on good authority


BY RAY SAWHILL | While America's political arena is still dominated by those two tiresome creatures, the "liberal" and the "conservative," Roger Scruton gives you reason to envy the Brits. He's a plain-talking philosopher and writer who confounds attempts at categorization. A man of culture and sophistication, he argues convincingly for the death penalty. His views of sex have a Taoist tenderness, yet he's an avid defender of fox hunting. He's a conservative who is at his best making clear-cut distinctions, yet his thinking and language are nuanced and open. He enters enthusiastically into discussions on such old-fashioned topics as beauty, goodness and religion, yet there's nothing tweedy about his work. He looks on the conditions that markets create as warily as the most jaundiced lefty.

Scruton is a protean and many-sided figure. He was a co-founder of the Conservative Action Group, which helped lead to the election of Margaret Thatcher. His thinking about architecture was the basis of the Prince of Wales' famous disputes with modern building practices and has inspired dozens of young architects in the United States and Britain. Scruton has written fiction; he edits a political journal called the Salisbury Review; and he's a stinging polemicist in the Times of London. In his work as a philosopher and aesthetician he's an exhaustive reducer to first principles, while in his books for the interested nonspecialist he's as first-rate a popularizer as David Attenborough and John Keegan. If he's largely unknown in the U.S., it may simply be because our national database of stars and sources has no way of accommodating someone who ranges so freely.

This season brings two new Scruton books. "The Aesthetics of Music" (Oxford) is an awe-inspiring chunk of heavythink for specialists on the theme of "when, how and why does sound become music?" It's a closely reasoned ode to the resilience and greatness of tonality, and is likely to make rock 'n' roll revolutionaries, professional multiculturalists and academic radicals rage and sputter. "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy" (Penguin) is, despite its awful title, a trim, alert joy -- an idiosyncratic introduction not to the history of philosophy but to some of the field's topics and methods. (Chapter titles include "God," "Sex," "Subject and Object" and "Why?") Scruton has an unusual gift for giving abstractions body and presence. "Descartes shut the self in its inner prison," he writes, "and Fichte made the place so comfortable that the self decided to stay there." The book is as well-paced and full of surprises as a good mystery novel. Readers short on time but curious about Scruton's arguments on music will find here a chapter summarizing those views.

After years of teaching at many universities, including a stint at Boston University, Scruton, 55, now lives in the British countryside with his wife, Sophie. There he reads, writes, hunts, plays the piano, tools about on his motorcycle and writes some more. In a telephone interview, he kicked around ideas ranging from the arrested development of radicals to why second-rate academics hide behind deconstructive gobbledygook to why the Web will keep seekers after pornography "at their desks, getting more and more chronically lame and blind and obsessed."

The American conservatives we run into often seem bludgeoning and bigoted.

But you have some really significant conservatives, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb and so forth. I admit they are neo-conservatives and they were social democrats originally, weren't they? But I have a respect for them. Maybe they are dogmatic, but older people tend to be dogmatic. And they're not as dogmatic as people on the left, let's face it. The dogmatism of the politically correct takes some beating, in my experience.

How does American conservatism seem to you?

It's more convinced than British conservatism. You have a movement there. People really believe in it and really fight for it. Here it's much more half-hearted and exhausted.

Was that true during the Thatcher years?

Thatcher was a little blip in all that. She revitalized things, but she was surrounded by pretty second-rate people, really. If you look at American conservatism, you do find, however much you think dogmatism prevails, that there are all kinds of debates going on. You have lots of journals -- Commentary and First Things and National Review and American Spectator -- which have wide circulation and are constantly engaged in carrying the fight forward. So there is an intellectual ferment, even if it is based on a lot of unquestioning assumptions. But here there's almost nothing like that. The Salisbury Review is about the only conservative journal.

What sort of impact did you have on Thatcher?

I've always been regarded by the Conservative Party with some suspicion, I think, so far as they have any consciousness of me at all. Traditionally, conservatism is rightly suspicious of thinking, because thinking on the whole leads to wrong conclusions, unless you think very, very hard and you get back to the point you started at. Since she's left office I'm on good terms with her. I've never been part of her circle or her entourage.

Philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that conservatism is largely a matter of temperament. Do you agree?

A certain kind of conservatism is a matter of temperament, yeah. But I think it's much more true to say that radicalism is a matter of temperament. It's people who are arrested in the state of adolescent rebellion. Those are the people who make the great radicals, trying to affirm themselves against daddy, like Lenin. Was it Robert Conquest or Kingsley Amis who said that everybody is right wing about the things he knows about? Even if you look at left-wing people, if they really know about something -- if they're experts on ceramics or something -- the more they'll be respectful of traditions and authorities and settled things, and the less disposed to radicalize everything.

How do you explain the persistence of the radical temperament?

I think it's a stage through which people go. I take a Hegelian approach to it all. We are at home or should be at home with our experience as we begin in life, we grow away from it, and radical temperament is an attempt to repudiate things, to cast them off, which is necessary in order to shape our own identities. But true maturity consists in the process of slowly coming home again, coming to see that the thing we grew away from is what we truly are, to come back to it in a state of understanding. I see the radical temperament as arrested in that middle stage.

Popular culture seems to do its best to heat up and sustain that adolescent temperament.

Absolutely. I think this is the most tragic thing about the modern or postmodern world -- this exploitation of the adolescent, making adolescence look like something not only normal but sacrosanct.

Some people tweak conservatives by pointing at Hollywood and saying, see, it's big business that is promoting this continued adolescence and irresponsibility.

Of course it is partly responsible, and MTV is big business. But big business is ideologically neutral. Big business always moves where the money is. If the money is in left-wing propaganda, that's where big business will be. If you look at much popular culture, its message is one of rebellion and rejection. It's still a very '60s message, but people have come to realize there's money in it. My view is that conservatism has nothing intrinsically to do with big business but with moral and political values. And if business is antipathetic to those values, you have to fight it, with all the methods that are available.

Is there one aspect of it that makes it impossible for you to be a liberal?

Well, liberal means something rather different in Britain than in America.

Would you explain the difference?

In Britain, if you mean by liberalism what is sometimes called classical liberalism -- John Stuart Mill and all that -- then a liberal is somebody who believes in allowing other people the maximum freedom compatible with social order. And to some extent I am a liberal. Part of our conservative tradition in Britain is that we do allow people as much freedom as is compatible with an orderly and decent society. That's not what Americans mean by liberal. They're people who see the state as looking after the interests of society and redistributing property and creating the welfare society -- essentially a kind of institutionalized compassion. I'm a great believer in private charity, but not in the institutionalization of charity in the state and its offices, because then it becomes the source of enormous corruption.

In America the assumption is usually that the conservative is an apologist for the rich, or a religious fanatic, if not an abortion clinic bomber. Where liberals are seen as, at worst, well-intentioned but wrong.

That's a very parochial view, of course. Obviously, one element in conservatism must be that to be successful is not a sin, and I think conservatives on the whole have more patience with the idea of human success, and more desire to create a world where success is rewarded. Whereas it's true that what you call liberals -- our left -- is much more interested in supporting the underdog and usually believes some philosophy to the effect that the sufferings of the underdog are caused by the wealth and privilege of the successful, Marxism being the archetype of all such philosophies. And I think that's all nonsense -- that the sufferings of the underdog are not caused by the fact that some people have managed to rescue themselves from this predicament. On the contrary, the more people who rescue themselves, the better. They create opportunities in their wake.

That's not the way liberals see it. If you are a purely materialistic person who sees everything human in terms of how much money is involved, then all you will see about conservatives is that they favor the rich, because you don't see any other difference between people than the amount of wealth they have. I take the view that conservatism has nothing fundamentally to do with wealth. It has to do with social order. Of course if you're in favor of the forces that create social order, you're in favor of the forces which make it possible for people to become wealthy. But that's a byproduct. I do agree that liberals have this reputation for being nice and conservatives for being nasty.

N E X T+P A G E: The profound narrow-mindedness of liberals

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