Confessions of a Heretic — Roger Scruton

“The Scrutonizer”*, real name Roger Scruton (or more correctly and impressively, Sir Roger Scruton) is an English conservative (but not Conservative) philosopher. He is no right-wing loony though — his views tend to be very carefully considered and sensible. This book collects a number of his thoughtful yet somewhat fierce essays.

Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. He seemed to be belittling music writing, but comparing it to interpretive dance seems odd — you’d think that Zappa would have been right into that sort of thing. Now I doubt that Scruton would agree with Zappa on much, but the essays in Confessions of a Heretic do cover dancing, architecture and writing about music. In particular he laments the decline in formal dancing (and he’s pretty much spot-on, I would say). And his essay on writing about music and other apparently indescribable experiences (entitled “Effing the Ineffable”) is amusing as well as thought-provoking.

But architecture is one of Scruton’s big causes. What he says about modern architecture (and it’s not complimentary) is pretty hard to argue with. He thinks buildings should support the way people live, rather than strive to be important or iconic, and he expands on this idea in some detail. It chimes in with the work of Christopher Alexander and many others. Scruton was actually on a government architecture advisory panel, and no doubt did some good work. Unfortunately he was sacked in bizarre circumstances — he gave an interview to some axe-grinding journalist, who then tweeted some selective, out-of-context quotes and claimed they proved Scruton was racist. People do that sort of thing all the time: I think it’s called Fake News.

But surprisingly, some UK MP believed the tweets and decided Scruton had to go. The MP apparently didn’t even consult (or perhaps understand) the original interview. It’s a sad loss for UK architecture, but it’s all just part of the hilarious slow-motion train wreck that is UK politics these days. (At least it seems hilarious when viewed from the other side of the word.)

(And he has now been reinstated to the architecture post, coincidentally on the same day that his supporter Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Things are moving fast in the UK just now.)

Scruton also rails against the quest to prolong human lifespans. As usual, he actually thinks things through rather than judging things on instinct. How lovely it will be if we all live to 1000 years old! Except that the birth rate will have to drop by over 90% in order to avoid catastrophic overpopulation: actual children will become very rare and precious and will no doubt grow up to be neurotic and dysfunctional. I’m sure there are any number of dystopian fictions based on this very idea, but it looks as if the immortality proponents haven’t heard of them.

Given the general level-headedness of his views, it’s funny that Scruton views “the Left” as a terrible bogeyman, talking of “the burning desire of leftist movements in every age and clime, which is to tear things down or, failing that, to blow them up.” This is a jarring note in his writing — as soon as I hear somebody complaining about “the left” or “the right” I know they really just mean “the people I disagree with”. “The left” and “the right” are not united movements with cohesive goals. They’re not like political parties, which are at least nominally cohesive.

Anyway, the book presents some other well-thought-out but unfashionable views on “Defending the West” against other cultures. I do find it funny that he identifies “the necessary lubricant of the Western dynamo” as alcohol. Funny, but not entirely far-fetched.

It seems to me that most people, whatever their view of cultural integration, haven’t thought through all the implications. Of course greater cultural integration should be a good thing, but it would be a big change from how things were before, and I think Scruton is right to at least point out that it might go wrong. We shouldn’t plan our future society based on wishful thinking.

I think Scruton can be a bit disingenuous in his drive to tell it like it is: there are sometimes good reasons to refrain from speaking the truth. This is the sort of thing that can get quite sensible conservative thinkers in trouble. Jordan Peterson is another example (of getting into trouble, not necessarily of being sensible). Warning us that change is not always for the better is one of the reasons why we need conservative thinkers, and Scruton fills that role well.

* Nobody actually calls him that

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