BOOK REVIEW: Confessions of a Heretic – Roger Scruton
by The Editor
R.J. Rasmussen reviews a recent work by Sir Roger Scruton explaining his traditional views on art and society.
Confessions of a Heretic – Roger Scruton
(Notting Hill Editions 2016)
by R.J. Rasmussen
-a person believing in or practising religious heresy
synonyms: dissident, dissenter, nonconformist, apostate, freethinker, iconoclast, renegade
-a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted
Roger Scruton is probably the most widely read and respected of modern conservative writers, having written widely on subjects such as religion, art, music, aesthetics, political philosophy, hunting and wine. He is also a bona fide heretic; bona fide in the sense that he has genuinely suffered for the heresies that he is alleged to have committed. His editorship of The Salisbury Review, for example, brought him untold heartache in the form of lawsuits, character assassinations, and the loss of what would have been a glittering academic career in Britain, such that he had to retreat to the States to practice his trade. He has earned the contempt of conservatives and liberals alike and endured police scrutiny over the Ray Honeyford affair. However, he maintains that it was all worth it for “the sheer relief of uttering the truth”. The mark of the true heretic is the willingness to suffer and the unwillingness to recant, and it is arguably because of this, as well as his considerable intellectual talent that Scruton has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, having been allowed back into the journalistic fold in print and even at the BBC. To cap it all he has recently been knighted.
In this collection of essays, which span a decade of engagement with the public culture in Great Britain and America, Scruton describes what I would call gentle heresies; truths that remind us of what we have lost in the tumult of latter modernity, and what we can retrieve from the ruins of tradition. Many of these ideas are unpopular and scorned, and if Scruton’s critics are to be believed, ought to have been kept to himself, but because they are eternal they always recur at some point in time or other. Beauty, objective truth, organic community, moral tradition, hierarchy and the redemptive power of love are some such ideas that won’t get you burned at the stake, but may earn you unending derision no matter how obvious it is that we cannot live our lives without them.
For example, in the essay “Faking It”, Scruton tackles the themes of originality, beauty and kitsch in culture, more specifically art, and more specifically still, visual art. As religion declined in the 19th century the romantic poets and painters turned their backs on God and embraced the cult of the artist as a God-like substitute, a tradition which endures to this day. Since the time of the romantics, however, beauty itself turned into kitsch and fake originality. Popular taste quickly became corrupted as the egoism of the artist created each new work as an ‘original’, and in a society where art is valued as the highest cultural good, the motive to fake it was strong. The early modernists, such as Stravinsky and T.S. Eliot attempted to rescue truth, sincerity and genuine emotion from the plague of fakery, but then this quickly gave way to fakery itself in the form of the transgressive artist whose statements of offence, such as Duchamp’s urinal quickly turned into hackneyed clichés. Then came the supposedly sophisticated parodies of kitsch, such as Andy Warhol’s brillo pads and the art of Jeff Koons. Who could say something so self-consciously mocking of itself was kitsch anymore?
In order to rescue art from this never-ending cycle of narcissism and banality Scruton suggests we recapture the ideas of beauty, form and redemption. Kitsch is a means to cheap emotion, by transferring it from the thing observed to the observer. It matters not what I feel about the tortuous excretions of some avant-garde painter or other, only the sheer fact of my feeling it. Beauty on the other hand is an end itself, and an end that is hard won. Formal perfection requires knowledge (which implies tradition), discipline and attention to detail. It is not simply a question of turning on the taps and letting it all flow out. Beauty is also a redemptive presence in our lives; a reassurance that our life is meaningful and suffering is not pointless, but a restoration of the moral equilibrium. Tragedy reminds us that beauty and thus love, both filial and erotic, is redemptive. Much of this kind of thought can be found in the mature operas of Wagner.
It is the moral burden of love and the flight from genuine emotion which is the key theme of ‘Loving Animals’. Scruton argues here that a sentimental, cloying affection for animals as pets has gradually replaced the genuinely burdensome act of loving one another. The latter kind of love is not cost-free - it positions us in a relation of individuals I to I that assumes that both subject and object are morally invested and obligated in such a way that there is no easy out without genuine human suffering. That is the nature of the moral sphere we inhabit, and animals simply cannot enter into it. However the idea that we can love animals as equals (impervious to the impossibility of their reciprocation) has given rise to the liberal industry of animal rights. But rights, duties, obligations and virtues depend on the essential quality of self-consciousness that humans possess and animals lack, which is why Kant maintained that humans are not really part of nature at all. Thus those who espouse the ideology of animal rights, such as Peter Singer in Animal Liberation elevate animals to a moral plain they are by nature prohibited from understanding, which in turn corrupts both them and us. Albeit counter intuitively this ascribing of rights to animals actually gives way to an unscrupulous favouritism which makes it a crime to shoot a cat, the most destructive of all alien species, but praiseworthy to poison a mouse and thus infect the whole food chain upon which other less favoured animals depend. A proper love for animals involves a respect for natural hierarchy and the wider environment. The hierarchy that the ideology of animal rights has as its core assumption is based on an anthropomorphic sentimentality which assumes animals can be moral subjects in the same way humans can.
There are many more such instinctive conservative positions eloquently defended, such as the natural distrust of big government that overreaches, and an appeal to the idea of government as the free consent of responsible individuals of a particular community, who are free not because the state is absent, but because of the natural human disposition to hold one another to account. This is not a rejection of overarching government, which must take over when the capacities of what might be called Burke’s “little platoons” have been exhausted, but a rejection of the liberal abuse of government, which has designed it as a kind of redistributive machine, in which the state allocates the social good according to supposed principles of “fairness”. This is the liberal idea of government most notably espoused by John Rawls. It is perhaps a peculiarly Western tradition: what might be called the ‘associative habit,’ which was exemplified by the pioneering communities of America who formed clubs, schools, committees and other bodies to deal with the issues they could not deal with alone. This is government by consent, and any leader’s authority derives from the consent of those over whom he holds sway. As Tocqueville saw, this is not just an expression of freedom, but an instinctive move towards government. Contrast this with the Arab world, where the basic relation of accountability is absent. This was observed during the ‘Arab Spring’ which left a void of power in its wake, since there were no offices, customs or traditions to embody the relation of accountability beyond that of family, mosque or tribe.
Further ‘gentle heresies’ that are dared to be expressed are the celebration of the Apollonian art of traditional communal dancing in which participation was an invitation to join a community dancing to rhythms and melodies handed down over centuries, as contrasted with the individualistic, spasmodic jerking and twerking which passes for dancing today, practised in the clubs and disco halls, and driven by computer generated sounds. Such ‘dancing’, which is nothing more than a full-body dry heave set to music, has become an overtly sexual phenomenon, in which couples eventually pair off and perform something akin to a public foreplay ritual. Another is the defence of traditional architecture and the ‘New Urbanism’ movement of Krier, which attempts to build settlements along classical or neo-classical lines, in which instead of encouraging urban sprawl extending to the suburbs, encourages centripetal development, where commerce and dwelling exist as one. A good example of such a dwelling is Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorchester.
However, of all the heresies that the author dares to speak, and that which will probably chime most forcefully with readers is the idea that Western civilisation itself is under threat, and that the proper response to this is to cherish and defend it. The particular and primary threat we face here in the West is the proliferation of Islam, aided by our constant efforts to appease it. This threat is not only embodied in the form of the violent jihadist, armed with bombs and guns, but that of the creeping colonisation of much of Western Europe by a conquering theocracy which has a civilizational project in mind, and a repressive legal framework to impose.
Scruton suggests we are entering a dangerous period of appeasement in which the legitimate claims of our own culture and inheritance are ignored in order to prove our peaceful intentions, since we have lost our appetite for war. He identifies several critical features of our Western inheritance that are in conflict with Islam which go to some lengths to explain why this is an incompatible belief system that we need to defend our civilisation against. In summation these are: Citizenship, nationality, Christianity, irony, self-criticism, representation and alcohol. The reader can explore the arguments for himself, since there is no need to rehearse them here, but there is one aspect in particular with stands out as possibly the most fundamental and that is the idea of citizenship.
In the West we define citizenship as the right and duty of consensual participation in the making and enacting of law. Laws are made legitimate by the consent of those who obey them, which is our duty to do, and our right is conferred within the substance of these laws. This is how we can draw a distinction between Western and Islamic societies: the former are secular communities of citizens, whereas the latter are religious communities of subjects. The former consent and the latter submit. Indeed, ‘submitted’ is the primary meaning of the word ‘Islam’. In essence it is the conception of law (since laws are what we freely consent to be governed by in the West) that illustrates the most fundamental divide between Western societies and Islamic ones. In Islam, the law is a system of commands laid down by God, and their legitimacy does not originate from a freely given consent to obey them, but exists purely in virtue of the fact that God has ordained it so.
As our law in the West has developed, particularly due to the system of common law that has grown up over centuries in Great Britain and America, religion and morality have gradually been privatised. For instance, it seems absurd to us that the ‘sin’ of adultery should have a legal sanction, despite the fact we may recognise adultery as inherently sinful. In Islam however, and according to the shari’ah, there is no such distinction; both morality and law are one and have God as their source. There is some mitigation in the system of recommendations that is contained within the shari’ah but this does not alter the fact that there is no room for the private moral life, let alone the religious one, and it is typically women who suffer the most in this system, as obvious crimes visited upon them are taken to be judgements upon their virtue.
However it is Scruton’s prescription for dealing with this threat to our political and cultural inheritance (he assumes that our territorial one is not at issue, although it soon may be) which constitutes the only criticism of any substance I can raise against him in this whole volume. While arguing that we must never show weakness, or a willingness to apologise for who or what we are, he inadvertently invokes that very defect in his suggested response. The argument is that resentment animates the terrorist, and it is by the Christian gift of forgiveness that we overcome it. The actions of Islamic terrorists are discredited by our looking soberly on them and by our example of forgiving them.
Firstly, the idea of forgiving terrorism of any form will be offensive to many, and this is an easy criticism to level. But secondly and more importantly we protect ourselves against these actions in the normal course of our lawmaking and enforcing. In fact, the terrorist is not the real threat and should not be the focus of our attentions at all. The real challenge is the ideology of Islam itself, and what most Western appeasers of this religion see as its benign influence and proliferation. Forgiveness on the battlefield of what is really at heart a cultural and religious war is ridiculous and useless.
So instead, I would argue that instead of employing one of Christianity’s more useless and naïve assumptions, we should step back and realise that it is Christianity itself that is our strongest weapon. Surely this is the religious inheritance we can draw upon in order to re-assert our identity and reclaim our heritage. The terrorist, or for that matter any follower of Islam does not envy or resent our Western traditions, especially our religious ones. Many Muslims regard Catholics, for example, as one step away from them; on the brink of conversion. It is in fact the withering of our Christian tradition and the atheistic individualism and liberal materialism that has resulted that has created the spiritual vacuum into which Islam has seeped. Our moral and religious compass points to nowhere save greed, decadence and vapidity. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but both Islamists and Muslims alike do not resent one iota of our culture. In actual fact, they are disgusted by it, as we should be too.
The book itself is presented in a small, attractive casewrap hardcover from Notting Hill Editions.