect personal liberty and allow it to emerge naturally. Top down attempts to manipulate the cultural forms directly by directing personal interraction with law are likely to stifle personal freedom and the human spirit. This in turn leads to a dimunition of human flourishing, both spiritually and economically. It is why socialism is such an ugly and dismal failure in this regard.
Scruton is well aware that when people claim rights of action and freedoms for themselves, it will lead to clashes. He gives an example where the rights of travellers (people who in the mast might have been referred to pejoratively as tinkers or gypsies) to settle where they wish clash with the property rights of those who live close to where the travellers choose to settle. We might think also of the case where the right of the unborn clashes with the claimed right of the woman to choose to have an abortion. This is where custom, or in the extreme the law must decide whose right or whose freedom has preeminance; and it a justice system that is rooted in a consensus of morality that will do that effectively and happily. He maintains that religion is the only viable and sustaining source of morality that works for the benefit of that society, even for the non-religious within it. In Britain this is the basis of common law.
In his critique of today’s post modern society, Scruton still manages, consistent with his conservative ethos, to be constructive by looking for the positive as well. Chapter by chapter he analyses the institutions and ideas of today, the various “isms” – nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and internationalism so as to highlight goods to be retained as well as the bad to be discarded. So the chapter titles are, for example, – ‘The Good in Nationalism’, ‘The Good in Socialism’, ‘The Good in Environmentalism’ and so on. He persuades us with good humored reason, and does not try to goad us on with firey rhetoric. And through this analysis he paints a vision of a possible society that does not perfect human nature, but rather accommodates it, with all its flaws and imperfections. He promises no utopia, but rather a realistic prospect of something better.
He builds up his ideas by drawing largely on the philosophy of Aristotle and the Englightenment philosophers such as Burke, Hegel, Adam Smith and Kant and sells it to us through his witty and entertaining writing and the obvious love he has for his own country. As a Catholic I was intrigued at how much the ideas of the Englightenment and Kant espeically, which are not universally admired in Catholic circles (to put it mildly), could nevertheless be helpful.
Intrigued I wanted to know more and wondered if I was going to have to write another chapter for Scruton’s book for Catholics called, ‘The Truth in the Englightenment and the Truth in Emmanual Kant’.
Never one to read a large amount of 18th century philosophy if I can avoid it, I started look around to see if someone had done it first. It was Benedict XVI’s little book on the subject of Europe, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures that saved me the effort. Benedict too draws on Kant and Enlightenment thinkng in his analysis.
In regard to the Enlightenment he tells us:
‘The Enlightenment has a Christian origin and it was not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state. Philosophy, as the investigation of the rational element (which includes the rational element of our faith) had always been a positive element in Christianity, but the voice of reason had become excessively tame. It was and remains the merit of the Enlightenment to have drawn attention afresh to these original Christian values and to have given reason back its own voice. In its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council restated this profound harmony between Christianity and the Enlightenment, seeking to achieve a genuine reconciliation between the Church and modernity, which is the great patrimony of which both parties must take care.'[p48]
One flaw of the Englightenment, Benedict tells us, is that it cuts itself off from ‘its own historical roots, depriving itself from the powerful sources from which it sprang. It detaches itself from what me might call its basic memory of mankind, without which reason loses its orientation.’ [p41]
And in regard to Kant he tells us:
‘The search for this kind of reassuring certainty, something that could go unchallenged despite all the disgreements, has not succeeded. Not even Kant’s truly stupendous endeavours managed to create the necessary certainty that would be shared by all. Kant had denied that God could be known with the sphere of pure reason, but at the same time, he had presented God, freedom, and immortality of postulates of practical reason, without which he saw no coherent possibility of acting in a moral manner. I wonder if the situation of today’s world might not make us return to the idea that Kant was right. Let me put this in different terms: the attempt, carried to extremes to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads us more and more to the brink of the abyss, toward the utter anihilation of man. We must therefore reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life, as if God did exist. This is the advice that Pascal gave to his friends and it is the advice that I should like to give to our friends today who do not believe. This does not impose limitations on freedom, it gives support to all our human affairs and supplies a criterion of which human life stands sorely in need.’ [p51]
So Benedict, too is a conservative whose instincts tell him not to destroy, but to amend society, building on the best of what he have. Furthermore, it seems to me that Scruton has provided just the template for a way forward towards a society that is in accord with what Benedicti advises. It is through the instutions of the nation state, the family, and religion with an attitude of tolerance of non believers, that we can have a society bound by a common culture that society that, if not perfect, is free enough and beautiful enough that we can at least feel ‘at home in the world’ to quote Scruton.
Afterword: three days after the Brexit referendum as I write this, and the bitterness and division is not subsiding. This indicates to me that although the issue is multifaceted and the points of debate are most commonly economics and immigration at its heart it is a battle for a worldview and this is why at times the two sides seem to be arguing past each other. One party is rooted in the faith of a Judeo-Christian society and which, as explained, may include those who have no faith but subscribe, broadly speaking, to the values. The other is rooted in post-Englightenment secular humanism which is marked at this stage by a dislike of Christianity and Christian values above all else (even though some Christians subscribe to it, unthinkingly in my view).
The referendum was for the right to sovereignty and a battle against European imperialism driven by unelected and unaccountable beaurocrasts pushing their secular humanist agenda. Even assuming that Brexit does actually happen (and I’m not convinced that all the forces opposed to it will respect it) there is still no guarantee that the hopes of conservatives will prevail. The forces that wish to change it are still strong and will continue to do all they can to argue for their point of view. But at least now this is a British debate and there is some chance that as the nation decides itw own destiney, for the sort of conservatism that Scrution describes to prevail, where previously there was none. I for one am glad about that.