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An often deep, sometimes flawed, defense of traditional Western culture

A review of the late Roger Scruton’s Confession of a Heretic, a collection of twelve essays on topics including Facebook, democracy and law, loving animals, the environment, architecture, beauty, and art.

The late British philosopher Roger Scruton (1944-2020) was the author of numerous books, including the collection "Confessions of a Heretic" (Images: Pete Helme/Wikipedia and

Reading Roger Scruton (1944-2020) leaves one with the feeling that we are too often underserved by less erudite and more superficial writers nowadays. The collection of essays in Confessions of a Heretic provides learned, robust, and contrarian conservative arguments. Founder and editor of The Salisbury Review, Scruton was widely rejected by liberal academics as well as by some conservatives. After earning a doctorate at Cambridge in the philosophy of aesthetics under the tutelage of the well-known Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, Scruton spent his life addressing an eclectic range of topics, from wine to Wagner to issues of the day such as environmentalism. As Douglas Murray notes in the Introduction, what unites these diverse thoughts and topics was Scruton’s capacity to go below the surface of things. His erudition and references to foundational philosophical principles give his ideas a certain timelessness.

The essays come from both previously-published and unpublished writings of Scruton, who died on January 12, 2020. Topics include Facebook screen time, democracy and law, loving animals, the environment, architecture, beauty, and art. Much of this is applied philosophy in the sense that the teachings of the ancient Greeks, including metaphysics and the philosophy of beauty, are connected to current issues. Thus, Scruton tends to begin essays at an immediate or entry level, and slowly take the reader into more profound depths.

The author often considers the unchanging aspects of human nature. He shows how culture, religion, ideology, and philosophy play vital roles in human and social development. Depending on their quality, they either stunt the development of persons, families, and societies, or aid in their flourishing. One reason Scruton was so disliked by the left was that he saw Western civilization as succeeding at culture, religion, and philosophy, to the extent that humans could prosper and develop like never before. He is an apologist for the West and attacks the harmful ideologies that want to destroy it.

Scruton’s focus on aesthetics and metaphysics leads him to suggest unique and creative solutions that respect the person, local traditions, and the environment. His suggestions, implying a hierarchy, are unpalatable for liberals. Some cultures, or elements of culture, are better than others; some animals are capable of more individuality than others; some legal traditions provide humans with greater opportunities to live in freedom and justice than other such traditions.

Despite the greatness of the West, Scruton notes the lethargy and acedia that is now the norm. Since the Vietnam War ended, he observes, Westerners “have lost the appetite for foreign wars”; “lost confidence in their way of life”; and are “no longer sure what that way of life requires of them”. The West’s greatest foe, in other words, comes from within. The analysis of this enemy, from a range of perspectives, is one of the book’s highlights. He is not romantic or glib about the battles we face: Either we reassert our western way of life, or we will lose it.

Scruton argues that the West has succeeded more than any other civilization at allowing for the development, protection, and thriving of the person. We thrive when we have democratic, local solutions to our problems. Scruton is very much opposed to bureaucratically-inspired grand projects and the underlying ideologies that fuel them. He applies this to English common law, by first making a generic, widely-acknowledged observation: “law for us is a guarantee of our freedoms. It is not made by God but by man, following the instinct for justice that is inherent in the human condition.” He then takes this argument to a deeper level, moving from the law to the human element. The common law is “a bottom up system, which addresses the sovereign in the same tone of voice that it uses to address the citizen – namely, by insisting that justice, not power, will prevail.” Here he links common law to its founding principles, which are derived from Western values, particularly the virtues. What the virtues are is, unfortunately, often left undeveloped in these articles.

In the essay “Dying in Time”, Scruton does make some solid points about virtue, including Aristotle’s emphasis on developing good moral habits so that we have the moral fiber and resources to face unknown challenges for which we are otherwise unprepared. This is particularly timely advice for our technological age, when we cannot know or prepare for the next upheaval. In addressing old age, senility, and euthanasia, Scruton takes the seemingly eccentric perspective that we need to prepare for these problems by developing the virtues. He echoes the Christian view in seeing death as not only a part of life, but also as giving meaning to life. He strongly opposes trans-humanism and the goal to live forever, memorably castigating people who “exhibit a monstrous selfishness, in refusing to relinquish the planet to their successors, and choosing instead to burden the earth with their unappealing presence for all time.”

Unfortunately, it is at this point that Scruton himself deviates from the virtues – or at least from the Christian virtues – in apparently advocating euthanasia. He strongly questions whether individuals who have lost their personalities due to senility have a life worth living. While he inspires the reader by noting that “the value of life does not consist in its length but in its depth”, he seems to equate the value of life with having a personality, whatever that is, and being able to maintain relationships. Once these faculties are lost, there is no reason to respect life. Scruton is uncharacteristically shallow in this argument. The following seems to imply an openness to euthanasia: “Courage therefore is the sine qua non of any attempt to deal with the threat of senility – courage to face the truth, and to live fully in the face of it. With courage a person can go about living in another way – a way that will give maximum chance of dying with his faculties intact.” Such seemingly romantic, but facile, words are, for the Catholic, odious.

“Hiding behind the screens” starts off with the usual warnings about too much screen time. This appears dated in the age of Zoom classes, when everyone has become keenly aware of the deleterious effects of overusing our devices. Yet, as usual, Scruton delves much deeper, and turns an almost trite beginning into a discussion of the self and relationships. It is perhaps the most important essay in this collection for those curious about his concept of personhood.

Screen time establishes phony relationships because it allows us to avoid vulnerability and accountability. We can just turn off the connection at any time. This is contrary to the demands of relationship. Scruton then, surprisingly, cites Hegel in remarking on relationships and Facebook:

… the life of freedom and self-certainty can only be obtained through others. I become fully myself only in contexts which compel me to recognise that I am another in others’ eyes. I do not acquire my freedom and individuality and then, as it were, try them out in the world of human relations. It is only by entering that world, with its risks, conflicts and responsibilities, that I come to know myself as free, to enjoy my own perspective and individuality, and to become a fulfilled person among person.

Scruton’s analysis of environmental issues is, along with those on architecture and art, where he is most persuasive. He sees the environment as a conservative issue that has been appropriated by liberals because they can further their own nihilist agenda. However, he warns convincingly, the left will fail at addressing these issues because of its love for unmanageably enormous, top-down projects, which, he argues, always fail. He calls for local, bottom-up solutions, such as with garbage disposal. People will not be so willing to throw out plastic or other toxic things if the trash stays in their neighborhood. This subsidiarity has much in common with that advocated by such Catholic leaders as John Paul II.

Localism is also the key to solving urban planning and architectural woes. Scruton contends that the post-WWII period engaged in ugly and dehumanizing urban planning because it was carried out by “experts” who posed as intellectuals, when in fact they were tradition- and culture-hating nihilists. He notes the hypocrisy of these architects who, though responsible for ugly urban terrain, lived in classical buildings in traditional neighborhoods. This evokes another theme that crops up in Confessions of a Heretic: the elitists’ arrogant dislike of the middle class.

Overall, these essays are an apology, a defense, for the traditional Western way of life. Yet Scruton is not defensive or bitter; he sees the West as the most successful civilization in history, and laments its self-destruction. His own experience living on his farm, named Scrutopia, informs much of the practical, localist, human-centered solutions, though these fit with the eternal ideas of Western metaphysics. While seldom referring to God, Scruton sees Christianity as a force for good in the West. He implies that it furthered Western civilization in its harmonious relationship with ancient Greek thought. Confessions of a Heretic provides a template of how we as contrarians need to react to the detractors of the Church and the West: confidently and assertively, clearly recognizing the misinformed and even evil ideologies that drive and inform anti-Western leftism.

Confessions of a Heretic (Revised edition)
By Roger Scruton
Notting Hill, 2021
Hardcover, 187 pages

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About Brian Welter 12 Articles
Brian Welter has studied education, history, and theology and writes on these subjects for many publications including Studia gilsoniana. He teaches English in Taiwan.

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