Tag Archives: Burkean Conservatives

Untangling Scruton

Roger Scruton is one of the real intellectual heavyweight social conservatives. Usually, he, like many social conservatives going back to Burke, hold that certain liberalized notions are the prime movers for social chaos. But catch this line from his recent (and apparently final) article at The American Spectator:

The demoralization of society is the effect of many causes, only some of which belong in the realm of ideas. Prolonged peace, unprecedented abundance, social mobility, contraception, drugs, and stimulants — all these have a predictable effect in weakening the bonds of society.

Yeah, in the middle of that list of socially demoralizing forces, he said social mobility.  Apparently, one of the real problems with contemporary society is that people not knowing their place really undoes the bonds you have with them.  Oh, and peace is demoralizing, too.  So, just like with liberals, he sees the material conditions of culture to be influential in the same ways intellectual features of culture are.  He just sees all the material objectives of contemporary liberalism (peace, abundance, social mobility, control over when one begins a family, and access to medicine) as bad influences on culture.

OK, OK. Perhaps this is an uncharitable reading of Scruton.  Maybe by 'social mobility,' he means that we move around spatially, not across economic or social classes.  And by 'peace,' he means… erm, wait, are we at peace?  Maybe, he means, without constant existential threat.  And perhaps he means too much of a good thing by abundance. Regardless, when he turns to how to confront these challenges, he turns positively morose:

We have to accept that it is no longer possible to govern young people by the methods that were used to govern and influence the young of my generation. Exhortation, example, the stories of saints and heroes, the life of humility, sacrifice, penitence, and prayer — all such moral influences have little or no significance for them.

Really embracing the 'get off my lawn' model for the social conservative, isn't he?  And, by the way, I find this, at least in my experience as a college teacher utterly false. (Both at Vanderbilt and in by recent years at Western Kentucky)

Funny, though.  He ends with a line of thought on conservative education I find totally convincing:

We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

Agreed, agreed.  And note that none of the points here of the education Scruton asks conservatives to model are inconsistent with liberalized culture, just one that can maintain a kind of reverent acknowledgement of what had come before.  I'd alsways thought these Burkean conservatives inherited a kind of reaction-formation from the French Revolution.  Is liberalism coming from Scruton's pen really Robespierre?