- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

GENTLE REGRETS: THOUGHTS FROM A LIFE

By Roger Scruton

Continuum, $28.95, 248 pages

REVIEWED BY GERALD J. RUSSELLO

Roger Scruton is perhaps the most prominent conservative intellectual in the United Kingdom and since his groundbreaking study “A Defense of Conservatism” was published 25 years ago, his influence has grown in the United States as well. A philosopher by training, Mr. Scruton has written widely on topics ranging from a defense of fox hunting to aesthetics to sex; more recently, he has written a provocative defense of Western culture against Islamic fundamentalism.

In addition, he is a founder of The Salisbury Review, the leading conservative publication in Britain, and the organizer of a long-running conservative discussion group that introduced British conservatives to Tory politicians. Insofar as the Tory party has a coherent set of conservative ideas, they can be traced to the work of Mr. Scruton and his fellows. Beyond all that, he has written perceptively about music and architecture, and has himself composed musical pieces for performance.

In this elegantly written memoir, Mr. Scruton explains how he became a conservative and what conservatism means to him. Unlike the stereotypical Tory, there was nothing particularly conservative about Roger Scruton’s family or upbringing. He was raised in a middle-class home and through the good fortune of teachers was able to explore his interests in culture and the arts. Most important, he was taught that the traditional tools of criticism could be used to understand and appreciate culture, and that the point of education was to pass on the cultural inheritance of the West rather than to build self-esteem or provide ideological indoctrination. Unlike the trendy leftists of today, the liberals of Mr. Scruton’s generation were the heirs of the modernism of Pound, Eliot and Joyce, and saw their responsibility to redeem the tradition they had received, not destroy it.

Mr. Scruton did not realize that he was a conservative until after he had received his degree from Cambridge and was living in Paris during the anti-bourgeois riots of 1968. The fashionable destroyers brought home the fragility of civilization and caused him to take sides in what has become known in the United States as the culture wars. “For the first time in my life,” he writes of his time in France, “I felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.”

His instinctive defense of the Western tradition caused another conclusion: Conservatism was lonely. It was at odds with the spirit of the times and incomprehensible to intellectuals and policy makers of the 1960s and 1970s, who saw the future in socialism and believed progress lay in sweeping away the gathered wisdom of generations. To his rescue came Edmund Burke, whom Mr. Scruton discovered after returning to England in the early ‘70s and taking up law study by day and teaching philosophy by night. Burke showed him a subtle and powerful defense of tradition. Like Russell Kirk, who is in some ways his American counterpart, for Mr. Scruton Burke became the starting point for a critique of liberalism.

Society, for Burke, is a sacred trust that requires authority and imposes obligations, rather than a liberal social contract that can be broken or changed at will. More importantly, society is not rational; contrary to the dreams of utopians since the French Revolution, the world cannot be made according to an abstract image of perfection or with reference to pre-existing “rules.” Society is held together by custom, tradition, and what Burke called “prejudice:” the beliefs and ideas “which reflect the root experiences of social life.” These cannot be reduced to axioms and applied through a plan.

Indeed, Mr. Scruton concluded from his reading of Burke that our most cherished beliefs and customs may be “both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss.”

For Americans, his conservatism will be familiar in some ways, strange in others. While sympathetic to religion, for example, Mr. Scruton is famous for penning “Godless Conservatism,” which argues that conservatives need not be theistic. His defense of what Kirk called the Permanent Things arises more from philosophic reflection than a belief in God as creator. Here, he is more sympathetic toward religion. In a finely-wrought chapter entitled “Stealing from Churches,” he acknowledges the riches of religious faith and the window it opens onto reality.

Mr. Scruton writes movingly of regaining some measure of faith, in part due to his encounters with people of real religious conviction, such as Monsignor Gibley, the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge, or a student he met in Poland named Barbara.

Moreover, Mr. Scruton parts company with many American conservatives in his rejection of individual freedom as an end in itself in the social order. Rather, freedom is a consequence of the society in which it occurs, and therefore it can be limited and shaped. Nor is he a strong devotee of free market capitalism. Having traveled much in communist Eastern Europe, and having seen the destruction of so much tradition in Britain by central planning, he is no fan of socialism. But he knows that beauty is not produced solely through the free market. The free market can be understood only through the organic growth of the society around it, which itself rests upon non-market values.

The balance of the book is composed of vignettes of Mr. Scruton’s wide-ranging life. The stories of his travels in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, are perhaps the most riveting, and serve as a crucial reminder as the days of the Cold War become increasingly dim in memory and when, even a decade later, shades of moral equivalence linger. Mr. Scruton makes the stakes clear, as he describes the grim reality of life in Czechoslovakia or Poland, where even laughter seems to have been banished. The Salisbury Review was read and passed around as underground literature and few tenured radicals can make the claim, as Mr. Scruton can, of being banned from Czechoslovakia and followed by police in Poland. Ideas are not playthings, as the former communist powers knew: When joined to imagination they rule the world. Mr. Scruton, by publishing dissidents and risking his safety by bringing his fellowship to them, shows that conservatism can act as well as react.

After his self-identification as a conservative, he became a pariah in the academic world in which he was struggling to survive; his criticisms of the academic and political worlds in which he found himself are biting, funny and true. Academia’s loss is our gain; Mr. Scruton’s wandering, as editor, composer, critic, polemicist and essayist, parallels his intellectual quest to find home. Conservatism, he writes, is about conservation, but it also about finding and restoring “our mutilated Eden, … where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.” With “Gentle Regrets,” Mr. Scruton gives us a much-needed map.

Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute and editor of The University Bookman.


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