Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition
by Sir Roger Scruton
New York: All Points Books, 2018
In his latest book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Sir Roger Scruton develops a unified theory of conservative thought, policy, and history. He beautifully details the importance of the latent meaning behind many of the ideas on which the Western world is predicated and the activities it undertakes, although many of these convictions are often taken for granted. Scruton walks the reader through a logical series of chapters explaining the great conversation between liberals and conservatives.
In this conversation, Scruton emphasizes the need human beings have to commune with each other and build trust. Without trust, or “social capital”, the social bonds that unite us with our neighbors disintegrate. For Scruton, this is the glue that connects neighbors and countrymen, and links the generations. As Scruton notes, the building of this trust is possible only if we, as a society, embrace an ethic of ‘we’ over ‘I’, a legacy of the Enlightenment and modern-day liberalism. Only when the ethic of ‘we’ is in place over the ethic of ‘I’ can otherwise antagonistic fellow citizens and their elected officials build trust, enabling them “to accept decisions that run counter to their individual desires and which express the views of the nation and its future that they do not share.”
The sentiment of trust is an imperative foundation in building community with our neighbors. Scruton asserts: “the most important input into conservative thinking is the desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity” (p. 12). Trust and continuity in a community nourish the individual’s soul by endowing each community member with the wisdom of their ancestors. Scruton could find no more salient example of this assertion than the English common law tradition, which is nothing less than “solutions, tested by time and custom, to the problems of social conflict and the needs of orderly government. It is the persistence of these institutions over time and their inscription in the hearts of the English people that have created the love of liberty.”
The time-tested customs of the English people embodied in their common law are manifested in their traditions. For Scruton, traditions are infinitely more than “arbitrary rules and conventions”. Traditions are our society collectively “discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions. These answers are tacit, shared, embodied in social practices and inarticulate expectations.”
Scruton informs us that traditions are created in what Edmund Burke referred to as “little platoons”, or our attachments that start first and foremost in our families, then move in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity from local attachments to national ones. Traditions formed in our little platoons are “forms of knowledge. They contain the residues of many trial and errors, and the inherited solutions to problems that we all encounter.”
It is these “inherited solutions” that are most important in understanding Scruton’s conception of what society really is to the conservative. The following passage encapsulates Scruton’s definition of what the essence of society is, and why traditions are so important:
Society does not contain the living only; it is an association between the dead, living and the unborn. Its binding principle is not a contract but something more akin to trusteeship. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard for our dependents. There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have . . . We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on.
It is this chain-of-being, which Scruton knows is worth defending, that those who came before attempted to preserve in their lifetimes. Scruton devotes the remainder of his book (chapters 3-6) to discussing the individuals who attempted to defend this noble cause.Throughout this succinct volume, Scruton skillfully alerts the readers to the reasons that we, as a society, live our lives as we do. His explanation of the implicit rationale in things like traditions, rituals, and customs is that they are not random or arbitrary acts, but are the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors, bequeathed to us.
Scruton’s historical summation of the liberal and conservative incongruence is a pithy conversation detailing the people, the ideas, the events, and the ideological tenets of the clashes. He delivers a clear and concise intellectual history of modernity, liberalism and conservatism, and the central advocates of these ideas and their impact on the world around us.
Ever aware of his place in the great chain-of-being—from Edmund Burke to T.S. Eliot—Scruton offers his counter-argument to liberalism and modernity. His chapter on cultural conservatism highlights its emergence as a remedy to some of the dilemmas of modernity, including the alienation, loneliness, and rational utilitarianism divorced from the human heart. Scruton is keenly aware that “all that is most valuable in life depends upon transcending the motive of profit and the spirit of calculation.”
The role of culture in our lives gives us a direction towards the ends of human conduct, a growing spiritual need in the face of utilitarian-mechanistic thinkers like J.S. Mill and Bentham. For Scruton, T.S. Eliot’s work embodied that direction. Eliot understood the spiritual needs of man and how to go about our cultural renewal. To Eliot, “the spiritual tradition that in our daily lives seems dead and buried persists in sacred places and symbols. . . . by opening our hearts to it, and allowing the present moment to fill with the residue of time past, we recuperate what we might have lost.”
Scruton concludes his book with a diagnosis of the climate of the contemporary Western world. He addresses the contemporary fear of the rise of big government in the West, which is reminiscent of the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and the socialism that was embraced in other parts of the world. Scruton offers us the notion that “[s]ociety depends for its health and continuity on customs and traditions that are at risk from individual freedom, even if they are also expressions of it. The philosophical burden of American conservatism has been to define those customs and traditions and to show how they might endure and flourish from their own inner dynamic, outside the control of the state.”
Scruton also understands the function of recognizing and identifying what a nation’s traditions are, and why they are both essential and relevant. Ultimately, this is the salient question he addresses at the end of his book when speaking about Islam and the Western world. Scruton, like many of his contemporaries, recognizes the clash of civilizations taking place in the Western world between practicing Muslims and the Western countries in which they reside. He senses the West is dealing with a crisis of character. He warns that “it will be impossible to respond in a coherent way to the Islamist threat without regaining confidence in our own identity. This means confidence not in our political institutions only, but in the spiritual inheritance on which they ultimately rest.”
So long as the Western world is self-doubting, he argues, we will be incapable of defending ourselves (and our values) against those who are hostile to them. The western world is currently afflicted with too many people who view the Western world through a negative lens. Many in the West are afflicted with guilt from the West’s colonial legacy and, in an erroneous attempt at retribution, have become overly tolerant of those who wish us harm. “[T]o offer toleration to those gripped by animosity to your way of life,” Scruton says, “is to open the door to destruction.” He then concludes: “We must rediscover what we are and what we stand for, and having rediscovered it, be prepared to fight for it. That is now, as it has ever been, the conservative message.”
And that is the convincing message Scruton wants us to understand about conservatism: The world has meaning. Our lives have meaning. The answers to what the world means and what the purpose of our lives are have been handed down to us, from generation to generation. We are not merely atomized individuals but are trustees to an inheritance. We must remember to view ourselves as beings with duties to the past, duties to the present, and duties to posterity. This is the essence of conservatism, for which the author believes convincingly it is worth fighting.
This book is an ideal primer to the intellectual conservatism. Scruton gracefully articulates conservatism’s main tenets, its historical foundations, and its value to our lives today. His eloquent yet accessible prose make this a perfect introduction to those interested in better understanding the liberal/conservative debate of today.