Unknowingly, I requested to do an interview with Roger Scruton for the literary-cultural magazine-to-be Országút last July when he was found to have cancer. He nevertheless obliged, requesting to answer my questions later in 2019. Only in early November, well after noticing Roger’s review of Douglas Murray’s Madness of Crowds and the building project behind King’s Cross Station in The Times – signs I deemed to be that of recuperation – dared I approach him again. He seemed to me to be keen to agree, only asking to limit the questions I had sent him in the summer focussing mostly on the conservative style in critical approach, musical taste (Wagner and Church hymns), political relationships and customs, as well as on his playfulness, creativity, and unquenchable thirst for culture. Roger sent the answers back on 20 November, two weeks before Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decorated him with the Middle Cross of Hungary with the Star in London. What follows is the original English text. Roger Scruton passed away on 12 January, and our interview was published in Hungarian in the first issue of the bi-weekly Országút, on 31 January.
PP: You have arraigned or lambasted the various strands of critical theory, yet you regard critical thought indispensable. What makes the critical conservative intellectual? What distinguishes him or her from the left-liberal critical (critical-theory) intellectual in terms of conduct?
RS: What is usually called “critical theory” is in my view neither genuinely critical nor much of a theory. The “theory” is usually some mish-mash out of Marx and Foucault, an exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion, discerning the hidden powers behind all our intellectual productions. Sometimes the “theory” has a feminist stance; invariably it is subversive of traditional norms, and dismissive of what the artist or author under observation is actually saying, preferring to tell us what he is presupposing instead.
The critical conservative intellectual is open to the real and honest messages enshrined in our culture, and sees that power and domination are not the only forces at work in it, looking for the expression of love and belonging as well. He (luckily Hungarian is a genderless language so I do not have to give way to the dreadful stylistic abuse that the feminists force on me, but let us say “he or she” anyway) refuses to denigrate “beauty” as a moral and artistic ideal, and is apt to lament the disappearance of beauty from the artistic productions of our age – a disappearance which, in the case of architecture, has radically eroded the quality of life of everyone, including those who do not directly take note of it. The conduct of the typical left-liberal critical intellectual is that of a privileged outsider, usually maintained at public expense by some academic institution which enables him to live outside the norms and beliefs of ordinary people. The conduct of the critical conservative intellectual is that of someone who strives with all his power to belong to society, while being incapable of doing so whole-heartedly precisely because he is so critical. His attitude, therefore, is one of ironical acceptance.
PP: In our age, novelty is a requirement of intellectual output (“O sing unto the Lord a new song”, Psalm 96), and novelty seems to require radicalism. How does conservatism relate to radicalism? What do you make of a “conservative revolution” – in either a “culture of repudiation” or 30 years of post-Communism with 18 years of right-wing government?
RS: Novelty does not require radicalism. Think of Mozart or Schubert. But it does require an individual point of view, a message direct from me to you, which is distinctively mine, the artist’s. That is how a culture grows, from the many direct expressions of feeling that are wrapped in a shared bundle of constraints. This does not mean that we can go on repeating the same old things in the same old way. Always, we must make what is new and fresh, as Ezra Pound told us. Remember that our most revolutionary 20th-century poet in the English language, T. S. Eliot, was also an articulate and influential conservative, whose essays helped to define the conservative position in the post-war period. If I had to give a label to the following judged as observers of society, the word “conservative” would be the right one: Stravinsky, Joyce, Proust, Matisse, Messiaen, Bartók, Márai … Some of them have also been radicals, from the artistic point of view, notably Stravinsky and Joyce. But you can be artistically radical and socially conservative, like Stravinsky in Les Noces.
In politics things are different of course, since radicals, when they seize power, attempt to make their seizure irreversible. Then a conservative revolution might be necessary. But of course it will be tempered by the gentle and compromising nature of the conservative mentality, as in the “Glorious Revolution” in 17th-century England, and as we saw in the revolutions of 1989 in your part of the world. Not bullets fired, no revenge trials or persecutions, even a real effort at forgiveness – though a recognition that forgiveness comes only where there is the admission of fault. (Why do leftists find forgiveness so difficult? Surely that is the great question of 20th-century politics.)
PP: Loyalty is a virtue conservatives tend to make much of, but are there any limits to loyalty? How far may politicians or political movements require their following to be loyal? How do you come to terms with an intellectual ally turning up in an opposing fold?
RS: Loyalty is a virtue but it is not a single state of mind. To be loyal to a leader is understandable, and leaders depend on this, especially when they are committing crimes in the name of their following. When to withdraw from such a loyalty is a question that we might all of us be required to answer. More important for our situation today is loyalty to a group, where the loyalty itself creates the group agenda. This is much harder to disown since people find their identity through group membership, as Durkheim showed. For this reason, the subsidiary groups in a society must always be included in the general conversation, and not pressed into a condition of resentment. Finally, there is loyalty to the nation, without which, in my view, democracy is not really possible. But I have written about this elsewhere.
When an intellectual ally turns up in an opposing fold you must inevitably examine the basis of your own thinking and come to a conclusion as to who is right. One of the problems of our time is that people do not form friendships that are stronger than the ties of belief. This shows a lack of imagination of course. But a real friend should come to your defence, even when you are politically opposed to him.
PP: As a conservative, critical intellectual, what led you to become an organist at your parish church? Is this an act of national loyalty by the author of Our Church?
RS: I took up the post of organist in our local church because there was no one else to do it. I strongly believe in the presence of the Anglican Church as a rural institution and believe we should all do what we can to ensure its survival. I love the hymns, and the Bible stories, and the experience of Holy Communion forces me to be humble and to recognise my faults. I also love the way in which the Catholic rite and the Protestant habit of preaching have been combined in our national church. But as in the rest of Europe, real Christianity is remembered, but not enacted, in our churches. So it is in Hungary too.