'Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition' by Roger Scruton
EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition” by Roger Scruton.
When Donald Trump can win the Republican ticket campaigning against the free market, and questions emerge about liberal Democrats’ commitment to free speech, it is clear that we are living amidst political contradictions. In these times, with traditional political divisions thrown into question, many are trying to gain a firmer understanding of the nature of liberalism and conservatism. It’s a good time, then, for philosopher Roger Scruton’s attempt, in “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition,” to detail the historical and philosophical foundations of conservatism. Seeking to save it from interpretations that see it as a single-minded defense of freedom or border security, Scruton wants to show conservatism’s deep history of reflection on the individual, the nation, and culture.
Scruton moves through the conflicts that gave rise to conservatism in America, England, Germany, and France. He describes how the sense of spiritual desolation which afflicted artists and critics like T.S. Eliot and John Ruskin produced cultural conservatism, and how the threat of communism gave rise to the anti-communist conservatism.Now, conservatives face the challenge of applying these strands of a tradition to complicated new problems of theory and practice: how to balance originalism and precedent in the realm of law; how to make a case for the free market despite the damage a global free market of labor has done for the American working class; how to maintain a sense of American identity without appearing completely opposed to immigrants. A book that could synthesize the history of good conservative arguments, evaluate them, and apply this understanding to contemporary issues would prove very useful.
“An Invitation to the Great Tradition” gets part of the way there, providing the outline of conservative history and a reading list for such a project. As an introduction, Scruton’s book can at times gives one only a loose sense of the historical connections and underlying philosophy. He is more interested in describing than in critiquing conservative arguments. One, therefore, does not necessarily walk away understanding whether or not one ought to be a conservative. But anyone interested in conservatism will come away with a wealth of new writing to read, and a more thorough sense of the conversation held among conservative intellectuals over the last few hundred years.
Max Diamond is an investigative reporter at RealClearInvestigations.