By Ray Sawhill
While America’s political arena is still dominated by those two tiresome creatures, the “liberal” and the “conservative,” Roger Scruton gives you reason to envy the Brits. He’s a plain-talking philosopher and writer who confounds attempts at categorization. A man of culture and sophistication, he argues convincingly for the death penalty. His views of sex have a Taoist tenderness, yet he’s an avid defender of fox hunting. He’s a conservative who is at his best making clear-cut distinctions, yet his thinking and language are nuanced and open. He enters enthusiastically into discussions on such old-fashioned topics as beauty, goodness and religion, yet there’s nothing tweedy about his work. He looks on the conditions that markets create as warily as the most jaundiced lefty.
Scruton is a protean and many-sided figure. He was a co-founder of the Conservative Action Group, which helped lead to the election of Margaret Thatcher. His thinking about architecture was the basis of the Prince of Wales’ famous disputes with modern building practices and has inspired dozens of young architects in the United States and Britain. Scruton has written fiction; he edits a political journal called the Salisbury Review; and he’s a stinging polemicist in the Times of London. In his work as a philosopher and aesthetician he’s an exhaustive reducer to first principles, while in his books for the interested nonspecialist he’s as first-rate a popularizer as David Attenborough and John Keegan. If he’s largely unknown in the U.S., it may simply be because our national database of stars and sources has no way of accommodating someone who ranges so freely.
This season brings two new Scruton books. “The Aesthetics of Music” (Oxford) is an awe-inspiring chunk of heavythink for specialists on the theme of “when, how and why does sound become music?” It’s a closely reasoned ode to the resilience and greatness of tonality, and is likely to make rock ’n’ roll revolutionaries, professional multiculturalists and academic radicals rage and sputter. “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy” (Penguin) is, despite its awful title, a trim, alert joy — an idiosyncratic introduction not to the history of philosophy but to some of the field’s topics and methods. (Chapter titles include “God,” “Sex,” “Subject and Object” and “Why?”) Scruton has an unusual gift for giving abstractions body and presence. “Descartes shut the self in its inner prison,” he writes, “and Fichte made the place so comfortable that the self decided to stay there.” The book is as well-paced and full of surprises as a good mystery novel. Readers short on time but curious about Scruton’s arguments on music will find here a chapter summarizing those views.
After years of teaching at many universities, including a stint at Boston University, Scruton, 55, now lives in the British countryside with his wife, Sophie. There he reads, writes, hunts, plays the piano, tools about on his motorcycle and writes some more. In a telephone interview, he kicked around ideas ranging from the arrested development of radicals to why second-rate academics hide behind deconstructive gobbledygook to why the Web will keep seekers after pornography “at their desks, getting more and more chronically lame and blind and obsessed.”
Scruton by the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart
Ray Sawhill: The American conservatives we run into often seem bludgeoning and bigoted.
Roger Scruton: But you have some really significant conservatives, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb and so forth. I admit they are neo-conservatives and they were social democrats originally, weren’t they? But I have a respect for them. Maybe they are dogmatic, but older people tend to be dogmatic. And they’re not as dogmatic as people on the left, let’s face it. The dogmatism of the politically correct takes some beating, in my experience.
How does American conservatism seem to you?
It’s more convinced than British conservatism. You have a movement there. People really believe in it and really fight for it. Here it’s much more half-hearted and exhausted.
Was that true during the Thatcher years?
Thatcher was a little blip in all that. She revitalized things, but she was surrounded by pretty second-rate people, really. If you look at American conservatism, you do find, however much you think dogmatism prevails, that there are all kinds of debates going on. You have lots of journals — Commentary and First Things and National Review and American Spectator — which have wide circulation and are constantly engaged in carrying the fight forward. So there is an intellectual ferment, even if it is based on a lot of unquestioning assumptions. But here there’s almost nothing like that. The Salisbury Review is about the only conservative journal.
What sort of impact did you have on Thatcher?
I’ve always been regarded by the Conservative Party with some suspicion, I think, so far as they have any consciousness of me at all. Traditionally, conservatism is rightly suspicious of thinking, because thinking on the whole leads to wrong conclusions, unless you think very, very hard and you get back to the point you started at. Since she’s left office I’m on good terms with her. I’ve never been part of her circle or her entourage.
Philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that conservatism is largely a matter of temperament. Do you agree?
A certain kind of conservatism is a matter of temperament, yeah. But I think it’s much more true to say that radicalism is a matter of temperament. It’s people who are arrested in the state of adolescent rebellion. Those are the people who make the great radicals, trying to affirm themselves against daddy, like Lenin. Was it Robert Conquest or Kingsley Amis who said that everybody is right wing about the things he knows about? Even if you look at left-wing people, if they really know about something — if they’re experts on ceramics or something — the more they’ll be respectful of traditions and authorities and settled things, and the less disposed to radicalize everything.
How do you explain the persistence of the radical temperament?
I think it’s a stage through which people go. I take a Hegelian approach to it all. We are at home or should be at home with our experience as we begin in life, we grow away from it, and radical temperament is an attempt to repudiate things, to cast them off, which is necessary in order to shape our own identities. But true maturity consists in the process of slowly coming home again, coming to see that the thing we grew away from is what we truly are, to come back to it in a state of understanding. I see the radical temperament as arrested in that middle stage.
Popular culture seems to do its best to heat up and sustain that adolescent temperament.
Absolutely. I think this is the most tragic thing about the modern or postmodern world — this exploitation of the adolescent, making adolescence look like something not only normal but sacrosanct.
Some people tweak conservatives by pointing at Hollywood and saying, see, it’s big business that is promoting this continued adolescence and irresponsibility.
Of course it is partly responsible, and MTV is big business. But big business is ideologically neutral. Big business always moves where the money is. If the money is in left-wing propaganda, that’s where big business will be. If you look at much popular culture, its message is one of rebellion and rejection. It’s still a very ‘60s message, but people have come to realize there’s money in it. My view is that conservatism has nothing intrinsically to do with big business but with moral and political values. And if business is antipathetic to those values, you have to fight it, with all the methods that are available.
With his wife Sophie
Is there one aspect of it that makes it impossible for you to be a liberal?
Well, liberal means something rather different in Britain than in America.
Would you explain the difference?
In Britain, if you mean by liberalism what is sometimes called classical liberalism — John Stuart Mill and all that — then a liberal is somebody who believes in allowing other people the maximum freedom compatible with social order. And to some extent I am a liberal. Part of our conservative tradition in Britain is that we do allow people as much freedom as is compatible with an orderly and decent society. That’s not what Americans mean by liberal. They’re people who see the state as looking after the interests of society and redistributing property and creating the welfare society — essentially a kind of institutionalized compassion. I’m a great believer in private charity, but not in the institutionalization of charity in the state and its offices, because then it becomes the source of enormous corruption.
In America the assumption is usually that the conservative is an apologist for the rich, or a religious fanatic, if not an abortion clinic bomber. Where liberals are seen as, at worst, well-intentioned but wrong.
That’s a very parochial view, of course. Obviously, one element in conservatism must be that to be successful is not a sin, and I think conservatives on the whole have more patience with the idea of human success, and more desire to create a world where success is rewarded. Whereas it’s true that what you call liberals — our left — is much more interested in supporting the underdog and usually believes some philosophy to the effect that the sufferings of the underdog are caused by the wealth and privilege of the successful, Marxism being the archetype of all such philosophies. And I think that’s all nonsense — that the sufferings of the underdog are not caused by the fact that some people have managed to rescue themselves from this predicament. On the contrary, the more people who rescue themselves, the better. They create opportunities in their wake.
That’s not the way liberals see it. If you are a purely materialistic person who sees everything human in terms of how much money is involved, then all you will see about conservatives is that they favor the rich, because you don’t see any other difference between people than the amount of wealth they have. I take the view that conservatism has nothing fundamentally to do with wealth. It has to do with social order. Of course if you’re in favor of the forces that create social order, you’re in favor of the forces which make it possible for people to become wealthy. But that’s a byproduct. I do agree that liberals have this reputation for being nice and conservatives for being nasty.
Isn’t that a terrible PR problem? The liberals own the good intentions.
The fact is if you really want to think in terms of good intentions, Lenin and Hitler and Mao had thousands of them. But of what relevance are intentions? Intentions imposed in this belligerent and self-righteous way on the rest of us are actually deeply offensive, I think. It’s true that liberals find liberals to be very nice and conservatives very nasty. But that’s part of the narrow-mindedness of liberals. Conservatives in my experience are much more able to find moral value in liberals than liberals are in conservatives, because liberals, while believing themselves to be the most open-minded of people, are unable to see conservatism, or any opposition, as anything more than a moral failing.
Couldn’t they excuse that by saying, yes, we’re bigoted against conservatives, but that’s all?
They could, but since conservatives are actually representative of the mass of mankind, that’s a heavy bigotry to have. If you look at the writing of liberal activists like Ronald Dworkin, you see that what he’s targeting throughout are ordinary, decent Americans. It’s their feelings he finds repulsive. In the name of liberty, he’s trying to raze their worldview, usually by caricaturing what they say. If that’s not bigotry, I don’t know what is. And it’s directed against a far wider range of mankind than the average conservative sentiment
Were you born a conservative?
No, I was brought up in a Labor Party atmosphere. I suspect that I was moving in a conservative direction at school, largely through literary interests, in particular getting involved in [F.R.] Leavis and Eliot and Henry James. George Eliot as well. All those things have a tremendous impact at that age. It gives you a sense of the national culture as something irreplaceable and threatened, and this makes you defensive toward the modern age. At Cambridge, I was pretty apolitical, I suspect. I was awoken to politics in Paris in 1968 by all the students and so on. I was the only one of my contemporaries who spontaneously found himself on the other side.
Weren’t you thrilled by the energy? The idealism?
[Laughs] I came to see De Gaulle as something really important, who was a representative of his national culture of a kind I felt we needed in Britain. It was far more important than this self-indulgent, childish nonsense at the barricades on the streets. In particular I was appalled by the things that my student colleagues read — Foucault and Althusser. I thought it was all charlatanical nonsense, and I still think that too. Certainly I think that of Foucault. Very clever, but a sort of Mephistophelean-like clown.
Anyway, I took a literary/critical attitude to it. Just judged from that point of view — as drama and literary inspiration — it was unseemly and vulgar, and there ought to be something better than this. And when they started burning cars — the cars that belonged to the very working class they pretended to be championing — it then dawned on me that this was the self-intoxicated middle-class youth letting their hair down, and why should one think of that as the goal of politics? And that the police were quite right to hit them on the head and take them off.
You don’t admire anything about what the ‘60s generation attempted to do?
Not really. I think it was all a wave of self-indulgence built on a materialistic and very over-pampered way of life. I came to think that everything these people were against must have something good in it.
The bourgeoisie was not the enemy.
Exactly — the bourgeoisie, marriage, fidelity. All these old-fashioned things suddenly acquired an enormous charm.
It’s taken for granted among many American liberals that the bourgeoisie is the enemy of good art and good politics.
I don’t accept the Marxist typography of history, which tells us that the bourgeois have been in power since the 1790s. That’s all nonsense, in my view. If you mean by bourgeois the life of the town, the people that make the town work, then who could be more bourgeois than Chaucer? And if you take this seriously, you’ll see that our culture has been from the very beginning a bourgeois culture — one that’s been made possible by trade and by Christianity, which is a religion of traders, a world religion which settled in towns and propagates its message through learning.
All you’re describing in the end is the best efforts our civilization has made to have a culture of its own. To say it’s the enemy of art is ridiculous. The only thing it can be contrasted with is the aristocracy — the aristocracy as a sort of flowering, lying above the bourgeois world but parasitical upon it. And it’s ridiculous for Americans to be anti-bourgeois when they haven’t ever had an aristocracy.
I wonder if there’s a residual yearning here for aristocracy.
Perhaps. In France that’s certainly true. The anti-bourgeois vehemence there is directly inherited from Molière, this contempt for the people who haven’t quite made it. That’s what you get really in people like Flaubert and Baudelaire, an affectation of aristocratic disdain.
How did you find American students when you taught in Boston?
American students are always very refreshing to us, the enthusiasm and all that. But they’re not well-prepared. With basic things like foreign languages and a knowledge of history, they’re hopeless. But they’re more than willing to make up for it. American students mature much later because of this. When they’re graduating from college they reach a level of education we have on leaving school. On the other hand, when they’ve got there, they’ve really taken an interest. They’re certainly more willing to learn and more convinced of the value of learning things.
The English often seem terribly well-educated and articulate, and disdainful of that at the same time.
That’s right. There’s a cynicism here, a kind of false sophistication, pretending that your own accomplishments are of no great merit.
I have the impression that British academics haven’t fallen as hard for chic French theory in the humanities as Americans have.
Yeah, that’s true. But feminism is the major ideological force on American campuses in my experience, although it has its fierce opponents. And it’s not quite such a force here. It’s still permitted to laugh at it here. On the whole, British academics in the humanities have managed to maintain some hold on the literary-critical tradition, and have been skeptical toward deconstruction and all that. Not entirely, though, because gobbledygook of the kind the French are very good at producing is a very useful shield for a second-rate academic. It enables him to produce more gobbledygook of his own and pretend he’s at the forefront of scholarly research.
How do you explain the allure of French gobbledygook?
I think you have to see it not just in terms of the nonsense factor but also in terms of the underlying political agenda. All French intellectuals who grew up after the war inherited the Sartrean agenda, the anti-bourgeois, crypto-Marxist agenda. And in the back of their minds the barricade with the glowing banner is still there. That’s true of Foucault, and it’s true of Derrida as well. Ultimately, they’re looking for forms of subversion, new ways of hollowing out the concepts of the bourgeois worldview so finally it collapses on itself. People don’t necessarily understand that when they read it, but they do sense it and are drawn to it. It conscripts these adolescent radical feelings. Universities are places where adolescence can be made permanent, because you’re surrounded by young people. And second-rate academics take refuge in that too. It’s sort of inevitable, really, that this crap will take hold.
What do you make of the American cult of self-expression and authenticity?
Self-expression is fine if you’ve got an interesting self to express. But what makes a self interesting is precisely that it’s gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn’t done that is just embarrassing.
Americans seem to have moved into a culture that’s more about being media-hip and flashily cynical.
Well, the media is producing ever-accelerated forms of glamour to be achieved just like that, by looking right or saying the right thing, or having a tic or mannerism that appeals to people on television. Of course that’s not going to produce a valuable art or literature, that kind of attitude.
So irony is not a good thing?
Irony is, but that’s just a desire for instant attention. It’s self-advertisement rather than self-expression.
You wrote once that the postwar era was the greatest catastrophe in all architecture. What did you mean by that?
The triumph of the inhuman style, or lack of style — the concrete bunker, the box method of constructing buildings. The lack of all sense of the street, of a public space that should be ornamented and dressed in correct and modulated ways.
Isn’t postmodernism a response to those problems?
It’s an attempt, yes, to rediscover the decencies of scale and details. But it’s a sort of play version. It’s not a real rediscovery of anything, it just plays with the details of the classical tradition. It’s the same spirit of modernism, of facetiousness toward the past. I think people are awakening to the need to rediscover the traditional decencies, and the nature of architecture as a public art, rather than just a functional exercise.
Leon Krier’s New Traditionalist town Poundbury
What you’ve written about the importance of façades runs counter to everything I was taught, and to almost everything I have read: structure, reveal that essential structure.
Oh, I know. That was all ideological nonsense. I agree with Oscar Wilde: In matters of the greatest importance, it’s style and not sincerity that counts. One must think of the people who really use a building, who are those who pass it by. They don’t know anything about the structure. But they do jolly well know the impact of that façade. Just think of what’s involved in going through a doorway, and the difference between a sheet of glass which you can’t actually identify the handle of, and something which arches over you and guides you in.
These elementary experiences are part of the difference between a building which welcomes and a building which creates anxiety. Nobody can deny that modern cities are increasingly places of great anxiety. And if you don’t think architecture is one reason for this, it’s because you don’t have any eyes.
But now that modernism and postmodernism have happened, how can we go back to something like classicism? Isn’t that like asking someone who has slept around to become a virgin again?
People will say that. There are two views. One is that we require the great genius who will break through all this, re-create the links with the past while not denying that we’ve gone beyond them. Who will do something which Schönberg wanted to do with music, and Eliot with poetry. And they sort of did it. But those are private art forms. You don’t have to listen to Schönberg, and most people are quite grateful for that. And you don’t have to read T.S. Eliot. But you do have to live with the buildings people put up. So you can’t take quite this same attitude, that there is no going back. It may be that one has to go back. After all, if we’ve made a mistake going down this line, it’s very odd to say you can’t go back. Because what was reason given to us for if it weren’t to reflect on our mistakes and correct them? So I’m skeptical of this approach when it comes to architecture. I can see its point when it comes to music and poetry. They’re of no interest if they are not original expressions which add something to the repertoire of musical and poetic experience. But I don’t think that’s the case with architecture, or ought to be the case.
Peter Eisenman also talks about how this is an age of anxiety. But he believes that, since that’s so, buildings should express that anxiety.
That shows such contempt for your fellow human beings.
Peter Eisenman would call you an élitist.
Well, I am. My view is that élites are necessary provided that they go through the business of understanding what people feel and perhaps doing what is right by them. Eisenman would say this is an age of anxiety because he has been brought up on all this existentialist literature which enables him to identify his own position in those terms. But by making buildings into expressions of anxiety, he relays that anxiety — which is, after all, an élite product — to the mass of mankind. It’s a kind of snobbery to build in that way. I am self-consciously an élitist. But I do believe that when other people are concerned, one is under an obligation not to impose one’s anxieties and glooms upon them, but to fortify them in the difficult business of living.
You’ve written about what you see as the evils of pornography. In your view, is there no such thing as a harmless indulgence in fantasy?
There’s a conservative tradition which I think I’m part of which is hostile to fantasy as such — fantasy as a flight from reality, “fancy” in Coleridge’s term as opposed to imagination. It’s the difference between the escape from things into a world where you control everything — which is essentially what pornography is, even if it’s only with a switch — and the imaginative re-creation of things, which enables you to confront again the real human being. The point about pornography is that it depersonalizes the human being and therefore impoverishes one’s ability to confront human beings as they are.
Do you think this is true of other fantasy material — comic books and movies?
Yes, and much television too. Children brought up on comic strips are noticeably less able to relate to adults and to the human world generally than children brought up on traditional children’s literature. “Alice in Wonderland” is a wonderful example of something which is not fantasy but imagination, where real human types and possibilities are glimpsed through this wonderful frame of fantasy. Some comic strips have got that. “Calvin and Hobbes” has got that. I wouldn’t dismiss the genre.
Are you in favor of censorship?
Yes, I am in favor of censorship, but it has to be conducted by people like me. And that’s the difficulty. [laughs] I’m in favor of encouraging every possible form of self-restraint and parental control. And I certainly don’t think that pornography should be protected under the American Constitution. It’s an absurd liberal misreading of the Constitution to say that the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of free speech, guarantees this. I’m in favor of severe measures. If something really does threaten the ability of society to reproduce itself in an ordinary way, then what’s the point of permitting it? You can only permit it for one generation. Then the whole possibility of forbidding or permitting anything has gone.
What’s your view of computers and electronics in all this?
It’s going to make it difficult to control pornography, definitely. But the World Wide Web will have one very useful aspect, which is that it’ll keep all these troublesome people at their desks, getting more and more chronically lame and blind and obsessed. I think it might clear up some open space for a bit and enable civilized beings to establish new little ventures.
Would you like to see cultured people moving into the electronic media and establishing some standards?
One has to try and do that, yes. I suppose I feel a bit depressed about this, because these are huge spaces, and into these spaces the things which flow most easily will flow. And those of course are the second-rate things.
Is there something that makes it impossible for you to be a libertarian?
Yes, because a libertarian is someone who thinks that the mere fact that someone desires something is enough to give him a right to pursue it, provided he isn’t interfering with other people’s rights. And I don’t agree with that. I think that, about most things that matter, our desires are fundamentally in need of emendation.
Sex is an obvious example. I’m a believer in fidelity and marriage and all those things. My life hasn’t been exemplary in that respect any more than anyone else’s. But I certainly don’t think the libertarian approach — that whatever people want they should have — is right. Drugs likewise. I do agree there’s a huge difficulty in how you control these things, and whether you should control them by law.
What’s your main disagreement with the way sex is discussed and thought about today?
I think the main thing wrong with the way sex is discussed is what I call Kinseyism. It’s regarded as an affair of the sexual organs. It’s all discussed in measurable terms, in terms of sensations and orgasms and things like that. And as a result it is emancipated from the great project of human love.
Isn’t this desirable?
It’s a form of liberation, yeah. But to liberate people from love is a liberation scarcely to be desired. People have been liberated, but liberated into a kind of emptiness.
Sex toys, porn videos, sexual orientation as a lifestyle decision — you don’t approve of this?
I don’t think anybody who’s thought seriously about sex can approve of this. It is emancipating people not just from this project of love, but also child-rearing and responsibility and all the difficult sacrifices which are necessary if one generation is to inherit the social capital of the previous one.
Salon is based in San Francisco, so I should ask for your views about homosexuality.
I’m all in favor of the old-fashioned approach, that you don’t talk about this, decency forbids, and you don’t proselytize this as an alternative on a par with marriage and child-rearing and all the rest. Apart from that, I think it would be a total mistake to think that homosexual desire is the same kind of thing as heterosexual desire.
First of all it’s your own sex, which you know inwardly from your own intimations and desires. There’s no venture outwards into the unknown. It all can become very easily a matter of contractual negotiations, and we know that’s what it tends to become.
So how should homosexuals conduct their lives?
As I conduct mine, namely in private. Of course Americans are tremendously squeamish about this now. They don’t ever say anything to offend anyone. But, you know, you only live once. Why not offend as many people as possible?
- Roger Scruton’s website.
- In America, Scruton often wrote for the excellent City Journal.
- Some good pix of work by the contemporary classical sculptor Alexander Stoddart.
- An interview with the great Léon Krier.
©1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.