Right-thinking aesthetic

Matthew Reisz talks to Roger Scruton, the UK's leading conservative intellectual, about academia, music, politics and his latest book, Beauty

June 25, 2009

It is hard to talk about Roger Scruton without relying on paradoxes. He is a foxhunting aesthete. A wine-lover who applauds "the sacred and the sacrificial". A self-confessed wanderer who spends half his time in America, but can write an "elegy" for England and hymns to the joys of rootedness. He is also, and perhaps strangest of all, a conservative intellectual.

The standard English attitude, he once wrote, is that "if you are an aristocrat or a child of wealthy and settled parents, you might inherit conservative beliefs, in the way that you might inherit a speech impediment. But you couldn't possibly acquire them - certainly not by any process of rational inquiry or serious thought."

When he set up the Conservative Philosophy Group with fellow philosopher John Casey and a couple of politicians in 1974, they attempted to search "the intellectual world for conservatives ... (and) the Conservative Party for members who could think. Needless to say, none of us had much success."

Scruton is nothing if not comfortable bucking intellectual trends. Although he came from a Labour-voting family, his experiences of Paris in May 1968 shifted him sharply to the Right. It also gave him a lifelong aversion to the "satanic mendacity" of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, who seemed to provide a rationale for the violence and transgression of the soixante-huitards.

Going public in 1979 with his book The Meaning of Conservatism, he claims, "blighted what remained of my academic career". He taught philosophy at what is now Birkbeck, University of London from 1972 to 1991. The only other openly conservative member of staff, he recalls, was a Neapolitan woman who served meals in the Senior Common Room and plastered her counter with photos of the Pope.

The Salisbury Review, the conservative magazine Scruton edited for 18 years from 1982, led to "a hideous character assassination in Private Eye, three lawsuits ... the loss of a university career in Britain ... and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere", although it also attracted "Tory suspicion".

But whatever the career consequences, Scruton clearly takes considerable pleasure in robust defences of elitism and jeremiads about the state of the modern world. Both are prominent features of his new book, Beauty.

It joins an impressive list of more than 30 volumes. Scruton has written about everything from architecture and animal rights, sex and Spinoza, to wine and Wagner (as well as poetry, fiction and even a couple of operas).

Yet he retains a somewhat paradoxical "academic identity" - an Anglican who teaches at a private Catholic graduate school, the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia. He also spends a term a year at the University of Oxford. There he gives tutorials and undergraduate lectures on the meaning of music as a fellow of Blackfriars, a Dominican monastery, which is not a college but enjoys the status of a "permanent private hall".

When Scruton describes "the essence of the conservative position as I understand it", it sounds a good deal more monastic than anything we would be likely to hear from, say, Jeffrey Archer, former Conservative Party chairman and a man well acquainted with temptation.

"If there's a single thing wrong with the modern world, it's the detaching of the individual from his social position and the responsibilities that go with it. The pursuit of present pleasure has come to dominate the human psyche in a way that puts the sacred and the sacrificial in the margins - and they should be in the centre," Scruton says.

Although he admits that his youthful self "was animated by the usual aggression, ingratitude and resentment", he now looks back with great affection on his time at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School and Jesus College, Cambridge. His views on higher education combine truculence with romantic nostalgia.

"Universities have changed radically," he argues. "Oxford is good because the colleges offer a range of theatrical, musical and religious events that have maintained intact an image of what it is to be an educated person. Many universities allow themselves to proceed along the line of academic competition, let students go off and get drunk, and don't see that they have to provide something else.

"The explosion of universities in the 1960s led to the creation of mere teaching machines rather than a community of scholars that is a humble part of a larger organism ... There is a fracture between the culture of the undergraduates and the culture of the dons, due to the increasing specialisation of subjects such as philosophy and the loss of literary culture among the young."

Beauty, which originated in a series of undergraduate lectures, has two main goals. One, Scruton explains, is to explore "the place of high culture in culture as a whole. What's the point of it, given that it's always going to be an elite product?"

Although he mounts an eloquent defence, it is on lines that seem to belong to another era. High culture, he says, "teaches people how to feel and what to feel about difficult circumstances. We know a lot more about the feeling of jealousy because of Othello, and what it is to be ruthlessly ambitious because of Macbeth.

"People for whom these works are part of their intellectual equipment have access to a store of wisdom. In an educated community, those people are in positions of power and influence, and spread through society an acquaintance with these basic collections of wisdom. This enables them to hand it on to those around them in a way that benefits everyone.

"High culture now only survives in very fragmented forms and is not being handed on by universities as it should be."

Not content with this lament, Scruton adds some massive generalisations about what the loss of high culture has meant for "Islamic societies": "you find disorder and rage in political life completely untempered by wisdom, despite strong moral cohesion in local communities".

So how does he reconcile his enthusiasm for the arts with his recent conversion to country living and the joys of foxhunting?

"Life without the arts is very impoverished," he replies. "Life is enriched by the arts, but there are other ways of leading a full life. Many ordinary country people, of the kind I live among, have a very rich life, even though they don't know the first thing about painting, literature and music.

"English society is very surprising. At any level you can find a real amateur expert on the French Revolution or the works of Browning," he observes. Even among his foxhunting pals, "one is a serious expert on Wagner, another on 17th-century Spanish painting. They are quite a literate crowd.

"Quite a lot of the farmers read, but it's very different from an academic community and they haven't had time to cultivate that aspect of themselves."

He also points to "the substantial literature in English on hunting, shooting and fishing".

It is part of Scruton's central claim in Beauty that aesthetic judgments are not purely subjective, but can be rationally discussed and debated. The problem is how to illustrate this.

"It's very hard to present an abstract argument about beauty without bringing to the fore one's own personal interests and enthusiasms," he says.

In the book, this means that those who haven't already experienced the "concentration of meaning" he finds in Benjamin Britten's Cello Symphony, for example, will just have to take his word for it. But there are also consequences in the classroom.

"When I was young and interested in pop music," he explains, "there was never a question in my mind that there was the music you listened to, which was serious - Mozart and Beethoven - and the music you played on your guitar, which was a different thing and had a different function. That's not so clearly the case today.

"At Boston University (where Scruton taught from 1992 to 1995), I did a course on musical philosophy, where I encountered the fact that the class, although they were graduates, were hearing (basic works of the classical canon) for the first time. They had all been brought up on AC/DC and things like that.

"How on earth do you introduce young people to the art of criticism when that has been their diet? I found that to introduce criticism to young people brought up on pop music, you had to show them first of all how to criticise pop music, and that means to distinguish the good from the bad."

There was only one thing for it: get down with the kids and learn a bit about styles of music he had hitherto ignored.

"It's very hard to compare one genre with another, but within any idiom you can compare the good with the bad, the lively with the depressing, the positive with the negative - even in something like heavy metal. You get bands such as Metallica that manage to say something, and you can bring that out and show how it's being said in the music. There's a certain musical impoverishment, but a huge technical accomplishment."

If nothing else, this must make Scruton the world's only foxhunting Metallica fan.

The arts offer only one kind of beauty, and Scruton stresses that his new book is equally concerned with "the place of beauty in human life, which is not only the concern of an elite".

This most obviously refers to human beauty - the kind that leads to desires that he believes are "expressed in, but not fulfilled by, far less cancelled by sexual intimacy" - but it can also mean the "everyday beauty" of clothes, tableware, furniture and gardens.

"All of us try to create an ambience in which we are at home," he elaborates, "and I think that's a vital part of the human condition that is very easily poisoned - and a lot of things have gone wrong in the world because people have poisoned it. It's at the heart of worries about the environment, town planning, bad manners and bad behaviour in the street."

Scruton is a man of many enthusiasms. But some might argue that he often falls back on vague raptures about the things he likes - and that his books truly come to life when they turn (as they always do) to how "things have gone wrong in the world". For example, Beauty ends with a trenchant attack on pornography and "the flight from beauty" into kitsch.

Yet although he once told an interviewer "you only live once - why not offend as many people as possible?", Scruton rejects the suggestion that he is a mere gadfly with an essentially negative message.

"I'm very glad to be living now," he announces unexpectedly, "and indeed I think one's under an obligation to be glad to be alive and to express that gladness in every way possible.

"One has an obligation to celebrate the positive things and provide people with whatever weapons one can against the negative things. We are lucky to be building on the achievements of our ancestors and the important thing is to maintain them and not throw them away."

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