Roger Scruton, an English philosopher who died in 2020, wrote more than 50 books on topics such as art, politics, and philosophy. He started a serious intellectual journal (The Salisbury Review), and established underground academic networks in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. He was knighted in 2016, received three awards of distinction in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, and had a cafe named after him in Budapest, but he was largely ignored for honours and was often attacked because he was a conservative of the traditionalist bent. Two of his most important books were The Meaning of Conservatism and How to Be a Conservative.
Two very different publishers have released volumes by Scruton that are worth adding to the collection of any conservative serious about culture and political thought. Bloomsbury, a publisher named after the early 20th century group of writers that rebelled against bourgeois values, has released a collection of columns and reviews, Against the Tide ($38, 242 pages). Encounter, a conservative publisher, has re-released his 2007 book Culture Counts ($25.99, 118 pages).
Mark Dooley, Scruton’s literary executor, writes in the introduction to Against the Tide, “I am confident it will give readers a clear sense of Scruton’s power as a writer and columnist.” The pieces chosen by Dooley cover an impressive range of topics, including British and Middle Eastern politics, science and culture, education and morals, plus essays on sex, hunting, and the eating of fish (they are three separate essays, one should note).
In a short essay, “The Modern Cult of Ugliness,” Scruton discusses the lack of beauty in all the modern arts (architecture, literature, music, painting): “Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too. Just as art and architecture have uglified themselves, so have our manners, our relationships and our language become crude.” In another essay, “High Culture is Being Corrupted by a Culture of Fakes,” Scruton condemns much of modern academic theorizing as the intellectual playground of charlatans and exposes their nonsensical and self-referential prose with a vivid image: “They illustrate a peculiar kind of academic Newspeak: each sentence is curled round like an ingrowing toenail, hard, ugly, and pointing only to itself.” On education, he laments not only the imperiousness of state-run schools and teachers that refuse, “to recognize the right of parents to bring up their children,” but for “parents who refuse to recognize that they have not only the right but the duty to do so.”
Four superior essays are found in the section, “Fraudulent Philosophy,” that examines particularly culturally toxic figures: Louis Althusser, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, and Sigmund Freud. In a 1971 review of Madness and Civilization, Scruton skewers Foucault’s logical and definitional deficiencies. Of Althusser, Scruton says he “shows how gobbledegook may be regarded as wisdom so long as it has a left-wing tone of voice.” After conceding that Chomsky is a brilliant linguist, he notes that the infamous critic of American foreign policy is “valued not for his truths but for his rage.” The title of his 1986 column, “Freud and Fraud” tells you what Scruton thinks of the famous psychiatrist.
Scruton has one of the best criticisms of liberalism and defenses of conservatism produced in a single paragraph. In a 2013 column in The Guardian, “Identity, Marriage, Family,” he writes: “But no freedom is absolute, and all must be qualified for the common good. Until subject to rule of law, freedom is merely ‘the dust and powder of individuality.’ But a rule of law requires a shared allegiance, by which people entrust their collective destiny to sovereign institutions that can speak and decide in their name. This shared allegiance is not, as Rousseau and other argued, a contract among the living. It is a partnership between the living, the unborn, and the dead — a continuous trust that no generation can pillage for its own advantage.”
Scruton was philosophically conservative, but not a partisan one. He criticized the gay marriage plank of the UK Tories (it abandoned the traditional understanding of marriage and family as procreational and thus foundational to society) and chastised President Donald Trump for what he didn’t understand about conservatism (Trump “has at best a distorted vision”).
Scruton argued that the appreciation of the life of the mind and matters of the heart, were trained by habit, and the standards to which we should strive for ought to be upheld by our political, cultural, and religious institutions, which reinforce our habits.
In Culture Counts, subtitled, “Faith & Feeling in a World Besieged,” Scruton argues that culture is “the repository of a … store of moral knowledge,” that is threatened today because philistines attack the very idea of a canon, the commonly understood touchstones of artistic excellence. Without classics — “a work whose significance endures across generations” — comparisons to other works and appreciating a hierarchy becomes impossible. Modern education has mocked the idea of a canon, dismissing it as irrelevant to pupils today. Scruton believes this has robbed them of a literary or artistic education that, once properly formed, frees young adults interested in the life of the mind to pursue on their own; but first it must be informed by a common frame of reference, in other words a canon.
Ultimately culture matters because human beings matter. “What we can expect is that culture should conserve, through whatever troubles, the message of something higher,” Scruton writes, “the image of a world of human feeling which is also a proof of human value.” Art at its best provides a “sense of what is intrinsically worthwhile in the human condition.” In other words, it is a “repository of emotional knowledge,” and it is something that is not being passed on to the next generation.
Education fails both its students and society when it does not inculcate “our communal store of knowledge.” Mark Steyn has argued that the West simply lost its civilizational confidence. Scruton suggests something more pernicious at work: the deliberate diminishment of excellence. He also argues, briefly but persuasively, that information technology has been detrimental to the imparting of cultural appreciation because this technology prioritizes images over thought, multiplying “a thousand-fold the noise that fills the space in which ideas are conceived and brokered.”
Scruton laments that for almost every artistic endeavour, criticism is eschewed; “it suffices that a work of art has an audience,” he complains. But criticism is an act of engagement, to think through the meaning of a work, and to spread serious ideas about it among a larger audience. Scruton says that education and criticism need not benefit the pupil or reader, because the transmission of these ideas is the goal: someone, somewhere, will care about and pass on appreciation and knowledge. Culture is important because it imparts and transmits: “a society without culture loses its memory.” And, one might add, its decency and sanity.
The concluding chapter of Against the Tide includes three pieces on Scruton’s “Annus Horribilis” in which he was not only dying of cancer, but maliciously savaged for his purported views and abandoned by his friends in the governing Conservative Party. Scruton was appointed chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission when the New Statesman published excerpts of an interview that painted Sir Roger as an anti-Semite. The charge was ridiculous, the smear job despicable but effective, and the defenestration by the Tories swift. Audio tapes would later prove the excerpts were worse than misleading; they were completely false.
Sadly, charges of Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, despite literally tens of thousands of words to the contrary, were lobbed Scruton’s way most of his life by left-wing philistines. But truth, as Scruton knew, has a difficult time beating out the nonsense offered by an array of fakes, flakes, and charlatans. Reading Scruton will help us rekindle the search for what is good, true, and beautiful, and, more importantly, recognize them (and their opposites) when we see them.
Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.