Friends sometimes ask me to recommend reading, especially reading on intellectual foundations of modern conservatism. I often stutter and hesitate, not knowing where to start. Leo Strauss is fundamental to me, but the line to a conservative position is not exactly clear or direct. Russell Kirk is a wonderful antidote to leftist ideology, but a little tendentious (in a good way) and a little predictable in his interpretation of history and philosophy.
Now I’ve just finished reading Roger Scruton’s re-edition of Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. It convinces me (or re-convinces me) that we have here great mind, whom I believe, incidentally, is also a very great and good man. If you want to orient yourself in the contemporary intellectual world and arm yourself against the most powerful (and leftist) idols of the age, then don’t walk, run to your book source and get this book.
If you’re not in the business of dissecting varieties of contemporary intellectual perfidy, then you may want or need to skim over some of the wrestling with slippery characters from Foucault to Žižek. In any case, the concerns and targets tend British and continental, despite extremely useful discussions of John Kenneth Galbraith and shorter ones of Richard Rorty, for example. But the conclusions drawn (especially in the last chapter) are clear, profound and of momentous importance.
I have always respected and admired Scruton, but have kept perhaps a certain distance due to my allergy to a certain “skeptical-spontaneous order” strain of conservative thought that one could say runs from Hume through Hayek and especially Oakshott, and which Scruton in many ways inherits. But either Scruton has recently transcended the limitations of this approach (like Burke? good question), or — much more likely — I have recently understood his transcendence of it. The key point is that Scruton’s spontaneous order is all bound up (quite explicitly, in the last pages of this book) with Britain’s Christian and common law heritage, and this makes all the difference.
Let me not omit to mention this perceptive take on Scruton from another wise and good — and prolific — man, my friend Peter Lawler. (And see Peter’s post here just below.) Lawler proposes Scruton as a real conservative, whereas Pierre Manent he would classify, along with American Straussians, as a “conservative liberal.” My first inclination would be to say that this is exactly backwards, to the degree that Scruton is in the line of those British “spontaneous order” conservative liberals. But insofar as he transcends that rich but limited British tradition, he does so by recognizing precisely what is at the emerging center of Manent’s concerns: the indispensably Christian dimension of the liberal nation-state. In any case, such a convergence between Scruton and Manent, whether actual or virtual, might be seen as the one thing needful for any seeking clarity on the sources of good in modern liberalism and on the spiritual revolt against all such goods that is the essence of the Left.