Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition
All Points Books, June, 2018
Every intellectual historian must contend with challenges common to all efforts aimed at uncovering the enduring significance of cultural currents stretching across centuries. The historian must resist the urge to derive from the procession of events, artistic achievements, political and economic upheavals, and social transformations a reductive principle capable of unifying disparate trends into a tidy linear exposition. What the historian loses in narrative focus and rhetorical splendor she gains in historical fidelity. The lessons of history may be less forcefully portrayed, but by avoiding facile and artificial equivalences the historian’s achievement maintains greater authority.
To his credit, Sir Roger Scruton adopts this more fastidious approach to intellectual history in his latest effort to defend conservatism. Unwilling to reduce the history of conservative thought to an uninterrupted thread of steady development, Scruton preserves the complexity of its many fits and starts and acknowledges the variety of approaches taken by its diverse proponents. There is a tradeoff to this method of presentation. The very qualities that distinguish Scruton’s work as the product of an accomplished intellectual historian – his resistance to superficial narratives and deft attentiveness to both continuity and deviation – also threaten to undermine his assumed aim of advancing a normative principle around which conservatives might rally. While his cataloging of conservative thinkers and depiction of historical movements supplies the necessary context to situate the political sensibility within its proper orbit, the sympathetic reader may still ask, what now? In presenting so nuanced a history of conservative thought, Scruton withholds from the reader a conception of conservatism that might galvanize the still beleaguered movement through a richer understanding of its universal truth.
As a survey, Scruton’s essay is unparalleled and will likely replace previous efforts to substantiate the intellectual merits of the conservative heritage. Unlike Russell Kirk’s seminal The Conservative Mind, Scruton’s prose is accessible and his subject matter inviting, treating as he does canonical figures of the Western tradition already familiar to most educated readers. By demonstrating how conservative ideals emerged from celebrated progenitors of social contract theory and popular sovereignty such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Scruton reinforces the link between early modern liberalism and the conservative temperament before detailing conservatism’s gradual development into a distinctive outlook committed to the preservation of indigenous traditions and opposed to redistributive economic efforts to level inequalities.
The usual cast of players are accounted for: Montesquieu, Burke, Smith, Blackstone, Tocqueville, Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot, the Austrian School, etc. But Scruton extends his scope beyond such canonical figures, too, recasting thinkers typically associated with the radical left or with secularizing influences as contributors to fledgling conservative principles. One such case is Hegel, who Scruton views as supporting the conservative tendency to acknowledge the concrete needs of a people as they emerge amidst confrontations within historically-conditioned societies. Another is Hume, whom Scruton argues challenged prevailing Enlightenment notions of the preeminence of abstract reasoning with his account of the central role played by humankind’s passionate nature in determining how best to secure social harmony. Never doctrinaire or dogmatic, Scruton avoids oversimplifying matters, granting significant roles to thinkers whose legacy is complicated by dual allegiances to the Enlightenment project of grounding civil societies in secular, rational schemes aimed at maximizing utility and equality with causes consistent with conservative aims such as preserving property rights and fostering a virtuous culture.
What emerges is a picture of sustained conflict between groups of loosely affiliated factions over the priority of two seemingly irreconcilable goals: liberty and equality. The state may either safeguard the rights and property of individuals against expropriation by those with illegitimate claims, or it may enforce an unnatural equality by violating individual liberty and redistributing wealth to overcome disparities of education, talent and initiative. Scruton argues that the Jacobins of post-Revolution France typified the approach of the radical Enlightenment to pursue both aims by imposing from the top down an ideal vision of society that ignored the actual circumstances and preferences of its people, fashioning out of air systems of allegiances, rights and obligations foreign to the existing society. Conservatively-minded thinkers were more sensitive of the need to acknowledge and preserve the existing relationships comprising the norms and mores of a society, an impulse characterized by the American founders who referenced not reason alone but English common law and natural law traditions when drafting their Constitution. These de facto conditions operate as both a guarantor and check against liberty by enforcing adherence and clarifying obligations. Binding constitutions aren’t born of positive law forced upon society, Scruton notes, but discovered among the preexisting conditions of people freely assembled and tacitly engaged in economic commitments and social interdependencies. Conservatives came to favor the liberty side of the dichotomy, but they construed it as an opportunity to fulfill one’s obligations to those upon whom all depend for economic wellbeing and mutual security, not merely the freedom to pursue any expression of individuality imaginable. “And here,” Scruton writes, “in the potential conflict with the extreme liberal view that values freedom above all things and refuses to set limits to its exercise, we encounter one of the principal political issues of our time.”
Social conservatives in the twentieth century such as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot continued to press the case for moral responsibility and cultural renewal as necessary bulwarks against excessive personal liberty. And by the middle of the century American conservatism reached maturity through the efforts of figures like William F. Buckley, Jr., who castigated not only the moral erosion resulting from the progressive dismissal of traditional values but also the growing threat posed by an academic elite devoted to socialist and collectivist ideologies.
Today, the conflict between left and right remains arrayed along roughly the same fronts, although as Scruton indicates with greater emphasis on questions of multiculturalism, political correctness and the impact of Islamic immigrates in Europe. By the book’s end, the reader has covered nearly 400 years of intellectual history. Comprehensive in breadth and breathtaking in philosophical insight, Scruton’s achievement bolsters conservatism’s intellectual credibility and stands as a refutation against accusations by the left that conservatism consists of nothing more than bigoted nostalgia for a past irrevocably lost.
But what lessons should we draw from this impressive survey? Scruton’s book is conspicuously less didactic, less prescriptive than another influential conservative work, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. One gets the sense that Scruton intentionally avoids Weaver’s tendentious sermonizing in favor of a more dispassionate and historically scrupulous presentation of conservative ideals. But Scruton’s reticence comes close at times to depriving conservatism of the teeth it needs to combat progressivism’s entrenched position within social and educational institutions by implying that conservatism is no more than a reverence for tradition and custom, a prudential set of time-tested strategies for addressing problems that emerge under particular social circumstances among particular people groups.
It is precisely this prudent attention to the particular than makes it difficult to see how Scruton’s characterization of the conservative ethos can develop beyond a pragmatic approach to solving local problems and become a universal prescription for all people, everywhere. Can we speak of Conservatism, or only many provincial conservatisms? Can reverence for tradition entail an explicit endorsement of a specific tradition, or must it embrace all traditions as equally legitimate?
Early in the book, especially during his discussion of Burke, Scruton outlines a picture of tradition that elevates it to something like Aristotle’s Phronesis, wisdom about “what to do” in certain circumstances. “Social traditions exist,” he writes, “because they enable a society to reproduce itself.” Traditions develop and are retained when they prove useful to a society’s survival. “Like those cognitive abilities that pre-date civilization they [traditions] are adaptations, but adaptations of the community rather than of the individual organism.” Scruton is careful to clarify that traditions consist of more than just folklore or myth; they constitute a form of knowledge indispensable to a community’s wellbeing. “Moreover, in discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions. We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.” Tradition forms the legitimate basis for political order and responsible personal liberty, Scruton observes, not the Jacobin’s abstract, a priori rationalism that casts aside established networks of obligations. It is tradition that accounts for a people’s sense of collective belonging and assures continual social harmony by preserving the natural order arising from free and profitable association. “Only where customs and traditions exist will the sovereignty of the individual lead to true political order rather than to anarchy; only in a community of non-contractual obligations will society have the stability and moral order that make secular government possible.”
Here then is the spirit of conservatism according to Scruton: piety for established and proven ways of ordering society and reverence for the cultural institutions enforcing necessary boundaries to excessive individual liberty. Conservatives have historically acknowledged the importance of culture in fostering a responsibly free citizenry, but their precise understanding of its contents has varied dramatically. Whose conception of culture ought conservatism promote? Scruton’s impartial survey details figures with theistic commitments who ground their understanding of culture with reference to divinely established law, as well as more secularly-minded thinkers who define culture in purely aesthetic terms. Samuel Coleridge and John Ruskin both invoked spiritual and religious principles in their lament of the dehumanizing influence of the Industrial Revolution upon culture and its reduction of human wellbeing to calculations of utility and economic welfare. But Mathew Arnold’s celebrated definition of culture as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world,” intentionally eschews religious foundations. Arnold, Scruton writes, “did not deceive himself that the faith from which our culture ultimately derives could be restored in anything like the form that gave rise to the enchanted world of the Gothic cathedral.” Ultimately, some conservatives were satisfied to defend a notion of culture in which “we devote ourselves, instead, to the idea of the thing that we are bound to lose, keeping it alive in art.” Cultural conservatives in the twentieth century took the battle into the arena of “high culture” and focused on preserving the “tradition of reflection on our way of life – the art, literature and music through which we make a bid for permanence.”
If the defense and articulation of culture by conservatives can take so many forms, can we refer to it as a stable principle capable of grounding the foundational traditions and customs of specific societies? If culture is to operate as a normative element in the conservative agenda it must draw on a common conception of its nurturing properties, its unique character and means of promotion. Scruton has done invaluable work showing us the form conservative efforts have taken in defending culture’s role in establishing virtuous, free societies but has for the most part left the political persuasion’s specific content open for discussion.
Only on the penultimate page of the book does Scruton divulge his own stance, in which he looks “back to the spiritual inheritance of Christianity” as the basis of a “shared national identity.” Unlike Weaver’s metaphysical arguments in Ideas Have Consequences, Scruton does not intend his essay to serve as a defense of his own position but rather as a presentation of the diverse approaches falling within the conservative fold. There is much to commend about this historical emphasis. By issuing an objective overview of the political mentality’s development Scruton allows the reader to consider the tradition’s advantages for herself. As the book’s subtitle indicates, Scruton’s essay is an “invitation” to ponder how conservatives of various temperaments have striven to give voice to their conviction that some time-tested institutions and practices are worth preserving against the uncertain allure of progress.
But for religious conservatives who view conservatism as a natural outgrowth of their commitment to a permanent spiritual order transcending all societies and epochs, religious propositions cannot be among conservatism’s contingent attributes but belong at its indispensable core. At the very least, Scruton has cleared a space for articulating why religious propositions deserve admittance within the conservative landscape by indicating a basic assumption shared by its defenders. Among the many attributes comprising the conservative outlook, Scruton cites an appreciation for the constraints imposed by human nature. There are “features of the human condition that define the limits of political thinking,” he writes, and these boundaries are frequently ignored by progressives in pursuit of their utopian regimes. Affirming the centrality of human nature authorizes the introduction of Christian anthropology as the determining influence giving conservatism content compatible with its long-established form. It supplies the key normative principle lacking in particular conservative responses to historical events and elevates the tradition to a universal approach for addressing all political problems. Christianity’s vision of the human condition accounts for why certain institutions and principles are always worth conserving – human nature is immutable and predictable, and some forms of government more conducive to human flourishing than others.