According to Roger Scruton, traditions and attachments to place and home are precious as they give order and meaning to life. They fill a basic human need. Once destroyed, they cannot be brought back…
G.K. Chesterton famously wrote “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” What he meant, of course, is that travel awards us the chance of returning home with fresh eyes for its merits and a deeper appreciation thereof. It is of little surprise that this mental twister should emanate from Chesterton’s pen just as it is not surprising that it should be written by an Englishman, pampered by the rich history and bucolic beauty of his country. Yet such “home coming” took on a new form when twenty vacationers descended on Cirencester in Gloucestershire this past August to attend Scrutopia, a summer school hosted by Sir Roger Scruton. With the exception of one Englishman attending the course, the group of twenty, consisting of one Portuguese, one Polish, and two Norwegian participants and a diverse group of Americans, including me, came to discover a veritable “home” in a foreign place, a mental twist with a poetic crescendo.
Sir Roger Scruton has authored more than forty books on topics ranging from Kant and beauty to wine and hunting and is, no doubt, the contemporary philosopher of conservatism par excellence. During one week of lectures and animated discussions with plenty of good wine, Sir Roger gave us a tour de force of his opus and instructed us in the elements of true conservatism while inviting us to experience what it is that inspires him. Being housed at the Royal Agricultural Society, suffering through hard mattresses, bland food, and ghastly cold and rainy weather did not make for a resort experience, but the education we received and the gracious and warm hospitality of our mentor and his wife, Lady Sophie, was more than anyone could wish for. Besides the morning lectures, we were treated to daily excursions to surrounding historical sites and museums and were able to appreciate, first hand, the importance of “conserving” and of beauty in architecture, art, and landscape. And we learned, first hand, what his biographer, Mark Dooley, meant by “Sir Roger walks the talk.” The highlights of the week were visits to Sunday Hill Farm, the Scrutons’ family home. A walk through fields that included tutorials on hedge growing, then scones and tea, gave us a sense not only of life in the country, but of what this great philosopher means when he speaks of “attachment” and “home.” One evening, we were treated to a splendid concert of Beethoven and Dvorak held in Sir Roger’s very own library, then a scrumptious meal that included homemade sausages prepared and served by the Scrutons’ neighboring farmer. And there was excellent wine in abundance, of course!
The way of life and natural beauty we witnessed as visitors to the English countryside and the value of which we appreciated poses challenges to the American conservative. According to Sir Roger, traditions and attachments to place and home are precious as they give order and meaning to life. They fill a basic human need. Once destroyed, they cannot be brought back. The English countryside with its rolling hills, lush hedges, and vividly green pastures dotted by sheep and other livestock and ancient local traditions is a splendid reflection of the human endeavor of making a home in the world, a taming of and harmony with nature. Its cultural traditions, albeit under threat, attest to a community in harmony. Yet America is a country with only a few traditions and fleeting local attachments. Its landscapes, with its industrialized agriculture on the one hand and its sublime natural wilderness on the other, are no match for the bucolic and inviting landscape of Gloucestershire. “Home” in America carries a different sort of meaning.
America was founded on an ideal, not the concrete reality of a shared history or local attachment. It is, therefore, no wonder that the identification with abstract ideals continues to play such a crucial role in American society. The sentimental paintings of Thomas Kinkade, commonly dismissed as kitsch, are a case in point. They fill a deep need in the human psyche for serenity and harmony, which modern life fails to offer. Most importantly, religion and religious affiliation remain paramount in American society. While only fifty-one percent of Europeans in 2010 claimed to believe in God in 2010 (albeit with enormous fluctuations depending on the country) and church attendance is generally low or non-existent according to the 2010 Eurobarometer survey, almost eight in ten (seventy-nine percent) identified with a religion in the United States, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. In fact, fifty-six percent claimed membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque. According to the Pew Research Center, eighty-three percent of American adults believed in God in 2015, and attendance of religious services averaged fifty percent. Given the importance of religion in American life, it is not surprising that American political conservatives, with a preference for traditions and communal attachments, remain more religious than their more liberal counterparts, with eighty percent of Republicans being either “highly religious” or “moderately religious” according to the 2016 Gallup poll. Religious institutions function as arbiters of tradition and communal attachment in America. In fact, googling “community life” in America produces mostly Christian websites. Compared to Europe, politics in America is, therefore, infused with religious convictions turned ideology. At the same time, religious affiliations are in decline in America, and American conservatives would do well to ponder an alternative, more adaptable conservatism without losing sight of the importance of human attachments and cherished traditions. In fact, Sir Roger’s conservatism, articulated without the luxury of real geographical and historical attachments, might be the West’s best chance to protect those things we most dear.
Sir Roger’s philosophy is a treasure trove for the well-ordered life, covering sexual desire to architectural choices, without resorting to religious reasoning or non-reasoning. However, it is perhaps his views on beauty that best exemplify the type of conservative attitude that can offer a platform for a common conservative view. Accordingly, rational beings “strive to achieve order in their surroundings and to be at home in their common world” (Beauty, p. 81). Feeling “at home” in the world is a universal human longing. To him, a true conservative, in contrast to the reactionary, will not strive to make the world according to his preferences, but will adapt to the world without surrendering his values. This is a tall order that requires engagement with and civility towards those who hold different beliefs, but it is an attitude that is needed in a world torn apart by political ideologies, a way for rational beings to create a “home in their common world.” Perhaps there is a chance for a common language given that “the beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in our experience, and that our feelings for the one are constantly spilling over into the territory claimed by the other” (Beauty, p. 66). Not surprisingly, Sir Roger’s views on beauty resonated most with our group of Summer Scrutopians.
The quality of a teacher is best measured by how he is able to inspire and, thus, by the diversity of his students. Sir Roger has a global following, and participants in the 2017 Summer Scrutopia were expectedly unique. Among our group, we counted lawyers, a recent college graduate, a professor, a teacher, a human-rights expert, an ascetic, world-travelling retirees, a tech wiz, a “pirate,” a bull fighter, a “full-time mom,” a flower-child, a musician, a business magnate, a pastor, and various people with a mysterious past in service of their countries. Some adhered to a religious faith, others had none. Yet despite our diversity, we quickly developed the kind of bond that grows from sharing not only interests, but a deep curiosity about the meaning of things. We had come in an honest search for universal truths that emerge from human authenticity and humility. Not once was there political posturing, moral judgment, or contempt for those in opposition to the ideals so clearly articulated by way of laser-sharp Scrutopian reasoning. In fact, we felt as common seekers of a common understanding of what we share as human beings beyond the ideology of political conservatism. Kindness and warmth permeated our group. Rather than despair about the direction that Western society might be taking in opposition to the values being elucidated, we felt liberated to rejoice in the universal community of those who share our values and love the same things. “Home” came to mean: “It’s alright. You are not alone.” This is what we brought back with us, a sense of “home” in a community of like-minded “searchers.”
During the course, Sir Roger would often ask us “Are you happy?” Yes, Sir Roger, we are happy. Thank you!
This was published by The Imaginitative Conservative - Sept 2017.