Conservatism, Beauty and Sir Roger Scruton,
The philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, the darling of contemporary conservative politics died on 12 January 2020 aged 75. Tony Abbott is reported to have said that if John Locke is the father of western political conservatism, Roger Scruton is its contemporary intellectual son. However, from their words and actions, it appears Tony Abbott and presumably his fellow right-wing fanatics never read, or perhaps understood, much that Scruton wrote or thought.
As Elizabeth Farrelly eloquently wrote in A beautiful life: this Tory was my godsend (SMH 18 Jan 2020), Scruton’s lifelong vocation and passion was his advocacy for, and love of, beauty. He judged beauty to be more than subjective aesthetic opinion, but an objective reality which redeems heals and feeds the soul. To Scruton a life without beauty is no life at all. The reason why Notre Dame is to be rebuilt, ISIS’ destruction of archaeological treasures in Iraq and Syria are so shocking and Trump’s threat to knock out some of Iran’s cultural treasures is so crass, is because such action destroys the very soul of individual and corporate humanity. In like manner the loss of Australian bush following the catastrophic bushfires is going to prove far more costly to Australian life than the loss of homes, shops and infrastructure, which can and will be rebuilt. Scruton’s view, for example, thoroughly justifies the courageous and successful attempts by RFS specialists to save the ancient Wollombi Pine grove in the Blue Mountains. Farelly’s example, as banal as it may sound, of table settings and the use and cleaning of grandma’s beautiful silver being as important as the food being served, makes the same point.
In contrast, when one looks at the lives and words of conservative luminaries such as Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, George Christensen et al, one might be forgiven for asking “wherein does beauty lie”?
Scruton began his life as many (most) young intellectuals do, as a committed leftie. What changed his mind was the Paris revolution of 1968 which he judged to be ill-tempered and undisciplined anger, disconnected from rational thought, bent on tearing down what had been because of its failures, without knowing what to put in its place. Consistent with his passion for beauty, he wanted to conserve the best of the past that it might be sustained into the future.
This is the hub of the matter and where Abbott and his coterie of admirers have so misunderstood Scruton. He was a true conservative, and they are not. This can be clearly illustrated by Scruton’s environmentalism and his abhorrence of economics being given the seat of honour in political discourse.
Those who have read his Green Philosophy: How to think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic Books 2012) will know that his commitment to beauty shines through, as does his understanding of oikophilia (p253ff). Roughly translated, oikophilia means love of house or home. Oikophilia, he argues, is the appropriate response to the challenges presented by climate science, which he accepts as a given. There is none of the energy sapping, nonsensical, intellectually moribund, ideologically driven, mining industry funded, stalling and undermining of policy which so tragically identifies the right of current Australian politics. Where I personally differ with Scruton is his putting of all his eggs in the basket of national patriotism. He argues that all human beings share an innate love of home, of place and that this natural love and desire to protect can best be activated by citizens working to protect that which is precious to them at home. He decries International treatises as worse than useless because, he argues, only those who have inherited centuries of law making (the Europeans) will honour them.
I strongly disagree. It is now clear that the Australian continent is more open to the excesses of climatic change due to global warming than almost anywhere else on the planet. To love Australia its beauty, its flora and fauna is not enough. If Morrison has anything right, it is his insistence that Australia, on its own, will not make much difference to the warming impacts that await us. Therefore we must use every lever available to us, to influence the rest of the world into accepting higher and higher emission standards. In recent years of Australian coalition government, we have done the reverse, used our best resources to weaken those aspirations. The love that very citizen of the world has for their native home is crucial, but it must be expanded into an equally passionate love of the whole planet, for like any organic entity we are as strong as our weakest point.
This brings me to Scruton’s understanding of freedom. The Australian right is besotted with the idea of individual freedom and rights. “Any form of authority needs to get out of the way to let the individual ‘get on with their life’”: as less than eloquently put by Barnaby Joyce in his bizarre Christmas Eve video message from his cow paddock. Scruton’s view was that freedom cannot be understood aside from authority. According to Scruton, conservatism is not about freedom, but about authority, and freedom divorced from authority is of no use to anyone — not even to the one who possesses it. To Scruton there were various levels of authority of which government is one, and not necessarily the most important. Authority is wielded in the context of family. No individual can properly enjoy the wonderful freedoms and fulfilments that family loyalty provides without understanding the authority that family necessarily demands of all its members.
The same applies to the natural environment. As long understood by the world’s indigenous people, the natural order has an authority which is ignored at our peril. This is what it means to be conservator, recognising the authority that history, legacy, family, beauty, the natural environment necessarily holds over all human life. The right wing behaves as if none of these authorities exist and that exploitation can and must happen, because economy (meaning wealth generation) must always reign supreme.
This brings me to the third point. Scruton was aghast at the right’s exultation of economics and the free market as the pinnacle of all human endeavour. He understood that all societies are bound by the laws of supply and demand. But he argued that what makes a society worth conserving are those elements of life that are outside pure economic understanding or valuing. This fact was again clearly illustrated by the recent bushfires. What evacuees took with them were not items of economic value, but items of personal memory and family identity. Scruton’s point is that an appropriate political mode of understanding and conserving the essential ingredients of societal life has been subverted by the language of economic theory - neo-liberalism. He argues this has led to a narrow, utilitarian understanding of politics, inimical to the more expansive organic conception of politics and society which is necessary if a society is to constructively evolve within a vastly dynamic and changing environment.
Sir Roger Scruton was an old-fashioned conservative, worthy of that name. Those who currently march to the conservative drum appear not to have read him or understood him. It is therefore fair to ask, who or what have they read? Where is their intellectual base? One can only hope that there is a more solid base than that of conspiracy theorists who label serious conservation, a left-wing plot.