Until early in the 20th century, art was considered to be a product of skill and discipline. It was seen as something that built imaginatively on inherited traditions and objective standards — those that had proven their validity and value over time — in order to create something beautiful, something that could transport the observer into the realm of the transcendent.
The modern art movement destroyed these customary notions of art. Seeing them as ‘quaint’ or ‘oppressive,’ it replaced them with the idea that anyone can be an artist because art is merely a matter of subjective expression. To become a renowned artist, one no longer needed to spend countless hours in study or practice honing one’s skills and talents. All one needed was a flair for expressing thoughts, emotions, or moods through some medium.
The result of this revolution in art is plain to see when the typical work from a museum of modern art is set beside a piece of art from a typical museum of fine art. The former looks like ephemeral child’s play, something that could have been snatched off the side of a refrigerator in suburbia; the latter, on the other hand, is clearly the work of tremendous maturity: it beckons the viewer to a place where time intersects with timelessness — but which also, somehow, consoles the spirit and makes living in the here-and-now more tolerable.
Man as a work of art
One is similarly struck by the staggering difference in quality when the late Sir Roger Scruton is compared with the typical postmodern man. In a world glutted with barbarism and degrading kitsch, Scruton was a masterpiece. His existence was a reproach to anyone who insists that all men are entitled to be “treated as equals” rather than deserving “equal treatment.” Scruton’s intellect, and the depth and breadth of his knowledge, are evident on virtually every page he penned.
Reading his works is invariably a humbling experience. And readers often came away with the awareness of how much more there is to know, and how our little stock of wisdom paled in comparison to his. Yet despite his example, and his staunch efforts to defend Western Civilization against socialism, cultural Marxism, relativism, and the culture of repudiation, many seem oblivious to his message.
Ralph Adams Cram one remarked that a human being is merely the raw material out of which an occasional person may be constructed. Much of the postmodern world has become hostile to this notion, and the very idea that man is a work of art. As Scruton’s own long life exemplified, man must be carefully crafted over time by an artisan — or else he will default into a degraded savage.
An exemplary man — a person like Scruton — is thus forged by discipline; his conscience must be strengthened and buttressed from his wickedness; his will must be purified of his vices; and his virtues hardened into habits. His soul must be enlarged and softened into a radiant suppleness by grace and proper sentiments so that he can show mercy, feel empathy, and come to love truth, goodness, beauty, as well as others, as he loves himself. His mind must be attenuated and elevated by the study of knowledge and wisdom which roots out fallacy and falsehood.
These are not easy or simple endeavors that are undertaken naturally — and they emerge only if they are encouraged and enforced by the dominant culture. As Scruton had warned, the emergent cultural Marxism is inherently destructive of all such cultural endeavors. It seeks to destroy the humanizing institutions, erase the hard lessons of history, and abolish the great store of human wisdom that lead to human flourishing.
In his book Modern Culture, Scruton discerned:
The gap between the culture acquired spontaneously by the young, and that which … should be imparted in the university, is so cavernously wide that the teacher is apt to look ridiculous, as he perches on his theatrical pinnacle and beckons the youth across to it. … Increasingly, therefore, modern intellectuals define their position as one outside the high culture to which the owe their status. Their task, they claim, is not to propagate Western culture, but to question its assumptions, to undermine its authority, and to liberate young people from the ‘structures.’
As Scruton recalled in several works, as a young man in Paris during the riots of May ’68, he had witnessed first-hand such annihilating attacks upon Western culture. He had witnessed students destroying the city, smashing windows, overturning cars, and tearing up the cobblestone streets. “I saw … an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans,” he wrote, later recalling that
[w]hen I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilization against these things. … I suddenly realized I was on the other side. That’s when I became a conservative.
That “gobbledygook,” Scruton explains in his memoirs, Gentle Regrets, was straight from Foucault’s The Order of Things, which seemed to be composed with a “satanic mendacity” to justify every form of transgression. Foucault, whose ultimate goal was subversion, argued
by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies — that ‘truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look, everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy.
To Scruton’s rescue came Burke, of course.
The philosopher of ‘home’
Scruton has sometimes been called the ‘philosopher of home’ because of his defense of oikophilia or ‘love of home.’ In fact, much of his work sought to show how there is a deep yearning in man for home, for a community in which man finds ― through the experience of belonging ― his place. With it, man finds comfort, meaning, and purpose.
Today, however, “in place of the old beliefs of a civilization based on godliness, judgment and historical loyalty, young people are given the new beliefs of a society based on equality and inclusion, and are told that the judgment of other lifestyles is a crime. …The ‘non-judgmental’ attitude towards other cultures goes hand-in-hand with a fierce denunciation of the culture that might have been one’s own.”
As Scruton explained, if a community or nation loses its sense of what it means to be ‘us’ — that is, if we lose our shared culture and the willingness to defend it — then we can be easily displaced, and atomized into the dry dust of individualism. Generations cannot link to each other, and a cultureless society ensues — replete with rootless, alienated strangers.
Related to his understanding of home was Scruton’s book on environmentalism, a tour de force of applied Burkean philosophy. It showed why conservationists and conservatives are natural allies in protecting our homes from predation. In contrast to many environmentalists who begin from a premise which despises mankind and considers man to be a predator, Scruton demonstrated how conservatives start from a place of friendly affection for ‘home’ and the people who live in it, and then try to protect it from predatory ideologies and the exploitation of its natural resources. Conservatives are thus engaged in preserving our social ecology.
Scruton also defended the rights of people to protect their communities from invasion in a way that made many capitalists uncomfortable. Although he was opposed to all socialist and fascist schemes, he pulled no punches in exposing the dangers of unrestrained capitalism. He distinguished economic capital from social capital. Scruton made it clear that unaccountable, transnational mega-corporations had laid waste to the very communities in which people feel most at home.
One need only to look at the United States to see such results. The U.S. is now strewn with towns and cities full of shuttered storefronts where a once vigorous social ecology thrived, but which have now been turned into a homogenized suburbanized mess. They are soulless towns in the middle of nowhere. In contrast, Scruton pointed to cities like Salzburg, Austria, that have maintained their charm, their community, and their heritage by opposing this kind of corporate invasion. People flock to visit Salzburg because it is so enchanting — and it is enchanting precisely because it has not succumbed to crushing corporatism.
This leads naturally to Scruton’s shared defense of Burke’s “little platoons”: those intervening, intermediate, voluntary associations which stand between man and the crushing powers of the state and mega-corporations. These little platoons are the chief ‘enemies’ of those who wish to convert voluntary social authority at the local level into the political power of the centralized collective state. The reinvigoration of the little platoons is thus essential to restrain the state — and for any recovery or renewal of civilization.
Equality, liberation, and social justice
In the context of today’s violent social justice, liberation, and equality movements, one wonders how Scruton would have reacted. In fact, in one of his essays, he posed a question that perfectly exposed how liberation and equality are obviously not compatible: “If liberation involves the liberation of individual potential, how do we stop the ambitious, the energetic, the intelligent, the good-looking, and the strong from getting ahead, and what should we allow ourselves by way of constraining them?”
But such a common sense approach doesn’t satisfy people who are overcome by resentment and filled with anger at a world in which they do not feel at home. This is why many intellectuals have chosen to use the weapons of Marxism to attack not just the market economy but, rather, our language and culture, and the very institutions which sustain them. Like fascism and communism, the cultural Marxism of today seeks to “create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal [and the] elimination of opposition.”
This is why Scruton’s arguments aren’t acknowledged and refuted but rather repudiated and silenced. Through it all, he remained a happy warrior despite his melancholic temperament. But he labored under no illusions of what was possible in today’s hostile intellectual climate. In 2012 he wrote that we must
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. … 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.
But Scruton dismissed those who said that no moral truths or values exist. He continued to divine answers to many of the great and most perplexing philosophical questions, and sought to find the true meaning of things in the midst of a world convinced that life itself was meaningless.
Toward the end, Scruton rejoiced in Britain’s rejection of Marxist Corbynism and very much approved of Brexit as an effort to reclaim a sovereign homeland. That, he had once proclaimed, is the romantic core of conservatism: that things which are precious to us but are now lost might be reclaimed again. And though he died just weeks before Brexit’s completion, he knew it was a fait accompli — in no small part because of his efforts as England’s most famous knight-errant. Perhaps he wasn’t merely tilting at windmills after all.