Conservatism’s star philosopher traces our intellectual heritage.

The English love to hate their intellectuals. W. H. Auden captured it in clever doggerel: “To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say, Is a keen observer of life, The word ‘Intellectual’ suggests right away, A man who’s untrue to his wife.” If we gloried in our cerebral caste, as do the French, Sir Roger Scruton would be a celebrity, with British television networks washing his feet with champagne.

I first stumbled on a Lilliputian book by this Brobdingnagian philosopher when I was Artistic Director at Liverpool Cathedral. I was nonplussed by the Cathedral’s devotion to tasteless tat masquerading as empyrean art. To my relief, the deplorables working in the Cathedral detested the parading of this sanctified kitsch. They mocked the neon sign lit in prostitute purple just above the West door calling it a billboard for a brothel.

The sign was the creation of Tracey Emin, England’s shock-jock artist, who sold her unmade bed at Christie’s for £2.54 million. Its message was steamily suggestive: “I felt you and knew that you loved me.” Cathedral Dean Justin Welby, now Archbishop of Canterbury, was in awe of Emin and refused to consign the purple anamorphosis to the trashcan of history.  

A student at Liverpool Hope University, where I taught halftime, saved me from the hokum Welby & Co were using to defend the gargoylish monstrosities. She gave me Scruton’s book on Beauty. Like Samson with the jawbone of an ass, Scruton’s arguments felled Welby’s Philistine aesthetics to the ground.

Scruton has recently responded to Philistines who accuse conservatism of intellectual vacuity. In his book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Scruton argues that conservatism’s best-kept secret lies in a vigorous intellectual genealogy that conserves the best of the past but adapts itself to the challenges of each new age.

Scruton’s genius lies in identifying the unique contribution each intellectual giant has made to the ever-flowing stream of conservatism and showing how this input has emerged in response to a particular zeitgeist.

Conservatism emerges at the Enlightenment in defiance of liberal individualism, but it goes back to Aristotle, observes Scruton. Why? Well, it takes seriously aspects of the human condition that are universal. Further, conservatism reforms itself in order to conserve.

Enlightened reason isn’t enough. There is a need to balance the ‘we’ of social membership against the ‘I’ of individual ambition. Classical liberalism pits individual liberty against the power of the sovereign; socialism flattens individual liberty with its steamroller of equality. In these twin political ponds, modern conservatism begins in Britain and France as “a qualification of liberal individualism,” writes Scruton.

That’s why conservatives and classical liberals share a symbiotic spirit in today’s Left-dominated stratosphere and make common cause against Leftist hegemony. Scruton’s pre-history of conservatism takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour from Aristotle to Aquinas, Marx to Montesquieu and Hooker to Hobbes, pausing to explore the roots of Britain’s Tory party.

Both liberals and conservatives uphold individual liberty. Liberals see “political order as issuing from individual liberty;” conservatives see “individual liberty as issuing from political order.” For liberals, liberty comes first. For conservatives, order comes before liberty. “Liberty is not the foundation of social order but one of its by-products,” quips Scruton.

“Conservatism is therefore also about the limits to freedom.” This distinguishes it from liberals and libertarians. Scruton’s second chapter explores how this finds its manifestation in The Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights in the US and Adam Smith’s justification of the free market in Britain.

But freedom and free market need an anchor in “religion and family as forms of collective wisdom.” Social capital and traditions, as the legacy of past generations is to be valued, not scorned, “because they enable a society to reproduce itself.” Moreover, “contempt for the dead leads to the disenfranchisement of the unborn,” a tragic error repeated by all subsequent revolutions.

Scruton upholds Burke’s “little platoon”—voluntary groups of family, church, teams and regiments as the heart of conservatism and the bedrock of society. This is how society organizes itself bottom-up, as against a top-down revolutionary dictatorship or faceless bureaucracy.

“Only where customs and traditions exist will the sovereignty of the individual lead to true political order rather than to anarchy; only in a community of non-contractual obligations will society have the stability and moral order that make secular government possible,” writes Scruton, as he makes a foray into German and French conservatism (and its detractors) dissecting Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Maistre and Alexis de Tocqueville.

At this point (the end of the nineteenth century) conservatism takes on a new mission against socialism and the state. At the same time, it enters minor culture wars with a rather odd cast of intellectuals—poets Coleridge, Arnold, and Eliot; writers Ruskin and Huxley; Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli; and American academics Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Each, in his unique way, parachutes political conservativism into literature and academia.

The big battle at this stage is with the emerging managerial state as a juggernaut for a ‘just’ society. The word ‘liberal’ in America changes meaning. It no longer refers to championing individual sovereignty over against state supremacy, limited government, private property, market economics and free association. ‘Liberal’ becomes a swear word—meaning a ‘leftist’ who supports marginalized groups, uses the state to fight for ‘social justice’ and insists on equal distribution of wealth. “Anyone who defends the classical liberal position is likely to be regarded, now, as a conservative,” notes Scruton.

It is Austrian-born Friedrich von Hayek, a towering crusader for market choice, who castigates ‘social justice’ for its “unjust expropriation of assets gained by free agreements.” Justice, in the tradition of Aristotle, is giving to each person what is due but the weasel word ‘social’ sucks out the meaning of ‘justice’.

With President Roosevelt’s New Deal, socialism is the new cancer in American society. American sociologist James Burnham and his Suicide of the West (1964) provides conservatives with the language and vision to confront communism. Burnham correctly characterizes the ‘liberals’ as burdened by guilt over their privileges, unable to affirm the good things that encompass them, and excusing every fault in their enemies by naming some fault of their own.

Scruton’s final chapter brings us to the present where conservatism is fighting for Western civilization against political correctness and Islamic extremism and Orwell’s prophecies are rapidly coming true. Although Scruton is able to point to a miniscule number of conservative intellectuals in Britain (most of them are immigrants) it is the United States of America that is the only place where “you can confess to being a conservative without being socially ostracized,” he thinks.

Today’s conservative movement in the US owes its strength to individuals like William F. Buckley who establish journals like the National Review and define conservatism as a “political movement, in which ideas have a leading role.” Conservatives now have to fight against bulldozing Supreme Court judges who read new ‘rights’ like abortion and same-sex marriage into the Constitution rather than remaining faithful to the original intention of the Founders.

American conservatives are leading the way in rediscovering the roots of secular government in their Christian and spiritual inheritance without which it will be impossible to respond to the Islamist threat. If Islam sees God, not politics, as the ultimate source of law, then a robust response to it demands “a credible alternative to the absolutes with which the extremist conjures,” writes Scruton.

Scruton ends by looking back to the Western spiritual inheritance of Christianity, and to the two great laws of Christ, who commanded us to love God entirely and to love our neighbor as ourselves, as the only foundation of a shared national identity and the only solution to our current problems.

I honestly cannot think of a better compendium of and companion to our great tradition of conservatism. Scruton is truly making conservatism great again.


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