If you ever felt that you weren’t working hard enough in life it is probably wise not to peruse the curriculum vitae of Roger Scruton. This interview came about due to the release of his latest book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. In 2006, Dr. Scruton published A Political Philosophy while Gentle Regrets (Thoughts from a Life) came out in 2005. It has been an amazingly productive couple of years for a scholar who describes himself humbly as being a “writer and philosopher”—even though his vocational experiences have been incredibly diverse. Dr. Scruton obtained a PhD from Cambridge in philosophy and has held several university positions since 1969. For twenty years he was Editor of The Salisbury Review; a publication whose motto is “simply the best contemporary journal of conservative thought.” Currently, he is Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia.
BC: Congratulations, Mr. Scruton, on the publication of Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Let me start out by asking you if there are any academics left who still believe in the existence of a cultural canon? I doubt that too many would respect the works placed in it by Harold Bloom in his 1994 The Western Canon. Do you think that, in keeping with the history of the counterculture, the notion of a canon continues to endure but has been completely reconstituted with new works?
RS: Harold Bloom's book is the fruit of a lifetime's teaching and thinking about literature. It is not merely a personal testimony to the books that have mattered to him, but an attempt to summarize experience and judgment that he has exercised responsibly over decades. There are many academics who would disagree with his judgments - but if they disagree merely because they disagree with making judgments, then they have not made a contrary judgment or any judgment at all. Hence they have not really disagreed. That, it seems to me, is the situation. The postmodern academy is not providing an alternative to the Western canon. It is providing no canon at all. But there are many academics who still think as Bloom thought - it is just that they don't make a noise about it. The old English proverb that empty vessels make the most noise should not be disregarded.
BC: In the hopes of helping young minds combat cultural relativism and postmodernism, can you explain to us why we should study some writers over others? Why is Shakespeare a more important writer than Toni Morrison? How would you answer the question, “Who is to say which work is better than another?”
RS: Shakespeare is a more important writer than Toni Morrison because he presents a vaster array of believable characters, in strange situations brilliantly evoked, which put them to the test in ways that illustrate and command sympathy for the human condition. The question 'who is to say what work is better than another?' is easily answered: the one with good judgment. How is good judgment acquired? By studying the canon and making comparisons.
BC: I liked your subsection on laughter very much. Is outlawing humor intrinsic to political correctness? After all, it seems rather unlikely that PC could survive citizens speaking freely to one another. Are ridicule and satire not the best means by which to combat cultural Marxism?
RS: Humour certainly is a powerful remedy to censorious Puritanism. There are defenders of political correctness who are able to laugh at its excesses. But in the face of true believers laughter is dangerous, as we know from the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. I am not sure that ridicule and satire are as effective as you imply. The campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge ridiculed structuralism, deconstruction and so on very effectively. But the disease survived, just as alchemy survived Ben Jonson and Marxism survived 1984.
BC: Can any worthwhile art be produced in a world that has declared war on merit?
RS: It is difficult, certainly. But maybe it is an exaggeration to imply that our world has declared war on merit. It has repudiated distinction - and that is the real source of our cultural decline.
BC: What does it mean to embrace the contemplative life? What does one’s doing so amount to in practice?
RS: It means allowing one's opinions to be shaped by truth, rather than the wish to believe. It means allowing one's actions to be shaped by virtue, rather self-interest; it means allowing one's emotions to be founded in acceptance of the world and the willing affirmation of the right of others to be.
BC: Is knowledge, no matter what kind of knowledge it is, an end in itself? How have we failed in the present age to pass knowledge on to the young?
RS: Yes, knowledge is an end in itself, which is why people are afraid of it - they have no formula with which to understand and confine its power. We have failed to pass on knowledge to the young because we have been more interested in the young than in knowledge. Teachers are taught to follow the sentimentalities of Rousseau and Dewey, regarding knowledge as a benefit to the child. The real educator regards the child as a benefit to knowledge - the brain which, properly modified, will carry the burden of knowledge into the future and one day pass it on.
BC: At this point in time, has emotion completely triumphed over reason in the public square? If so, what effects has it had on our culture?
RS: No, emotion has not triumphed over reason in the public square. What passes for emotion is a kind of cold-hearted hysteria, typified by pornography and its addicts. Properly understood emotion is part of the rational life - the part concerned with love and hate, affirmation and denial.
BC: For what reason would you characterize our culture as being a nihilistic one? What are its most negating attributes?
RS: Nihilism does not mean believing in nothing. It means believing in Nothing. And that in turn means being launched, like Mephistopheles, on a path of negation. Nihilism searches out what is positive and creative and places a negation sign in front of it - as pornography places a negation sign in front of sexual love, as rap music places a negation sign in front of growing up, as... you can fill in the gaps.
BC: Thank you for your time, Dr. Scruton.
Bernard Chapin is the author of Escape from Gangsta Island and a soon-to-be released book on women. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.