For a writer to presume to offer hope – intelligent, reasoned hope, not dishonest, feel-good optimism – is an act of audacity. And for that same writer to rally us around the cause of culture, long after the barbarians have breached the walls and started burning down the libraries, is surely to act more courageously than we deserve or could hope to emulate.
Roger Scruton, the English philosopher, strikes me as a serious man who suffers fools and dupes with little equanimity. In his new book, Culture Counts, Scruton musters more patience for the death-cultists trying to destroy the Middle East and, if they have their druthers, the rest of the world, too, than he does for their fellow-travelers back here in what remains of the civilized world. By the way, he has good things to say about the United States – and I mean the culture, not necessarily the current administration:
“Take away America, its freedom, its optimism, its institutions, its Judeo-Christian beliefs, and its educational tradition, and little would remain of the West, besides the geriatric routines of a now toothless Europe.”
One of Scruton’s definitions of culture is “the literary, artistic and philosophical inheritance that has been taught in departments of humanities both in Europe and America, and which has recently been subject to contemptuous dismissal (especially in America) as the product of ‘dead white European males.’”
In other words, by the usual suspects. In other words, our precious inheritance, the best our species has produced, what we once took for granted as the knowledge shared by all educated men and women. I'm reminded of what Ford Madox Ford wrote in The March of Literature:
"The quality of literature, in short, is the quality of humanity. It is the quality that communicates, between man and men, the secret of human hearts and the story of our vicissitudes."
I learned of Scruton’s new book from Bryan Appleyard, who describes him as as “a philosopher with a genius for clarifying issues that vested interests often don’t want clarified.” In other words, the usual suspects.
If Culture Counts has begun to sound like a thousand other doomsday screeds, here’s where the other half of Scruton’s argument, the hard-won hope, comes in:
“To speak of a `clash of civilization,’ as Samuel Huntington famously did, is to assume that two civilizations exist. But one of the contenders never turned up on the battlefield. The clash that we witness is between Western secularism and a religion which, because it has lost its self-conscious part, can no longer relate in any stable way to those who disagree with it. It is precisely the loss of its culture that has permitted Islam to enter the modern world with so much death in its heart – death of others, which hides and excuses the death of self.
“We in the West are more fortunate. Our culture has schooled us in the need for toleration, and prepared us for the new secular world – and it has preserved in these unlikely circumstances a precious legacy of moral knowledge. It matters less that the mass of people are ignorant of this culture than that an elite is still being recruited to pass it on. Like every form of knowledge, that embodied in a culture spreads its benefits even over the ignorant, and those who make the effort to acquire that knowledge are not merely doing good to themselves: they are the saviors of their community.”
I can already hear the self-righteous whining about Scruton’s reference to an “elite,” but consider the context: The West’s traditional repository of learning, inquiry and cultural transmission, the university, is compromised, perhaps beyond redemption. Scruton doesn’t mention it explicitly, but the Internet, including the untapped potential of blogs, may offer an alternative to the self-defeating repudiation of culture. Despite appearances, there’s more to online discourse than pornography, narcissism, illiteracy and rage. Consider Michael Gilliland’s post on Saturday, "Comfort Books." A thoughtful reading of the titles on Mike’s list sounds like the foundation of an education superior to many offered by the nation’s swankier grad schools. As for comfort, consider the unpalatable truths Scruton spells out, then his suggestions for a way out, then these words from one of the writers on Mike’s list:
“Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upward and forward as knowing how to find one’s place and draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding. Nothing is so beautiful, so right, as acting as a man should; nor is any learning so arduous as knowing how to live this life naturally and well. And the most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.”