How a British Philosopher Discovered His Conservatism

Article excerpt


Roger Scruton is perhaps the most prominent conservative intellectual in the United Kingdom and since his groundbreaking study "A Defense of Conservatism" was published 25 years ago, his influence has grown in the United States as well. A philosopher by training, Mr. Scruton has written widely on topics ranging from a defense of fox hunting to aesthetics to sex; more recently, he has written a provocative defense of Western culture against Islamic fundamentalism.

In addition, he is a founder of The Salisbury Review, the leading conservative publication in Britain, and the organizer of a long-running conservative discussion group that introduced British conservatives to Tory politicians. Insofar as the Tory party has a coherent set of conservative ideas, they can be traced to the work of Mr. Scruton and his fellows. Beyond all that, he has written perceptively about music and architecture, and has himself composed musical pieces for performance.

In this elegantly written memoir, Mr. Scruton explains how he became a conservative and what conservatism means to him. Unlike the stereotypical Tory, there was nothing particularly conservative about Roger Scruton's family or upbringing. He was raised in a middle-class home and through the good fortune of teachers was able to explore his interests in culture and the arts. Most important, he was taught that the traditional tools of criticism could be used to understand and appreciate culture, and that the point of education was to pass on the cultural inheritance of the West rather than to build self-esteem or provide ideological indoctrination. Unlike the trendy leftists of today, the liberals of Mr. Scruton's generation were the heirs of the modernism of Pound, Eliot and Joyce, and saw their responsibility to redeem the tradition they had received, not destroy it.

Mr. Scruton did not realize that he was a conservative until after he had received his degree from Cambridge and was living in Paris during the anti-bourgeois riots of 1968. The fashionable destroyers brought home the fragility of civilization and caused him to take sides in what has become known in the United States as the culture wars. "For the first time in my life," he writes of his time in France, "I felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew."

His instinctive defense of the Western tradition caused another conclusion: Conservatism was lonely. It was at odds with the spirit of the times and incomprehensible to intellectuals and policy makers of the 1960s and 1970s, who saw the future in socialism and believed progress lay in sweeping away the gathered wisdom of generations. To his rescue came Edmund Burke, whom Mr. Scruton discovered after returning to England in the early '70s and taking up law study by day and teaching philosophy by night. Burke showed him a subtle and powerful defense of tradition. Like Russell Kirk, who is in some ways his American counterpart, for Mr. Scruton Burke became the starting point for a critique of liberalism.

Society, for Burke, is a sacred trust that requires authority and imposes obligations, rather than a liberal social contract that can be broken or changed at will. More importantly, society is not rational; contrary to the dreams of utopians since the French Revolution, the world cannot be made according to an abstract image of perfection or with reference to pre-existing "rules." Society is held together by custom, tradition, and what Burke called "prejudice:" the beliefs and ideas "which reflect the root experiences of social life. …