The Conscience of the Conservative

It has been just over two years since the English philosopher, political thinker, and man of letters Roger Scruton lost his short, grueling battle with cancer. Scruton was a philosopher in the rich, capacious sense that predates the narrow disciplinary, and sub-disciplinary, distinctions that dominate and, in crucial respects, deform the contemporary university. He aimed at a comprehensive or “architectonic” grasp of the human condition without losing an appreciation of the irreducible mystery at the heart of things.

In his lucid and succinct “Preface” to Against the Tide, an authoritative and wide-ranging collection of the English writer’s journalism, columns, review essays, and occasional diary entries written between 1971 and 2019, Scruton’s literary executor, the Irish philosopher and journalist Mark Dooley, suggestively compares Scruton to the German philosopher Hegel. Scruton, like Hegel at his best, saw the intellectual life as “a spiritual endeavor to synthesize art, music, religion, politics, and philosophy.”

Of course, Scruton did not share Hegel’s historicist confidence in the possibility of human beings reaching an “end to History” where all “contradictions” are in principle resolved, or attaining a Wisdom that is at once final and definitive. That sort of Hegelianism was wholly alien to Scruton who remained faithful to the Platonic view that “care of the soul” was inseparable from care of the polis, two vital imperatives that would confront human beings as long as a distinctively human condition endured. But the aspiration to do justice to the full range of human experience and the highest forms of human understanding and creativity gave an unmistakably Hegelian tinge to Scruton’s own efforts at practical philosophizing. Scruton not only read the morning newspapers, to allude to a quintessentially Hegelian motif, but he wrote for them with clarity, insight, and eloquence. As Dooley observes, Roger Scruton was a gifted writer before anything else. At first glance, Scruton’s truly elegant writing seems effortless. But it was in fact the product of considerable craft, a sustained effort on his part to become one of the great men of letters of his time. To reduce him to the level of conservative polemicist or controversialist is to commit a serious injustice.

Scruton, was, nonetheless, a conservative of a particularly urbane kind. The writings expertly collected in Against the Tide go a long way to illuminating Scruton’s humane and dignified conservatism. The reader relives the creation in 1982 of The Salisbury Review, Britain’s first unabashedly conservative intellectual review. The review’s contributors included such eminent writers and thinkers as Peter Bauer, A.L. Rowse, Václav Havel, P.D. James, and Scruton himself. It eventually found itself a devoted readership in samizdat in Communist east-central Europe where Scruton developed close ties with the intellectual underground (he was eventually arrested by the Czech STB in Bruno in 1985 and expelled from what was then called Czechoslovakia).

At home, Scruton and The Salisbury Review were subjected to furious criticism in academic circles and in the left-liberal press. Every effort was made to “cancel” the humane and cultivated Scruton for “crimes” that included intelligent anti-communism, moral clarity about what is entailed in limitless immigration and unguarded borders, a thoughtful defense of British sovereignty and the nation-state, and the firmest opposition to “the culture of repudiation” in all its forms (the latter phrase is original to Scruton and remains indispensable for understanding the ongoing efforts by “progressive” intellectuals to repudiate and negate the Western civic and civilizational inheritance). Readers of Against the Tide will quickly come to appreciate that the war on the West is longstanding and that political correctness has been ensconced in the commanding heights of journalism and educational and cultural institutions for five decades or more. Scruton had been fighting the good fight decades before many soi-disant conservatives even noticed there was a battle. They were so preoccupied with the alterations of the business cycle and the political pendulum that they failed to truly appreciate that the West was losing its soul.

Philosophy, rightly understood, and religion at its most thoughtful, are united in defending the human soul and what Scruton elsewhere calls “the soul of the world.”

Scruton’s urbane conservatism had no time of day for what he called in a 1994 piece (“The Conscience of the Conservative”) “trivializing materialists and sarcastic cynics” who increasingly dominated media and cultural life in Britain and elsewhere and who showed open contempt for traditional affirmations. He opposed totalitarian collectivism and unremitting efforts to nationalize and centralize political and economic life. But as he argued in a 2018 essay on “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Get About Conservatism,” the best conservative thinkers “on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values out there.” Conservatism above all cherishes “What cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art, and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.” Trump deserved credit for standing up to political correctness and fighting the tyrannical leftist mob. But like that mob, he was a product of social media and “cultural decline.” And his vulgarity had nothing to do with the broader conservative intellectual tradition that Scruton so energetically and thoughtfully defended.

In contrast, as a 2013 column from the London Times makes clear, Scruton genuinely admired Margaret Thatcher’s character and achievement. But her greatest legacy was, in his view, not the market-minded reform of British political economy, as necessary and desirable as it undoubtedly was, but her placing “the nation and national interest at the center of politics” once again. Readers of a certain age will remember her great 1988 speech at Bruges where she took to task the very idea of a Europe-Behemoth. She was the first British statesman in two generations to defend national sovereignty as the crucial precondition of self-government and democracy rightly understood.

Only territorial democracy, as Scruton wrote elsewhere, allowed free men and women to remain accountable to each other. National identification allows people of different religions, tribes, and ethnicity, strangers in other respects, to live under “a shared system of law.” And he sympathized with the desire of the peoples of east-central Europe to hold on to their national patrimonies after the brutal and bitter experience of a half-century of ideological despotism. Scruton sympathized with the concerns of Hungarians, Poles, and Czechs that their tutelage to a cruel ideological despotism was being replaced by a new empire of centralized regulation, radical secularism, moral relativism, and diminished national sovereignty in the form of an evermore capricious European Union. Thatcher saw much of this coming while her contemporaries thought only in terms of material prosperity and all-democratic bliss.

In my judgment, the most profound aspect of this book is its ample and persuasive (non- or extra-theological) defense of the soul in Part IV of the book (“Intimations of Infinity”). In this section, Scruton argues vigorously against theoretical and practical materialism and every form of scientistic reductionism. He took the “life-world,” rooted in common sense and ordinary experience, with the true seriousness it deserves. When we respond to another human being, we are responding to an ensouled person and not just a conglomeration of matter-in-motion. “Nothing buttery,” as the English philosopher Mary Midgley so suggestively called it, can only see flesh and physical laws in a world of freely acting, thinking, and judging persons. But modern reductionists, and the evermore censorious “new atheists,” see in the human being only instinct and animality, in law nothing but power (a view theorized, or rather propagandized, by Foucault and the full range of postmodernists), in sexual love “nothing but” the “procreative urge,” and in the Mona Lisa “nothing but” the “spread of pigments on a canvas.” Nothing buttery simply explains away the human person, lived experience, and truth as well as love and beauty. It dogmatically eviscerates what is most dear to human beings and that is at the center of our personal experience. And how are philosophy or science even possible if the human person as philosopher or scientist doesn’t even exist?

More boldly, Scruton rejects “nothing buttery” in the big things as well as the small. If sex, pictures, and people are not reducible to something other than themselves, why should that be the case “when dealing with the world as a whole.” The world is no more reducible to the “order of nature as physics describes it” than Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is reducible to “nothing but a smear of pigments.” Philosophy, rightly understood, and religion at its most thoughtful, are united in defending the human soul and what Scruton elsewhere calls (in a 2015 book by that name) “the soul of the world.” Scruton tellingly adds in a 2014 essay on the human hunger for the sacred, that Communism, as Scruton experienced it during his numerous clandestine visits behind the Iron Curtain between 1979 and 1989, provided the reductio ad absurdum of a human world reduced to a crudely “scientific worldview” that effaced liberty, human dignity, true philosophy and the sacred as revealed and reflected in the Christian religion. This ultimate form of “nothing buttery” led to cruel despotism, a systematic assault on the human soul, and a social condition marked by “absolute enmity and distrust.” The best of the dissidents in the Communist East fought for truth, liberty, beauty, and a soul unmenaced by ideological lies. They did not just fight for “rights,” “higher living standards,” and “freedom of movement” as the dominant narrative states.

Their noble partisanship on behalf of national memory, the sacred and the soul, and liberty tied to conscience and responsibility, is a gift for the ages, a moral witness worth treasuring. But as Scruton remarked in a 2009 column published in The Times of London to commemorate the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, the long-suffering countries of east-central Europe “bear no resemblance to the liberated nations that were dreamed of in the catacombs. For, when the stones were lifted and the air of freedom blew across the underground altars, the flame that has been kept alive on them was instantly blown out,” blown out by untrammeled freedom, and a desire to unthinkingly replicate the materialist cornucopia that is the West.  Perhaps this is why Scruton wrote and published his great anti-totalitarian novel Notes from Underground (2014), my personal favorite of all his works. Set in the Czech lands that he had come to love, it memorializes (and keeps alive) the loving spirit of conscience and conscientiousness, of deep appreciation of the soul and the sacred, that found true expression in the catacombs. In the catacombs, there was no place for “nothing buttery.”

The ending of Scruton’s tale is by now well known. Under assault from a mendacious young interviewer at the leftist New Statesman, who fabricated quotations to justify Scruton’s cancellation as an anti-Semite, Islamophobe, and hater of all sorts, Scruton was summarily fired as the head of a government commission charged with addressing the “uglification” of British architecture and town planning. Only after the true tapes of the notorious interview were recovered by the intrepid journalist Douglas Murray, was Scruton vindicated and restored to his position. Torn down by a vindicative leftist mob abated by cowardly Tories, Scruton, now dying of cancer, was publicly honored with the highest national medals by his old friends and admirers in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. And decent and truth-loving souls, friends and strangers alike, came to his defense from all over the world. Scruton found solace in such displays of friendship and in the ultimately joyful account in the Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection (see his deeply moving 2019 column “After My Own Dark Night”). In his final diary entry in the book, dated December 2019, Scruton notes with quiet, moving eloquence:

Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.

To hear these moving words is to hear Roger Scruton from the depth of his heart, mind, and soul. What a noble legacy he has left us. His entire life and thought entail a vindication of civilization and the soul.