(Available on Kindle)
What a delight it was to read this short book. I couldn't put it down. Partly an autobiography; partly a critique of contemporary western society and culture: and partly a manifesto of belief and wisdom gathered over a lifetime as a philosopher; Roger Scruton has distilled insights that speak to my heart and soul.
In the twenty first century Roger Scruton is very much a counter cultural subversive, although quite a different type from some of the self congratulating 'progressive' thinkers who have graced the stage over past decades. When the spirit of our age is everywhere 'setting us free' from our traditional values, it has been a welcome surprise to find there is at least one voice uncomfortable with that trend.
His ideas confront and contradict much of what is assumed as wisdom in contemporary culture. I have reproduced parts of some of them here. Mostly, I have prefered to let his words speak for themselves. Partly because they are so richly pregnant with wisdom that anything I could add would be trivial in comparison but also, I think, because the more I add, the less likely I expect anyone will bother to read any of this. Which would be a pity. There is wisdom worth reading here. I do not expect everyone will agree with everything Scruton writes, but it is nonetheless worth reading, even if only to clarify what it is you believe.
I have selected, edited and rearranged the order of what follows and used my own headings but I haven't altered anything that would change the thrust of what Scruton is saying. Apart from the headings, my words are in italics. The photographs, apart from the title page, are mine.
On Growing Up
“To grow up aged 54 is not a great achievement. But it is better than not growing up at all.”
Well Roger, I think I may have beaten you by a few years, but not that many. Still, I know exactly what you mean. Growing up has nothing at all to do with reaching voting age, or driving a car, or being able to drink alcohol legally.
On Progress and Human Rights
“We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights. The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. . . . But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame.”
What more can I say?
On Religious Faith and the Rise of Secularism
“My years as a voyeur of holiness (have) brought me, nevertheless, into contact with true believers, and taught me that faith transfigures everything it touches, and raises the world to God. To believe as much is not yet to believe; but it is to know your insufficiency.”
Yes, I know very well my own insufficiency. That seems to me to be a start. I have also come into contact with people here and there whose holiness has inspired me. I'm not talking about the hypocrites who are a dime a dozen in our churches (and outside them too). I am talking about people who are genuinely humble and draw others to them.
“Those brought up in our post religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment . . . without being crippled by guilt.
(But we still) have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess . . . of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.”
And we still have secular sins that by and large will lead to excommunication from progressive society: Being judgemental; a racist, a homophobe, or a climate change denier. But it's not only wrong thinking that will see you excluded. Pedophilia, never acceptable, has been elevated to be the most detestable and unforgiveable sin; a long way above drug trafficking and murder. Who says 'sin' is an outdated concept? It is alive and well in our secular world.
On the need for the Church to be “relevant” and to align its teachings with modern thinking.
“What an absurd demand – to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it.”
Nothing wrong with the Church going to where people are, as long as, in the process, you do not forget who you are and why you are Church. Democracy is fine as a political system, but it is a lousy way to decide theology. If a majority of people believe black is white, it doesn't make it so.
On Vows versus Contracts
“In modern society there is a growing tendency to construe marriage as a kind of contract. This tendency is familiar to us from the sordid divorces of tycoons and pop stars, and is made explicit in the ‘pre- nuptial agreement’, under the terms of which an attractive woman sells her body at an inflated price, and a man secures his remaining assets from her future predations. Under such an agreement marriage becomes a preparation for divorce, a contract between two people for their short- term mutual exploitation. This contractual view of marriage is deeply confused.
Marriage is surrounded by moral, legal and religious prohibitions precisely because it is not a contract but a vow. Vows do not have terms, nor can they be legitimately broken. They are ‘forever’, and in making a vow you are placing yourself outside time and change, in a state of spiritual union, which can be translated into actions in the here and now, but which always lies in some way above and beyond the world of decaying things.
That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom; and when we cease to make them our lives are impoverished, since they involve no lasting commitment, no attempt to cross the frontier between self and other.
Contracts have terms, and come to an end when the terms are fulfilled or when the parties agree to renounce them. They bind us to the temporal world, and have the transience of human appetite. To reduce marriage to a contract is to demote marriage to a tie of self interest, to trivialize the erotic bond, and to jeopardize the emotions on which your children depend for their security.
We become fully human when we aim to be more than human; it is by living in the light of an ideal that we live with our imperfections. That is the deep reason why a vow can never be reduced to a contract: the vow is a pledge to the ideal light in you; a contract is signed by your self interested shadow.”
This discussion of vow versus contract goes to the heart of life. I say this as one who has broken a marriage vow and has seen what darkness results. What I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life. When we define relationships and dealings with contract clauses instead of vows we lose something we cannot afford to lose: our own sanctity.
On Ethics and Decision making
“Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia – subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny – proceed in once Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure- seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.”
And for those who have swallowed the line that science is the highest truth?
“No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. . . . The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why.
However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom . . . Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God.”
On the Hypocrisy of some Animal Activist Campaigners
“The argument (against fox hunting) is serious and challenging, especially if expressed (as it rarely is) by someone who knows what hunting actually involves. However, a moral argument must be consistent if it is to be sincere.
The pleasure taken by cat lovers in their pets (who cause 200 million painful deaths each year in Britain alone) is also a pleasure bought at the expense of animal suffering. The RSPCA, which moralizes volubly against hunting, shooting and fishing, keeps quiet about cat keeping, for fear of offending its principal donors.”
Those who know me know my thoughts on cats.
“. . . societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal . . there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.”
That may make you sit up with a start. Really? Have we been hoodwinked into thinking history marches ever onward and upward? Scruton thinks we (humans) will always get in the way of our own grand narratives of progress and so do I.
“The strange superstition has arisen in the Western world that we can start all over again, remaking human nature, human society and the possibilities of happiness, as though the knowledge and experience of our ancestors were now entirely irrelevant. But on what fund of knowledge are we to draw when framing our alternative? The utopias have proved to be illusions, and the most evident result of our ‘liberation’ from traditional constraints has been widespread discontent with the human condition.”
Do we have nothing to learn from our heritage, our traditions and our past? Scruton thinks we have a lot to learn and that we ignore it to our peril.
“There is no way in which people can collectively pursue liberty, equality and fraternity . . . because collective reason doesn’t work that way. People reason collectively towards a common goal only in times of emergency – when there is a threat to be vanquished, or a conquest to be achieved. Even then, they need organization, hierarchy and a structure of command if they are to pursue their goal effectively. . . . Moreover – and here is the corollary that came home to me with a shock of recognition – any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve . . . the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy. Hence the strident and militant language of the socialist literature – the hate- filled, purpose- filled, bourgeois-baiting prose.”
Perhaps this is why politics can be so nasty and adversial? Maybe that is why when we aim at building a new society we feel the need to demonise our opponents? E.g. Climate change deniers? Religious nutters? Bogans? Rabid Right Wing Reactionaries? Left Wing Loonies?
“Real freedom, concrete freedom, the freedom that can actually be defined, claimed and granted, (is) not the opposite of obedience but its other side. The abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellect (is) really nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy.”
Ouch! . . . But pure gold to this old conservative.
On Education and Schooling
“(A) vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it.
(My school) had not been infected by the modern heresy that tells us that knowledge must be adapted to the interests of the child. On the contrary: our ‘beaks’ believed that the interests of the child should be adapted to knowledge. The purpose of the school was not to flatter the pupils but to rescue the curriculum, by pouring it into heads that might pass it on.
Even the most rebellious among us shared the assumption on which our education was based, which is that there are real distinctions between knowledge and opinion, culture and philistinism, wit and stupidity, art and kitsch.”
Today, in schools, it seems we mostly try to train students to be good employees and faithful consumers. By and large we have given up trying to educate them in the sense that Scruton is using. Schools in western countries are funded and run as agents of economic development, rather than institions where education is pursued for its own sake. This has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen happen in my career as an educator. My regret is that I have felt powerless to do anything about it.
Well. That was a small taste of Scruton's ideas and thoughts on what is worthwhile. Maybe you will seek his work out. I think he is worth listening to. Maybe you see the world differently. I'm not so arrogant as to think people who disagree with me must be wrong.
If you are a seeker of knowledge and wisdom I recommend Scruton's book to you.