Book review: How to be a Conservative

Conservatism is, ironically, the one political philosophy that has failed to convert itself into a tradition.  Each generation, it must be discovered anew, as a new voice arises to remind us that the job of the Right is not just to be a bit more practical than the Left in how we demand freedom and equality.  Roger Scruton was that voice in the late 1970s, and his great work The Meaning of Conservatism reminded us that conservatism is not about freedom but about authority, the authority not only of the state but of a host of autonomous institutions.  As he describes in his new book How to be a Conservative, Scruton’s work behind the Iron Curtain softened his attitudes toward Western liberalism shortly after he wrote The Meaning of Conservatism.  The experience of socialist totalitarianism inclined him more positively to classical liberalism, if not to its Lockean justifications.  In How to be a Conservative, Scruton again attempts to explain his understanding of conservatism.  Again it has very much to do with his horror at seeing the institutions of civil society treated as means to an extrinsic end (now no longer called socialism, but social justice).  It is a conservatism in the moderate British style, with all the good and bad that come with this approach.  He generously tries to see the valid insight driving each ideology of the day; the chapters are named “The Truth in Nationalism”, “The Truth in Internationalism”, “The Truth in Socialism”, etc.  (The last-named chapter, though, is mostly about the falsity of socialism.)  Finally he comes to conservatism, which supposedly incorporates the truth in these other beliefs while rejecting their excesses.  Scruton’s conservatism does, I think, succeed in this goal.  It also fails to conserve anything.

Conservatism basing itself on “civil society” and “intermediary institutions” (e.g. Nisbet, the Red Tories) always has the weakness that it can’t explain why we should want to preserve the things conservatives have traditionally wanted to preserve in particular–the patriarchal family, the Christian Churches, European monarchies–rather than their replacements.  Scruton’s conservatism has no hills to die upon.  On the subject of marriage, he says that laws must “move with social change, but not be the engine of social change”.  That’s a pretty feeble cry to arms considering the other side’s claim to absolute justice.  The problem is that Scruton claims values “emerge through our cooperative endeavors”.  Because he rejects any meaningful appeal to natural teleology or divine command (see his other recent book The Soul of the World) and rightly abhors the idea of a society mobilized for social justice, he struggles to ascribe to these associations any standard that transcends them.  He can only derive normative structure from the essence of intersubjectivity itself.  For example, he can say that conservatives are only interested in associations that make demands on their members (which is a true point, by the way).  So Scruton can insist that marriage has traditionally been about heterosexual reproduction and the links between generations, not adult self-fulfillment, but he has no way to insist that marriage as Christianity and natural law view it is the one normative form.

The book does have a strong defense of particularism, especially of the national variety, but even this is taken in a problematic direction.  Scruton finds being united by territory attractive because it avoids the need for a common religion or ideology.  The inhabitants of a place are stuck with each other and with common problems, so they must find a way of living together that everyone finds tolerable.  It promotes compromise, whereas religion or social justice-inspired judicial activism simply declares one side right and the other side wrong.  Scruton sometimes speaks as if the problem with religion is that it eschews reason, but in fact one can see that his real objection is that religion is too rationalistic.  And, indeed, there can be safety of a sort in inconsistency.

Scruton devotes much space to religion, so I feel entitled to focus on this aspect of his book, the most troubling of all.  Scruton is entirely sold on secular government and the privatization of religion, going so far as to blasphemously suggest that this is the proper Christian arrangement, as if God would renounce His own sovereignty or be pleased by attacks on His revelation.  (No Christian can agree with Scruton’s statement that “in any conflict it is the duties of the citizen, and not of the believer, that must prevail.”)  Religious societies, it’s true, offer a thicker form of community (“brotherhood” rather than the “a society of strangers” he admits modern democracy is), but, alas, “we” can no longer avail ourselves of these comforts.  Hume and Kant demolished the claims of Christian theology”, and Scruton thinks it a marvel that anyone still goes to Church.  What’s odd is that Scruton is also very concerned about Islam, which he rightly sees as confident and aggressive.  How did the Muslims pull this off?  Is Islamic theology more immune to the critiques of Hume and Kant?  If Islam is so healthy, why is it inevitable that Christianity is dying?

Here’s a clue in the chapter “The Truth in Multiculturalism”

Thanks to the ‘civic culture’ that has grown in the post-Enlightenment West, social membership has been freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic, and kinship ties, and from the ‘rites of passage’ whereby communities lay claim to the souls of their members, by guarding them against the pollution of other customs and other tribes.  It is why it is so easy to emigrate to Western states–nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it.

And one in “The truth in Liberalism”

The political order, by contrast, is one in which a community is governed by man-made laws and human decisions, without reference to divine commands.  Religion is a static condition; politics is a dynamic process.  While religions demand unquestioning submission, the political process offers participation, discussion, and law-making founded in consent.  So it has been in the Western tradition, and it is largely thanks to liberalism that this tradition has been maintained, in the face of the constant temptation, which we are seeing in its most vociferous form among Islamists today, to renounce the arduous task of compromise, and to take refuge in a regime of unquestionable commands.

Scruton approves all this, albeit sometimes in his usual regretful, best-“we”-can-hope-for way.  However, one wonders:  if rites of initiation don’t determine social membership, what function can they be performing at all?  That was their whole point.  Scruton often talks about religion in the same way, regarding it mainly as a matter of social membership and an artifact of social thinking–“…religion, which shines a light from our social feelings far out into the unknowable cosmos” (a thought he develops further in The Soul of the World).  If that’s really what religion is, then it could have no content except for the structures of human sociality, which is bad enough.  But if in addition religion must be private, what role can it play at all?  I suggest that the reason people have a hard time believing Christianity is true is not because of some knock-down argument against it but because people have been forbidden for so long from acting like it is true.  Nobody says that it’s important for people who believe in anthropogenic global warming to keep that belief out of public notice.  It’s expected in such cases that socially-relevant truths should affect law, policy, and communal consensus.  What sort of offer of participation in the political process is this, if I’m not allowed to advocate on the basis of my actual beliefs, while the atheists are allowed to advocate on the basis of theirs?

Religion is killed by being “conserved” in this way.  Scruton himself seems to realize this.  Of his Anglican Church, he says

A similar sentiment has governed the evolution of the Anglican Church since the Reformation, as people have worked to conserve what was built on the Christian revelation, while allowing faith itself slowly to seep out from the hidden pores of the structure.

which although he intends approval is about the most damning thing one could say about a Christian Church.

But it is part of the conservative spirit of the English not to look too closely at inherited things–to stand back from them, like Matthew Arnold, in the hope that they can go on without you.  Their institutions, the English believe, are best observed from a distance and through an autumnal haze.  Like Parliament, the monarchy, and the common law; like the old universities, the Inns of Court and the county regiments, the Anglican Church stands in the background of national life, following inscrutable procedures, and with no explanation other than its own existence.  It is there because it is there.  Examine it too closely and its credentials dissolve.

The concluding chapter is “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning but Admitting Loss” .  What we have lost is–if you haven’t figured it out already–the Christian faith, but our appreciation of beauty and our residual Christian sense of connection between loss and redemptive sacrifice help us deal with the emptiness our lost faith leaves behind.  (Scruton’s book Modern Culture is largely about this idea of art as a replacement for religion.)  Scruton’s role model for a proper conservative attitude is his father, an admirably conservative choice.  Unfortunately, Jack Scruton was an atheist Laborite with an affection for old English architecture.

I think I would have liked Jack Scruton, and his son has done great services for conservatism.  But I’m not willing to follow the path this book lays out.  I know where it leads.

8 thoughts on “Book review: How to be a Conservative

  1. Pingback: Book review: How to be a Conservative | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Book review: How to be a Conservative | Reaction Times

  3. I haven’t read this book, but have elsewhere read Scruton aestheticizing “loss.” I can’t help but to see this as a type of sentimentalism, and Scruton is generally very harsh on sentimentalism. This is evident in the title of the last chapter, which forbids “mourning” but encourages us to savor the feeling of “loss.” Bollocks, say I. If that which I have lost does not deserve mourning, then I have not “lost” it. I have been liberated from it! When anything passes out of my life, I should either mourn or rejoice, not roll the feeling of loss round my tongue. As you say, this is a recipe for conservatives to be what Sam Francis called “beautiful losers.”

  4. Bonald: A friend of mine sent me this quotation from “Our Church” by Scruton in response to my complaints about Scruton’s atheism – “wouldn’t it be nice to believe” – indicating that Scruton’s wistful atheism has been replaced by a firmer theism:

    “In this book I have told some of the story of that Church (Church of England), in my life, and in the life of our country. I remain attached to the Church of England as a channel through which the Christian revelation has flowed down the centuries, and around which has grown the culture, the national identity, and the sense of collective obligation that I share. It beckons to me still, and to turn my back on it, simply because others are doing the same, would be to betray what is most settled in my own religious feelings. The Anglicanism to which I am attached is like Orthodox Judaism and Hinduism, not abstract doctrine but ritual performance, though a performance through which the profoundest truths of human life are enacted and acknowledged. My kind of Anglicanism would not stand up to the interrogating zeal of an ardent Calvinist. It is a quiet, gentle, unassuming faith that makes room below its mantle for every form of hesitation. It belongs to the state of mind Max Scheler called “Gottwerdung”– the becoming of God that is also a becoming of the spirit in me, so as to stand for a moment in the light that shines from beyond this world.”

  5. Conservatism is, ironically, the one political philosophy that has failed to convert itself into a tradition. Each generation, it must be discovered anew, as a new voice arises to remind us that the job of the Right is not just to be a bit more practical than the Left in how we demand freedom and equality. [Conservatism] is not about freedom but about authority, the authority not only of the state but of a host of autonomous institutions.

    It’s not clear what sense it would make for rightism to be converted into a tradition and also still exist. Once you actually disbelieve in the left, it becomes clear that US politics, including the right fringes of it, are merely intra-leftist squabbling. But the People’s Front of Judea really believe that their position is meaningfully different from that of the Judean People’s Front. During the Middle Ages, Europeans actually had disagreements about stuff even though they were all actual rightists—to the extent that the non-rightists, even when they started to exist at all, found it necessary to form secret societies. So, the complaint that the right has no tradition is just the complaint that we are on a long, long losing streak.

    It’s also worth noticing that our tradition of throne and altar is not dead. It lives on in zombified, ersatz form through corporations and the university. The CEO is a king if ever there was a king. His power is great. He is surrounded by courtiers whose wealth and power derive from him. Nobody may openly question him. His subjects (or at least the ones who wish to avoid exile) repeat his favorite phrases, no matter how ridiculous. Status is closeness to him. The official source of his authority is some silly story about stockholders and boards of directors and voting and whatnot. But the actual source of his authority is the Mandate of Heaven, and a difficult mandate it is to lose. Bankruptcy is often not enough to lose it. He is not a hereditary monarch, but so what? Monarchs are not always hereditary.

    Similarly, the university. We train people to serve the CEO. We serve and bless the CEO’s interests and intentions. But, for all that, we maintain our theoretical independence and our theoretical service of a higher power, “knowledge.” Our blessing is of no use if it is too obvious what we really are. How do we extort the money for a new building if we bless the CEO too easily? Nobody really needs to explicitly defend this system and the details of its working because it really is a tradition (if a fairly new one).

  6. Pingback: Orthosphere posts | Throne and Altar

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