“There is something paradoxical in the view that the conservative should be the outsider,” admits Roger Scruton, a man who nonetheless embodies the paradox completely. Scruton has been Britain’s leading intellectual defender of conservative values in politics, art, religion, ethics and culture for nearly three decades, for which he has been rewarded by marginalisation within academia and ridicule in the left-wing press.
“That is just part of the to and fro of public life,” Scruton tells me in the study of his Wiltshire farmhouse, where he lives with his wife and two children, and tends to his hunting horses. Still, “I don’t feel bitter at all,” he insists. “I had a really interesting time being disliked.”
Scruton is often portrayed as a fox-hunting arriviste, the grammar school boy done good who is now desperate to be posher than posh. But the coherence of his philosophical work over the years belies such an easy caricature.
“There is a unifying intellectual endeavour,” he says of his work, “which is to bring philosophy and culture back together, so that the study of philosophy moves back from being the handmaiden of the sciences – as it’s tended to be in British empiricism and also modern analytical philosophy – to being a meditation on the human condition which borders on literature, art, music and the rest. That’s always been my interest, which is why I started by doing research on aesthetics.”
That primary focus is “connected to a sort of cultural conservatism of the TS Eliot type, which moved me at a certain stage in a political direction. That’s to say, I became, like many people of my generation, very disillusioned with the post-war socialist consensus and began looking for other things. It’s never been a primary interest, but I became interested in how to articulate the message about some form of intellectual conservatism for the age in which we live.”
Although his work on aesthetics has been primary, it was his third book, The Meaning of Conservatism, which kick-started his life as a public intellectual. “I only wrote it because Ted Honderich asked me to,” he explains. “Penguin thought that they should publish something on conservatism at the time, which was 1979, I think – a long time ago – and Ted looked around and racked his brains for anybody he could think of who was a conservative. He hit on me and that launched me on another career, in a way, as a spokesman for a certain position.”
Scruton’s articulation of conservative philosophy stands in great contrast to the mainstream left-liberal political philosophy of the last fifty or so years, as much in its methods and underlying assumptions as in its conclusions.
“First of all, conservatism isn’t goal-directed in the way that socialism is, and some, though not all, forms of liberalism are. Articulating it is first of all a matter of describing what it is and bringing out that in it which is loveable, acceptable, or in any case jeopardised by unthinking reform. That’s a huge labour of description and evocation. It must be conducted against a background of professional disillusion with the idea of goals in politics. We can’t know how to proceed towards some ideal in this world and it’s foolish to try, and the evidence of history is that people who have tried have ended up in situations of mass genocide. Isn’t it better to look at what we have and see the ways in which it secures equilibrium, satisfaction happiness etcetera for the people who are involved in it?
“That’s a much more difficult thing to do, I think, than to articulate a forward-looking socialist doctrine. If you look at Marx in particular, he says almost nothing about the communist future. It’s just an abstraction. Everything is about how hateful this and this is in the present and anyway history is going to sweep it away. My view is that is morally irresponsible and that really one must begin from an understanding of the virtues and the defects of the thing that one has.”
However, it’s one thing to evoke and describe, quite another to justify. How does he do that for conservatism?
“Well, someone like Rawls is looking for an abstract unifying principle of justification, which he calls justice, and in my view completely distorts the concept of justice in order to do this. I would say your relation to the social order in which you’re brought up is comparable to your relation to your family.
It’s full of imperfections, tensions and so on but it’s not something for which an abstract justification is needed if it is to go on. It is the given, to use the Wittgensteinian mode of looking at it. The important thing is to know how to adjust it, and how, not just to dislike those things that you dislike, but how to love those things which you don’t dislike.”
This way of arguing is essentially Burkean. As Scruton put it in his memoir, Gentle Regrets, “Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss. Replacing them with the abstract rational systems of the philosophers, we may think ourselves more rational and better equipped for life in the modern world. But in fact we are less well equipped, and our new beliefs are far less justified, for the very reason that they are justified by ourselves.”
However, can’t one imagine such a way of thinking being used to refuse the franchise to women, or failing to abolish slavery? As a conservative, how does one distinguish the things that actually do need changing from Burke’s “justified prejudices”?
“I’m not saying that acceptance of the existing arrangements is the final arbiter of everything,” Scruton replies, “but it’s the thing from which you begin. If you don’t begin from that, there isn’t any possibility of political dialogue, compromise and all the things that make it possible for people to live together. Again, going back to the family example, of course we live by moral principles as well. One might discover that one’s father is after all an embezzler and that must change, and likewise one might discover that one’s society depends upon immoral ways of using people and that must change. It’s reasonable to think that without some totalising principle under which all these adjustments fall.
“You’re arguing as though it ought to be easy to argue these things, and it never is, because after all one is talking not just about moral precepts to do with justice, freedom and so on, one is also talking about competing interests. One of the great things about the conservative position – in practical politics as opposed to theoretical philosophy – is that it has always recognised that political solutions are compromises, in which as many of the contending interests as possible are reconciled with each other, so it’s essentially irenic philosophy. It’s not to do with the righteous overbearing the unrighteous and imposing upon them a doctrine which they are rejecting or anything like that.”
How does this apply to a practical example, such as Britain’s House of Lords, in which, until recently, people held political office purely because they were born into nobility?
“In a case like the House of Lords, I think that obviously there would be the Burkean arguments that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s been around for a long time, obviously it performed all sorts of functions, we didn’t know how it came into existence, it arose by the invisible hand, all the usual things. So if we’re gong to adjust it we must have a very clear conception of what is wrong with it and whether it’s producing the wrong results and the rest.
“Then a conservative with my way of thinking would also recognise that in a democratic age, people are filled with the idea that people who have gained power or authority without popular election are somehow illegitimately in that position. Even if you think that’s wrong, which I do, you’ve got to say that nevertheless they represent a vast number in the population. Their interests and view of this must be entered into the equation, and whichever compromise emerges would be the best that one could hope for. That for me is what politics is. That sort of decision making is totally unlike what socialists think politics is. For them there are first principles from which you derive your procedures of action, and then you proceed towards your goal and impose that goal on everybody regardless of whether they want it.”
Isn’t the worry that had such a view of politics had been more widespread, then a lot of the things that we now think are perfectly laudable would have been harder to bring about because there would have been a greater presumption against change?
“Sure. Some things would have been harder to bring about but some unwise changes would have been resisted. Look at the collapse of the education system. If conservatives had entered more fully into the compromises, which they didn’t, because the Labour party was determined to exclude that voice, then we wouldn’t have, I think, the breakdown in school education which we’re witnessing today.”
The decline of standards in all sorts of areas of life is, of course, another conservative theme which citics like to mock. But when it comes to matters of what is usually called high culture, and Scruton simply calls culture, the importance of maintaining the highest standards in the arts is one which Scruton defends with some thoroughness. So why does culture matter so much to him?
“I came from a background where culture wasn’t very significant. Lip service would be paid to it, but there weren’t many books around, we never went to the theatre or anything like that. Music only arrived by accident when my father inherited a piano. But when I discovered it, it made such an impact on me, I realised, here is another vision of life, this is a call, and I’ve got to follow this. This is infinitely more interesting than anything around me. I’ve always thought that and then that raises the question, how do you justify that? Not just living like that but living off it, from writing, teaching, all those ways in which one can make culture into a way of life. So I’ve always had this question, what is the benefit – not to you who are involved to it, because that is like asking what is the benefit of the person you love, that is your existential commitment – but what is the benefit to others who don’t have it and maybe don’t want it? Why should governments give money to support the arts when it’s a minority taste? Shouldn’t they be giving money to support museums of pop music or whatever, and the Arts Council has been very influenced by that.
“You have to find some way of describing the benefits that my being cultured confers on those who aren’t, and that is a hard task, but not an impossible one. It’s like asking, what is the benefit for the mass of people of the priest’s vow of chastity? They’re not going to vow chastity – he’s doing this by way of cementing his own personal relation with God. But what is the benefit for others? And we know that actually, anthropologically, there is a benefit. There is somebody who deliberately absents himself from felicity in order to set an example, to be immune to certain kinds of relationships, to stand as father and advisor to a whole community. I think that is the role that high culture has played in our society, the theatre in particular, but also concert-gong and the rest. A lot of people whom it has never directly touched it has indirectly touched, by giving moral and spiritual sustenance to the teacher in the primary school for instance, or to the person who is going to be prepared to set up a little youth orchestra in the village or an amateur theatrical group. It’s preparing an elite for a sacrificial role which benefits others, and that’s the way I look at it.”
As often happens with Scruton, one is sometimes taken aback by the high moral tone of some of his language: a sacrificial role? Surely purveyors of culture derive great benefits from their involvement in it?
“I get a tremendous benefit, but also I lead a studious life and work extremely hard at getting the right word, the right sentence and so on, which I needn’t bother with if I didn’t have that sense that this is of intrinsic value. And if I didn’t do that but just wrote sloppily I wouldn’t be able to propagate any message and maybe that would have negative impacts on others.”
The question that obviously arises here is whether this view entails a distasteful elitism. Just as Socrates’s maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living throws into question the value of many ordinary, unreflective lives, doesn’t Scruton’s view privilege the life of the cultural connoisseur over simpler, everyday folk?
“Culture is another name for the deepest examination of the human condition, in a way. Nobody would accuse Socrates of snobbery when he said that, although of course he was addressing upper-class youths in Athens and all the rest. I think there’s no reason why someone shouldn’t say this, because it could be true, and one wants to know how, in that case, others can enjoy the benefits of knowing something about themselves and their condition.
“I take the view that this is one of the things religion does for people. It is a channel through which that tradition of examination of the human condition can pass its wisdom down to ordinary people and illuminate their lives, and I think the loss of religion makes it more obvious just what people lose through not having any culture as well. The danger is that people will just get lost in a morass of addictive pleasures and not ask themselves the questions about the meaning of their own lives and not make the effort to make themselves interesting to others, so that human relations begin to crumble. I think we’re actually seeing that. If you look round the society in which we are, it’s not in a happy state. Although it has everything materially, people are finding it very difficult to make themselves interesting to each other.”
Scruton is well aware that many good, decent people are also uncultured, and argues that asserting the moral value of culture is not at all refuted by this.
“There isn’t any direct connection between high culture and morality at the level of the individual person. That’s why in the book Culture Counts I wrestled with the thought that it is more like science than we think: there’s a collective attempt to preserve a kind of knowledge, knowledge about what to feel and the legacy of social emotion. Of course, you can acquire that and pass it on without yourself benefiting morally from it or being changed morally, just as people can do with science. Maybe that’s what it’s all about – this legacy of emotional knowledge is something of vital importance to all of us, especially to those who don’t consciously have it. That was the thought, and actually it’s quite an original thought, because nobody has tried to justify culture in that way.
“These are speculative connections and I may be wrong, but one shouldn’t be afraid of entertaining the thought that I’m right. It’s not snobbery. It’s like saying, when Christ said on the cross, ‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do,’ that wasn’t snobbery, but he was expressing a massively superior vision to those around him.”
Does his view entail that good, uncultured people depend for their goodness on high culture elsewhere in society?
“It’s an interesting suggestion. All we know from our predicament as modern westerners is that there has been this huge educational inheritance which we’re somewhat throwing away at the moment, in which science, mathematics, literature, music and fine art, history, and languages have all been mixed together and have fertilised each other. We can’t say that one bit of it could be extracted and survive without the rest. But we can look at parts of the world that have had a high culture and lost it, the Middle East being a very obvious example, and see how bereft it leaves people. There isn’t in the modern Middle East and Islam that ability to compromise, to see the human condition in its totality, to abstract from one’s own immediate concerns that we have. Once, of course, all that high culture was there flourishing, especially of course in Persia in the 13th century.”
Scruton even argues that there is a moral benefit to music – not just programme music or opera, but pure music.
“I’m not the first person to say this, because Plato in the Republic raises this question: how should people sing and dance in order to produce an orderly social condition? I would say that music is something which has a tremendous power: it has a power to silence us and to take us along with it. So there’s a good question, what is it making us do?
“One answer is that the first thing it is making us do is to move in time to it, and adapt our body rhythms, and the emotional rhythms that go with it, to what we’re listening to. This is obviously a way of rehearing all kinds of things that we wouldn’t normally rehearse because we’re too busy doing other things. So it does matter what kind of music you listen to, because it will implant its movements in your soul. That’s something that Plato said in a completely different idiom, but I think it’s true, and of course the psychologists think this too, because they’ve done all this empirical research on what happens to children brought up listening to Mozart as opposed to listening to pop music and all the rest, so we know it has a hugely differential effect on their moral and intellectual development. But I would say as adults, there are great differences between those who enter into a state of frenzy through music and those who, on the contrary, enter a state of meditation. These are character-forming experiences.”
Scruton is famously, or notoriously, critical of popular music. He was even successfully sued once by the Pet Shop Boys for suggesting in An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture that “serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trade mark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable.” I put it to him that in any genre you’ll find there are always some people of great creativity and artistry. How prepared is he to overcome the initial barriers to appreciating this and give apparently raw or violent styles of music a go?
“I accept that. I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves. Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer that it’s very rare that that happens, I think. It never happens with Oasis or The Verve. It did happen much more of course with the Beatles, and in the old American songbook, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and all that. That was a popular music which was about communication of often quite gentle feelings. So I’m not as prejudiced as I seem. I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.”
I was reminded of a Guardian article last year in which intellectuals were asked for their confessions, most of which were no such thing: you’re not going to think worse of John Carey, for example, because he admits to liking a nice cup of tea and a sit down. Scruton alone admitted something that flies in the face of much of what he has stood up for: He finds Elvis irresistible. Is that right?
“I do find him irresistible, yes.”
But you feel you shouldn’t?
“Well, it is all below the belt with Elvis. I was slightly tongue in cheek.”
This sense of humour is a side of Scruton that is often missed. In his latest book, Culture Counts, Scruton devotes several pages to the importance of jokes and comedy. However, what a lot of people find almost comically impossible in Scruton is the high seriousness his approach generally takes. We have become too ironic to take ourselves as seriously as Scruton would like us to.
“It’s true that people don’t live up to my expectations. This is one reason why we laugh. Laughter is in a great many cases a recognition of our falling short from an ideal. If we didn’t have ideals, humour would all be black. I still think that it would be a bad thing for mankind if people didn’t make the effort that I and other people make to paint ideal portraits of the human condition.”
But laughing at falling short of an ideal is still possible if you don’t hold that ideal. In the Monty Python films, for example, much of the humour is that there is this background of grand narratives – the quest for the Holy Grail, the life of Christ, and so on – but the reality of human life is nothing like as noble as these stories we tell of ourselves.
“That is true. In fairness to me it should be said that my writing, however high-toned it is, is also quite humorous at times. It’s more ironical than jokey, I guess. I certainly don’t want to look as though I’m imposing some kind of solemn sermon. But I only ever say what I think and perhaps what I think is a little bit too demanding.”
One example of this irony is a passage in Gentle Regrets where he talks about how there is something grotesque about someone adopting a conservatism which really should be a matter of inheritance. The passage gave me the slightly sad sense of a man who had rejected the liberal academic home he would have been most at home in, but who now lives among conservatives who sense he isn’t quite “one of us” either.
“That passage was written slightly with tongue in cheek. It was a chapter on why I became a conservative and was written with a sufficient irony to make the narrative plausible. Without in any way exaggerating the problems I had, it is nevertheless the case that it was damn stupid to become a conservative. Had it not been for the fact that I was convinced of the truth of the position I would certainly have dropped it straight away, because in the culture of those days – remember this was the seventies – it just isolated me from the university community and much of the way of life of people of my class, interests and outlook. So I was being a little ironical and looking at myself from the outside as a comic figure. I didn’t want to describe myself as a tragic figure.”
Scruton’s problems with academic life, however, are more than just political. He finds the whole business of most contemporary Anglo-American philosophy to be sterile and dull.
“I was properly trained in Cambridge and I would never want to dismiss the value of that training and the real achievements of people like Wittgenstein, obviously, who is very much one of my culture heroes, and the analytical method generally. I think it clarifies so much in philosophy which was unclear and in particular swept away – well it should have swept away, but alas it didn’t – the worst kind of phenomenology and Heidegerrian nonsense and all that, and put serious enquiry in the place of it.
“But the problem is it does have a relentlessly negative effect, because there is no attempt, or very rarely is there an attempt, to give a synthetic view of what the world is for us, what the world is in itself, and to fit the human being into this picture in its full complexity. That really is all that I meant by saying that you’ve got to put culture back in the picture.
“You can make a contribution in analytical philosophy without making any connections with the broader culture. The question that interests me though is whether you can use what you know from analytical philosophy to help understand the broader culture, and I think you can. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, certainly in my work in aesthetics. My book on the philosophy of music is very analytical but is totally about the nature and meaning of the music and culture. I think it benefits from being analytical. I wouldn’t ever want to repudiate that discipline.”
Interestingly, you hear many similar things being said within academic philosophy these days from people who are very far from Scruton politically. It would be ironic indeed if the profession that once pushed him away were now moving closer to his way of doing things. Rather than the prodigal son returning home, home may be moving closer to the son.
Julian Baggini’s latest book is Complaint (Profile).
Originally published in Issue 42 of TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine.