Does conservatism aim to uphold or to transform society? Across the West, the political right is split. Some conservatives back a status quo of globalised economies and live-and-let-live societies. Others want to upend that open, international order by putting the nation first, socially and economically. There is, however, a third kind of conservatism, represented by two new short books. Its guiding idea is that political problems at root are spiritual. In different ways, Rod Dreher and Roger Scruton suggest that conservatism’s main task is to cure or abandon a sickened culture.
Looking back over the events of 2016, liberal-minded commentators are apt to sound a warning against “populism,” a disorder that they observe everywhere on the right of the political spectrum. Populists are politicians who appeal directly to the people when they should be consulting the political process, and who are prepared to set aside procedures and legal niceties when the tide of public opinion flows in their favor. Like Donald Trump, populists can win elections. Like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, they can disrupt the long-standing consensus of government. Or, like Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers in Britain, they can use the popular vote to overthrow all the expectations and predictions of the political class. But they have one thing in common, which is their preparedness to allow a voice to passions that are neither acknowledged nor mentioned in the course of normal politics. And for this reason, they are not democrats but demagogues—not politicians who guide and govern by appeal to arguments, but agitators who stir the unthinking feelings of the crowd.
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Perhaps the most famous paradox discovered by the Greek philosophers is that of ‘the liar’. A Cretan says that all Cretans are liars: if what he says is true, then it is false. More simply, consider: ‘This sentence is false.’ If it is true it is false, if false, true. The ancients took this paradox seriously, since if the concept of truth is inherently contradictory, as the paradox implies, then all discourse, all argument, all rational decision-making, takes place in a void. One ancient philosopher, Philetas of Cos, in his despair at finding a solution, committed suicide. More recently, the great logician Alfred Tarski used the paradox to argue that truth can be defined in a language only through a ‘meta-language’ with an outside vantage-point. In Tarski’s view ‘This sentence is false’ is not a possible sentence. But I have just written it!
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In a 10-minute conversation with The Bookmonger, John J Miller, Roger explains how his short volume differs from Edward O. Wilson’s influential book of the same name, whether human nature ever changes, and how science has the potential to dehumanize.
Philosophers and theologians in the Christian tradition have regarded human beings as distinguished from the other animals by the presence within them of a divine spark. This inner source of illumination, the soul, can never be grasped from outside, and is in some way detached from the natural order, maybe taking wing for some supernatural place when the body collapses and dies.
Recent advances in genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have all but killed off that idea. But they have raised the question of what to put in its place. For quite clearly, although we are animals, bound in the web of causality that joins us to the zoosphere, we are not just animals.
Can we create communities that are both prosperous and sustainable? And can we do this while retaining democratic procedures? These are huge questions and, like others who have addressed them, Roger Scruton is by no means convinced that he has a persuasive answer. But an answer is more likely to be found, he argues, in the legacy of conservative thinking, than by adopting the standpoint of the top-down plan.
Among the abundant luxuries available in our cities today, none is more richly pleasing to the addict or more cheaply obtained than culture. Take London. In the National Gallery you can stand – without paying a penny – before some of the most beautiful works of art ever created. In the Albert Hall, for a few pounds and a bit of queuing, you can listen during the season of Promenade concerts to the greatest orchestras from all over the world. At Covent Garden and the English National Opera you can attend, for a fraction of the real cost, the most extravagant productions of the operatic masterpieces, emerging with your senses so saturated that the champagne supper afterwards tastes of nothing.
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Environmentalism has all the hallmarks of a Left-wing cause: a class of victims (future generations), an enlightened vanguard which fights for them (the eco-warriors), powerful philistines who exploit them (the capitalists), and endless opportunities to express resentment against the successful, the wealthy and the West. The style too is Leftist: the environmentalist is young, dishevelled, socially disreputable, his mind focused on higher things; the opponent is dull, middle aged, smartly dressed and usually American. The cause is designed to recruit the intellectuals, with facts and theories carelessly bandied about, and activism encouraged. Environmentalism is something you join, and for many young people it has the quasi-redemptive and identity-bestowing character of the 20th-century revolutions.
HOW MANY WRITERS, EDUCATORS, AND OPINION FORMERS, urgently wishing to convey the thoughts and feelings that inspire them, have found themselves confronted with the cry “that’s not relevant?” In the world of mass communication today, when people are marshaled into flocks by social media, intrusions of the unusual, the unsanctioned, and the merely meaningful are increasingly resented if they come from outside the group. And this group mentality has invaded the world of education in ways that threaten the young.
Fools Frauds and Firebrands and The Ring of Truth have both been selected in The Guardian Best Books of 2016. In late November, in part one, John Banville chose Fools Frauds and Firebrands as one of his three favourites this year. More recently in part two, Salley Vickers calls The Ring of Truth a terrific book.
- What's the point of education? - Spectator Life Nov 16
- 'The Trump Card' BBC Radio 4 13 Nov 16
- National borders are the only sure guardians of democracy. The EU ignores them at its peril. The Telegraph - Nov 16
- Free Speech and Universities
- Clown Prince of the Revolution - City Journal 29 Sept 2016
- Labour of the negative - Spectator Life 22nd Sept 2016
- Alicja met Roger Scruton
- The Spectator Dairy, 27 Aug 16
- 'Democracy after Brexit'- BBC Radio 4 - July 2016
- Sir Roger - So Right