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'Conservativism' Review: Holding On to the Good Things


A concise and stylish primer of conservative thought reminds us that culture is more easily destroyed than created.

scruton18cWith the rise of populist movements in the U.S. and Europe, a kind of internecine warfare has broken out among writers and thinkers of a conservative cast of mind.  Some are maddened that conservative principles are being overtaken by what they view as a reactionary right, and they are disturbed that former allies are embracing apparently unsavory positions and political figures.  Others, though, are delighted that certain right-of-center ideas and assumptions, belittled and dismissed for so long, are entering the mainstream debate.  In Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Roger Scruton tries to trace the genealogy of a sound and estimable conservatism and, implicitly, to gauge its prospects at the current moment.  His tone is not dour, but his message may be less than heartening to anyone with right-of-center sympathies: that the conservative tradition is dying. 

Mr. Scruton has a reputation as a somewhat feisty character — one of Britain's most distinguished political philosophers but also something of an intellectual brawler, never shying away from a fight.  In Conservatism, however, he is at his most emollient, and the book is all the better for it.  Indeed, it is the shafts of melancholy and doubt that help make it one of the most eloquent and even moving evocations of the conservative tradition in Western politics, philosophy and culture I have ever read. 

"Reflection on our way of life" is the "real thing that we value," Mr. Scruton writes, and the thing "that we wish to preserve from the philistines, the utilitarians and the progressives, whose empty materialism threatens to turn us away from our true spiritual inheritance."  But, he adds in a telling, plaintive aside: "Culture becomes an object of conservation only when it has already been lost." 

On one level this slim volume is the ideal primer for those who are new to conservative ideas — a kind of "conservatism: the greatest hits."  Smith, Burke, Jefferson, Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Leo Strauss : They're all here.  Less commonly celebrated writers, such as Michael Oakeshott and James Burnham, are restored to their place in the canon.  Others who did not identify as conservatives — such as George Orwell and, stretching the point almost to breaking, Simone Weil — are claimed philosophically for the tradition.

Mr. Scruton is an agreeable companion.  His style is brisk and often amusing, and he has a nice way of summarizing complexity without being simplistic.  Individual thinkers fit within a broader narrative that sets out to show how modern conservatism, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries as a defense of tradition during debates over popular sovereignty, became an appeal on behalf of religion and culture against materialism in the 19th century.  It then joined forces with classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek, in the fight against socialism in the 20th century and eventually became today "the champion of Western civilisation" against its enemies, notably "political correctness" and religious extremism.  "In all these transformations something has remained the same," Mr. Scruton writes, "namely the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created, and the determination to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change."

Mr. Scruton is an agreeable companion. His style is brisk and often amusing, and he has a nice way of summarizing complexity without being simplistic.

Among Mr. Scruton's many strengths is an ability to make fresh the ideas of writers who may otherwise appear bloodless or, worse, heartless.  Adam Smith, for example, is famous (and often reviled on the left) for his defense of the market economy in The Wealth of Nations.  But Smith himself saw his less well-known work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as the more important book.  There he developed his theory of the "impartial spectator," that part of ourselves that allows us to assess our own thoughts, feelings and actions and to pass judgment on their moral worth. 

This ability to view ourselves from the outside, to see ourselves in fact as others see us, is for Smith the greatest of social goods, because it creates sympathetic feelings — the foundation of community — and implies a responsibility for others that will inevitably place limits on freedom.  This idea, Mr. Scruton argues, is at odds with the extreme liberal view, which values the freedom of the individual "above all other things."  The conflict, he says, is "one of the principal political issues of our time."  It is a battle over whether liberty requires us to look at our own conduct and that of others from the standpoint of impartiality — to be able to say, in other words, that sometimes we may be wrong and that others within our community, even if they're our opponents, may have a point. 

That ability to stand apart applies as much to our relationship to the past as it does to the present.  We're all prone to what C.S. Lewis calls "chronological snobbery" — the uncritical sense that we know best and that what has "gone out of date is on that account discredited."  This is a dilemma that often hits the young hardest: how, for example, to grapple with the complicated legacy of Thomas Jefferson, founding father and slave owner.  Conservative writers since Burke have warned about the dangers of ripping up the entire project in order, as his nemesis Thomas Paine urged, "to begin the world over again."  For Burke, custom and tradition were part of the accumulated social capital held in trust by each generation to be passed on to the next.  The answers may change, but enduring questions resonate across the generations, and we all benefit from that accumulation of wisdom and error.  This is the tradition to which we can turn for "application in the emergency," Burke wrote, "a steady course of wisdom and virtue [that] does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled and unresolved." 

scruton18dLater conservatives, such as Ruskin, Eliot and the literary critic F.R. Leavis, believed that the most effective transmission of that "wisdom and virtue" came primarily through culture and the arts.  Certain cultural endeavors, they felt, might establish a bulwark against the alienation and loneliness of the industrial age.  "Many accuse conservatism," he writes, "of being no more than a highly wrought work of mourning, a translation into the language of politics of the yearning for childhood that lies deep in us all."  Yet it is precisely in the sense of things slipping away that cultural conservatism makes its most important mark.  We are only able to recognize spiritual desolation in works such as Eliot's "The Waste Land," Mr. Scruton reminds us, "because there is something else — an ideal order, a state of spiritual fulfilment, and an artistic tradition that embodies those things." 

Conservatism has remained a "vigorous if melancholy force" in more recent literature and the arts, but its political development gets to the questions that Mr. Scruton never quite answers: What exactly is conservatism?  And to what extent is it a coherent political tradition?  Figures such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk seem part of a Burkean tradition that favors organic over politically engineered change.  But in the postwar world that kind of conservatism was often out-muscled and out-thought on the right by the classical liberalism of Hayek and Milton Friedman and by the leading proponents of neoconservatism.  Many of those who identified broadly as conservatives rejected organic change in favor of a radical transformation of society.  There were the Reagan and Thatcher "revolutions."  (Indeed, among Reagan's favorite quotes was that declaration from Thomas Paine about our having the power "to begin the world over again.") Margaret Thatcher was essentially a classical liberal — more Gladstone than Disraeli — and devoted to Hayek.  In the middle of a policy debate she once slammed down a copy of The Constitution of Liberty declaring: "This is what we believe!" The postscript to Hayek's book is titled Why I Am Not a Conservative.

For ultimately the "great tradition," in the words of Matthew Arnold, is for all of us the "means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits."

Mr. Scruton, perhaps wisely, chooses not to wade into the choppy waters of contemporary politics; Donald Trump is not mentioned.  But the question of "whither conservatism?" underpins the entire book.  He talks of the "extreme" liberal-left view that valorizes the individual above all, but that analysis seems out of date.  American liberals have increasingly seen the individual more as a member of groups based on race, gender and sexuality.  And liberals can claim that conservatives now have their own brand of identity politics, pointing to the rhetoric, for example, about Americans as opposed to immigrants, about Christians as opposed to Muslims.

It would be a gloomy picture were it not for the glimmer of hope that Mr. Scruton offers.  That chink comes through the American "genius for civil association" — something Tocqueville first noticed in the early 19th century.  Such is the "vastness of America, its great wealth and opportunities," Mr. Scruton writes, that "the conservative virus, notwithstanding the most vigorous fumigation from the left, will always be taking root again in some dank and life-infested corner."  Pleasingly for this reviewer at least, that corner turns out to be the system of liberal-arts colleges that Mr. Scruton says are the key to maintaining a heterodoxy of ideas within civic society.  The notion may come as a surprise to those who see such schools as  bastions of left-wingery.  But they are committed to the study of enduring humanistic questions.  While universities become increasingly vocational and professional, it is the liberal-arts colleges that preserve the humanistic tradition, and the preservation of that tradition is, in turn, central to the preservation of Western identity. 

If this tradition is to flourish throughout society, it has to hold friendship as its ultimate foundation, as Aristotle reminds us.  For conservatives that surely requires a deep commitment to the ideas that Mr. Scruton rehearses here: to Adam Smith's notion of the "impartial spectator" who understands that a society of free individuals is founded in "sympathetic feelings"; to Burke's conviction that if society is an association between the dead, the living and the unborn, then it entails an obligation to the members of the rising generation and a recognition that shouting at them as "snowflakes" is a betrayal of that obligation.  For ultimately the "great tradition," in the words of Matthew Arnold, is for all of us the "means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits."



wsjRichard Aldous. "'Conservativism' Review: Holding On to the Good Things." The Wall Street Journal (June 14, 2018).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.  

The Author

aldous2aldous3Richard Aldous, a professor of British history at Bard College, is the author of Reagan and Thatcher, The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli, and, most recently, Schlesinger.

Copyright © 2018 The Wall Street Journal
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