July 15, 2018


'Conservativism' Review: Holding On to the Good Things (RICHARD ALDOUS, 7/14/18, WSJ)

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."

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. 

Posted by at July 15, 2018 7:57 AM