“Cows too…can easily be made into ideas”: An Interview with Roger Scruton
October 9, 2009
Interviewer: Diederik Boomsma
Professor Scruton, in addition to writing and teaching, you run a rural consultancy together with your wife, and a farm. Is your farm profitable, or is it more of a hobby?
Very few farms are profitable, and ours exists more to establish our identity as a rural consultancy and ideas factory. Our neighbors turn grass into milk and make a loss; we turn grass into ideas and make a profit. We keep horses of our own, which we look after, and allow our neighbors to use the pasture for their cows: cows too, viewed from the window, can easily be made into ideas. We also keep chickens, and occasionally pigs, which we turn into sausages, after their brief time as ideas.
How do you find time for writing, teaching, farming, consulting, hunting, living? Is there a strict discipline or daily routine you observe?
I have been blessed with energy and discipline from an early age. And I observe a very strict discipline: white burgundy at 7.30 p.m. and claret with dinner.
You “grew to immaturity in the sixties”, as you write in your autobiography Gentle Regrets [Continuum, 2006], and with a father who was a socialist teacher. How did you ever become a conservative?
I am not sure that I really became a conservative, though I describe it in that way. Rather, I discovered that I am a conservative, and discovered it largely by observing the self-indulgence that came to a head in 1968. Thereafter I knew that, whatever I was for, I was against the Movement and the Revolution. So I set out to discover another way of looking at things – one that would be based in the acceptance of the good things that we have been given by our European past, and which would be free of petulant rebellion.
Which steps did you then undertake to discover and recover this other way of looking, and what did you do to launch the conservative movement?
I have described some of this in Gentle Regrets. I tried to discover others – academics, journalists, people with an interest in the state of the national culture, and to discuss the matter with them. I helped to found the Salisbury Group, named after the great Prime Minister who is today unknown (which explains his greatness). I managed to discover a sufficient number of broken-down academics and geriatric ex-politicians to make the thing look plausible, and in 1982 they appointed me as founding editor of the Salisbury Review. This was the first magazine to warn against the growing threat of Islamization in our cities. It was promptly banned from university libraries, and its authors subjected to campaigns of vilification: several lost their jobs as a result of writing for it. Meanwhile, I had founded (with some friends) the Conservative Philosophy Group in 1974 – designed to inject ideas into the Conservative Party. This was regarded by the Party as so absurd that the mention of it, when I sought to become a candidate at an election, effectively killed off my political career. However, because of these efforts, I was asked to write for The Times, and my articles attracted a lot of attention. I set out in The Meaning of Conservatism to make conservatism respectable. And I think it has become so. But I don’t think I have.
You have described conservatism as ‘loving the world for what it is.’ What do you mean by that?
Conservatism involves, as you say, loving the world as it is – not all of it, but that which we can receive as a gift from the dead. It means recognizing that it is easier to destroy than create. It involves an attitude of friendship towards the community, rather than a desire to remake it in obedience to some all-encompassing goal. And so on.
What distinguishes conservatism from classical liberalism?
The problem with classical liberalism is that it never pauses to examine what is involved in ‘not harming others’. Do I leave others unharmed when I destroy my capacity for personal relationships, through drug-taking, promiscuity, or porn addiction? Do I leave them unharmed when I stupefy myself with pop music? I have nothing against individualism, so long as it is recognized that the individual is created by a community and by the moral constraints that prevail in it. The individual is not the foundation of society but its most important by-product.
You write about the need to conserve a wide range of things: the traditional family, sexual taboos, nature, foxhunting, viable farming communities, the nation-state. What do these things have in common?
All the things you mention are forms of, or preparations for, love. This is true even of fox-hunting, which is founded in the love of horse and hound, of place, landscape and climate, and of the community that has grown in a place and made it a home. You can easily discover this from the remarkable fox-hunting literature in English, from Fielding to Sassoon and beyond.
In what way are sexual taboos a preparation for love? Because they protect the possibility of a normal sexual relationship?
A normal sexual relationship is one in which desire takes a personal and accountable form, which puts mutuality above gratification, and which envisions a long-term commitment as its fulfillment – a commitment that permits the partners to get beyond mere desire. This kind of normality is threatened by the cult of youth, by the new kind of sex education that makes technique more important than restraint, and by the fear of commitment. Pornography should obviously be removed from the public sphere: but the problem is that the line between public and private has been dissolved by the internet, and only radical measures could now be contemplated. If they are not introduced, however, I fear that human sexual relations will be so damaged that they will gradually retreat to a kind of universal narcissism.
Many people consider conservatism a form of romantic nostalgia, an irrational reverence of the past. How would you respond to that? Is conservatism a romantic movement?
Every form of social and political belief that lies before us today is related to the Romantic movement, for that is the archetype of our ongoing attempt to live by our own devices. This is more true of socialism than of conservatism, in fact – socialism being a kind of diseased nostalgia for the future, which is yet more damaging than nostalgia for the past. And this word “nostalgia” – what does it mean? The longing for the nostos, the “homecoming”, the Heimkehr, which is the heart of all serious thinking about our time on earth. You must simply distinguish the negative from the positive forms of it. The Renaissance was a great movement of nostalgia towards the classical world; and look how it shook things up!
You argue in favor of preserving the nation-state, as a unique Western achievement. What is it about the nation-state that makes you champion it as the best source of identity and object for our loyalty?
The most important thing about the nation-state is that it defines a territorial form of loyalty, disciplined under a secular law. It says to us: live by the code of neighborliness, live with the strangers who are side-by-side with you, and defend your common home from those who would destroy it. The alternative to this kind of loyalty is not some global togetherness, of the kind that only makes sense at conferences of wealthy cosmopolitans, but a religious loyalty, of the kind exemplified by Islam, from which strangers are excluded, and which dismisses territory and secular law as unimportant. We will see the damage that will be caused by this religious form of loyalty in the coming years, and in response to it Europeans will begin to agree with me about the nation-state. But it will be a hard lesson.
So it behooves one to be proud of his country?
Of course it is good to be proud of your country, as you are of your family, parents, and town. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize it. It means that you should recognize that you are accountable to it and bound by the loyalty that it defines. This loyalty is threatened by the transfer of decisions to international organizations – not NGOs and the EU only, but the UN and its subordinate institutions, by the WTO and the multinationals, and by many other things, that should be the servants of the nation-state but which aspire always to be its masters.
But how can multinationals be controlled by nation-states, without those nation-states harming their own interests, except through international organizations?
International organizations are necessary, of course. But they should have only very limited legislative powers. It is very easy for a nation-state to control multinationals. That is what the law is for. However it would be necessary to ensure that politicians are not ‘bought’ by the multinationals.
What deleterious consequences does the free market have? And in what ways should the market be limited?
The market, left to itself, puts everything on sale; hence the problem of pornography. We don’t allow children to be sold – not yet: but we do allow them to be treated as market commodities when they are in the womb. It is very obvious, when you look at these facts, that the market is a good only when controlled by moral sentiment – as Adam Smith recognized. The market should be limited by laws reflecting the needs of the moral life. Certain things should be withdrawn from the market, in the way that religion has always tried to withdraw the aspects of human life on which the reproduction of society depends.
Can the EU be reformed in a way that does not threaten national loyalties?
Only by reducing or abolishing the Commission’s legislative powers.
What about those parts of the world where a viable nation-state hasn’t yet come into being: in Africa, or Iraq for example, or even Belgium?
Yes. The worst legacy of colonialism is the map, which defines as nation-states what are arbitrary collections of tribes who do not recognize a common loyalty. Nobody has the sense to redraw the map – for instance of Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. That would need decolonization.
You suggested earlier that a religious Islam is going to cause a lot of trouble. What is the chief problem of Islam? And what are your views on the present ‘clash of civilisations’?
The chief problems for Islam are two: its difficulty in reconciling the status of the Qur’an with modern ideas of law and government; and its obsession with female sexuality. It is impossible to accept the idea that the Qur’an and the Sunna contain the whole of law, that God is the author of this law, and that the law of a secular body can also pronounce on the same issues to some other effect. Hence, Islam is always potentially in conflict with the nation-state, and with secular laws designed to mediate between religious communities. All this has been well documented, and there is no answer to it, other than that recognized by Christians from the time of St Paul – namely, that the law of God concerns our duties to Him, but not the organization of society. The obsession with female sexuality means that Islam cannot easily reconcile itself with modern conditions, in which women claim some kind of equality with men, and play a role in determining the nature and expectations of the public sphere. The Turks got over this, but only because Atatürk forbad polygamy, Islamic dress, and the normal forms of discrimination. If the Turkish experiment proves durable, then maybe this problem can be overcome. It would be right to talk of a clash of civilizations if Islam still had one – however, it was lost, dropped somewhere in the desert and never again picked up. Travel the Middle East today and look for copies of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sinna, Rumi, Hafiz, even the Arabian Nights – you will be disappointed. Of course we too are losing our civilization. But it has not yet been forbidden.
How should governments in the West deal with the challenge to integrate immigrants that are present in our societies already?
Multiculturalism has always been animated by the left-wing resentment of, and hostility towards, the European inheritance. It is a fragmenting philosophy, whose result would be to reduce our stable political arrangements to those that have prevailed in the Balkans and the Middle East. Islamic immigrants should be encouraged to integrate by whatever means can be devised. And if they do not want to integrate, they should be encouraged to go elsewhere, so as to be ruled by a system more in keeping with their hopes.
At the heart of your philosophy lies the observation that Europe is experiencing a cultural crisis, following the disaster of modernity and its postmodern aftermath.
Culture is a broad name for the realm of interpersonal feeling, and our way of coming to self-knowledge through relating to others. In all societies to date it has depended on a bedrock of religious faith, or at least on a sense of the sacred and of the observant presence of the gods. We lack that bedrock; but the fact that we are adrift doesn’t mean that we should eat each other like shipwrecked sailors. We should find the path back to the decencies, and that is what culture can offer us.
So through listening to Mozart, Shakespeare, reading poetry, and passing aesthetic judgment on these and other works, we can recover a sense of the sacred?
It is obvious that you can recover much more than a sense of the sacred from Mozart et al. More important, you can acquaint yourself with the vision of human life as something that matters, that is more important than pleasure and suffering, that makes being here worthwhile. Without that sense of the importance of life, people are unhappy, since all that they do seems arbitrary and incomplete.
And the problem with modern (pop) youth culture is that it does not provide us with a sense of the sacred or formulate ideals? Or it even destroys them?
Yes, in general. But youth culture is an effect of social destruction and not the cause of it. And there is another culture of youth, which is not destructive at all: the attempt to recover folk music, natural dancing, and so on.
Can the path of high culture serve as a substitute for religious faith? Is the way of aesthetics not restricted to a small elite?
Nothing can substitute for the faith on which a civilization has been built. But high culture can be a benefit to everyone, even if it is only an elite that directly participates in it. Science benefits everyone, even though only a few understand it. Believe it or not, the same is true of Beethoven, as the English discovered in the last war. Classical concerts and broadcasts of classical music, Beethoven’s fifth in particular, became symbols of a defiance that could not easily be represented by popular culture, which did not reach so far into the soul. Elites are necessary to those who do not belong to them; and that which is food to the spirit of leadership is food to those who follow.
Moral and aesthetic judgment are the essence of culture – whereas modernity is at its roots an attempt to escape from judgment altogether?
Yes, for many people the goal is to escape from judgment. And such people should be judged.
You have described the importance of ‘rites de passage’ for growing up properly. Which rites of passage for example?
The most important rite of passage for an adolescent is the transition from self-centered relations to the declaration of a commitment – that was what marriage was all about. We have to rebuild that kind of rite so that adolescents can still have the experience – vital to happiness – of giving themselves to others, rather than taking.
You write that many educational institutions remain in the grip of a nihilistic “culture of repudiation”. What can modern students do to acquire a proper education and civilize themselves, given the distractions offered by modern life?
Self-help is a valid philosophy today as in the 19th century. I remember visiting students in the old communist countries who had been expelled from universities and who took the initiative to invite people from the West (and especially anti-socialists like me) to speak to them. Intelligent people can always rise above their environment, provided they equip themselves with the three great conservative weapons: humor, irony, and scorn.
You write: “Modern architecture is at war with the city.” How so? Do you like any modern architecture?
There is a whole philosophy of architecture behind that remark which I elaborated in The Aesthetics of Architecture [Princeton University Press, 1980]. Yes, I do like some modern architecture, namely that which is not at war with the city, such as the architecture of the New Urbanists. I mean architecture which respects the street as the principal public space, which recognizes that fitting in is more important than standing out, and which is capable of changing its use, as all great architecture changes its use over time.
If modern architecture and modern art is so ugly and devoid of meaning, why don’t more people criticize and oppose it?
Everybody criticizes modern art and architecture except the professional critics who know on which side their bread is buttered. We are returning to a more humane architecture, thanks to Leon Krier, et al., and the New Urbanist movement. What would it take? Enlightened patronage, such as displayed by the Prince of Wales; a spirit of defiance towards pseuds like Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind, a willingness to tell the truth about people like the fascist Le Corbusier and the communist Gropius, and a decision finally to say that the city is ours, not theirs.
In your recent book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged [Encounter Books, 2007], you end with a note of optimism: “the rumours of the death of our culture have been greatly exaggerated.” What hopeful signs do you see?
It is always good to end on an optimistic note, like Napoleon’s valet. As for hopeful signs, the few but determined young people who emerge from the university system with an education, despite all the efforts of the professors to prevent them from acquiring one; the survival of classical music and also of certain folk traditions like bluegrass, despite the ‘music’ business; the remarkable survival of literacy, and the ability, noticed in several households in our vicinity, to turn off the television. Also the failure of post-modern societies to reproduce, and the rapid demographic decline of liberals.
You have recently moved to America, and now split your time between rural Virginia and England. What do you fancy in Virginia? And what do you miss of England that would be most welcome if you could bring it with you on the plane?
Refugees from European statism are always astonished to discover, in America, a society in which people still feel pleasure in each other’s success. Resentment is not yet the dominant attitude here. And when there is a disaster people rush to help. They also volunteer for rescue services and the like and take a real interest in building the community – something noticed by Tocqueville in the nineteenth century and still true today. America is a society founded on giving, not asking. Europe is a society built on ‘human rights’, in other words mean-minded demands to be provided for.
On the other hand there are aspects of Europe – and of England in particular – that I miss over here. The most important is constructive and sensitive planning law. America is a mess, with broken-down and eviscerated cities, hideous town-centers without streets or public spaces, and a countryside ravaged by suburban sprawl. It is astonishing that a country so rich and well-provided by nature should have decided to become a rubbish dump. On the other hand, much of the rubbish wears a Disneyland smile, and for that one must be grateful.
What is going to be your next project?
I am always working on something, but also always looking forward to stopping.
Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher, is also the most widely read contemporary English conservative. He serves as research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Arlington, Va. Visit his website to learn of his recent publications and cultural activities: www.rogerscruton.com.