Costly Confessions

Review: Roger Scruton, ‘The Confessions of a Heretic’

Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton / AP

Art critics, like Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic, know the price of everything and the value of nothing, Roger Scruton says in an essay about kitsch that begins his latest book, Confessions of a Heretic. Today critics praise modern art filled with so much that "tells you how nice you are: it offers easy feelings on the cheap."

Although early modernists such as Eliot and Pound sincerely attempted to make room for the human spirit in modern life through discipline and sacrifice, according to Scruton, the hard task of sustaining that tradition "proved less attractive than the cheap ways of rejecting it." Later modernists rejected that costly tradition in favor of a different, century old one of ugly and effortless clichés. Now it is easy to make, sell, and display the objects of the artist, critic, and audience.

Scruton writes that many people today, including his fellow philosophers, favor affordable dogmas that require little thought, instead of the more arduous and costly task of conservatism. Needless to say, this stance has not ingratiated Scruton to some. His new anthology is titled Confessions of a Heretic because the essays in it "reveal aspects of my thinking which, if I am to believe my critics, ought to have been kept to myself." The essays share the overall theme that Westerners increasingly act like Wilde’s cynic: We value good feelings but do not value the difficult means of sustaining our inheritance.

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Just as the world of modern art consists of a community of fakes, many modern relationships consist of what Scruton defines as "substitutes for themselves." Virtual reality has replaced face-to-face interaction, with faces hidden behind digital screens. We shelter ourselves in virtual reality out of timidity. Face-to-face interaction entails risk and the possibility of losing face. More intimately, lovers give up total control over their contact. They take risks because they become accountable to each other face to face. These risks can be avoided with a click of the mouse.

Modern dance is another example of accountability avoidance. Traditional forms of dancing such as the Scottish reel required a certain "withness" between dance partners. One danced with one’s partner, not at them. Dancing today, which deemphasizes rhythm, live music, and standard moves, loses the difficult aspect of partnership that typifies a larger vulgarity. "The decay of manners that we have seen in recent times is to a large extent a result of the loss of withness and the rise of atness in its stead," Scruton writes. Withness is hard but valuable. Atness is easy and cheap.

From dance to wind turbines and architecture, Scruton proves to be an iconoclast concerned with beauty and dignity in society and the natural world. As a farmer, Scruton criticizes windmills for externalizing their ugliness onto the countryside. Wind farms are a rural extension of the urban planning mindset that plants ugly alien projects in traditional settings, upsetting the normal social ecosystem of human beings. This mindset sacrifices natural beauty and social harmony in order to manage us from the top down.

For Scruton, respect for vernacular architecture has been upended in the design world by singular "geniuses" who make buildings that resemble kitchen utensils rather than places for human settlement. But these singular geniuses do not build their structures in a vacuum, but impose them ruthlessly on fully formed communities.

Good architecture and the means of preserving it are also a root of good government. Responsible architecture resists modern plans to sever the living from their heritage and abolish beauty in cities. Beautiful settlements, such as the traditional urbanism of Léon Krier’s Poundbury, develop within local constraints that ensure human beings actually want to live there. These communities, rooted in a love of home and beauty, are conservative in impulse. Maintaining them is difficult, but the choice to do so is always there.

The choice is ultimately between either rooting society in the Western tradition or being rootless and susceptible to the West’s internal and external enemies—as continental Europe is finding out. Scruton illustrates the choice in architecture: "Where God is at home, so too are we; the real meaning of the modernist forms is that there is no God, that meaning has fled from the world, and that Big Brother is now in charge."

Scruton is a lonely critic, susceptible to the charge that he is tilting at literal windmills. Modernity, a critic might say, is at his doorstep now. Like Eliot in "The Waste Land," Scruton seeks consolation in the knowledge that "we live at the end of things, and yet can find cause to rejoice in the fact that we know this, and know what it means."

Scruton’s conservative heresies have cost him, especially in the academy. But he has managed to garner a small following as the meaning of conservatism is contested by vulgarity. He knows the value of his heresy, and has paid the price cheerfully.