“Almost all that we know of law, institutions and religion, of art and morality, owes its existence to ‘civil society’…. With the evaporation of the mythologised ‘class struggle’ we can see that the town and its people have a unity and a universality that no temporary antagonism has been able to destroy. It is this unity and this universality that we mean, or ought to mean, by ‘culture’.”—Roger Scruton, Untimely Tracts
British writer and philosopher Roger Scruton is known to many for his best-selling An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. I’ve read selections of his Philospher on Dover Beach and am now strolling through Untimely Tracts, a collection of essays for the London Times (1983-86). While some of the items are dated, like those referring to the Warsaw Pact and the Falklands War, most have weathered admirably. That is because Scruton is a reflective conservative.
Ironically when Scruton’s Untimely Tracts came out, I was miles away from his understanding of polity. My college years were utopian in outlook. Perhaps my blindness was mitigated by the fact that I was largely reacting against “mainstream conservatism”—the unthinking, vote-getting frat party which Scruton criticizes as much as the decadence of the left.
Like many young men with rebellious pretensions, I denounced “middle class convention” (and thus pledged myself to another sort of conformism). Scruton, however, defends what seems indefensible both to the mobs on the left and the marginal elitists on the far-right. He upholds the institution of bourgeois culture.
[The] ‘bourgeois’ is none other than the city dweller, the agent of commerce and social interaction, the maker of laws and the architect of culture. Civilisation is but another name for the… organism which was born in the city states of the ancient world and which has survived, despite the vigilant animosity of the snob and the underdog, into our own distempered times.
Scruton is not advocating that mediocrity which has become synonymous with the “middle class.” Yet such stereotypes are generally fostered by perpetual adolescents who claim a hypocritical need for “authenticity.” Their rebellion is an excuse to dodge such “middle class” value as responsibility, courtesy and patience.
The bourgeois institutions which have contributed to civilization are private property and free association. Middle class initiative is opposed to the reign of the academic “professional” and the bureaucrat. Along these lines Scruton makes some apt comparisons between the truly spontaneous and natural expressions in art and music fostered by bourgeois culture in England, and those bizarre expressions forced upon us by the arrogant cognoscenti. Of course the middle class has its vices, but then so do other classes. The answer is not the elimination of social structures and distinctions. Scruton notes with appropriate irony that most enemies of the “bourgeoisie” were not proletarians, but were born and bred in the middle class.
Scruton’s conservatism is “middle class” in the best sense of the term. He is like John Henry Newman or Ronald Knox in evincing a typically British sort of disinterested ardor. One may disagree with him, but he is polite enough to let you disagree. On the whole, I find Scruton’s approach a refreshing alternative to both the atavistic and the fiscally obsessed conservatives.