Roger Scruton

A while ago I posted a response to an First Things essay by Roger Scruton on the good of government. I later sent an abridgment of my post to First Things as a letter to the editor. It appeared in the October issue, with the following reply by Scruton:

As for Fr. Waldstein’s theological vision of the good of government, I can only respond as Burke responded to the Reason advocated by the French Revolutionaries. He wrote: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”
Advocates of natural law in the Catholic tradition have often told us that the good is discoverable to reason, and that we have only to consult it. But they tend to be as reluctant as Waldstein to define who is doing the consulting, and how. Burke’s view, that there is a kind of reason that emerges through civil association, and which is both conserved in our traditions and irretrievably dispersed by the attempt to make it explicit, offers, to my mind, a better model of the place of reason in government. On Burke’s view, rational solutions emerge from below, by an invisible hand, and are not imposed from above by those who claim to have privileged knowledge of the natural law. (The same point is made in other terms by Hayek, in his defense of the common law.) One can agree with Kant’s warning against paternal government without thinking that “any submission to an authority other than the self is tyrannical.” As I understand it, the art of living in ­society is precisely the art of submitting to authority—but doing so willingly, and in the little platoons that we ourselves create.

I have the greatest respect for Scruton, and certainly his position is not as bad Kant’s, but I’m still not convinced. He returns my Kant comparison with interest by comparing me to the Jacobins. But I was a little surprised by his saying that am “reluctant” to define who is to determine what the natural law is. True, I gave no account of that in my letter, but in the past I do not think I have been notably reluctant. By coincidence the most recent issue of The European Conservative features an excerpt from one of Scruton’s books and a notably unhesitant essay by me right next to each other in the Table of Contents:

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On seeing this Coëmgenus noted the juxtaposition of Scruton’s title “What is Right” and my subtitle “what is best”—an illustration of two different approaches.


11 thoughts on “Roger Scruton

  1. Scruton seems to simplify Burke’s position on natural law – Burke is quite clear in “Letters on a Regicide Peace” that natural law reasoning on the part of statesmen (or at least “universal equity”) is at times necessary to combat evil based on “right.” There is no “invisible hand” in Burke’s account of practical rationality; he argues, persuasively, that practical rationality follows on the character and moral education of the people. As someone else said, virtue makes the end correct.
    It is even more curious that Scruton makes an alliance of Kant and Burke – this has been a persistent feature of his thought, and has always baffled me.
    Thanks for the post. I enjoy reading your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read your article in The European Conservative. You seem to portray the democratic man as though he were usually to be found in The Boar’s Head Tavern, or among the “Jacques” in St. Antoine, rather than among the bankers and merchants and freeholders and lawyers of American colonial days.

    In a recent article for Arts of Liberty, I try to make Aristotle’s case that participation in government is necessary for full virtue. Of course, Aristotle’s monarch is one whose sole will is law, so perhaps it might not be in complete disagreement with your position.

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  3. I am looking forward to attending some social events with Roger Scruton and hearing him lecture in less than 2 weeks while he is here in Ave Maria. I look forward to it even more knowing you 2 are in dialogue, of which I hope to read some before he arrives. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. On seeing this Coëmgenus noted the juxtaposition of Scruton’s title “What is Right” and my subtitle “what is best”—an illustration of two different approaches.

    Have you perchance read Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?? I am reminded of his “goods of excellence” vs. “goods of efficacy”. This also brings to mind C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, where the horrors of placing love before truth (in contrast to the order of the two greatest commandments) are revealed. Josef Pieper also argues for placing truth above efficacy in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, as well as his essay Knowledge and Freedom, which can be found at the back of his Abuse of Language ~~ Abuse of Power.

    There is also the matter of whether one’s conception of ‘Right’, or ‘best’, becomes idolatry, in the sense of not allowing it to be revised. Hearts of flesh can grow; hearts of stone are impervious to words of the Ps 19:1–4-type. MacIntyre and Polanyi have some thoughts on this re: ‘tradition’ and ‘conflict’ (which can promote growth). I end with a bit from Emil Brunner’s The Misunderstanding of the Church:

    For theo-logy has to do with the Logos and therefore is only qualified to deal with matters which are in some way logical, not with the dynamic in its a-logical characteristics. Therefore the Holy Ghost has always been more or less the stepchild of theology and the dynamism of the Spirit a bugbear for theologians; on the other hand, theology through its unconscious intellectualism has often proved a significant restrictive influence, stifling the operations of the Holy Ghost, or at least their full creative manifestation. But we shall never rightly understand the essential being of the New Testament Ecclesia if we do not take fully into account these paralogical revelations of the Spirit. (48–49)

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  5. Pingback: The Good, the Highest Good, and the Common Good | The Josias

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