This interview with philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was written by Madeleine Kearns for the National Review. They discuss what conservatism is, isn’t, and ought to be. This interview is reprinted with permission from the National Review and Madeleine Kearns.
Do you think Buckley was correct? If so, what are these “other vital battles”?
Sir Roger Scruton: Yes, Buckley was right. There is the vital battle to defend fundamental institutions, such as marriage and the family, and to counter the censorship of all opinions that express an attachment to our cultural and political inheritance.
MK: The second half of God and Man at Yale’s title is “The Superstitions of Academic Freedom.” Is academic freedom a superstition?
SRS: No, but professors praise it without really believing in it. They do not grant freedom to those who threaten them intellectually or ideologically. This has been documented by people like Roger Kimball, and it has certainly been my experience.
MK: In the preface to your own book you explain, “freedom is not a set of axioms but an evolving consensus.” As far as possible, can you please explain the conservative approach to freedom?
SRS: Judged in absolute terms, my freedom threatens your freedom. There has to be an emerging civility, which prevents people from abusing their freedom in order to disrupt the consensus on which the general exercise of freedom depends. The rude, raw, “let it all hang out” freedom of the Californian hippies was in fact the most censorious and oppressive of societies that I have encountered. Just by being civil you exposed yourself to contempt as a bourgeois apologist.
MK: What are the main differences between classical liberalism and conservatism?
SRS: Conservatives believe in unchosen obligations (pieties), whereas classical liberals think that the only source of obligation is choice.
MK: And yet they are, you observe, on the same side in today’s culture war. Why is that?
SRS: Because there are so many people who wish to control us, and in doing so to wipe away the image of the past.
“Judged in absolute terms, my freedom threatens your freedom. There has to be an emerging civility, which prevents people from abusing their freedom in order to disrupt the consensus on which the general exercise of freedom depends.”–Sir Roger Scruton.
MK: Today, in Western countries, we live in mixed economies. You have said elsewhere, for example, that there are “socialist capitalists.” How and why has the relationship between conservative politics, capitalism, and free markets changed?
SRS: We have come to see that, in a modern economy, with the abundance of provisions and the growth of people’s expectations, democracy can only be stable if the state plays an active part in distributing the product, in order to satisfy the needs of those who otherwise would have no share in it.
MK: What is the difference between a reactionary and a conservative?
SRS: A reactionary is fixed on the past and wanting to return to it; a conservative wishes to adapt what is best in the past to the changing circumstances of the present.
MK: Was Edmund Burke a reactionary? If not, why not?
SRS: He was not a reactionary, since he believed that we must “reform in order to conserve.” He reacted against the French Revolution, as most people would who saw, as he saw, what it would involve in the way of crime and destruction.
MK: You identify the temperamental differences between the left and right. Relatively speaking, the former is radical and active, the latter is obedient and passive. Why?
SRS: Why not? The politicization of society, institutions, gatherings, aspirations, affections, tastes, and everything else from sex to sleep is part of what a true right-winger like me objects to. Leave us alone, for heaven’s sake!
MK: One of the things that makes conservatism difficult to market, you suggest, is that conservatism does not advocate for only one universal, standard political program. In the long run, is this good or bad?
SRS: In the long run it must be good to be open to the truth that different societies maintain equilibrium, order, and peace in different ways. The conservative is the one who understands his own society from within and loves and defends it.
MK: Some might think that your articulation of conservatism’s character resembles the donkey Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh: plodding along, destined to be ignored, though in some eyes, at least, endearing. What are the practical uses of pessimism?
SRS: The comparison is a caricature. Eeyore’s pessimism is the expression of inadequacy and fear. I distinguish the right kind of pessimism, which means simply recognizing the deep incompetence of human nature, from the wrong kind, which tells us to stop hoping.
MK: Why do many on the left consider conservatism to be inherently evil (rather than cuddly)?
SRS: The principal reason is that people on the left have illusions about human nature and think they prove their virtue by broadcasting those illusions. Anyone who punctures those illusions is therefore not just a spoilsport but a threat. What the self-declared “virtue” of the left amounts to can be witnessed in what happens to ordinary humanity when the left takes power.
MK: Whittaker Chambers, in leaving Communism for conservatism, said he was consciously leaving the winning side for the losing side. Do you think conservatism is destined to lose?
SRS: All the best people lose.
MK: Can one be a hopeful conservative without God?
SRS: Yes, but it helps to believe in God, since then one’s hopes are fixed on a higher reality, and that stops one from imposing them on the world in which we live.
MK: Of all the conservative thinkers throughout the centuries — you cover too many in your book for me to list here — who has been most influential in forming your own thought?
SRS: Hegel, because he understood the modern world.
MK: You mention a reluctance on the part of some conservatives to self-identify as such. Surprisingly, perhaps, you include George Orwell and Simone Weil in this category. Can you explain why they, too, belong to the “great tradition”? How can you spot a conservative?
SRS: I try to explain this in my book. Conservatives reveal themselves through their care for ordinary human things, and their recognition of the fragility of decency and the need to protect it.
MK: Briefly, could you please explain the fundamental differences between British and American conservatism in origin and trajectory?
MK: You mention neither Donald Trump nor populism in your book. Why?
SRS: Trump is an interesting phenomenon, but not an interesting thinker, supposing he is a thinker at all. “Populism” is a word used by leftists to describe the emotions of ordinary people, when they do not tend to the left.
MK: How is Islam to be best accommodated in Western democracies?
SRS: By engaging Muslims in discussion and explaining to them that we live under a rule of law which is man-made, not God-bestowed.
MK: To bring us full circle, you wrote that National Review “remains the most convinced and convincing of the many conservative journals that have arisen in America since the war.” If I may be so bold, how can National Review best continue its legacy and keep the torch well lit?
SRS: It should attend to the themes that are fundamental to conservatism, and which practicing conservative politicians continually neglect: culture, literature, architecture, the city, the values of ordinary everyday American life.
Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher who has published more than 40 books in philosophy, aesthetics, and politics, and his work has been widely translated. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches in both England and America and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Paul Plante says
An excellent and informative interview.
Thank you for posting it.
Paul Plante says
An important thing to consider here is that the interviewee, Sir Roger Scruton, a writer and philosopher who has published more than 40 books in philosophy, aesthetics, and politics, who is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, teaching in both England and America, and who is also a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is talking about what I would call “intellectual conservativism,” which incidentally is the subject is several writings or essays, such as “Who Is the Conservative Intellectual?” by a gentleman named Clyde Wilson, wherein he states “The task of the conservative intellectual remains the same as it has always been, though acquiring new urgency -that task is to keep alive the wisdom that we are heir to and must keep and hand on.”
He further states as follows:
Our danger is indifference.
The liberal, who is a most characteristic type of American, relates to civilization as a fish relates to water.
He is unconscious of its existence and therefore of its need to be cherished, cultivated, and handed down.
It will never occur to him that endless attrition by criticism, pollution, indifference, and the introduction of innovations and eclectic elements could damage it.
The liberal lacks all reverence toward, even awareness of, the universal and the forms which symbolize it.
In the simplest terms, he is a man incapable of making the connection between what he regards as a happy liberation from outmoded repressions and the proliferation of divorce, pornography, rape, perversion, child abuse, abortion, and callousness.
The conservative, considering himself to be in touch with the tradition of the West, faces in 1986 a society in which the everyday virtues of honesty, loyalty, manners, work, and restraint are severely attenuated.
So far as one can tell, millions of people are so cut off from all standards of value that they actually believe that Walter Cronkite is wise, Edward M. Kennedy is a statesman, Mr. T is a model for youth, and Dr. Ruth is a guide to the good life.
We have a society in which educated and apparently decent mothers join their subteen daughters in viewing musical “performances” by obscene and tasteless degenerates, which degenerates become millionaires.
A society in which a “serious” book is represented by the vulgar and trivial memoirs of Lee Iacocca, and in which aspirations to culture are satisfied by government subsidies to untalented and decadent poets and artists.
A society in which the appointed guardians of the Constitution are so far out of touch with the essence of ordered liberty they are sworn to uphold that they have cavalierly taken a Constitutional provision whereby the States forbade the federal government to interfere in the exercise of religion and warped it into a grant of power to the federal government to interfere with the exercise of religion by the States.
Then, there is “The Demise of the Conservative Intellectual – Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians. But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our democratic discourse” by Kevin Mattson from February 1, 2018, as follows:
Meanwhile, as Ned Resnikoff highlights in another article in The Baffler, Steve Bannon has gained the weighty moniker of “thought leader.”
This, too, tells us something important about the state of the conservative intellectual movement.
How has Bannon, more aptly described as a political strategist with a background in gaming and movies, become somebody who anyone serious would truly consider an “intellectual”?
Well, because publications like The Washington Post and Politico have been arguing that he “reads a lot of books,” which supposedly includes Thucydides (there you have it again).
Bannon, in other words, is supposedly “well-read,” and apparently that’s enough for some.
Resnikoff sees a real danger in this: “When journalists treat men like Bannon as if they are serious thinkers, they lend undeserved public legitimacy to a racist, conspiratorial, anti-democratic ideology.”
They also lower the intellectual bar by making a “thought leader” out of someone who offers little more than ungrounded and impulsive, yet dangerous, arguments.
Today, conservative intellectuals or thought leaders (or whatever you want to call writers and journalists and bloggers of this variety) no longer think.
They no longer argue or pursue the playfulness of ideas as the intellectual vocation allows (for a fine argument about what makes an intellectual, see Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life).
Back in the 1940s, the literary (and liberal) critic Lionel Trilling described conservative thinking as little more than “irritable mental gestures.”
He would likely consider the very concept of the “conservative intellectual” today a full-fledged oxymoron.
Thinking is out; prejudiced assertions sans proof are in.
Of course, as Trump’s presidency shows, this sort of thing can win you political campaigns.
The important point I wish to make, which is captured in this political writing from up here to the north of you, concerning a small town east of Albany, New York, is that “conservative Republicans” today in America are as far from intellectual conservatism as one could possibly get and still be on the planet, and in fact, as this writing demonstrates, they are actually reactionaries who want to take us back to the Gilded Age or the laissez-faire policies of the Calvin “Cool Cal” Coolidge administration, to wit:
“The Anatomy of a Sell-out by the Poestenkill Town Board”
Not surprisingly, given the timing, where soon-to-be New York State Senator Eric Wohlleber, presently a Poestenkill town councilman, needs to prove his bonafides as an anti-regulation/pro-big business conservative Republican with actions, according to the Poestenkill Town Board Meeting Minutes posted by the Conservative Republican Poestenkill Councilman at p.8 of the 19 July 2018 Advertiser, on Thursday, June 28, 2018, after a motion was made by Poestenkill Town Councilperson Harold Van Slyke and seconded by Supervisor Jacangelo to accept the Waste Management Host Benefit Proposal, which document is based on blatant and brazen deceit, deception, and outright lies, the soon-to-be state senator voted along with the rest of the “Jacangelo Gang” in Poestenkill, supervisor Jacangelo and councilpersons Harold Van Slyke and June Butler, to allow giant waste hauler Waste Management to import some 24,000 tons of garbage into the Dominic Jacangelo Regional Garbage Transfer Station on the corner of the Rt.66/351 intersection in Poestenkill on a yearly basis, which works out to 461 tons of garbage per week, or 100 tons of garbage per day assuming a five day week.
Future Senator Wohlleber’s vision for the future of Poestenkill as a regional garbage hub can already be seen at the Jacangelo Regional Garbage Transfer Station, where one now sees a bunch of scabrous-looking, garbage-hauling trailers that have been hauled in there and parked in the “hobo jungle” behind the transfer station, where the residentially-zoned land of the PDD, which the “Jacangelo Gang” treats as a “free-fire zone” where no laws apply, has been allowed by the Town of Poestenkill to deteriorate into an eye-sore as a visible sign of its contempt for the people of Poestenkill who live in that part of town.
With his vote backing this agreement and this deceit, Councilman Wohlleber has proven to the powers-that-be in Rensselaer County Republican politics that he is a man of action who has the right stuff as an anti-regulation/pro-big business conservative Republican with his willingness to sell out the people of Poestenkill, and by extension, the people of this senatorial district, to secure the profits of giant waste hauler Waste Management.