Roger Scruton’s The Meaning Of Conservatism

The Meaning Of ConservatismI have lately undergone a personal upheaval, brought about by a change in my political convictions. For most of my teenage years, I took no interest in politics, viewing the whole messy business of governance with a great deal of condescension. What values I cherished came from my readings in literature, and centered around the individual and his right to enjoy as wide a circumference of liberty – in conscience, speech and action – as society could tolerate. Having no truck with god, I found the inscrutable dictates of religion alienating and imposing, and so, like John Stuart Mill, I resolved to hold no political position that could not withstand the acid test of reason. This, I thought, made me a liberal. But attending a very liberal university for four years, and being exposed to what passes as contemporary thought among liberals, has left me alienated. Where I thought the free exchange of ideas would be most lively and most valued, I found a dull conformity, one that reacted with puritanical zeal when challenged. I assumed that in university the human individual would be sacrosanct, but instead a perverse form of liberalism sought to label and categorize people according to superficial markers of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. My beloved literature – the plays, poems and novels that had connected me to people and places long gone, expanding my sense of self – was abused relentlessly, reduced to a mere screen onto which student and professor alike could project their particular political grievances. When the complexities of history – a source equally of joy and frustration to all who study them – could not be made to support the dominant political narrative, they were tortured into simplicity, or else simply ignored. Even language itself did not escape brutality; I will never again be able to employ “power,” “privilege” or “problematic” without suspicion.

I sought in vain for a defence of what I loved mounted by the left, and found, among conservative thinkers, the strongest arguments against this mindless turn against tradition. Thus did I discover Roger Scruton, a British-born conservative philosopher and self-professed aesthete. The Meaning Of Conservatism is, by his definition, a “dogmatics” of conservatism, not an attempt at persuasion, and so it is divided into subheadings – Authority and Allegiance, Law and Liberty, Property – that stake out the conservatise position, as he sees it. For my part, steeped as I am in liberal thought, I found much of the book challenging, albeit in the best possible sense of that word. Here, for example, is a sentence from the introductory chapter: “In politics, the conservative attitude seeks above all for government, and regards no citizen as possessed of a natural right that transcends his obligation to be ruled.” That is not a sentence I can read without profound discomfort, and yet he nonetheless manages to demonstrate the wisdom of it. Here he is, for example, on freedom:

Freedom is comprehensible as a social goal only when subordinate to something else, to an organization or arrangement which defines the individual aim. Hence to aim at freedom is at the same time to aim at the constraint which is its precondition. Roughly speaking, it is the individual’s responsibility to win whatever freedom of speech, conscience and assembly he may; it is the politician’s responsibility to define and maintain the arrangement in which that freedom is to be pursued. One major difference between conservatism and liberalism consists, therefore, in the fact that, for the conservative, the value of individual liberty is not absolute, but stands subject to another and higher value, the authority of established government. And history could be taken to suggest that what satisfies people politically – even if they always used words like “freedom” to articulate the first impulse towards it – is not freedom, but congenial government.

His point is that freedom cannot be an ultimate end for it exists only in relation to a pre-existing set of laws, customs and institutions (“congenial government”) that are its precondition. To aim at freedom absent this tradition is to walk a short line to anarchy. This argument will perhaps be most comprehensible when limited to the individual before being expanded to the wider society:

For what, after all, has been the prevailing weakness of the liberal idea? Surely, this: that it reposes all politics and all morality in an idea of freedom while providing no philosophy of human nature which will tell us what freedom really is or why it matters.

It is from institutions – the church, for example, or the nuclear family, or even custom and the literary tradition – that we are endowed with an idea of freedom separate from ourselves. Absent this higher calling, we are doomed to wander without aim or purpose:

Without some move in this direction, towards constituted power, a person is neither free nor unfree but lives like the nomads of the anarchistic commune, in a perpetual hallucination of freedom that can be translated only into solipsistic acts.

Here, in miniature, are today’s student protesters, whose social media outbursts and faux outrage are fuelled, first and foremost, by a terrible narcissism. Here, too, is de Tocqueville’s “crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Small and vulgar pleasures – whatever transitory fulfillments are at hand – are all that remain to a people devoid of a higher calling, a goal outside themselves. Now, if you will, position yourself at the head of a society of such people, as a president, prime minister or monarch. How do you create cohesion from that mass of competing interests? How do you found anything lasting on so temporal a base? Now, perhaps, we see the horror of unrestrained freedom:

The autonomous individual is the product of practices which designate him as social. The individual person is the person who recognizes that he is no mere individual. Anarchy (which is freedom from the constraints of a public realm) is not the gain of individuality but its loss. Individual freedom is the great social artifact which, in trying to represent itself as nature alone, generates the myth of liberalism.

That final sentence is well worth pondering, because it contains the seeds of the entire conservative philosophy. If liberal and conservative alike both value the individual, the difference lies in their conception of how individualism comes about. In the conservative philosophy, individuality is precious, the byproduct of a particular society forged by particular institutions. How many of these institutions can we do away with and still expect to maintain our high standard of individuality?

This book is too expansive to be easily summarized, but Scruton is eminently quotable. On the calamity of modern social science: “Sociological liturgy is simply the easy rigmarole of the ‘second-order mind,’ which substitutes ready-made concepts for critical understanding. Such a mind has no ability to test its ideas against reality, or to understand reality through its stock of ideas”; on conservatism and change: “The desire to conserve is compatible with all manner of change, provided only that change is also continuity”; on impiety: “Impiety is the refusal to recognize as legitimate a demand that does not arise from consent or choice” (he has in mind, in particular, the demands of family); on the impotence of human rights charters: “There are only rights where there are obligations; and whose is the obligation to provide? No doubt the United Nations Charter of Human Rights provides many moral truths; but what social arrangement, what community of common interests, what mutual understanding between people, gives rise to the political obligations to comply with it?”; on barbarism: “A barbaric state is one in which it is impossible to distinguish the ‘due process of law’ (the will of the state) from the will of a party or an individual. In such a state the law has no independent authority, only delegated power”; and alienation: “Alienation is not a condition of society, but the absence of society.” He is particularly eloquent on what he calls “the constraints of the family, and the abstinence necessary to an ordinary, responsible life” – concepts that are wholly unwelcome among today’s youth. Here he is meditating on the unchaining of sexual desire:

It is surely difficult to contemplate with ease the free marketing of sex as a spectacle, and the consequent transference of erotic passion from personal commitment to abstract titillation. To borrow a Marxist concept: this fetishism of the sexual commodity is also a source of sexual alienation. It places a barrier between people and their fulfillment, turning the sexual act into a caricature of itself: not an existential choice, but the gratification of an appetite. This kind of ‘fetishism’ is the enemy of the human spirit: it is hallucination of freedom, meted out by the vacillation of the sexual market. It marks the obsession of man with his animal nature, and the theft of his social essence.

You need only look to Huxley’s Brave New World – or, I’m sad to say, much of the modern world – to see this ugly spectacle and its corrosive impact on the human spirit writ large.

This is a dense, challenging work – not only challenging in its allusions to history and philosophy, but in the sense that it represents an earnest, succinct and thoughtful challenge to liberalism, which has become the default mindset of the modern world. Whether you ultimately find this challenge persuasive or not, it will force you to reexamine your own political biases. For my part, I can no longer conceive of a political philosophy that does not account for and incorporate aspects of conservative thought, from the imperatives of tradition to the constraints posed by human nature.