High culture warrior
By John W. Nelson
There's a delightful German expression I've been doing my best to smuggle into English over the years. Lush with connotations of combat in a more chivalrous age, the phrase "to break a lance" for something (eine Lanze brechen) conveys an unwavering and valiant defense of a worthy, if not lost, cause. Few have broken as many lances in the defense of high culture than Roger Scruton.
The author of a number of insightful and well-received books on aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy, Scruton has made an even larger name for himself as a leading conservative intellectual and cultural critic. The jacket of his recent autobiography, Gentle Regrets (2005), bills him as "Britain's best-known intellectual dissident, who has defended English traditions and English identity against an official culture of denigration." Readers familiar with his many contributions to publications such as City Journal and The New Criterion will know that's more than just publisher's hype even if the description is one that would fit just as comfortably on the cover of a work by Theodore Dalrymple, Paul Johnson, or Christopher Hitchens for that matter, assuming in the last case that we overlook the Church of England as a tradition worth defending (a position to which many Britons appear to have already assented).
One can argue, of course, over what it means exactly to be an "intellectual dissident" in a pluralistic and democratic society – and do so without giving undue consideration to its self-styled Sakharovs bravely expressing their opposition to the policies of the Bush administration. For Scruton and others of like mind on the right, whose devotion to the cultural heritage of the West is evident not only in their dismay over the decaying means of its transmission, but in their concern for its very survival – a concern heightened in the wake of 9/11 –, the object of dissent has been the slow but steady institutionalization of political correctness, radical egalitarianism, multiculturalism and its inherent relativism (to say nothing of the concomitant anti-Westernism), and every other societal corrosive endemic to modern liberalism and championed by its "progressive" standard-bearers.
This is well-trod territory for cultural conservatives. Twenty years ago, Allan Bloom propelled the campus culture wars to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with The Closing of the American Mind, castigating higher education in America and the liberal arts in particular for their embrace of relativism and their promotion of "openness" – the lofty refusal to pass judgment on anything except the undisputed depredations of the West (woe betide the student who dares try to dispute them) – as "the great insight of our times." And while it may seem like only yesterday when Robert Bork was decrying our inexorable slouch towards Gomorrah, that pessimistic and controversial cri de coeur was delivered just over a decade ago, though reading the good judge's brief against Michael Jackson's crotch-grabbing Superbowl antics in the age of the wardrobe malfunction makes it seem even more distant.
Around the same time, Scruton quietly added his own contribution to the fray. Less excoriating in tone – unless you happened to be the obscurantist intellectual named Jacques Derrida whose "jargon-infested delirium" formed the target of a chapter called "The Devil's Work" –, Modern Culture (1998) presented an intricate and original analysis of high culture as distinct from both common culture, i.e., the shared customs, rituals and practices of organic communities that preoccupied an earlier and more serious age of anthropologists, and pop culture, the collective manifestation of the wants and wishes of youth and its graying fellow travelers – the result being, more often than not, as crass and ephemeral as its source.
To say what high culture is not, is not to say what it is, of course. Pressed for a definition, those with a respectable education in the history of Western civilization – even some graduates of the modern university – might echo Matthew Arnold in describing it as "the best that has been thought and said." But that would be only one facet of the higher form of culture under investigation. In Scruton's view, high culture is not the exclusive reserve of an educated elite interested in learning merely for learning's sake and without consequence for society at large. High culture, like common culture, has an inherently practical function: it serves to bind people together by providing an "ethical vision" of man, a vision that "permits the higher emotions, through which we ennoble our lives and the lives of those around us." Its wider importance stems from the fact that that which has historically imparted an ethical vision, a feeling of communal responsibility, and a sense of transcendent values – religion – has been dislodged from its central place in common culture if not abandoned altogether.
One is reminded here of Nietzsche's famous parable on the death of God, an event which leaves its heralder more rueful than exultant when he considers the moral nihilism that must ensue as a result of the "devaluation" of all values. If this was a looming crisis for a European philosopher of the nineteenth-century, it is an especially acute one for a philosopher of the twenty-first, and Scruton, a "good European" in his own right, lays bare the consequences for a civilization that can no longer maintain the distinction between the sacred and the profane. "A community that has survived its gods," he writes, "has three options."
Needless to say, there is only one appealing option here, and Scruton's defense of high culture rests upon his belief that the special kind of knowledge it imparts inculcates moral virtue by teaching us to live "as if our lives mattered eternally." (If there's a more succinct explanation of what it means for those of us with no religious beliefs to lead a spiritual life, I haven't heard it.)
Scruton's latest work begins by reiterating that this special kind of knowledge is not factual but emotional. Those things that are the province of high culture – the works of art, literature, music, and philosophy to have acquired the status of "classics" – are deserving of our attention not by virtue of longevity alone or because of their influence on their age and beyond (important as that is for an understanding of intellectual history), but because they communicate the finer sentiments, illuminate the human condition, provide examples of lives well lived and, arguably as vital to the task of moral education, those not so well lived. The knowledge on offer here, Scruton contends, is not knowledge that or knowledge how – the nature of factual and theoretical knowledge, respectively –, but knowledge what, in the sense of "knowing what to do and what to feel." As he summarized the distinction in Modern Culture, knowledge what means knowing "the right emotion, towards the right object, on the right occasion and in the right degree."
That's a tall order by any standard, and it comes as no surprise that Culture Counts revisits a number of the central ideas developed in Modern Culture. That there is little in the new work seemingly derivative of the old is a reflection of the sterling quality of the writing. It is also a reflection of the heightened sense of urgency when it comes to recognizing the intrinsic value of high culture as escalating pressures on this "threatened store of moral knowledge" have led to an alarming erosion in civilizational confidence. "Challenged from outside by radical Islam and from within by 'multiculturalism'," Scruton writes, "Western societies are experiencing an acute crisis of identity. By what right do they exist, and by what achievement should they define themselves?"
It is the existential half of that question that concerns him most. Rumors of the death of the West have been circulating since Spengler published his dire predictions in 1921 – and likely well before –, but it would be rash to dismiss them as exaggerated today. In fact, were it not for the vitality of our inherited culture on this side of the Atlantic, Scruton argues, the question concerning the viability of the West would already be settled.
As highly as he values what he sees as the two major gifts America has bequeathed to the world – the model of its democratic system, broadly speaking, and the extraordinary technological advances that accrue from it –, Scruton concedes their inadequacy when it comes to fostering in others the kind of fervent emotional attachment necessary to defend and preserve Western civilization as a whole (the kind of emotional attachment, I would argue, that America's founding principles continue to inspire in so many of her citizens). Those gifts "attract our praise and our pride," Scruton avers, but they do not "conquer the heart." Nor do they impart an "outlook on human life and its meaning that can stand up either to the sarcastic nihilism of the West's internal critics or to the humorless bigotry of Islam." One need only recall the cowering and self-effacement of so many in the Western media during the Danish cartoon controversy to see the validity of Scruton's concern.
Ever the philosopher, Scruton harkens back to the Enlightenment faith in rational analysis and reasoned discourse as the means to counter these critics and the "culture of repudiation" incubated in the academy, where far too many intellectual positions are staked not on "subjects of disinterested debate but inviolable orthodoxies." Anyone who has spent enough time – any time, really – in a gender studies seminar will find himself nodding in agreement at Scruton's characterization of its curriculum as "a political agenda rather than an intellectual discipline" which brooks no deviation from prevailing feminist doctrine.
In championing the Western tradition of scholarship, its disinterested pursuit of truth, and its embrace of universalist ideals, Scruton turns the tables on an academic rock star like the late Edward Said, whose still popular theories diminish Western culture by framing the records of its encounters with the East as the condescending products of an imperialist ideology designed to reinforce feelings of cultural superiority. (As scholars like Bernard Lewis have noted – someone, in Scruton's judgment, "who knew the Muslim world and its culture far better than [Said] did" – Said's willful omission in his work of any real consideration of the abundant German scholarship on the Orient allowed him to sidestep the inconvenient truth that Germany did not have an imperial presence in the Middle East like France and Britain did.) Alas, like so many prone to imputing the basest of motives to the West – while demanding that other cultures be judged on their own terms –, those under the spell of Said's "Orientalism" seem incapable of considering that the Europeans responsible for creating such an impressive body of Oriental scholarship might actually have operated from an appreciation of Eastern culture rather than from a racist impulse to secure their own identity in opposition to a lesser regarded "Other."
Fully upending Said's school of thought, Scruton insists that "Eastern cultures owe a debt to their Western students." "When has any Eastern culture paid to Western culture the kind of tribute that Britten paid, in Curlew River, to the culture of Japan, or Rudyard Kipling, in Kim, to the culture of India?," Scruton pointedly asks. That many readers will find this assertion either offensive or refreshing – depending upon their degree of sympathy with Said's mindset – is an indication of just how deeply we've internalized what Mark Steyn refers to as "one-way multiculturalism." Witness the mosques and madrassahs going up from Melbourne to Michigan, Steyn remarks, while the Western world blandly accepts the fact that there won't be any ground-breaking ceremonies for an Episcopal church in Jeddah or Riyadh. Witness, too, the readiness of the West to celebrate the achievements of other cultures and then criticize the accomplishments of its own. And yet, Scruton would hasten to add, these criticisms of Western culture are nothing less than "confirmations of its claim to favor."
As noted earlier, Culture Counts is by no means the first work to lament the coarsening of society – that's what we conservatives do, after all – or the difficulty of teaching culture when "traditions of taste have evaporated, when the eyes and ears are saturated with stimulation, when human life is set in such rapid motion that moments of contemplation are all but nonexistent," and one can exist in a state of permanent adolescence without fear of rebuke or stigma. (It's hard not to hear echoes of Ortega's "mass man" and Kant's exhortation to rise from our self-imposed immaturity in Scruton's critique of our "playground world.") Culture Counts is, however, among the most engaging works on this subject and, due to Scruton's clear exposition and skill as an essayist, one of the most approachable. Quite unexpectedly – for we conservatives are also a rather pessimistic lot –, it's one of the most encouraging as well, as Scruton outlines a few "rays of hope" in his final chapter leading him to think that Western culture still has its share of worthy advocates.
Although he never uses these exact words, Scruton's rousing essay reads as an appeal for a "surge" of civic piety, an idea so outmoded in our postmodern world where the nation-state is quickly becoming a nostalgia item that it's often greeted with embarrassment if not outright derision. (Just try to broach the subject sometime with those students who brandish their well-thumbed copies of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States as if it were some kind of talisman designed to ward off any errant feelings of national pride.) The notion of piety advocated here, however, has nothing in common with the crude feelings of an uncritical nationalism – the "love it or leave it" attitude – or even with feelings of allegiance to any nation in particular. The sense of piety which permeates Culture Counts, and which Scruton communicates so naturally, is a genuine appreciation of the intellectual inheritance of the West that engenders not only a sense of belonging, loyalty, and gratitude to our forbearers, but also allows us to recognize Western culture as "the primary way of conserving our moral heritage and of standing firm in the face of a clouded future." I may not share Scruton's guarded optimism regarding the outcome of the culture wars, but I know whose side I want to be on.
John W. Nelson writes from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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