scruton-modern-culture

Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture could serve as an excellent entryway into Scruton’s body of work. It is frequently demanding on the reader, in regards to the insane amount of material (artistic, philosophical, political) that Scruton references. And in regards to this, he too often assumes a basic familiarity from the reader. But even with these hurdles, this is a superb primer on modern culture, answering the broad question, “Why do we behave and believe, in the way we do, today?” By the way, the British title, image above, is Modern Culture and published by Continuum.

I initially considered providing some excerpts from his discussion of fantasy versus imagination, which covers three chapters in a bewildering and exhilarating discussion (ch. 6, “Fantasy, Imagination and the Salesman”; ch. 7, “Modernism”; ch. 8, “Avant-garde and Kitsch”). The material on T. S. Eliot is alone worth the purchase of the book. But there is too much in these chapters for a blog post. So, I have elected instead to provide excerpts from chapter 11, “Idle Hands.”

In this chapter, Scruton aims to trace the origins of the “intellectual” and their preoccupation with “power.” Some of this presupposes material from the prior chapters, but I think you will find it interesting as it stands. We shall go from Russian Orthodoxy to Foucault.

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…The Romantic poet, the ‘man of feeling’, and the hermit had all been extolled and ridiculed, with Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock effectively putting the lid on their pretensions. Thereafter, thinking and feeling re-assumed their old functions in social life: they were useful, provided you did not notice them. The very idea that someone should draw attention to his intellect and emotions, and regard them as a qualification for overthrowing the established civil order, was anathema to the ordinary English person.

But it was at this very moment that the Russian concept of the ‘intelligentsia’ was first emerging: the concept of a class of people, distinguished by their habit of reflection, and entitled thereby to a greater say in human affairs than had been granted hitherto. …

The attitude led in Russia to a calamity the effects of which will be always with us. And it is worth raising the question why such a view of the intellectual life should have emerged in Russia, and why it should have had an impact there quite out of proportion to its impact in the West. Part of the answer is to be found in the nature of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the ‘exit’ from society which it has provided to men who are that way inclined. Those who turn their back on day-to-day life could acquire an enhanced social status as priest or monk, with an authority passed down to them from God himself. Every society needs those people — usually men — who wish to exchange the burden of reproduction for the grace of spiritual leadership; and one function of the priesthood is to impose upon them the discipline necessary to their task, and to ensure that, having made this choice, they contribute to social stability, rather than undermining it. The Russian Orthodox Church abounds in escape routes for men, and with honours and privileges which will reward their loyalty. Take away faith, however, and those privileges are no longer consoling. It is then that the dreamer becomes dangerous. Unable to enter society, and without the vision of another world that would prompt him to accept the imperfections of this one, he nurses an unstaunchable wound of resentment. His ‘right divine to govern wrong’ goes unrecognised, by a world that gives more credit to material than intellectual power. At the same time, he instinctively identifies with the poor, the oppressed, the misfits — those at the bottom of society, who are the living proof of its injustice. He turns against religion with the rage of a disappointed lover, and refuses to recognise the virtue of any earthly compromise. There arises the peculiar frame of mind of the exalted nihilist — a posture brilliantly described by Turgenev and Conrad, and exemplified in virtually all the characters who instigated the Bolshevik coup d’etat.

Nihilism is not peculiar to the Russian Orthodox tradition, nor did it occur for the first time in nineteenth-century Russia. The Jacobins were pioneers of nihilism, and in the person of Saint-Just is concentrated all the senseless venom of the modern revolutionary. Nevertheless, the Orthodox tradition paved the way for the intelligentsia, by offering ‘exit’ signs on the periphery of ordinary society, and inviting the thoughtful, the sad and the disaffected to pass through them to a higher social status. Once faith had vanished, this higher status could be achieved only by threatening the foundations of society, and seizing real temporal power from those who had supposedly usurped it.

The gurus of the sixties are of great intellectual and spiritual interest. But none more than Michel Foucault, who re-created the agenda of the intellectual, and up-dated the Marxist critique of the ‘bourgeois’ order so as to make it serviceable to the children of the bourgeoisie as they manned their toy barricades. Foucault’s philosophy is conceived as an assault on ‘power’, and a proof that power is monopolised by the bourgeoisie. All social ‘discourse’, for Foucault, is the voice of power. The discourse of the opponent of power, of the one who has glimpsed the secret ways of freedom, is therefore silenced or confined: it is the unspoken and unspeakable language of those incarcerated in the prison and the clinic. Bourgeois domination is inscribed in the tissue of society, like a genetic code; and this fact justifies every variety of rebellion, while defining a singular role for the intellectual, as the anatomist of power and the priest of liberation.

Kant’s description of Enlightenment, as the end of man’s minority, is true; not because man grew up, but because the distinction between the adolescent and the adult state began, with Enlightenment, to fade. For two hundred years, in the midst of unprecedented social and economic change, people tried to hold on to the idea of marriage, to the rites of passage that impress upon youth the knowledge of its imperfection, and to the sexual and social discipline that would guarantee moral and political order in the face of deepening scepticism and romantic transgression, or ought to mean, by ‘bourgeois’ society. Thanks to the bourgeoisie, the show went on. Marriage, the family and high culture preserved the ethical life, in the midst of a political emancipation which — by promising the impossible — threatened the normal forms of social order.

…The freedom extolled by Foucault is an unreal freedom, a fantasy which is at war with serious moral choice. Hence his need to desacralise bourgeois culture, and to dismiss as an illusion the real but tempered freedom which bourgeois society has achieved. Bourgeois freedom is the outcome of historical compromise. In place of this compromise Foucault invokes a ‘liberation’ which will be absolute, since the Other plays no part in offering and securing it.

Foucault said to one of his sycophants: ‘I believe that anything can be deduced from the general phenomenon of the domination of the bourgeois class.’ [Power/Knowledge, p. 100] It would be truer to say that he believed that the general thesis of the domination of the bourgeois class could be deduced from anything. For having decided, on the authority of the Communist Manifesto, that the bourgeois class has been dominant since the summer of 1789, Foucault deduced that all power subsequently embodied in the social order has been exercised by that class in its interests. Hence there is nothing sacred or inviolable in the existing order, nothing that justifies our veneration or stands beyond the reach of the ubiquitous salesman.

This ‘unmasking’ of power through critical analysis went hand in hand with a particular conception of power. Foucault’s ‘capillary’ form of power moves in mysterious ways, and almost emancipates itself, in Foucault’s more lyrical pages, from the pursuit of any goal. But the Nietzschean elegy to power did not appeal to Foucualt’s principal disciples, who saw the bourgeois polis as locked in the grip of a purely instrumental power: the domination of one thing over another, the power to achieve one’s goals by the use of another’s energy. Such power is linked to strength, strategy, cunning and calculation. Its principal instance is the power of the master to compel his slave — and there is working in the intellectual background that wonderful philosophical parable of Hegel’s, which shows instrumental power as necessary (though in time superseded) moment in every human relationship. [The ‘master and slave’ argument occurs in The Phenomenology of Spirit, IV.A.3. The direct influence on Foucault, however, is Sartre, specifically the Sartre of Saint Genetcomedien et martyr, Paris 1952]

The soixante-huitards believed that all power is of this kind. But that is not so. There are powers which cannot be used to further our goals, but which on the contrary provide our goals and limit them: such are the powers contained in a genuine culture — the redemptive powers of love and judgement. To be subject to these powers is not to be enslaved, but on the contrary to realise a part of human freedom. It is to rise above the realm of means, into the kingdom of ends — into the ideal world which is made actual by our aspiration. …If the only end is power, then ends becomes means: the Kantian ‘end-in-itself’ is nothing but a more subtle means to domination. Hence the attack on bourgeois society cannot stop short of an attack on aesthetic value, and on the high culture which, by giving aesthetic form to our anxieties, also reconciles us to them. [The principal debunkers of the aesthetic, as a part of ‘bourgeois ideology’ are two: Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction, and Terry Eagleton, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic.]

[pp. 123-32]

Alright, I will have to stop there. The bracketed information is the footnotes. The missing paragraphs, indicated by the ellipses, are important as well, but I tried to keep this as trim as possible. As you can see, Scruton is attempting to undermine the basic assumptions that inform the academy and provide the intelligentsia with its moral pretext. Even if you disagree, it is an important contribution.

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Rousseau told us that we are “born free,” arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the ’60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.

Roger Scruton, “The Good of Government” (First Things, June 2014)

Scruton on Foucault

June 5, 2014

Scruton

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For Scruton, The Order of Things “is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the discourses of power” to be condemned as just further forms of oppression. A work not of philosophy but of rhetoric, “its goal is subversion, not truth”, and it perpetrates “the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies—that ‘truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class which profits from its propagation”. This is a core conception of the cultural relativism that is now a taken-for-granted premise of academic discourse, while Foucault’s “vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel”, as Scruton laments.

Mervyn Bendle, “The Philosophy of Roger Scruton”

This is a delightful and wide-ranging discussion with Roger Scruton on the concept of human rights, tolerance, art/aesthetics, gender theory, and more:

Scruton is the foremost public intellectual within the Burkean school of conservatism. I have previously linked his documentary on art for the BBC, as well as Edward Feser’s summary of Scruton’s definition of sentimentality.

Also, you can watch Terry Eagleton in conversation with Roger Scruton. Needless to say, I am a bit incredulous about Eagleton’s rosy picture of leftist cultural values, but he’s an articulate defender of his cause, which has long won.

Take an hour out of your day and watch Roger Scruton explain the value of art, beginning with an engrossing display of 20th century art as rebellion against form:

For more on Scruton’s work on aesthetics:

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

The Aesthetics of Architecture

Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation

Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation

His latest book is the publication of the Gifford Lectures from 2010 at St. Andrews.