This article is from the Autumn 2020 edition of the IPA Review.
Sir Roger Scruton, philosopher and conservative, died on 12 January at the age of 75 after a six-month battle with cancer. Over his career, Scruton published more than 50 works of philosophy, polemic, fiction, and memoir. His speciality was aesthetics and the philosophy of mind, and he published works on art, architecture, and music. But he was best known for his political philosophy and his willingness to engage in popular debate.
Sir Roger—whom the IPA brought to Australia in 2014 to deliver the keynote address at the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Symposium (which can be found at the IPA’s YouTube channel)—articulated and defended conservatism as a political philosophy as substantial as any of its rivals. For this, he became a polarising figure: feted by conservatives as the best of us, loathed by the left for much the same reason. By the time of his death, however, he had the begrudging respect of even his fiercest opponents in the academy, had been knighted and widely acclaimed, and, as I have written in these pages previously (‘Eaton Alive’, IPA Review, August 2019) his reputation withstood one last idiotic attempt to take him down.
Scruton was perhaps conservatism’s most important theorist, and to illustrate his significance let’s highlight a key aspect of his project: the connection he draws between the individual and society, which is at the foundation of his world view. Since, however, a man’s life and work are not easily separated, it is worthwhile to recount a few facts that seem—to me at least, and without wanting to psychologise too much—somewhat salient in the interpretation of Scruton’s conservatism.
The first is that Scruton—despite ending his time with us as a classic tweed jacket-wearing, farm-owning, fox-hunting Tory—began life in markedly different circumstances. As he writes in his memoirs England: An Elegy (2000) and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a life (2005), Scruton grew up in a working class home outside London. In Scruton’s telling, his father was a difficult man and a socialist, resentful of the class system he believed had robbed him of his chances in life. (Though, Scruton notes elsewhere, his father, following Conquest’s famous dictum, was a conservative about those things he knew best.) Scruton was a representative of what we sometimes call the aspirational class, but the hierarchy he set out to ascend was one his father had hoped he would hate. In one sense, conventional; in the other, iconoclastic.
We see an echo of this duality in Scruton’s telling of his origin story, starting with his reaction to witnessing the 1968 student riots in France. Scruton found his sympathies lay with the established order. But perhaps the real story starts a little later. Scruton had been living in France with the woman who became his first wife. The failure of their marriage haunted him. Writing many years later, Scruton admitted he was not immune to the spirit of those times and had seen divorce as a kind of liberation, only to find, as confirmed by his second marriage, that “real liberation… comes through accepting a moral law”.
Defending this classical idea of freedom was, or became, the central preoccupation of Scruton’s career. This is why, although he flirted with standing for parliament in the late 1970s, his main political activism was supporting dissidents in communist Eastern Europe. Scruton helped establish a kind of underground academy, smuggling literature and even speakers into Czechoslovakia. It is also why he was pushed out of the academy. In 1985, Scruton published Thinkers of the New Left, with a new version released in 2015 as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (see ‘Left Behind’, IPA Review, August 2016). The book was controversial for little reason other than Scruton’s bluntness, not only about his political disagreements with the writers surveyed (including Galbraith, Sartre and Gramsci) but the low quality of their reasoning and writing. Scruton’s target here is the liberation ethic: the idea that the goal of politics is “emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order”. It is ironic that by arguing individuality emerges from the institutional order, and not in opposition to it, Scruton was expelled from that order.
It is not too reductive to find something illustrative of Scruton’s conservatism in this sketch of his early life. We clearly see Scruton was a man possessed of a strong impulse to self-expression, yet also always in search of authority. Or as he put it: “Although I was from the earliest age an intellectual and a troublemaker, something in me wished, even as a schoolboy, to be reconciled with the thing that everyone denounced…” You can see this in his style, which mixes an unmatched ability to distil and synthesise arguments with sometimes blatant provocations.
Left-wing interlocutors often remarked on how Scruton would infuriate by switching between profundity and pugilism. You can see something of this contrarian streak too in what Scruton did in his years outside the academy. Given a sinecure at the free market American Enterprise Institute, Scruton produced the book Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet (2012), which sought to reclaim conservationism from the left. Scruton seemed to enjoy upsetting expectations; he valued the push and pull between individuals and institutions. Indeed, he would argue, the two make sense only when considered together.
All philosophers have within themselves some deep feeling or desire they hope to rationalise, and for Scruton it was this feeling that he could not really be an individual without some sense of harmony with the objective world in which he found himself. His political philosophy is intelligible as an argument for how that harmony, or order, can be brought into being.
Written at the start of the Thatcher era, Scruton’s first political work, The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), defended traditionalism against the impending liberalisation of the economy. His purpose was to state plainly what, apart from material wealth, is at stake in politics. A short book, it nonetheless ranges widely, discussing the common law and its connection to liberty, defending private property, and forthrightly considering the sources and nature of authority; a concept these days normally referenced only obliquely by words such as legitimacy or justification. Almost uniquely in the study of conservatism, Scruton gives an account of what a conservative society looks like: how its various institutions fit together and to what end. In contrast with liberalism, Scruton does not begin with the individual. Instead he begins with society, taking seriously the claim a society cannot be reduced to its members. A conservative society, he argues, cultivates in people a sense of allegiance to society and the other unchosen institutions that determine one’s identity, such as the family.
Yet it is a mistake to think Scruton was not interested in the individual or in liberty. The goal of politics and the state is to “bring authority, allegiance, and tradition together, in order to define the citizen as a subject”. That is, the proper institutional arrangements make the autonomous individual possible. Liberalism starts with a claim like: individuals know their own minds best, and so ought to be sovereign over them.
But as Scruton argues in the appendix to The Meaning of Conservatism and in his later Modern Philosophy, there are compelling reasons to doubt this idea of self is even intelligible without some language external to the mind, and beyond its control, which the individual shares with others. The problem Scruton identifies in liberalism is that if we abstract away all the concrete attachments of the individual self, then it doesn’t seem very meaningful or important. The subject is valuable because of its interactions with the public world, not independent of them.
With this in mind, Scruton endorses much of the work of FA Hayek, despite the latter’s rejection of the label ‘conservative’. For Scruton, Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order provided a neat, secular explanation for why an individual might accept the social world as given. In the right conditions, institutions—such as markets, but not limited to them—provide individuals with information they cannot generate themselves. Distributed knowledge gives individuals a motivation for allegiance to society and a public language by which to assess their own minds, as well as vital information about how others have lived and how one might live. Hayek gives conservatism a theory of tradition as a kind of evolutionary rationality, whereby we can trust the practices that have descended to us because their survival testifies to their functionality.
Scruton departs from Hayekian analysis in an important way. He argues Hayek fails to resolve the problem confronting liberalism in all its forms, which is it takes for granted a settled society it cannot itself justify or explain. Scruton’s later work all evinces a concern for how this question might be resolved. From The Need for Nations (2004) onwards, Scruton begins to emphasise the concepts of ‘home’ and ‘membership’. Scruton aims to pick out the relationship between people in a place they have ‘enchanted’ or overlaid with a complex system of meaning.
As in his earlier work, Scruton argues the individual’s subjectivity is realised within this inherited network of references, but he pays more attention to what this means for the ‘other’, the people whose individuality emerged in another context: immigrants. For Scruton, the trust we place in our fellows to act in ways consistent with our institutions and their meanings for us—to trust that in their freedom they will not destroy our own subjectivity—is a product of membership, not the other way around.
In the course of his work, as he sharpens and complicates the distinction he draws between conservatism and liberalism, Scruton’s conservatism achieves a rare kind of systematicity (though I think Scruton would resist this characterisation). At the foundation of it is something like a realist claim about the existence of society: that we know more than our own minds, and indeed, that we can claim to know our own minds only if we accept the existence of something beyond them. On this foundation, Scruton builds a politics that works to distribute knowledge of this something else. Conservatism is, as much as anything else, the proposition that any attempt to consciously reshape the public world puts it at risk, and us along with it. For a long time, the centre-right in the Anglosphere has attempted to promote and support traditional lives within liberal institutions. Scruton’s project suggests this is backwards, as the goal should be to cultivate liberality by supporting traditional institutions.
Yet Scruton’s work may leave readers with a sense of incompleteness. Many have noted Scruton is never quite clear whether he thinks the public world includes, or must include, some idea of the good. It was sometimes hard to tell whether, as a Christian, he believed his religion was the literal and whole truth. The point is not to doubt his sincerity. It is instead to wonder whether this public world from which our individuality emerges has any necessary content, or if the only thing necessary is that beings such as us should share such a world. The answer is important for conservatism. Down one road, conservatism becomes active, even combative, as the individual and society struggle to live in truth. Down the other road, conservatism becomes something more passive, a way for the individual to reconcile himself to events and institutions beyond his control. This question grows ever more pressing the more divorced our status quo becomes from the status quo ante—a revolutionary process that seems only to be accelerating.
Maybe Scruton, with duelling instincts towards rebellion and respectability, was not the man to answer this question. In any event, it is the question he leaves for the rest of us.