Roger Scruton’s Modern Culture

Roger Scruton died earlier this year. There are very few people who can fairly be described as irreplaceable, but he was certainly one. Who among us now can claim his vast array of talents or rival his broad base of knowledge? Consider his hobbies and interests: he was an accomplished pianist, and fluent in every European language, plus Farsi and Arabic; his writings cover the gamut, from literature and philosophy to politics, music, art, architecture, wine and fox hunting. He could boast of friendships on almost every continent, and the honours he had accrued, from a lifetime of teaching and writing and arguing, testify to his international audience: the Czech Medal of Merit, presented by Václav Havel, say, or the Polish Grand Cross of the Order of Merit. Those who knew him personally – among them heroes of mine, Douglas Murray and Ayaan Hirsi Ali – spoke of his kindness and generosity of spirit, and anyone with a few hours to spare can hear for themselves how carefully he communicated, how passionately he shared his wisdom and experience, by searching his name on YouTube. A conspicuous theme of his obituaries, however, was the cold reception given to him by his native Britain. Modern Culture, partly a work of history, partly a work of philosophy, offers a key explanation as to why that might be. It surveys the development of Western culture since the Enlightenment, charting the rise of a high culture of the arts that, in the wake of the retreat of organized religion, sought to offer transcendent meaning, solace from our existential dread, and a vision of ethics and human purpose that might sustain us into the future; that culture is now scarcely in evidence, betrayed by the very institutions charged with nourishing and sustaining it, and replaced, in the popular imagination, by an array of entertainment options unparalleled in human history, but which offer us only distraction – and even that at the high price of turning us into consumers.

Scruton begins, sensibly enough, with a chapter entitled “What Is Culture?” that distinguishes between two ideas of culture: one, which Scruton will go on to call “common culture,” which encompasses “the shared spiritual force […] manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people,” and acts as a unifying force to distinguish an us from a them; the other, which Scruton will go on to call “high culture,” is not the default mode of being of any given people but a high watermark of thought and aesthetic appreciation that can only be approached with much effort and cultivation. The first, particularist conception he attributes to the German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder; the second, universalist conception – “universalist” because, in principle, anyone can aspire to entrance into the higher culture – he attributes to Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian philosopher most responsible for our standardized system of higher education. Rather than attempt to argue for or against one conception, Scruton elects to adopt both:

Herder’s idea of culture is ‘particularist.’ A culture is defined as something separate – an island of ‘we’ in the ocean of ‘they.’ Humboldt’s conception is ‘universalist’: the cultivated person, for Humboldt, sees mankind as a whole, knows the art and literature of other peoples, and sympathizes with human life in all its higher forms and aspirations. Why use the same word for two such conflicting ideas? Why write a book about culture, which treats ‘common culture’ and ‘high culture’ as though they were in some deep way connected? As an educated person I sympathize with Humboldt and Matthew Arnold. As an old-fashioned Englishman I lean towards Herder. One of my motives for writing this book is a sense that these two sympathies are fed from a common source.

Having established his terms, he goes on to describe the profound changes that have occurred in Western culture since the Enlightenment, using his remarkable grasp of our artistic heritage as a lens. I cannot overstate how impressive is Scruton’s command of the arts: he invokes music, film, poetry, photography, sculpture, in some cases spanning centuries, to demonstrate how we have reacted to the gradual decline of religion in public life, culminating in a lengthy and erudite discussion of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, surely the monumental poem encapsulating the alienation and spiritual degradation of 20th century man.

The Waste Land effects a remarkable synthesis: on the one hand Baudelaire’s experience of the city as a spiritual ordeal, giving proof of our higher nature by depicting its ruin. (The verse preface to Les Fleurs du mal is significantly quoted.) On the other hand, the self-conscious appeal to myth, which outlines the original community, the divinely ordained order and lost Edenic innocence, from which all our wanderings and grievings decline. The ruling influences in this second enterprise are two: anthropology, for its vision of myth as the flowering of a common culture, and Wagner, for his attempt to use myth as part of the redeeming alchemy of art. At each point in Eliot’s invocation of modern London we find two artistic givens – the alienated observer and, in the soul of that observer, the echoing vault of a vanished religious culture, in which the fragments of experience seek their completion in myth. The vault echoes with the words of poets: Dante, Shakespeare, Verlaine, Nerval, Wagner. Its walls are crowded with symbols, from the legend of the grail, from Christianity, and from other cults of the ‘dying god.’ These echoes and symbols are there not to establish Eliot’s place in the high culture of Europe, but to create, in imagination, an ideal common culture – a deep-down collective experience which will supply the meaning which is absent from the fragments. The anthropological vision of Christianity as a vegetation cult is internalized. The ruined soulscape of the modern city calls for the refreshing rain of Christ’s passion. And the alienated observer is both Christ and the pilgrim seeking him – the soul for whom suffering is also a mystical redemption.

In Eliot’s haunting and prophetic telling, we moderns inhabit a barren world, unsheltered from the inevitable blows of existence: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water.” Scruton describes the works of Eliot and his peers – Joyce and Pound and Becket – as a self-conscious attempt to construct a secular path to transcendent meaning and purpose, using art as a bridge. This, he claims, accounts for their formal difficulty: they did not want a popular audience, enthused by the lowest common denominator, but an audience willing and able to trace their allusions and walk those well-worn steps to higher meaning and purpose. This, Scruton argues, is why Wagner’s art was of such primary importance to so much of European high culture:

It raises into conscious and dramatic form the one experience that can rescue godless people from triviality. It shows man the redeemer, who re-enchants the world without divine assistance. The proof that this is possible – even if it is a proof that depends on the higher artistic contrivance – clears the psychic space that we require. We live as if we could make that final sacrifice, as if we could free ourselves, through some absolute and peremptory self-command, from the original mistake – the mistake of existing in a disenchanted world. This ‘as if’ permeates our daily thoughts and feelings, and reconciles us to each other and the world.

Wagner found a secular alternative to full-throated religious devotion, a path to purpose and meaning and the consolations of philosophy that, in principle, could be walked by any and all willing.

This is a book, however, dealing with “modern culture,” and modern culture has found no place for Wagner, or for Eliot, or for most of the artistic heritage of the West, for that matter. Indeed, Scruton was wont to liken our present predicament, in which even our universities have declined to teach the treasures of our tradition, or leavened them with a heavy dose of repurposed Marxist theory, to the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union sought to dissolve that tradition by fiat. In those dark days, Scruton risked his life to travel into the Czech Republic as part of an underground education network, seeking to keep the flame of learning alive. It is my fond hope that a new generation of readers and thinkers will discover his writings, that he might perform the same invaluable role in death as he performed in life.