February 9, 2003

C'MON IN, THE WATER'S FINE:

Why I became a conservative (Roger Scruton, February 2003, NewCriterion)
The view has for a long time prevailed in England that conservatism is simply no longer available—even if it ever has been really available to an intelligent person—as a social and political creed. Maybe, if you are an aristocrat or a child of wealthy and settled parents, you might inherit conservative beliefs, in the way that you might inherit a speech impediment or a Habsburg jaw. But you couldn’t possibly acquire them—certainly not by any process of rational enquiry or serious thought. And yet there I was, in the early 1970s, fresh from the shock of 1968, and from the countervailing shock of legal studies, with a fully articulate set of conservative beliefs. Where could I look for the people who shared them, for the thinkers who had spelled them out at proper length, for the social, economic, and political theory that would give them force and authority sufficient to argue them in the forum of academic opinion?

To my rescue came Burke. Although not widely read at the time in our universities, he had not been dismissed as stupid, reactionary, or absurd. He was simply irrelevant, of interest largely because he got everything wrong about the French Revolution and therefore could be studied as illustrating an episode in intellectual pathology. Students were still permitted to read him, usually in conjunction with the immeasurably less interesting Tom Paine, and from time to time you heard tell of a “Burkean” philosophy, which was one strand within nineteenth-century British conservatism. Burke was of additional interest to me on account of the intellectual path that he had trod. His first work, like mine, was in aesthetics. And although I didn’t find much of philosophical significance in his Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful, I could see that, in the right cultural climate, it would convey a powerful sense of the meaning of aesthetic judgment and of its indispensable place in our lives. I suppose that, in so far as I had received any intimations of my future career as an intellectual pariah, it was through my early reactions to modern architecture, and to the desecration of my childhood landscape by the faceless boxes of suburbia. I learned as a teenager that aesthetic judgment matters, that it is not merely a subjective opinion, unargued because unarguable, and of no significance to anyone besides oneself. I saw—though I did not have the philosophy to justify this—that aesthetic judgment lays a claim upon the world, that it issues from a deep social imperative, and that it matters to us in just the way that other people matter to us, when we strive to live with them in a community. And, so it seemed to me, the aesthetics of modernism, with its denial of the past, its vandalization of the landscape and townscape, and its attempt to purge the world of history, was also a denial of community, home, and settlement. Modernism in architecture was an attempt to remake the world as though it contained nothing save atomic individuals, disinfected of the past, and living like ants within their metallic and functional shells.

Like Burke, therefore, I made the passage from aesthetics to conservative politics with no sense of intellectual incongruity, believing that, in each case, I was in search of a lost experience of home. And I suppose that, underlying that sense of loss is the permanent belief that what has been lost can also be recaptured—not necessarily as it was when it first slipped from our grasp, but as it will be when consciously regained and remodelled, to reward us for all the toil of separation through which we are condemned by our original transgression. That belief is the romantic core of conservatism, as you find it—very differently expressed—in Burke and Hegel, and also in T. S. Eliot, whose poetry was the greatest influence on me during my teenage years.

When I first read Burke’s account of the French Revolution I was inclined to accept, since I knew no other, the liberal humanist view of the Revolution as a triumph of freedom over oppression, a liberation of a people from the yoke of absolute power. Although there were excesses—and no honest historian had ever denied this—the official humanist view was that they should be seen in retrospect as the birth-pangs of a new order, which would offer a model of popular sovereignty to the world. I therefore assumed that Burke’s early doubts—expressed, remember, when the Revolution was in its very first infancy, and the King had not yet been executed nor the Terror begun—were simply alarmist reactions to an ill-understood event. What interested me in the Reflections was the positive political philosophy, distinguished from all the leftist literature that was currently a la mode, by its absolute concretion, and its close reading of the human psyche in its ordinary and unexalted forms. Burke was not writing about socialism, but about revolution. Nevertheless he persuaded me that the utopian promises of socialism go hand in hand with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind—a geometrical version of our mental processes which has only the vaguest relation to the thoughts and feelings by which real human beings live. He persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.

Most of all he emphasized that the new forms of politics, which hope to organize society around the rational pursuit of liberty, equality, fraternity, or their modernist equivalents, are actually forms of militant irrationality. There is no way in which people can collectively pursue liberty, equality, and fraternity, not only because those things are lamentably underdescribed and merely abstractly defined, but also because collective reason doesn’t work that way.


Mr. Scruton may be the British Russell Kirk we were looking for the other day. He's written often about the meaning of conservatism, but one wonders if only for an American audience?

As for the French Revolution, we're with Jeffrey Hart: "When I heard about the French Revolution, my reaction was that I was against it." If you want to see why one must be against it, check out Eric Rohmer's great film The Lady and the Duke.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2003 8:39 PM
Comments

It would help if Scruton would write snappier prose.



I feel like nodding off when reading his stuff.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 9, 2003 9:52 PM

How about if he read it from a Texas Steel Cage?

Posted by: oj at February 9, 2003 11:46 PM

Coming up with memorable catch-phrases and insulting opponents' manhood and parentage = ratings :)

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 10, 2003 8:32 AM

I really need to pick up and read some Burke! I've already read Paine

after all and feel a need to discover someone who so presciently saw

the horror that enveloped France after the Bastille.



I must also say that I read Scruton's book a few weeks ago and found

it very interesting and thoughtful. I would recommend it highly.

'Snappier' prose than, say, Huntington. And shorter. What more do you

want?



Cheers.

Posted by: Alastair at February 10, 2003 5:54 PM

Alastair:



Even better, read Russell Kirk on Burke.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2003 6:19 PM

You should have seen the horror that engulfed France before the Revolution. They didn't burn all those churches because they resented the charities and good works of the abbes.



Or you could just read "The Red and the Black."

Posted by: Harry at February 11, 2003 5:21 PM
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