It is not clear how Roger Scruton can be described as a heretic except as a self-conceit. His 1980 book “The Meaning of Conservatism” may have blighted his academic career, as he famously claimed, but many of his views are now in season. And in this collection of essays he tilts furiously at a “left-liberal establishment” which is no longer visible to the naked eye but, nevertheless, is the villain of virtually every piece.
Scruton is a philosopher specialising in aesthetics, but he is also a social commentator beloved by The Spectator. In the first essay collected here, “Faking It”, he bemoans the decline of originality in art and its replacement by “the fake” which has “artists posing as the originators of astonishing breakthroughs, the critics posing as the penetrating judges of the true avant-garde.” Duchamp’s urinal – stolen as well as faked according to some – is a paradigm for modern artists. Thus, sharks get pickled, crucifixes are submerged in urine and the Turner Prize consists of objects and events that aren’t art until critics designate them as such. Artistry, according to Scruton, must possess beauty form and redemption and he provides a handy list of the anointed – David Inshaw, James MacMillan, Ruth Patel and others. The essay introduces a theme that recurs throughout the collection: the world is divisible into the enlightened and those who just don’t get it. If you admire installation or video-art you have either been hoodwinked by liberal-lefties or you are a fool.
In “Loving Animals” the subject seems entirely different but the general conclusion is the same. Scruton reveals that he lives on a farm and that he once loved a horse called Barney, as Alexander the Great did Bucephalus. Sadly, Barney “died beneath me while hunting”. This occasions a short treatise on correct ways to love an animal. Scruton has particular issues with dogs and cats when they enter his natural kingdom; the first chasers of things, the second killers. But his real target is their owners who he sneeringly dismisses as “incomers”. Their pets upset the delicate ecological balance which he and his farmer-neighbours have been building. His analysis does not include himself – clearly an incomer at some point. Nor does it say how chasing around on Barney contributed to the natural scheme of things.
Separating the wheat from the chaff sometimes leads Scruton to the edge of absurdity. Here, for instance, is his definition of a slum from his essay “Building to Last”: “By ‘slums’ was meant the harmonious classical streets of affordable houses, seeded with local industries, corner shops, schools and places of worship, which had made it possible for real communities to flourish in the centre of our town.” This is not a definition of a slum easily recognized by those who lived in one. But Scruton’s plan is to eviscerate the people who replaced these harmonious slums with high rise blocks in open parkland and, again, he attaches a handy list of modernist, lefty villains. Salvation is found in the work of Léon Krier who planned the new town of Poundbury by Dorchester at the request of the Prince of Wales. In Krier’s “polycentric settlement” people live, work and play next to other urban centres and, though Scruton doesn’t say so, adopt the principles of the mythical harmonious slum for the actual comfort of the well-to-do. Poundbury appears in two of the essays along with an embarrassing paean to Krier who has “twinkling eyes” and unrolls his drawings like “a father gently lifting his new-born baby from the cradle”.
By now Scruton’s insistent, righteous voice has become tiresome. Many of the essays are finely wrought and pleasing in their philosophical meanderings. But they also arc predictably from proposition through blame to conclusion. It’s no surprise, for instance, that he’s not a fan of the younger generation – at least that part of it that dances to “DJ Music” which is compared unfavourably with the communal dancing of ancient Greece. Scruton constructs a merry dance of his own piggybacking on Schiller, Kant and Heidegger to conclude that the replacement of communal dance with the sexualised and the impersonal is associated with various forms of abuse and a loss of self-love.
Facebook is not necessarily the preserved of the young, but in “Hiding behind the Screen” he compares traditional ideas of friendship to Facebook friends even though the word “friend” was co-opted in the latter case. And there’s a dreary inevitability about the final essay “Defending the West” which posits Western values against those of radical Islam while using Islamist and Islam almost interchangeably. This argument is common currency these days though often presented with less sophistication than here. It’s a strange place to find a heretic.