Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher who has published more than 40 books in philosophy, aesthetics, and politics, and his work has been widely translated. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches in both England and America and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Here, he talks to National Review about his latest book and the meaning of conservatism.
Madeleine Kearns: In your most recent book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, you provide a distilled synthesis of modern conservative thought. First, I’d like to begin with your book’s last chapter, “Conservatism Now,” in which you reference William F. Buckley Jr.’s first book, God and Man at Yale (1951). In that book, which arguably launched the conservative movement in America, a 24-year-old Buckley wrote: “I believe that if and when the menace of Communism is gone, other vital battles, at present subordinated, will emerge to the foreground. And the winner must have help from the classroom.”
Do you think Buckley was correct? If so, what are these “other vital battles”?
Sir Roger Scruton: Yes, Buckley was right. There is the vital battle to defend fundamental institutions, such as marriage and the family, and to counter the censorship of all opinions that express an attachment to our cultural and political inheritance.
MK: The second half of God and Man at Yale’s title is “The Superstitions of Academic Freedom.” Is academic freedom a superstition?
SRS: No, but professors praise it without really believing in it. They do not grant freedom to those who threaten them intellectually or ideologically. This has been documented by people like Roger Kimball, and it has certainly been my experience.
MK: In the preface to your own book you explain, “freedom is not a set of axioms but an evolving consensus.” As far as possible, can you please explain the conservative approach to freedom?
SRS: Judged in absolute terms, my freedom threatens your freedom. There has to be an emerging civility, which prevents people from abusing their freedom in order to disrupt the consensus on which the general exercise of freedom depends. The rude, raw, “let it all hang out” freedom of the Californian hippies was in fact the most censorious and oppressive of societies that I have encountered. Just by being civil you exposed yourself to contempt as a bourgeois apologist.
MK: What are the main differences between classical liberalism and conservatism?
SRS: Conservatives believe in unchosen obligations (pieties), whereas classical liberals think that the only source of obligation is choice.
MK: And yet they are, you observe, on the same side in today’s culture war. Why is that?
SRS: Because there are so many people who wish to control us, and in doing so to wipe away the image of the past.
MK: Today, in Western countries, we live in mixed economies. You have said elsewhere, for example, that there are “socialist capitalists.” How and why has the relationship between conservative politics, capitalism, and free markets changed?
SRS: We have come to see that, in a modern economy, with the abundance of provisions and the growth of people’s expectations, democracy can only be stable if the state plays an active part in distributing the product, in order to satisfy the needs of those who otherwise would have no share in it.
MK: What is the difference between a reactionary and a conservative?
SRS: A reactionary is fixed on the past and wanting to return to it; a conservative wishes to adapt what is best in the past to the changing circumstances of the present.
MK: Was Edmund Burke a reactionary? If not, why not?
SRS: He was not a reactionary, since he believed that we must “reform in order to conserve.” He reacted against the French Revolution, as most people would who saw, as he saw, what it would involve in the way of crime and destruction.
MK: You identify the temperamental differences between the left and right. Relatively speaking, the former is radical and active, the latter is obedient and passive. Why?
SRS: Why not? The politicization of society, institutions, gatherings, aspirations, affections, tastes, and everything else from sex to sleep is part of what a true right-winger like me objects to. Leave us alone, for heaven’s sake!
MK: One of the things that makes conservatism difficult to market, you suggest, is that conservatism does not advocate for only one universal, standard political program. In the long run, is this good or bad?
SRS: In the long run it must be good to be open to the truth that different societies maintain equilibrium, order, and peace in different ways. The conservative is the one who understands his own society from within and loves and defends it.
MK: Some might think that your articulation of conservatism’s character resembles the donkey Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh: plodding along, destined to be ignored, though in some eyes, at least, endearing. What are the practical uses of pessimism?
SRS: The comparison is a caricature. Eeyore’s pessimism is the expression of inadequacy and fear. I distinguish the right kind of pessimism, which means simply recognizing the deep incompetence of human nature, from the wrong kind, which tells us to stop hoping.
MK: Why do many on the left consider conservatism to be inherently evil (rather than cuddly)?
SRS: The principal reason is that people on the left have illusions about human nature and think they prove their virtue by broadcasting those illusions. Anyone who punctures those illusions is therefore not just a spoilsport but a threat. What the self-declared “virtue” of the left amounts to can be witnessed in what happens to ordinary humanity when the left takes power.
MK: Whittaker Chambers, in leaving Communism for conservatism, said he was consciously leaving the winning side for the losing side. Do you think conservatism is destined to lose?
SRS: All the best people lose.
MK: Can one be a hopeful conservative without God?
SRS: Yes, but it helps to believe in God, since then one’s hopes are fixed on a higher reality, and that stops one from imposing them on the world in which we live.
MK: Of all the conservative thinkers throughout the centuries — you cover too many in your book for me to list here — who has been most influential in forming your own thought?
SRS: Hegel, because he understood the modern world.
MK: You mention a reluctance on the part of some conservatives to self-identify as such. Surprisingly, perhaps, you include George Orwell and Simone Weil in this category. Can you explain why they, too, belong to the “great tradition”? How can you spot a conservative?
SRS: I try to explain this in my book. Conservatives reveal themselves through their care for ordinary human things, and their recognition of the fragility of decency and the need to protect it.
MK: Briefly, could you please explain the fundamental differences between British and American conservatism in origin and trajectory?
MK: You mention neither Donald Trump nor populism in your book. Why?
SRS: Trump is an interesting phenomenon, but not an interesting thinker, supposing he is a thinker at all. “Populism” is a word used by leftists to describe the emotions of ordinary people, when they do not tend to the left.
MK: How is Islam to be best accommodated in Western democracies?
SRS: By engaging Muslims in discussion and explaining to them that we live under a rule of law which is man-made, not God-bestowed.
MK: To bring us full circle, you wrote that National Review “remains the most convinced and convincing of the many conservative journals that have arisen in America since the war.” If I may be so bold, how can National Review best continue its legacy and keep the torch well lit?
SRS: It should attend to the themes that are fundamental to conservatism, and which practicing conservative politicians continually neglect: culture, literature, architecture, the city, the values of ordinary everyday American life.
— Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and moonlights as a singer.