The Skeleton of a Philosophy: Conservatism, by Roger Scruton (Book Review)
With perhaps the exception of Edmund Burke, no figure towers higher in conservative philosophy than Professor Sir Roger Scruton; since the late-1970s he has written tirelessly on a broad range of issues, including aesthetics, art, music, poetry, sex, love, Hegel, Kent, beauty and, most significantly, conservatism. His own bibliography is a lengthy enough reading list for an introduction to conservatism – with texts like The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), A Political Philosophy (2006), The Uses of Pessimism (2010), How to be a Conservative (2014), England: An Elegy (2001), and The Philosopher on Dover Beach (1990). Now, with Conservatism (2017), Scruton aims to take the bare bones of the philosophy and lay them out in an anatomical display for us to clearly see – and, despite some errors, broadly succeeds.
The book is enticingly small, coming in at just 149 pages, and would make for an afternoon’s reading (or a night-before-a-deadline’s reading, for those undergraduates amongst us). Scruton aims to trace the lineage of conservative thinking – which he ultimately defines as a philosophy of “love of the real” – from its birth in early-Enlightenment Europe, specifically Britain, France and Germany, by examining briefly those thinkers who have helped define what it is (and what it is not) conservatism defends. Scruton neatly brackets off periods of change in European – and later, American – culture that helped shape the philosophy, yet does so without making hard those boundaries; he discusses, for example, the significance of Adam Smith’s late-eighteenth century thinking before turning, in the next chapter, to the literary contributions of Dr Samuel Johnson.
The book has its problems; in an attempt to include thinkers in the conservative pantheon, Scruton brushes over small but significant details make their inclusion tenuous. For example, taking Hobbes as a starting point in a discussion on sovereignty, Scruton rightly notes the beginning of a movement away from divinity and towards secular rule, yet ignores the difference between Hobbes’s one-stage (individuals create the sovereign State) and Locke’s two-stage (individuals create sovereign society, society legitimises the State) theories of sovereignty. Similarly, though Scruton is heavily influenced by Hegel’s metaphysics, in including him amongst conservative thinkers he readily glosses over the importance Hegel gave to the changing Zeitgeist and its origins in politico-economic structures.
By and large, this book is a fantastic introduction to the philosophy of conservatism – but it is only an introduction. Scruton makes great use of a broad and rich literature to trace the reactions and sentiments of “conservative” thinkers, both in and out of politics (I have to commend him on his ability to discuss cultural and philosophical conservatism alongside political conservatism without blurring the boundary too much), but in doing so occasionally includes thinkers who would be uncomfortable amongst the others. Still, I strongly recommend this book as an introductory text to conservatism, and, given that that is the stated aim of the text, it is safe to call this one a success.
Photo owned by the Mallard.