On Roger Scruton: Can well-cultured atheists save our civilization?
September 8, 2016, (LifeSiteNews) — British philosopher Roger Scruton has gained legendary status among conservatives and liberals alike for both his massive intellect and the unusual direction of his political leanings. As one of the few conservatives in an ocean of left-wing academics, he has become the flag-waving Robinson Crusoe of Western civilization. In Culture Counts (Encounter Books, 2007), Scruton takes it upon himself to explain why the cultural inheritance of the Western world is a treasure of immense importance, and one that must be passed down to younger generations.
Scruton’s conclusion used to be so obvious as to require no explanations. Today, his attempt to prove the importance of works by ‘old dead white men’ is a herculean task with precarious chances of success. Most universities have become masterful trick artists, charging parents more than the average household earns in a year and then producing, in a surprise sleight-of-hand students who prefer feminist literature to Shakespeare, Jay-Z to Mozart, and a urinal to the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
The cause of this confusion, Scruton explains, is the neo-Marxist philosophy of French philosopher Michel Foucault, a modern-day Aristotle in terms of his influence throughout the humanities. Foucault is no longer alive: he died of AIDS in 1984. But his ideas are being taught on campuses across the globe, and are continuing to hoodwink generations of students into repudiating Western classical music, literature, art, architecture and even philosophy as the rotten fruit of a sexist, racist, elitist, capitalist and oppressively Judeo-Christian heritage.
Foucault didn’t believe in truth, only in power. His creed could be summed up as “you have your truth and I have mine,” and “the truth is whatever the winner says it is.” Scruton calls this system the “cult of darkness”, and the name seems very appropriate. In Foucault’s relativist world, people never really address “the truth or reasonableness of another’s opinion.” Instead, students are trained to look behind the arguments. They focus on the background, or social context, of the person who is speaking. As Scruton explains, “The question ceases to be ‘what are you saying?’ and becomes, instead, ‘where are you speaking from?’” This personal background becomes far more important than the argument being made, because according to Foucault, even logical reasoning itself is suspect and can be used as a tool of oppression.
So let’s apply his own method and see where Foucault was speaking from. Foucault was an openly gay man who engaged in promiscuous sexual encounters and drug use. Perhaps not surprisingly, he considered the heterosexual norms of Western culture outdated and tyrannical. For a man who didn’t believe in objective truth, Foucault spent a surprising amount of time and energy trying to philosophically discredit and destroy both traditional marriage and monogamy, devoting a three-volume History of Sexuality to this objective. Foucault was also, incidentally, “[o]bsessed with the idea of self-mutilation and suicide,” and praised suicide in his later works.
Parents of teenagers be warned: Foucault is the father and prophet of today’s college campuses, where professors are hired specifically because they “disparage the old values, old hierarchies and old forms of social order” and reject the traditional curriculum which contained the highest achievements of Western culture. Scruton writes in another of his books that Foucault’s “vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it.”
And there, very simply, Scruton reveals the two weapons which he believes are effective against the Foucaultian cult of darkness: culture and religion. Both of these, Scruton believes, pass on essential knowledge about the meaning of life and train our ability to make proper judgments. Religion is the more primary of the two, because culture is built from religion. But importantly, Scruton believes that culture “can be passed on and enhanced, even when the religion that first engendered it has died.”
Indeed, Scruton appears to believe that our best bet at defeating Foucault’s nihilism is to staunchly pass on our traditional Western culture despite the fact that our Christian religion is in its death throes. “Christianity has more the character of an intimate memory than a conquering gospel,” writes Scruton, who in fact traces the appeal of Foucault directly to the “decline in religious faith”, especially among the elite and intellectuals.
It may be that Scruton wishes for a religious revival of the West, and he does note at one point that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body offers a ray of hope. But his task is not to rally for a return to fervent Christianity. Rather, he seeks to convince us that even without religion, we can still stop Western society from being “swept from the face of the earth” by barbarism if we only hang on to our culture. “Western culture ... is in fact ... a sword wielded in defense of the ‘common man’ and his values by our guardian angel, who is knowledge.”
The majority of Culture Counts is devoted to explanations of why and how cultural literacy develops our understanding and appreciation of truth, beauty, and morality. Scruton addresses different cultural pursuits in turn, and dwells especially on music, which is his own favorite interest. “Western music is not only the highest achievement of our culture, but also the measure of its health in any period.” As such, Scruton goes into some detail about modern composers and the importance of developing a “cultivated ear,” and gives a proper spanking to pop music as a “sterile force, from which nothing proceeds apart from a habit of distraction.”
Given the dismal state of our cultural decay, it is impressive that Scruton remains hopeful. He expects a revival of beauty in classical music: “I remain convinced that the return to melody, harmony and counterpoint is now irreversible, and that the bleak noise-factories of the postmodern orchestra will soon be a thing of the past.” Scruton also gives uplifting examples of a return to tradition and beauty in art, literature, and architecture.
These examples, which are the grand finale of Scruton’s defense of culture, are supposed to infuse us with optimism for the future. But I admit, my own confidence in the survival of Western culture was left rather deflated after finishing the book.
I do not have the gigantic brain of Roger Scruton, so perhaps I am missing something. But above all, I was not convinced by his assertion that a post-Christian Western culture can really hang on to its inheritance and form an effective shield against Foucault. Can Bach, Rembrandt and Tolstoy really be as effective as Jesus at holding back the “culture of repudiation?” They might hold it back momentarily, but not for the long term. I don’t believe that atheists, even highly cultured ones, can sustain a unified worldview and resist the allure of tempting and popular trends.
One case in point leaps out for me. Scruton names the Czech writers Milos Kundera, Vaclav Havel and Ivan Klima as testimony to the “strength of this philosophical inheritance” of Western culture “which for them did not depend upon religion, but purely on the ideal of Western civilization and that ‘care of the soul’ which Plato identified as the task of the polis.”
Frankly, I am shocked at these examples. I find it difficult to see much hope in the writings of Ivan Klima, a notorious and open philanderer with a long-suffering wife, and the misogynist and dark novels of Milos Kundera are enough to sink the reader into a depression. And yes, Vaclav Havel was inspiring as a Communist dissident, and his concepts of the ‘power of the powerless’ and ‘living in truth’ continue to resonate for many who find themselves facing totalitarian regimes. But what strikes me, as a Czech who admired Havel during the years of Communist rule, is how his moral compass wandered after Communism fell and the Western world came flooding into the Czech Republic.
Without the solid rudder of Christian teaching, Havel found it hard to resist the new “human rights” being asserted by special interest groups, and soon climbed on board the bandwagon of various leftist causes. In 2006, Havel celebrated the Czech Republic’s recognition of registered same-sex partnerships, saying:
“Though with a very tight margin, I am very glad that the legislation eventually made it through parliament. I was most intrigued in the debate by the absurd ideology advocated by the Christian Democrats and Klaus, who argue that family should have advantages since, unlike homosexual couples, it brings children to life. This is the concept of family as a sort of calf shed in which bulls can inseminate cows so that calves are born … This is nothing spiritual, nothing intellectual. This is a purely material concept of family. This is what made me most upset in the debate."
If these are among the best examples that Scruton can muster, of cultured atheists hanging on to our Western moral inheritance and resisting the encroachment of barbarism, then the battle has already been lost.
And so, I am left with the sense that only a return to true religious faith can save our civilization from imminent submission to one of the two anti-Christian belief systems that are knocking at the door: either Foucault’s relativist struggle for power, or Islam, which Scruton describes as having “death in its heart.” There is no third way out. Either we gather again under the cross of Christ, or it is time to drape a flag over the coffin of Western civilization while playing Mozart’s Requiem.