Obituaries do not just mark the end of a life but reflect the state of the world that public figures leave. They are of interest, then, not just for what they explicitly say about the past but for what they implicitly say about the present.
With the death of Sir Roger Scruton on Sunday the Prime Minister paid tribute to “the greatest modern conservative thinker.” This view was shared by many commentators, with Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review calling him “the most important conservative thinker of his generation.”
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This is a fine tribute to Scruton, and well-deserved. But there is a mournfulness to the sentiment that transcends even the sadness of the great man’s passing, reflected in Douglas Murray’s justifiable observation that Scruton seemed “bigger than his age”. The question lurking behind these sentiments is: who is the next greatest British conservative thinker?
I am sure some names could be produced: Murray himself, Peter Hitchens, Theodore Dalrymple. All of these are fine men for whom I have great respect. All of them, however, are polemicists. There is no shame in that. I am one as well, and in a lower division. But if “intellectual” means anything then it means something else.
Niall Ferguson? I disagree with his more neoconservative politics but no one can deny his skill as a historian. John Gray? His primers for pessimists – like Enlightenment’s Wake and Black Mass – are required reading for anyone on the Right but I am not sure that he would have time for the label. No, the sad truth is that Scruton was in a class of his own. All of his rivals — Oakeshott, Quinton, Cowling and Butterfield — were dead and his loving peers were in his shadow.
The Left has its intellectuals. We like to characterise leftists as emotional if not hysterical — and that is by no means always an injustice — but they also have a deep, if narrow, emphasis on learning that the Right does not share. Read the London Review of Books and you will find a depth of literary and historical erudition that cannot be found in Right-wing publications. You can argue that the likes of Perry Anderson and David Harvey are wrong but they combine scholarship with contemporary analysis on a level that few if any British conservatives could match.
“Good!” might be the response of some, not entirely without justice. The twentieth century was not exactly kind to intellectuals. As Raymond Aron, Pierre Ryckmans and others documented, many of them inhaled what Aron called “the opium of the intellectuals” and backed bloodthirsty revolutionary movements in the name of utopian abstractions. Of course, such intellectuals are still with us today. Understandably, then, conservatives have emphasised the extent to which intellectualism can be a cloud of verbiage floating above the real world. We love nothing better than to listen to the gaseous ramblings of pensive Frenchmen and blow giant raspberries. Paul Johnson got a whole book out of it — called, appropriately enough, Intellectuals.
Yet we still need intellectuals, or, at least, we need historians, philosophers, scientists, economists, critics and political theorists who understand and explain the relevance of their studies to the world. We polemicists stand on the mountain of scholarship that they have built. Without them, our perception of the world is superficial.
Why are British conservative intellectuals so thin on the ground? We have a richer conservative history than the United States and yet we have no cousins of their journals like American Affairs or The New Atlantis. Granted, their influence on the President might be limited to non-exist but at least they are there.
This makes some explanations limited. The Thatcherite focus on liberal economics above all else — which Roger Scruton, for one, resisted — led to a dearth of conservative cultural thought in Britain but Reagan-era American conservatism had the same affliction and our American peers have done more to overcome this intellectual decline.
I think we have suffered from our tendency to romanticise instinct over intellect. Michael Oakeshott was a genuine conservative intellectual, whose writings about history, education and political theory were rich in erudition and insight. Oakeshott opposed “rationalism”, or the tendency to abstract political thought from political practice. In an elegant metaphor he observed that reading theory to understand politics is like reading recipes to understand cooking. There is no substitute, in other words, for experience.
Still, recipes have some use. (Try making a soufflé without one.) As the Catholic conservative philosopher Edward Feser has written:
“Human life certainly cannot be reduced to the abstractions of political philosophy, but it doesn’t follow that such abstractions have no place.”
Besides, intellectuals do not trade solely in abstractions. Historians systematically document and interpret past experiences. Scientists, and social scientists, do their best to explain the factors at play. One cannot become a doctor without practical experience but nor can one master medicine without textbooks.
Oakeshott’s most famous words came when he tried to define conservatism as a “disposition”. In an oft-quoted paragraph, he said that to be a conservative:
“…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
This is true, but without more solid foundations of epistemic and ethical principles it tends to collapse into a shallow presentism that defines the “familiar” and the “tried” as whatever happens to be the status quo. “Present laughter” is continually upheld, however novel it is in historical terms and however much value it has for the future. We need depth in our historical, scientific, societal, philosophical and aesthetic understanding to know what should be conserved and what may be destructive and degrading in the long term.
What is to be done? Young people on the right should acquaint themselves with their intellectual heritage. By this I do not mean that we should encase ourselves in tweed, suck pipes and make vague references to Reflections on the Revolution in France but that we should acquaint ourselves with Scruton on aesthetics, Oakeshott on rationalism, Butterfield on history, Eliot on tradition and so on.
But one cannot just immerse oneself in the past. Time brings new circumstances, scientifically, culturally, and institutionally, and one cannot burrow into old achievements like a badger seeking warmth. The intellectual combines old wisdom with new knowledge, and either one can be misleading without the other. The magic is in the synthesis.