On Scruton’s ‘Conservatism’

On Friday the New York Times Book Review published my appraisal of a new book by Roger Scruton. I was pleased to read his “invitation to the tradition” of conservatism because I think that American colleges and universities in general, and Wesleyan in particular, can do a better job of studying conservative ways of thinking — from libertarianism to religious traditions. These disparate modes of thinking are not easily held together, and I argue that Professor Scruton only manages to do so by creating a common enemy, a scapegoat. This is not an unfamiliar move, but it is not a necessary one. Studying Smith, Burke, Hegel and the other key figures he discusses, can lead in more productive directions.

An Invitation to the Great Tradition
By Roger Scruton
164 pp. All Points Books. $24.99.

Roger Scruton has written dozens of books on subjects ranging from the philosophy of music to the perils of postmodernism, but he returns often to his core political passions. “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition” is a concise guide to European and American thinkers skeptical about the ideology of historical progress and about arguments for engineering a good society by making people conform to a rational standard. “I have written this book,” he notes, “in the hope of encouraging well-meaning liberals to take a look at what those arguments really are.” In these polarized times, his call for discussion of conservative intellectual traditions is welcome.

At the core of “Conservatism” is the idea that human beings live naturally together in communities and that we “desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity.” We may be rational beings capable of planning our future, but we also need customs and institutions to ground and sustain us over time. Good things, Scruton wisely notes, “are more easily destroyed than created.”

The philosophical wellsprings of conservatism are the defense of community associated with Edmund Burke and the defense of free markets and individual choice associated with Adam Smith. The first evolved into ways of thinking that are critical of the enormous societal changes associated with industrialization, like the destruction of the family and the village that comes along with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of people with no social responsibility. The second evolved into ways of thinking that celebrate the benefits of industrialization and turn into heroes those who profit most from the creative destruction that comes with capitalism. The strongest thinkers for Scruton are those who strike a balance between these adverse ways of thinking. He sees the German philosopher Hegel as offering “the most systematic presentation that we have of the conservative vision of political order” because Hegel understood that political freedom evolved in relation to ongoing communities and because his theory of the state preserved a space for private property and exchange.

Scruton knows that conservatism is a reaction against the Enlightenment confidence in improving the world through the use of reason, but he is at pains to distinguish the thinkers he admires from mere reactionaries. His philosophers don’t want to return to the past, he insists. Yet he provides no clue as to how they decide which traditions are worth preserving. Burke may have protested against the cruelties of slavery and imperial domination, but there have been plenty of conservatives who defended these practices. Scruton’s account of the conservative defense of freedom includes not a word about colonialism or racism. To paraphrase what he says of the American conservative Russell Kirk, Scruton just picks the conservative flowers that appeal to him.

But how to hold together an intellectual bouquet that combines the simple blooms of village life and the hothouse hybrids of unfettered economic development? Often a common enemy provides unity, and antagonism toward the modern bureaucratic state has worked well for conservatives. Government officials have long been seen as riding roughshod over local custom as well as getting in the way of industrious entrepreneurs. Throughout the 20th century, moreover, anti-Communism unified conservatives, and they often labeled as Communist anyone who disagreed with their selective defense of freedom.

Scruton can no longer find worthy Communist adversaries, so at the end of the book he turns against Muslims, hoping for a “rediscovery of ourselves” by stoking fear and loathing against those who he says do not share “our” religious or political inheritance. He knows how this will sound to many of his readers, so he warns them against thinking he’s just being racist. But one doesn’t have to be politically correct or to participate in what Scruton calls the “culture of repudiation” to find it unfortunate that a philosopher should stoop so low. The “great tradition” Scruton describes can attract study and respect without stimulating nasty chauvinism. His “well-meaning liberal” readers will find Scruton’s deft handling of a variety of conservative thinkers enlightening (if I may use that word), but they will be appalled at the grand old tradition of scapegoating he employs to rally the troops.