• “Once or twice in a generation—if that often—a very wise person writes a very pithy book that compresses everything that needs to be said about a given topic into the briefest of compasses. The Road to Serfdom, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, The Abolition of Man: books like these are made to be given to puzzled friends. They change minds, and lives.”
That was how I heralded, in National Review eight years ago, the publication of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures. Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged is no less concise—and significant. Like One Nation, Two Cultures, it is a small masterpiece of lucid compression that appears at a timely moment, and my guess is that its brevity will cause it to be read by a great many people who might not otherwise choose to grapple with a book by a philosopher.
An essay so pithy is made to be quoted in extenso, so I’ll let Scruton do the talking. He begins by observing that the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project—and that Old Europe has no moral or intellectual troops left to send into battle. The fate of the West, Scruton declares flatly, will be determined in America:
Take away America, its freedom, its optimism, its institutions, its Judeo-Christian beliefs, and its educational tradition, and little would remain of the West, besides the geriatric routines of a now toothless Europe. Add America to the discussion, and all the dire prophecies and mournful valedictions of the twentieth century seem faintly ridiculous.
But is America’s understanding of its Western heritage sufficiently profound to stand up to the high winds of cultural change? Scruton has his doubts:
The American experiment has placed two great gifts at the feet of mankind: viable democracy and masterful technology. But those benefits, which attract our praise and our pride, do not conquer the heart. They do not, in themselves, create the deep attachment on which the future of our civilization depends. They provide no outlook on human life and its meaning that can stand up either to the sarcastic nihilism of the West’s internal critics or to the humorless bigotry of Islam. In the face of such enemies we need to affirm not our achievements, but our right to exist.
Readers familiar with Gentle Regrets, Scruton’s 2005 memoir, will doubtless catch the elegiac undertone in his defiant assertion of the primacy of Western culture, for he is himself an uncomfortable skeptic who has thought long and hard about whether an unbelieving West can long survive its loss of faith. Indeed, Culture Counts is best understood as an attempt to answer that question, and the answer, not surprisingly, is a challenging one:
Art has gradually taken over from religion the task of symbolizing the spiritual realities that elude the reach of science. In this way, as religion has lost its hold over the collective imagination, culture has come to seem increasingly important, being the most reliable channel through which exalted ethical ideas can enter the minds of skeptical people. . . . Culture inherits from religion the “knowledge of the heart” whose essence is sympathy. But it can be passed on and enhanced, even when the religion that first engendered it has died. Indeed, in these circumstances, it is all the more important that culture be passed on, since it has become the sole communicable testimony to the higher life of mankind.
To be sure, Scruton astutely acknowledges that “culture cannot be a religion substitute, even though, in a sense, religion is a culture substitute in the lives of those who lack ‘aesthetic education.’” And those for whom Judeo-Christian belief remains what Justice Holmes contemptuously dismissed as a “fighting faith” may well find Scruton’s reasoning to be provocative, but ultimately superfluous—just as those aesthetes who have come to terms with the modern movement in art will likely be ill-at-ease with certain parts of his wide-ranging, near-sweeping dismissal of its fruits. But one need not agree with every aspect of Scruton’s conservative cure for the ills of Western civilization to be impressed by the illuminating rigor of his diagnosis:
The suspicion of tonality, like Marx’s suspicion of private property, or Sartre’s suspicion of the bourgeois family, or the abstractionist suspicion of figurative painting, should be seen as an act of rebellion against the only way we have of making sense of things. The root cause of our musical crisis is the same as the root cause of so many other crises during our time: namely, the rise of the intellectual class, and the culture of repudiation upon which it depends for its adversarial standpoint.
In any case, Culture Counts is far better read than summarized, and anyone who cares about the fate of the Western remnant that is postmodern America should read Scruton’s book at once.