The Pursuit of Knowledge

Waving, Not Drowning

Our task is now less political than cultural -- though for the young the trap has already been set.

By From the July - Aug 2012 issue

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WHEN THE SELF-POLICING REGIME of morality breaks down, the state must take charge of the mess and rescue the victims—both the unwilling victims, like the fatherless children of casual relations, and the willing ones, who have chosen dependency on the state as the easy option.

Faced with this situation, many conservatives feel inclined to blame the liberal establishment, which has devoted so much energy to undermining moral norms and inherited institutions. But although ideas have consequences, ideas are also the consequences of other things. The demoralization of society is the effect of many causes, only some of which belong in the realm of ideas. Prolonged peace, unprecedented abundance, social mobility, contraception, drugs, and stimulants -- all these have a predictable effect in weakening the bonds of society. And to those well-known temptations we must add the effects of recent technology: human brains are now saturated by ephemeral messages, while human relations have been transferred from real to virtual space. Sexual love is notorious for changing its locations and its style. But we have entered a new situation in which much of this love occurs in the realm of electronic signals. We should not be surprised if this virtual love often looks like hatred. Virtual space is Mercurial, demonic, a space of transformations that we cannot control. Living with your eyes fixed to that space, you acquire a mentality that has no real precedent in the annals of mankind. Young people therefore find it hard to envisage the future as something for which they are accountable, and which requires them to make sacrifices on its behalf.

The problems we confront cannot be solved by philosophy, since they lie deeper than thought. Even if we defeat the liberals in debate, refuting to our satisfaction the labyrinthine arguments of Rawls and the clever-dick challenges of Dworkin and company, it cannot conceivably change what most concerns us. No doubt it was perfectly reasonable for conservatives, at the time of the New Deal, to warn against the growth of state power and the erosion of individual responsibility. Looking back, we can feel the pull of their arguments and recognize there was much truth in what they said. But we must also recognize that their arguments made no difference, just as the arguments of Hayek in postwar Britain -- so manifestly superior in power and scope to the arguments of the paltry figures like Harold Laski, who packed Hayek off to America -- made no difference. State power continued to grow.

And such is the situation today. State power increases and individual responsibility declines, regardless of whether liberals, socialists, or conservatives are in government; regardless of the social and political legacy; and regardless of which intellectual faction seems to be winning the battle of ideas.

Moreover, we should recognize that this process is not strictly a phenomenon of developed nations. The dependency culture arose simultaneously in Europe and America, and the traditional family disintegrated right across the Western world. The “decline of the West” may not be the inevitable process described by Spengler in a famous book of that title that first appeared in 1918. But it is certainly not a process that can be tied to any particular nation or any one form of national politics. Nor is it a process that can be arrested in the realm of ideas or easily deflected by affirming traditional values against the liberal alternative.

Moreover, the expansion of the state into every area of our lives and the steady contraction of the sphere of personal responsibility have produced a new order of things -- one that makes it very difficult for us conservatives to communicate with those whom we hope to influence. So many of our arguments and insights depend upon the old order of virtue, on the old moral assumptions, and on the old conception of the human being as a free and responsible agent. Yet those old things have gone, and we look foolish if we do not recognize the fact. It is not just that society has changed; the human being has changed with it. We belong to the same species as Homer, Aquinas, and Mozart. But we are also products of social interaction and change our nature according to the context in which we grow. Our societies are now radically different from those observed by Burke, Maistre, Tocqueville, and Hegel, and the thoughts of those great men, whatever their intellectual value, will not enable us to construct a conservative politics suited to our needs today.

We have to accept that it is no longer possible to govern young people by the methods that were used to govern and influence the young of my generation. Exhortation, example, the stories of saints and heroes, the life of humility, sacrifice, penitence, and prayer -- all such moral influences have little or no significance for them. And although from time to time they encounter obstacles, and perhaps experience real love, real jealousy, real fear, and real grief, these emotions are not available to them in the regular doses and predictable circumstances in which they were available to us.

SO WHAT SHOULD CONSERVATIVES BE DOING? This is the last of my regular articles for The American Spectator, so let me conclude a happy period of my life with a few observations for future use. Our work, it seems to me, consists in what Plato called anamnesis -- the defeat of forgetting. We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural -- an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

Of course, we should do our best to control the growth of the state and to make it more difficult to depend upon its constant expansion. We should seek, through whatever avenues remain, to rebuild our education system with knowledge rather than “self-esteem” as its product. There are a hundred small-scale ways in which we can help the next generation not to fall completely into the trap that is being prepared for it. But there is no way, I fear, to destroy that trap entirely. For it is built from human ingenuity and baited with our own desires.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.