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Roger Scruton’s “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition.” Book Review.

Roger Scruton is arguably the world’s most famous conservative thinker. Currently teaching philosophy at the University of Buckingham, he is the author of dozens of books and countless articles for outlets ranging from the Guardian to the New York Times.  Over the past few decades, he has published a number of introductory works defending and explaining conservatism, including A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006) and How to Be a Conservative (2015). His most recent work, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, follows quite organically from the previous book, which provides a topic by topic analysis of contemporary issues from a conservative perspective. This latest book, published in 2017 with a US edition out in 2018, is more academic in tone, but still readily accessible to the educated layman. Scruton attempts to provide a general introduction to conservative intellectual traditions, analyzing and sometimes evaluating most of the major authors in the western canon over the course of 164 pages.

This would be a tall order for most authors, and it is to Scruton’s credit that the book presents its material economically, without sacrificing depth and nuance. This is a well-structured book, testifying to its author’s mastery of his craft, honed over decades of being a public intellectual. Anyone with an interest in the history of conservative thought, even a left-wing critic like myself, will find a great deal to chew on. Indeed, Scruton opens his book by claiming that he wrote it in part to explain and persuade liberals (though notably not leftists) and critics of conservatism to change their tune:

In the vociferous times in which we live this abusive language, accusing conservatives of “racism,” “xenophobia,” “homophobia,” “sexism”—with an “ism” or a “phobia” to dismiss every aspect of our cultural capital—has made it hard for conservatives to speak out coherently, or even to catch their breath as they run from the noise. Nevertheless, their arguments need to be met by their opponents, and I have written this book in the hope of encouraging well-meaning liberals to take a look at what those arguments really are.

Unfortunately, Scruton’s book also commits many of the sins he deplores in others. When Scruton interprets the great tradition it is often telling who and what he emphasizes. The liberal conservatism of Burke and Hegel, and the fusionist position of figures like William F. Buckley receive a lot of attention and praise. But the weirder, darker undercurrents of conservatism—from Joseph de Maistre’s calls for violence and bloodshed to T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism—tend to be underplayed or go unacknowledged. The book itself ends with some astonishing comments about Islam, which testify to the author’s own need to look more seriously at the arguments made by those who are concerned about isms and phobias. Scruton tends to ignore or downplay those moments when the accusations he is so eager to dismiss might have more than a little merit.

The History of Early Conservatism

For such a short book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition is admirably comprehensive.  It begins with a chapter on the pre-history of conservatism, as Scruton understands it. This includes everything from Aristotle’s arguments for “constitutional government” in the Politics to Thomas Hobbes’ gloomy assessment of the consequences of chaos. The chapter ends with a look at David Hume’s skeptical arguments for an empirical and often sentimental approach to politics and Samuel Johnson’s definition of Toryism and defense of orthodoxy. At points, the chapter is a little too quick to paper over some of the major theoretical differences between these figures, in an effort to situate them within the movement towards conservative liberalism. Little attention is paid, for instance, to the radicalism of Hobbes and Locke’s attacks on the Aristotelian and scholastic doctrines of which Scruton also approves. Other conservative thinkers, notably Patrick Deneen, are more sensitive to these contradictions. But the chapter provides a strong overall analysis, and is marked by the wit and sensitivity that are Scruton’s literary hallmarks when looking at figures he admires (these virtues are notably absent when he is dealing with those he does not).

The most important chapter—and the one that most closely spells out Scruton’s own position—deals with “the birth of philosophical conservatism” in the thinking of the American founders, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Unfortunately, there are some telling leaps and gaps in Scruton’s account. For instance, he portrays Jefferson as a conservative because of “his insistence on continuity and custom as necessary conditions for successful constitution building, and also for his warning against the centralization of state power.” According to Scruton, Jefferson wished for an “America of homesteads and settled communities, in which agrarian values would be properly respected” and he praises him for adopting classical architecture on his estate, to demonstrate continuity with the past. But Scruton never mentions that the estate was maintained by hundreds of slaves—nor does he ask whether a more radical break with the past might have been warranted, as Jefferson himself seems to have. Scruton also does an admirable job of unpacking Adam Smith’s moral and economic theories within only a few pages. But he ignores the more radical side of Smith in his effort to paint him as a largely uncritical proponent of capitalism, who recognized it had its evils, but was generally best left alone. Nowhere does one see the Smith who, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, claims that the disposition to praise the rich and despise the poor is the “great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Nor does he examine Smith’s claims that capitalism has serious flaws—particularly because it produces inequality—which we should attempt to resolve. However, Scruton does provide an excellent, concise reading of the “incomparable” Edmund Burke, who penned a stirring defense of the kind of liberal conservatism the author admires. This liberal conservatism would allow citizens many freedoms, complemented by traditions, the “little platoons” of social institutions and religion:

The aim of Burke’s argument in the Reflections is to uphold the priority of the “we” over the “I” and to warn against what happens when the forms of social membership are taken away and society disintegrates, as he puts it, into the “dust and powder of individuality.” The “we” that he advocates is not that of the modern bureaucratic states, still less that of the revolutionary guardians who speak on behalf of the people while never consulting them. It is the “we” of a traditional community, bound by the web of “little platoons” under a shared rule of law and territorial sovereignty.

The next several chapters expound on the development of different streams of conservatism in several different locations. Perhaps the most important section appears in Chapter Three, where Scruton provides a lengthy analysis of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, who offered the “most systematic presentation that we have of the conservative vision of political order.” This is high praise—though Scruton acknowledges that there are qualifications. Hegel is often thought to present a vision of conservative order in works like The Philosophy of Right, which emphasizes the relational and ethical nature of human life, while critiquing the radical individualism of figures like Rousseau and Kant. But Hegelian theories on the philosophy of history have also provided theoretical ammunition for generations of revolutionaries and radical leftists: from Karl Marx through the Frankfurt School to Slavoj Zizek. And, indeed, Scruton’s reading of Hegel skews more heavily towards the stately author of the Philosophy of Right than the young radical, who discussed the dialectic of the master and slave—a dialectic in which the former is eventually overcome by the latter. But Scruton’s interpretation of Hegel is nevertheless certainly viable, though more engagement with counterexamples would have been helpful.

Things become less admirable when Scruton moves on to various European thinkers and cultural conservatives. He has plenty of nice things to say about the reactionary Joseph de Maistre’s “brilliantly expressed” thoughts, but brushes aside his repeated calls for mass counter-revolutionary violence as a kind of “remorseless extremism.” T. S. Eliot is praised for his “unforgettable” imagery of a modernist wasteland, but his elitist critiques of liberal democracy and often xenophobic inclinations are not even mentioned. Scruton waxes poetic about the achievements of cultural conservatives in the American South through the nineteenth century, but only lightly chides the authors of poems like “Ode to the Confederate Dead” for a “failure to come to grips with slavery and its legacy.” Scruton provides useful analyses of all these figures and of their more interesting and contemporaneously applicable arguments. But it is telling that an author known for his lacerating and often controversial critiques of authors associated with the political left is so much softer on the sins on the political right.

Scruton on Contemporary Conservatism

The book concludes with two chapters examining the influence of socialism on the conservative movement, Scruton’s analysis of his intellectual contemporaries and suggestions as to what the right should do. The chapter on socialism is the book’s strongest—perhaps inevitably, given Scruton’s own activism on the issue. It includes fantastic and often nuanced readings of the work of F. A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott, and a discussion of various anti-socialist and communist authors in the US and Europe. There are some problems—for instance George Orwell’s criticisms of totalitarianism and communism and of left-wing intellectuals are mentioned, but his support for democratic socialism is largely brushed aside—but the analysis is generally interesting and informative. Unfortunately, the strongest chapter is followed by the weakest. Scruton starts well: with a thorough analysis of contemporary conservative and libertarian thinkers, including Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley and so on. He points out that the “melding of the conservative and the libertarian standpoint” gave birth, in the 1970s, to the “New Right,” which has been largely dominant since then. Unfortunately, Scruton does not discuss the recent illiberal turn in conservative thinking, which perhaps explains the tepid response to important precursor figures like Russell Kirk, who was notably less fond of liberalism than his fusionist peers. It would be interesting to know whether conservative critics of liberalism like Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen meet with Scruton’s approval, and whether Scruton would agree that a realignment is taking place on both right and left).

He closes with a discussion of the Islamic issue, which is embarrassing in its paranoia and willingness to let anecdote and hyperbole stand in lieu of actual analysis of multiculturalism and its discontents. The following paragraph is typical:

Britain has seen the growth of Islamic communities that reject crucial aspects of the nation state. British schools have acquired the thankless task of integrating the children of these communities that their parents denounce as blasphemous. And the left-liberal establishment has rushed forward to condemn as “racist” any person—be it schoolteacher, social worker, or journalist—who discusses in plain and truthful language what is happening to the social fabric of the country.

The language of this paragraph may be plain, but it is hardly truthful. Studies have consistently shown that most Muslims wish to integrate into and are proud of their communities, both in the UK and elsewhere. Scruton’s vague references to a mass of Muslims who reject “crucial aspects” of the nation state suggest that he might be advised to take another look at the arguments of the so-called “left-liberal establishment.” He has a great deal to say about the “Western inheritance” and Islam’s alleged incompatibility with it, but little to say about the liberal emphasis on toleration and pluralism and the criticism of abstract group identities like the nation. These are very important elements of western civilization. The work of scholars like Will Kymlicka suggests that one could even frame the progress of the last two centuries in terms of the gradual extension of moral concern from purely local groups to encompass most if not all of the human race. Some are even arguing for a further extension of moral concern to non-human animals and the environment. Scruton may not like these developments, but they are as much a feature of western civilization as having a taste for fine wines, and he would do well to acknowledge that.

Conclusion

Scruton’s book is a readable and often highly informative look at the conservative tradition. Even leftists who are interested in criticizing conservative thought will likely gain much from it. There is something extremely refreshing about his economical and unpretentious style, particularly when analyzing and reinterpreting difficult thinkers like Georg Hegel and David Hume. While one might quibble with his interpretation of certain authors, particularly those with more ambiguous fealties, like Adam Smith, generally the subjects he tackles benefit from the examination.

Unfortunately, the book is also held back by two significant flaws. The first is Scruton’s tendency to whitewash large swathes of the great tradition. Many of the authors Scruton analyzes held views which are highly controversial or even obviously repugnant: from supporting slavery through to calls for violence and transparent xenophobia. Scruton’s response is to ignore or gently chide these authors before quickly moving on—which is both misleading and regrettable. A more tough love approach might have brought some of these dark and odd tendencies to the surface, and either revealed why they were not central to the tradition or how everyone has moved on since then. By ignoring them, particularly in an era in which ethnic and cultural tensions are back at the political forefront, Scruton ironically draws our attention to what is missing. He may prefer an irreproachable great tradition running from Aristotle through to Simone Weil, but the rest of us will not forget that this tradition also includes everyone from apologists for imperialism like Benjamin Disraeli through to fascists like Carl Schmitt and paleolibertarian racists like Murray Rothbard. This is not a condemnation of conservatism per se, since the leftist tradition has its own share of influential but problematic thinkers. But a sincere examination of the conservative intellectual tradition would look at its glaring flaws, as well as gathering its most precious flowers.

The second major problem is Scruton’s constant dismissal or outright evasion of arguments that run counter to his own preferred narrative—including arguments made by some of the very luminaries he invokes. He glosses over Adam Smith’s complicated attitudes towards capitalism and inequality and the more revolutionary dimensions of Hegel’s thought. Arguments made by the left are often cantankerously dismissed—even when we can’t help feeling Scruton might have a few things to learn from them. Conservatives may prefer to wave aside accusations of Islamophobia etc. by dismissing them as empty noise—but this strategy is a lot less convincing when accompanied by hyperbolic paranoia about Islamic takeovers of the Western world.

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11 comments

  1. Not having read this book, I can’t be sure whether “… paint him as a largely uncritical proponent of capitalism” is McManus’ anachronism or Scrutons.

    1. “Adam Smith’s complicated attitudes towards capitalism” is even worse, and is surely not Scruton’s. Maybe next we can hear about Jesus’ complicated attitude towards Mariology.

  2. Still reading but this sentence puzzled me: The most important chapter—and the one that most closely spells out Scruton’s own position—deals with “the birth of philosophical conservatism” in the thinking of the American founders, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke>/I>

    I think it is trying to say that Adam Smith and Edmund Burke were influential in the thinking o fthe amercan founders for example Jefferson. This is not what it says and my initial reaction was to check that Adam Smith was indeed Scottish and Edmund Burke Irish British.

    I think this needs some editting.

  3. If someone could enlighten me, how do you get diversity and assimilation at the same time? After all, if a Muslim assimilates into liberal western culture he wouldn’t be Muslim anymore. He’d be an apostate. If he drew an image of Mohammed he’d be dead. There are many, many things that offend Allah.

  4. Muslims may tell gullible people they want to integrate but, in fact, they aren’t interested and despise the West. Otherwise, why does Islam expel non-Muslims from its own lands?

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  5. “But a sincere examination of the conservative intellectual tradition would look at its glaring flaws, as well as gathering its most precious flowers.”

    But one is entitled to defend one’s views no? Scruton is making a case FOR conservatism and so he cherry picks the best stuff he can find. Were he writing a philosophical biography of any of the thinkers mentioned, perhaps then he’d be expected to spend more time on their flaws or supposed flaws, but that’s not what he’s doing — he’s making a case for conservatism, not for any particular conservative.

    “by hyperbolic paranoia about Islamic takeovers of the Western world”

    It is typical of lefties that any unpleasant views ,may be dismissed simply because they are unpleasant. It seems to me that concerns about Islam are very well founded however unpleasant they may be.

  6. Sometimes it seems that McManus and objectivity are incompatible.
    He mentioned here the antisemitism of T. S. Eliot. Eliot died more than 50 years ago. The heroes of today are the Gang of Four, definitely anti-Semitic and definitely racist, and they are inside the left mainstream.
    Sorry, Matt, but I’m worried about the present and the future, not about the past. In Brave New World, the Gang of Four wants to create, it will be no less concentration camps than in the good old Nazi Germany – this worries me. Of course, these camps will be called re-education camps, but I’m not sure it will matter.

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  7. An interesting review, but I am under the impression that Mr. McManus was a little bit unfair. After all, this book is only 164 pages… less than the Philosophy of right from Hegel, and far less than the ten of thousands pages of comments on Hegel, De Maistre, Hume and other works.
    Thus indeed he is brushing through the subject. Moreover, his book is not an academical one, but a militant one, so it is to be expected that he does not mention or very faintly the dark side of the authors he examines. In the same way it is expected that he does focus on those dark sides when he write about leftist author.

    Still, it is not, I think, that much of a flaw. Mr Scruton has made in the past the demonstration that he is able to acknowledge and defend ideas from other political side than his, without being polemical. Thus I tend to think that the flow in this book are mostly due to the constraint of space and to the reader he wants : it is a little book, for people non-trained in reading political philosophy.

    I would say the most sensible point of Mr. McManus is at the end of this review by saying that Mr. Scruton does not show why those dark sides are not central or important in the thinking of the authors he comments. In other words : is Aristotle still a good, valid and enlightening author if we dismiss his apology of slavery ? Mr. Scruton would probably says that leftist tends to answer to those questions by a “No”, or at least they give this impression.

    And, well, Mr. Scruton’s job is to denounce errors and dark side in leftist author, not really to point them in his own tradition, which is always difficult to do. The left has the same problem, albeit a little less for a few reason : their tradition is younger, thus much easily dismissed, their attitude to progress made them much prompt to dismiss past author, and having been under attack for some times, they have learn a little to separate themselves from their great author.

    Where Mr. McManus and I agree is on the following point : the talk about Islam in this book was useless and damaging. I really think that the right should let go that question and focus on other interesting things.

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  8. McManus plunges on with his Quixotic tilt at conservative windmills. His primary mode of argumentation is to try to flip common and well-founded critiques of the left into critiques of the right. So, for example, any conservative who uses the phrase “going with their gut” is denying rational apprehension of reality a la postmodernism (which is a deep misunderstanding of both conservatism AND postmodernism). Or as though a national identity, which is assumed, as we see in naturalized citizens, is the same as racial, sexual, or other identities that are inherent. All of which is about as serious as the common schoolyard taunt: “Oh yeah? Well, you’re another!” McManus chief objection to Scruton, or anyone else not sumerged in academic orthodoxy, is just that they’re insufficiently leftist.

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