Politics shouldn't determine what counts as art, but the energy released and channeled by art has a profound effect on politics, for good or ill.
Those of us who read for a living read a lot, and we rarely come across a work that is, simply stated, dazzling and delightful. Even rarer is one dazzling, delightful, deep and wise, but Roger Scruton’s Conservatism, is just such a book. Here, in an astonishingly short compass (less than one hundred and fifty pages of text), is a comprehensive history of western conservative thought, from the beginnings in Aristotle and Aquinas, through the French and Industrial Revolutions, right up to the present, and conservative thought not just in America and Britain, but in Continental Europe as well. The book is part of Profile Books’s series “Ideas in Profile,” subtitled “Small Introductions to Big Topics,” an apt rubric for what we have here.
Sir Roger Vernon Scruton, fellow of the British Academy, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, knighted in 2016, is the author of more than 50 books on political and religious philosophy, art, sexuality, and literature. For most of his career Scruton was an English academic, and a regular writer for the British popular press. Why, though, should readers of this blog — those devoted to Law and Liberty in the United States — care what England’s most visible and brave man of the Right has to say? He deserves our attention because Scruton makes clear and plain, as few have, that the defense of ordered liberty and the rule of law in our country (and similar battles in England and on the Continent) are the primary concern of conservatives here and abroad, and, if we fail to listen to them, what we cherish is likely to be lost.
Scruton’s shimmering little book will be invaluable in the hands of undergraduates and law students, and will serve as a primer (and, for the diligent, a lifetime reading list) for the key works of conservatives ranging from Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville all the way up to William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Scruton himself, and including such lesser known but crucial authors as Richard Weaver, Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich von Hayek, Joseph A. Schumpeter, Michael Oakeshott, Whittaker Chambers, and many, many others.
It is with, however, the practicing professionals and a concerned citizenry that Scruton ought to have his greatest and most valuable impact. Thus, the galaxy of talent commented on by Scruton is not simply a panorama of heroes, it is, rather, the assembling of a set of tools for the construction of a means of preserving the United States Constitution (which Scruton quite rightly regards as the one of the preeminent achievements of Conservatism) and the liberties it guarantees against the destructive forces which now challenge it. For Scruton, these destructive forces are the ideas of the modern Left, the progressives and socialists, now proceeding under the banners of political correctness and multiculturalism. Scruton argues that if these notions were allowed to govern us (and they did for eight years in the last administration), they would lead to wholesale redistribution of resources, and, quite possibly, a levelling of distinctions which would eventually turn this country into a kind of dystopia forecast by George Orwell.
Equally alarming for Scruton is the secular ideology which has triumphed in both the American and British Universities, and, indeed, in most of American and British politics. While he doesn’t exactly invoke this particular phrase, the thrust of Scruton’s thought is quite similar to that of the Hamiltonian Federalists, who, in their struggle with the Jeffersonians (the party of the Left in their day), maintained that there could be no order without law, no law without morality, and no morality without religion. In this the Federalists were simply carrying on the English common law tradition, as explained in Blackstone, and so important to many early American judges, that underscored the connection between gospel morality and the law.
Scruton similarly stresses the connection of law and morality with religion, and adds to that the cultural benefits flowing from a consciousness of national character and tradition. The one great American conservative Scruton curiously does not mention, Antonin Scalia, the great champion of textualism, originalism, and tradition, would have understood and appreciated what Scruton seeks to do, and would have applauded the manner in which Scruton disposes of the proponents of judicial legislation and the “living constitution.”
Anyone sympathetic to the jurisprudence of Scalia, will be immediately attracted to what Scruton has to say, and, indeed, delighted to discover that for Scruton, and for thoughtful English and American conservatives, the English Constitution and the English Common Law of which it is a crucial part furnishes the substance of an enduring political program. Scruton’s book, then, is not simply a review for scholars and students, but is also a handbook for the practicing politician and voter, and a reminder that the task of government ought to be to preserve and protect liberty, property and rights, and not to reconstitute society through the redistribution of resources. When Newt Gingrich and his band of Republican would-be reformers achieved control of the Congress in 1994 he famously recommended that they read Tocqueville to gain a better sense of what their responsibilities were and how they might best preserve democracy in America by implementing conservative principles of governance. The need for enlightened statesmanship in our era is, if possible, even greater, and, in an ideal polity, President Trump would purchase and send copies of this little Scruton volume to all the members of the House and Senate, and as many agency and executive branch officials as possible.
Scruton is now 73, and these mature reflections of his also emphasize that while the task for conservatives in our time is to contribute to the preservation of our heritage of law and liberty, he also demonstrates, as he has in many other works, that the business of conservatives ought also to be to preserve our culture. For this preservation to take place, he understands (and so should we), it is necessary to resist the blandishments of the multiculturalists, and to make sure that we do not lose the insights into the human condition offered by our greatest novelists, poets, critics, and artists.
Accordingly, there is a chapter on “Cultural Conservatism,” an exploration of Western Literature, and, in particular, the writings of John Bunyan, François-René de Chateaubriand, William Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Benjamin Disraeli (as a novelist as well as a Conservative politician), T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. Scruton thus reminds us of something known to the great 19th century American lawyers (and to a select few in our time, like Scalia and like Richard Posner) that literature informs and strengthens politics and even law. Scruton takes care to demonstrate that our literary tradition, like our political tradition, has been, in its highest and best use, devoted to the preservation of Christian morality and revealed truth. In particular the best elements of the tradition have focused on the two essential propositions of Christian thought: that we should learn to love and honor God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Working with these insights, Scruton ends this extraordinarily informative and extraordinarily provocative volume with a prescription for how conservatives ought to move forward at this time of challenge not only from the progressives and the politically correct, but from immigration and Islamic radicalism. In a fascinating set of suggestions which can only be hinted at here, Scruton maintains that preserving our tradition in our time ought to be about promoting nationalism, the preservation of national character. Scruton here unintentionally echoes the recently-expressed notion by Donald Trump that while he wanted to make America great again, he thought it ought to be the enterprise of other countries to do precisely the same, but according to their particular traditions. It is the fragmentation of our society that ought most to be feared, Scruton maintains, and thus the multiculturalism and “identity politics” of the progressives and the demand for subordination of individual thought and national identity and the intolerance of other religious traditions in Muslim extremism must be resisted by conservatives everywhere.
Perhaps Scruton is a bit too optimistic about bringing everyone around to the enduring insights of traditional Western Christianity, and perhaps his belief that even Muslim immigrants to Western countries can live peaceably and learn to partake of the historic national traditions and culture of the nations in which they settle will be difficult to accept, but the alternatives to Scruton’s optimism are discord and despair. It is fashionable in American universities, and has been since the early seventies, to disparage the suggestion that there are any “permanent things” or “timeless truths.” A work such as this slim volume, if widely circulated, as it should be, has the potential strikingly to remedy our failures to accept the possibility of an enduring vision of the good, the true, and the divine.