How to be a conservative: a conversation with Roger Scruton by Jonathan Derbyshire
Conservatism, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote, is not a creed so much as a “disposition,” a cast of mind rather than a set of beliefs. Roger Scruton echoes Oakeshott when he writes, in the preface to his new book “How To Be a Conservative” that the “conservative temperament is an acknowledged feature of human societies everywhere.” The conservative, in Scruton’s sense, asserts that “we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep,” and is sceptical of large-scale attempts to remake the world in the image of abstract ideals. “Good things,” Scruton writes (and among those good things he numbers “law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life”), “are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
I met Scruton in London recently to discuss some of the philosophical and political implications of this view.
JD: In the preface to the book, you say that there are two kinds of conservatism, “one metaphysical, the other empirical.” The metaphysical variety, you write, “resides in the belief in sacred things and the desire to defend them against desecration.” The empirical version, meanwhile, is a “reaction to the vast changes unleashed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.” You say you’re mostly preoccupied in this book with “down-to-earth matters.” I wonder, though, just how hard-and-fast that distinction is. It struck me that the empirical side of your conservatism is also underpinned by what might be call a metaphysics of personhood, a conception of the nature of the human person.
RS: That’s absolutely true. I think it’s what conservatism—my kind of conservatism, at least—shares with liberalism: an attempt to found things ultimately on a vision of what the human person is. Of course, it is the case that conservatism as I envisage it distances itself always from abstract conceptions and tries to find the concrete reality… the good in the present.
Related to this is the emphasis you place on what you call the “first-person plural,” a phrase that occurs several times in the book.
Yes. Ultimately, political order does not generate itself. For that reason, social contract theories are suspended in mid-air, so to speak. All political order presupposes a pre-political order, a sense that people belong together. And then, of course, they might seek a contract that embodies their togetherness. But the togetherness has to be there.
With Oakeshott’s remarks about conservatism as a “disposition” in mind, I was very struck by something you say about the tone of voice in which this book is written. You say: “The case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents.” What do you mean by that?
So much of modern political conservatism—and you see this in America, which has a quite articulate conservative movement compared with us—is phrased in elegiac terms. [It’s about] what we’ve lost—we’ve lost the traditional working-class family, the black family or whatever it might be. Now, all that is perfectly reasonable. But the most important question is what have we got, rather than what we’ve lost, and how do we keep it?