Roger Scruton, "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture", Duckworth, 1998

Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days
   which have long since passed away,
And convince 'em, if you can, that the reign of good Queen Anne
   was Culture's palmiest day.
Of course you will pooh-pooh whatever's fresh and new,
   and declare it's crude and mean,
For Art stopped short in the cultivated court
   of the Empress Josephine.
     And every one will say,
     As you walk your mystic way,
"If that's not good enough for him which is good enough for
Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!"

In his opening sentence, Roger Scruton promises us "a theory of modern culture, and a defence of culture in its higher and more critical form". A bold enterprise, and with a quick intelligence and a skillful pen at his service, we should not complain too much if his defence of higher culture turns out to be in greater part an attack on lower culture. There is much here which is accurately observed and elegantly expressed, and the book has the inestimable virtue of brevity. Unhappily, it also betrays ignorance, superficiality and parochialism.

Scruton usefully begins with three definitions of "culture": "common culture", "the practices and beliefs which form the self-identity of a tribe"; "high culture", Matthew Arnold's "the best that has been thought and said"; and "popular culture", the culture of "cultural studies", the "identity-forming products of social interaction". He seeks to persuade us that "the core of common culture is religion" -- would it make better sense to say "the core of religion is common culture"? -- for in his wide-ranging discussion of religions, he is careful not to suggest that any of them might be true, merely that we might be more contented if we still believed. Scruton seems to say that such "common cultures" are disappearing; readers will wish to examine this in the light of their own experience, and the question of whether the word "tribe" can be attached to humanity as a whole. He attributes this weakening to the Enlightenment, which in his presentation is somehow autonomous, rather than an effect of the (literal) opening up of horizons as intercontinental travel became routine, so that we are now (metaphorically) afloat on a sea of possibilities. But Scruton here makes many telling points, though his perspective is a little too eurocentric to support effectively a thesis which seems to claim universality.

Through some interesting remarks on aesthetics, he comes next to a definition of "high culture" -- "a tradition, in which objects made for aesthetic contemplation renew through their allusive power the experience of membership". It is at this point that his ignorance begins to be serious. The "objects made for aesthetic contemplation", in his account, are not only material objects -- paintings and sculptures -- but also music and poetry and the worlds of fiction. With none of these do I have a quarrel. The trouble is what he leaves out. Euclid's "Elements" speak as directly to our inner beings as Phidias' sculptures; Scruton seems not to have noticed. And concerning science the position is worse. Scruton thinks that "science is the systematic part of information". Of course science depends on the systematic gathering of information; but that is like saying that a Titian depends on a taut canvas and a set of unfading pigments. The culture lies in what is made of these.

Scruton remarks truly that "the high culture of our civilization contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed from the channels of popular communication"; and the channels of popular communication are naturally most defective in the most demanding parts of our high culture. So he thinks that he can represent scientific knowledge by the statement "uranium is radioactive". Regarded as a simple matter of fact, this is indeed both true and important. But Rutherford and Soddy were scientists, and were not content to notice that thorium was radioactive. They took the trouble to devise ways of measuring how radioactive it was. And they discovered that -- at least in some cases, and we know now that this is usual -- radioactive substances lose their radioactivity as time proceeds. They do this in a very regular way; a pure sample of a radioactive element will lose half its activity in a fixed period (its "half-life"). But in its next half-life, it does not lose the rest of its activity; only half of that. The halving time depends only on the element, not on the quantity in the sample, nor on how many previous half-lives we have watched it pass through, nor on anything else in its history. Radioactive atoms do not grow old. They die; but their normal deaths seem to occur randomly, irrespective of their age or the manner of their creation. At present the standard doctrine of quantum mechanics is that the moment of decay of an atom of uranium really is a matter of pure chance, not even in principle predictable from any possible prior knowledge. We cannot be indifferent to such an idea. It is part of the cultural content of modern science.

Scruton tells us that science deals with knowledge that certain things are true; he seeks to know what to do or say or feel. I do not like to accuse him of being ignorant of Copernicus or Darwin or the book of Genesis. But if he does not understand that his convictions concerning what he is and ought to be depend on his theories of cosmology and of the beginning of the world, he has not reflected; and unless he is concealing a much deeper eccentricity than the civilized contrariness he displays in this book, his theories come from the high culture of the last few hundred years.

It is less important, but still a sign of narrow-mindedness, that he has no interest in technology; the fact that people can now do things that were previously impossible. The remarkable focusing of energy and ingenuity that enabled men to walk briefly on the moon has not been repeated. But no account of the moral centre of our culture can be complete which does not attend to our moral reactions to the startling possibilities which are opening before us.

When we see Scruton lamenting the weakness of high culture in the present generation, therefore, we must remember that he is blind to its most vital manifestations. He writes effectively about the evils of fantasy, cynicism and sentimentality; but primarily in the context of music, painting and sculpture. Some of his phrases -- that our endeavours are directed "away from what is serious, long-term and committed, towards what is immediate, effortless and for sale" -- could indeed be applied to some university science courses; but he has only to open a copy of "New Scientist" to see that, among the trash, the real thing is still in full force. But even on his own ground it is not clear that he is playing fair. He makes a vigorous and entertaining attack on modern popular culture, and a vigorous, if inevitably less entertaining, attack on Foucault and Derrida. But he hardly considers the possibility that some good books might be among the flood of those currently selling. He mentions Nick Hornby, Vikram Seth and Paul Scott with generosity (more generosity than I might have shown), but not Kazuo Ishiguro or Chinua Achebe. He gives Damien Hirst just enough rope to hang himself, but does not look at Lucien Freud. And this, I think, is because Scruton is himself a victim of the popular culture he despises. His horizons are limited by the dinner-table conversations of the intelligentsia in the London-Oxbridge triangle. When he speaks of "the greatest works of art of our epoch", he mentions T.S.Eliot and Rilke and Proust, Schoenberg and Britten, Matisse and Klee. I think Scruton was lucky in having teachers who could lead him to some of the best that there then was, and they were lucky in having a pupil who could follow them. But I do not see him finding his own way to the best that there now is.

David Fremlin, 24 March 2003

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