Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Two Conservatives Seeing Eye to Eye On Culture - Roger Scruton and Benedict XVI

I recently posted an article about the history of the English telephone box. The idea for that post came from Roger Scruton and his reference to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s design in his book How to Be A Conservative, which at the end I contrast briefly with Benedict XVI’s essay Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.

In this small book, Scruton offers a brilliantly thought out practical philosophy of moral and compassionate patriotism, that cares deeply about the liberty and flourishing of poor and rich alike, and sees a culture of beauty as absolutely necessary to transmit and sustain the core principles and values that bind the nation together (and frankly, make life worth living). It is a denominationally neutral, natural-law case for a just society that is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Catholic social teaching, although he arrives at his conclusions via a logical route that would not be chosen by all Catholics. (See the end of the article for an explanation.) I enjoyed it particularly for his discussion of the origins of culture. Without ever mentioning the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, he provides a wealth of supporting evidence for the truth of this principle – that it is our worship that influences most profoundly our faith. If we agree with what St John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, that it is our faith which influences most profoundly our culture, then we can also say that therefore, our worship most profoundly affects the culture.

Furthermore, it is an enjoyable read from start to finish. He has many interesting stories and anecdotes from his personal experiences with which to illustrate his points, and he always tells them in a good natured and amusing way.

As the work of an Englishman, Scruton’s book is focused on English concerns; however, he admires and visits the US regularly as well and at various points he adapts what he is saying to the American situation.

His is a philosophical argument, that is, one that is argued rationally from the starting point of observations how people are. He is an acute observer of human nature, and so his arguments convince by appealing to ordinary common sense as much as anything else. He tells us first that his conservative instincts came in part from his father, whom he observed growing up in High Wickham in southern post-War England. Jack Scruton, we are told, was a committed socialist who sought the redistribution of wealth, but, as Scruton junior pointed out to us, “we are all right-wing about the things we know.” What his dad knew and loved was local history, and especially the beautiful architecture and the area around High Wickham in Buckinghamshire. This love of the local heritage compelled him to campaign for the preservation of these beautiful signs and symbols of traditional English culture and way of life.

Now in his seventies (and made a Knight on the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list!) Sir Roger Scruton still follows his father’s instincts in this regard, even though he never shared his political views. He has had a long academic career which began as an undergraduate at Cambridge, but which steadily saw him become an independent academic once it became obvious that he would have no career in the faculties of the universities of England, dominated as they are by a left-wing and intolerant intelligentsia.

He does not seem the slightest bit bitter, however; his writing exudes a gentle and optimistic outlook, and it it is clear that he understands and accepts that no men are perfect, liberal or conservative, believing or non-believing.

Scruton does not tell us his personal religious beliefs, for this is philosophy, not theology. Nevertheless, his philosophy sees the necessity of both religion which is rooted in a genuine faith, and religious tolerance. Faith is seed ground from which grow the mores that every society must have in common if people are to feel that they belong to it. In the West, that pattern of living is dominated by Christianity. He sees a harmonious balance of loyalty and love of religion, family and state as the basis for a free and just society.

Scruton is culturally conservative as well as politically and economically. Culture is important in his philosophy because it is the pattern of daily living that communicates the society’s mores to the non-religious in a way in which they can absorb them naturally and comfortably, without being forced to be adherents of the religion. Culture is the principle of inclusion which makes a country a nation – a society in which the citizens feel they belong. It is the beauty of a national culture that tells its citizens that “they are at home in the world.” Furthermore it is tradition, the steadily developing accumulation of what is good from the past, that passes on that culture to us. This is why the conservative spirit always respects what we have and even if critical, looks for modification rather than revolution. It seeks to improve by building on what is good, even in the worst situations, rather than by destroying the present in order to restore the past, or a new future.

For Scruton, society is not an arbitrary grouping. Man has a natural inclination to associate with others, which he must be allowed to do freely, and those associations, the clubs, societies, sports clubs and so on, are the sub-cultures that together form the national culture. The most important associations that are common to all people are faith, family and nation. Even those who are not people of faith, he argues, will in the well-ordered society subscribe passively to it by participating in the culture of faith that binds that nation together. He speaks regularly of how British culture is essentially a Christian culture and how the principles of self-sacrifice, moral virtue and care for our fellows are transmitted via a Christian language of symbolism, verbal, musical and visual, so that they are adopted even by those who do not consider themselves believers.

The picture of a society that he builds up with this natural law approach is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Catholic social teaching. One could have as easily quoted St Thomas, for example, on the natural virtue of religion (made in the Summa in his discussion of the cardinal virtue of justice), in which he says that it is natural to man to worship God, to have piety for family, and “observance” for the nation. Each of these is an offering that is made in justice to God, who created us; to the family which cared for us; and to the nation which give us security to flourish through the other two. The practices of observance and piety are the partial repayments of the debt of love and loyalty to the communities by which we can flourish, and each participates in the highest form of such offering, which is the worship of God. Worship, piety and observance are continual practices because we can never repay fully what has been given to us.

If this argument of the natural associations of religion, family and nation bound by a common culture is correct, then it explains why other political unions, for example supra-national projects such as the European Union, are likely to be unstable and fail. Without a common culture to keep them together, either they will fragment as the national cultures within its artificial border clash, or will have to resort to tyranny to stop this from happening, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, and will happen in the EU if it does not disintegrate first.

It is also why a strict multiculturalism, in which there is no absorption of the cultural practices of immigrants into a the national culture, will not work either. The result in Britain has been a fragmentation of the nation with the formation of ghettoes of non-British cultures within the national boundaries. During the Brexit debate especially, some of the intellectual elite who appeared have little regard for traditional British culture derided those who wish to preserve a sense of Britishness in Britain as jingoistic, racist and ignorant. No doubt a few were all three, but I believe this is not true ofthe majority. If we accept Scruton’s thesis, we can see that it is natural for those who care about Britain to wish to retain a cultural identity, and to feel unease about the undermining of culture. To object to these changes does not automatically make someone racist or even anti-immigrant. It does make him “culturalist,” but I would argue that is a good thing. It is a natural response of someone who loves his country. For the “culturalist,” immigration is not a problem provided those who come are willing to become culturally British.

All cultures and subcultures are the aggregated effect of personal interactions and so, as Scruton points out, are always formed from the bottom up. It is one of the great paradoxes of man and society that individual actions that are driven by free will, and therefore apparently random and sitting outside the natural order that is described by the scientific laws of cause and effect, can nevertheless give rise to a discernible pattern and order when the society as a whole is observed. Generally, the best influence of government can have on a culture, therefore, is to protect personal liberty and allow it to emerge naturally. Top-down attempts to manipulate the cultural forms directly by directing personal interaction with law are likely to stifle personal freedom and the human spirit. This in turn leads to a diminution of human flourishing, both spiritually and economically. It is why, I suggest, socialism is such an ugly and dismal failure in this regard.

Scruton is well aware that when people claim rights of action and freedoms for themselves, it will lead to clashes. He gives an example where the rights of “travellers” (people who in the past might have identified themselves as gypsies - I’m not sure if this is still the case) to settle where they wish clash with the property rights of those who live where the travellers choose to settle. We might think also of the case where the right of the unborn clashes with the claimed right of the woman to choose to have an abortion. This is where custom, or in the extreme, the law must decide whose right or whose freedom has preeminence; a justice system that is rooted in a consensus of morality that will do that effectively and happily. He maintains that religion is the only viable and sustaining source of morality that works for the benefit of that society, even for the non-religious within it. In Britain this is the basis of common law.

In his critique of today’s post-modern society, Scruton still manages, consistent with his conservative ethos, to be constructive by looking for the positive as well. Chapter by chapter he analyses the institutions and ideas of today, the various “-isms” (nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and internationalism) so as to highlight the good to be retained within them, as well as the bad to be discarded. (There chapters titled “The Good in Nationalism”, “The Good in Socialism” etc.) He persuades us with good humored reason, and does not try to goad us on with fiery rhetoric. Through this analysis he paints a vision of a possible society that does not perfect human nature, but rather accommodates it, with all its flaws and imperfections. He promises no utopia, but rather a realistic prospect of something better.

He builds up his ideas by drawing largely on common sense observations of people, as well as the philosophy of Aristotle and writers of the Enlightenment such as Burke, Hegel, Adam Smith and Kant, and sells it to us through his witty and entertaining writing and the obvious love he has for his own country. As a Catholic, I was intrigued at how much the ideas of the Enlightenment and Kant especially, which are not universally admired in Catholic circles (to put it mildly) could nevertheless be helpful.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more and wondered if I was going to have to write another chapter for Scruton’s book for Catholics called, “The Truth in the Enlightenment and the Truth in Emmanuel Kant.”

I am not someone who is excited about the prospect of reading large amounts of 18th century philosophy, so, naturally, as every lazy student does, I looked around for the Cliff Notes to see if someone had done it first. Pope Benedict XVI’s little book on the subject of Europe, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures saved me the effort. Benedict too draws on Kant and Enlightenment thinking in his analysis.

In regard to the Enlightenment he tells us:

“The Enlightenment has a Christian origin and it was not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state. Philosophy, as the investigation of the rational element (which includes the rational element of our faith) had always been a positive element in Christianity, but the voice of reason had become excessively tame. It was and remains the merit of the Enlightenment to have drawn attention afresh to these original Christian values and to have given reason back its own voice. In its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council restated this profound harmony between Christianity and the Enlightenment, seeking to achieve a genuine reconciliation between the Church and modernity, which is the great patrimony of which both parties must take care.” (p. 48)

One flaw of the Enlightenment, Benedict tells us, is that it cut itself off from “its own historical roots, depriving itself from the powerful sources from which it sprang. It detaches itself from what we might call its basic memory of mankind, without which reason loses its orientation.” (p. 41)

And in regard to Kant he tells us:

“The search for this kind of reassuring certainty, something that could go unchallenged despite all the disagreements, has not succeeded. Not even Kant’s truly stupendous endeavours managed to create the necessary certainty that would be shared by all. Kant had denied that God could be known with the sphere of pure reason, but at the same time, he had presented God, freedom, and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which he saw no coherent possibility of acting in a moral manner. I wonder if the situation of today’s world might not make us return to the idea that Kant was right. Let me put this in different terms: the attempt, carried to extremes to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads us more and more to the brink of the abyss, toward the utter annihilation of man. We must therefore reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path to God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life, as if God did exist. This is the advice that Pascal gave to his friends and it is the advice that I should like to give to our friends today who do not believe. This does not impose limitations on freedom, it gives support to all our human affairs and supplies a criterion of which human life stands sorely in need.” (p. 51)

So Pope Benedict too, it seems, is a conservative whose instincts tell him not to destroy, but to amend society, building on the best of what he have. Furthermore, Scruton has provided just the template for a way forward towards a society that is in accord with what Benedict advises. It is through the institutions of the nation state, the family, and religion with an attitude of tolerance of non-believers, that we can have a society bound by a common culture, one which if not perfect, is free enough and beautiful enough that we can at least feel “at home in the world.”

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