What have these three Revolutions: The English Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution that ended in 1783, and the French Revolution 1789, in common? They all sprang a phenomenon and she is called conservatism. Sir Roger Scruton’s new book on ‘Conservatism: Ideas in Profile’ is a 176-page treat for anyone who is interested in ideas. The book is published by Profile Books for the rather reasonable some of £8.99. ‘Conservatism: Ideas in Profile’ is a page turner. I hung on every syllable, every word, every oxford comma, and every semicolon (isn’t the semicolon the femme fatal of the punctuation world?).
The blue and white cover of this book is pleasing to the eye, and when I turned to the inside sleeve, Sir Roger is described as ‘the man who, more than any other, has defined what conservatism is’. Indeed, this is quite right since perhaps Edmund Burke. Burke who quite rightly has a prominent place in the book is seen as the founder of modern day conservatism. Burke bestowed upon us a frosted glass window pane through which we peer at conservatism. ‘Conservatism: Ideas in Profile’ is a further defrosting of this window, meaning we have a clearer view of what is meant by the term conservatism. Sir Roger argues conservatism is what it says on the tin, as it where: the attempt to conserve the community that we have. Of course, not everything, as Burke put it: ‘we must reform in order to conserve’. What should be conserved are all matters that ensure our community’s long-term survival, and every reform should lead the waters of novelty into the canals of custom.
Sir Roger explores a plethora of conservative thinkers and the thoughts of great people such as Thomas Hobbes, Michael Oakeshott, Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Salisbury, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher among others.
The book is arranged over six delightful chapters starting with 'Pre-History' and concluding with 'Conservatism Now'. Furthermore, there are chapters on 'The Birth of Philosophical Conservatism', 'Cultural Conservatism', the ‘Impact of Socialism' and 'Conservatism in France and Germany'. The chapter on Conservatism in France and Germany (which also includes the Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset) is a great strength of this book. The inclusion of great German thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, and the French Joseph de Maistre, is a demonstration of conservatism’s wider and deeper intellectual roots beyond the anglosphere.
In the Pre-History chapter, Sir Roger reminds us that modern conservatism is a product of the Enlightenment, even though it draws on thinkers of many epochs including the Antiquity. It is also the heir (not to Blair) to a philosophical legacy that is at least as old as the Greeks, such as Aristotle (384-322 BC). In his book the Politics, Aristotle defends a constitutional government in terms that are influential among conservative thinkers today, of course, with the adaptation to the nation-state rather than the city-state. Furthermore, Richard Hooker (1554–1600) is marked out as a voice of British conservatism. In his book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he puts forth a conservative view of a compromise between the church and the state.
Additionally, the inclusion of liberal thinkers in the book, such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke enhances our understanding of where liberalism and conservatism are bedfellows and where they are not. I rather liked this passage: ‘Liberals naturally rebel, conservatives naturally obey’. There is a lot in Kant’s thought that is desirable for conservatives, for example treating people as an end in themselves and not a mere mean, and Kant’s emphasis on duty are indeed appealing to the conservative. Unfortunately, Kant’s moral and political philosophy makes no special place for customs, traditions, for the family unit, or for the Burkean ‘little platoons’, which conservatives hold dear.
Moreover, the inclusion of liberal thinkers helps to disentangle some of the confusion around conservatism. Perhaps this confusion has been exacerbated in Britain by the union of the British Conservative Party with the Liberal Unionists in May 1912 and the propensity by some to equate the party with the philosophy. Additionally, perhaps it is further exacerbated by the American propensity to equate libertarianism with conservatism or at the very least to use the terms interchangeably. Conservatism: Ideas in Profile does assist in untangling this knot of confusion.
I would suggest that the most interesting chapter is on cultural conservatism, which focuses on the anxieties over the loss of religious roots in society, the worrisome dehumanising effect of the Industrial Revolution, and the consequential damage that was being inflicted upon the settled way of life. In this chapter, Sir Roger explores the thoughts of Coleridge, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and T. S. Eliot among others. These thinkers shared a revulsion towards the new forms of so-called ‘progressive’ opinion, which they found disconcerting. Scruton also explores the worry expressed by the aforenoted thinkers regarding ‘progressive’ opinions’ propensity to treat questions of morality and law as mathematical puzzles to be solved, which of course they are not.
The book comes to its conclusion, its cessation, its climax, on a chapter called 'Conservatism Now'. In this chapter, Sir Roger suggests that the most recent attempts to define conservatism has been to define it as the champion of Western civilisation against its enemies. These two main enemies are: political correctness and religious extremism, especially the militant Islamism promoted by the Wahhabi–Salafi sects.
If you have built your own piece of Scrutopia on your bookshelves or if there is a 176-page Scruton shaped hole on your bookshelves and it requires filling: Conservatism: Ideas in Profile is just the ticket.