Against the Tide:
The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries and Criticism
edited by mark dooley
bloomsbury, 256 pages, $28
When Roger Scruton died in early 2020, the world lost a philosopher with that rarest of gifts: the ability to express profound ideas in elegant and limpid prose. It also lost the man who more than any other in his generation had sought to develop a positive conservative philosophy, eschewing both the naive confidence that the free market would solve all problems and the temptation to reaction and authoritarianism. His death also robbed us of his thoughts on the impact of Covid, with its cult of the expert and manipulative use of social media, and the surge of social unrest in Europe and North America.
This background makes the latest (though one hopes not the last) collection of Scruton’s shorter writings rather moving. One cannot read them without a sense that the conservative world lost a learned, thoughtful, and creative voice at the very moment when it was most needed. Modern conservatism’s most important postwar philosopher left us at precisely the same time that the West witnessed the death throes of the postwar liberal order.
The essays, chosen by Scruton’s friend Mark Dooley, range in their dates of composition from the Thatcher era to the week or so before Scruton’s death. They are a testimony not only to his longstanding engagement with the public square but also to the breadth of his intellectual curiosity, the depth of his political and cultural understanding, and his profound sense of living at the end of an era. Often witty but never flippant, they are models of graceful engagement with the big ideas, personalities, and themes of one’s time. And as is typical of Scruton’s prose, the writing has the clarity that bespeaks a great mind and great teacher. A genuinely clever man, Scruton had no need to hide any superficiality behind the murky jargon so often favored by the intellectually insecure. And his wit sparkles throughout, whether he’s drawing serious philosophical conclusions from an amusing polemic against screw-top wine bottles (a reminder “of what we should lose, were the rituals of social drinking to be replaced by the mass loneliness of the binge-drinking culture”) or predicting in 1997 what difference a Tony Blair premiership might make (“In short, everything will proceed as it has done under the Tories, only faster, and without the damaging residue of guilt”).
Scruton’s academic expertise was in aesthetics, a field that is somewhat dry and obscure to the nonspecialist but nonetheless of great practical significance, as his interest in architecture and the importance of beauty in public spaces demonstrated. This expertise was important as well for his political philosophy. Scruton saw high culture—the shared literature, art, and philosophy of a society—as politically vital. High culture anchored a people’s identity, undergirded their moral imagination, and gave them a sense of purpose. Once high culture dies, it will inevitably be replaced by a culture of fakes. And when “faking it” becomes the mode of the officer class, truth itself will become irrelevant to society.
Scruton makes this argument beautifully in the essay “High Culture Is Being Corrupted by a Culture of Fakes” and offered a more topical version of the same case in a 2018 opinion piece for the New York Times, “What Trump Doesn’t Get About Conservatism.” Scruton views the Trump phenomenon not through the usual categories of racism or populism, but rather as a function of the culture as a whole: He is “a creation of social media” who has “lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgment.”
Trump is, for Scruton, a master of the art of “spin doctoring,” which emerged in the 1990s. Though much has been made of our post-truth era over the past few years, the role of mass media in politics has meant that politicians have for generations had to be salesmen, selling both themselves and their message to the public in order to win—or perhaps better, “buy”—votes. In such a world, the presentation of truth has become more important than the truth itself: something anticipated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, but formalized in the nineties in the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who relied on experts to curate their images on television and beyond. The rise to cultural power of social media in the decades since has simply led to the further detachment of public, political discourse from any agreed-upon rules of evidence or rationality. Like Hannah Arendt, Scruton sees this problem as a cultural crisis with implications beyond the competition for votes: As fakes proliferate, they erode the difference between reality and fakery and abolish our ability to discern—even to care about—the difference between truths and lies.
Once, on a visit to Dubai, I was offered a “genuine fake Rolex” by a hawker. That seems an appropriate metaphor for the phenomenon Scruton is describing, which encompasses not only Trump but the myriad fakes who dominate our culture, right and left. We are all happy with fake Rolexes now.
If Scruton is right on this point, then we in the West are at a truly critical juncture. The priesthood whose task it is to preserve high culture—our professional educators—no longer really does so. From the left, the various branches of critical theory have dismantled those things necessary for preserving high culture, and this volume gives ample evidence of Scruton’s disdain for Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and company. But the threat is not simply from the trendy left. It also comes from the right. Scruton admired Thatcher but was never as enamored of free markets as she was, understanding as he did that free markets must be overseen by a moral imagination in order to function in a way that serves society and not merely individual ambition. The institutions of higher education, with their market-driven focus on utility and “relevance,” have been part of the problem. In a classic essay included here, “The Virtue of Irrelevance,” Scruton makes the case that the only useful education is necessarily “irrelevant.” Education is about learning what it means to be human, rather than learning to serve particular interests or purposes. Here as elsewhere, Scruton argues with great force that to be human is to be more than rational. It is to have desires, passions, needs, and relationships that cannot be analyzed in terms of Gradgrind’s “facts, facts, facts.”
Here, though, it is worth asking a hard question. Could it be that Scruton’s understandable dislike of the left cut him off from thinkers with whom he shared some common principles—or at the very least, common enemies? Only in the case of Sartre, and then specifically on the matter of sexual desire in his book of that name, did Scruton ever really acknowledge any major positive contribution by leftist continental philosophers. In this collection, the tilt is entirely negative.
The bias is understandable. In his memoir, Gentle Regrets, Scruton recalls witnessing the Paris student protests in 1968. This event was for him a watershed moment, the point at which the conservative direction of his life was fixed, so appalled was he by the excesses and the iconoclasm. Yet his own anthropology, at least in its emphasis on the passionate and irrational (Nietzsche and especially Wagner have left their mark on much of this thought), bears comparison with the work of some of those for whom he often expressed nothing but disdain. Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for example, likewise understands the limitations of Enlightenment models of truth and rationality. And Adorno’s defense of high culture against the advance of commercialized pop culture bears a striking resemblance to Scruton’s own polemics, with respect to both culture in general and the style of intellectually shallow, performative political celebrity exemplified by Donald Trump.
Of course, any comparison with Western Marxists breaks down rapidly when we consider what else is truly important for social existence. For Marxists, at least of the classical kind, it is not place but class that provides the consciousness of self and the foundation of identity. For Scruton, it is the sense of place and everything that follows: the interdependence of human beings through actual, local community; the importance of Burke’s “little platoons”; the social benefits of everything from fox hunting to the English habit of “buying rounds” in the local pub. Scruton disliked the EU for its attempt to impose an administrative identity on people who shared a large landmass rather than a common culture. In this collection, his essays on Trump, on human rights, and on why communism failed all highlight the power of local and national commitments. He points out that the United States Declaration of Independence, the quintessential document of the modern liberal state, witnesses to this: “We the people” presupposes a defined people in a particular place.
Scruton is surely right here. Human beings have historically had strong ties to particular places, territories, nations: entities shaped by the artifacts of particular cultures, stories, songs, institutions, and landmarks pregnant with narrative significance. Indeed, one might add that communism only ever proved a powerful social force (in Russia, China, and Vietnam) where it was able to capitalize on a sense of national or ethnic identity and draw on the symbols of an already established culture. Marxists may have hoped for the development of an international proletarian consciousness that would give the working class a deeper sense of selfhood than did their country of birth, but throughout the twentieth century this hope proved the ever-elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If the Covid lockdowns revealed anything, they revealed a class divide that vindicates Scruton’s analysis. The new divide is not between capitalist and worker so much as between those who can live and work anywhere, and those who must live and work somewhere in particular—between the so-called laptop class and the rest. The question of place, rather than of one’s relationship to the means of production, increasingly defines our political situation, from the question of immigration to that of geographical inequality and rural poverty.
If our political class determinedly ignores the importance of place, that is thanks in part—yet again—to social media, which has made communication less and less about real relationships taking place in real places in real time, and more about disembodied interactions taking place in a virtual space that exists nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
The collection is too rich to deal in detail with all of its topics, but one further theme warrants mention: Scruton’s attitude to religion, specifically Christianity. In works such as Our Church, Scruton’s reflection on the importance of Anglicanism for English life, religion operates as a means of preserving culture through its ritual and its practices, tied to the land and to the language of England. In this collection, his concern is more for how it reflects and satisfies those non-rational aspects of what it means to be human. The modern scientific mindset, and its manifestation in the pop atheism of Richard Dawkins and company, have failed to understand that human beings desire meaning. And religion arises at precisely that point.
Scruton is a very popular philosopher with Christians, and understandably so. He takes God, sin, sacrifice, death, and ritual very seriously. But here is where I hesitate. Though it is clear that religious themes came more and more to preoccupy his later work—The Face of God and The Soul of the World, for example—it remains unclear to me whether Scruton believed in God or whether he simply believed that God was a good idea. Indeed, it is hard to read Our Church without the impression that the lack of doctrinal prescriptiveness in generic cultural Anglicanism—its functional agnosticism, to put the matter in sharp terms—was precisely what appealed to him.
So was Scruton’s God a theological reality or an anthropological one? The distinction might be of little relevance to anyone but Scruton himself, as his work seems to me eminently compatible with Christian doctrine. Yet, having read this collection, I am once again left wondering whether my hero’s system of thought was built on wishful thinking rather than on objective theological reality.
Certainly, Scruton is correct in his belief that our experience of being human involves powerful forces that cannot be reduced to the principles of pure reason or easily explained in terms of the needs of the species in some evolutionary process. And yes, a sense of the sacred does characterize many human societies and has been a potent instrument for good in, for example, resistance to communism under the past Soviet and present Chinese regimes. But I fear that Scruton is too faithful a student of Kant to engage with the deeper metaphysical claims that, say, Christianity makes. Throughout his work—as exemplified by the short pieces on religion in this collection—it is always the experiential reality of the sense of the sacred and the good things that flow from it that he addresses. But is that really enough?
A sense of the sacred grounded in no larger reality might simply reflect the tastes of a particular community, or perhaps (as Sigmund Freud or Richard Dawkins might argue) an instinct that previously played a role in preserving the species but has outlasted the need it once met. In both cases, Scruton is vulnerable to the criticism that the place he ascribes to the religious instinct simply supports his own cultural and political tastes, granting them a veneer of authority. Is his thinking thus a castle—albeit a magnificent and beautiful castle—floating precariously in mid-air? Or, more controversially, is it a conservative expression of nihilism, with values likely to devalue themselves over time through lack of any solid, transcendent foundation?
None of this should detract from the fact that Scruton was a great conservative philosopher. But whether his philosophy has robust enough foundations to help at a time when all that he held dear is in disarray, or whether it is simply the last great diagnostic statement of how Western culture committed suicide, is a question only time will allow us to answer.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.
Image by Levan Ramishvili via Creative Commons. Image cropped.