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Self-parody on wheels.

The English philosopher Roger Scruton is a titan of our age -- or would be, if temperance, discipline, subtlety and wisdom were prized as highly today as they were by the humanists of his parents' day. In The American Spectator, Scruton writes movingly of these humanists who raised and taught him. He says that while he "was skeptical toward that kind of humanism, I never doubted its nobility of purpose." To train up the human mind to highest excellence and generosity was its purpose. It aimed to produce intelligence trained by disciplined habit and continual contact with greatness. "It was devoted to exalting the human person above the human animal, and moral discipline above random appetite. It saw art, music, and literature not simply as pleasures, but as sources of spiritual strength."

It was great-minded and full of a sense of duty, which duty including carefully passing on the inheritance of human achievement. The humanism of that generation included an aspect of veneration, and the humility that accompanies it. Being more acquainted with loss and misery, this first post-Second World War generation had a more robust appreciation for the fragility of civilization. It welcomed all wisdom to task of securing and preserving it.

Scruton continues, "And it took the same view of religion. Humanists of the old school were not believers. The ability to question, to doubt, to live in perpetual uncertainty, they thought, is one of the noble endowments of the human intellect. But they respected religion and studied it for the moral and spiritual truths that could outlive the God who once promoted them."

Alas, that original generation of those humanists is dying off, and in its place with have a new generation entirely. We have, indeed, a wild, destructive class of men. But also -- let's face it -- a pretty hilarious one.

We have a whole generation of scolds and pedants altogether unaware of their pedantry. We have the New Humanists. Some may say that this band of ruffians will bequeath to mankind nothing of value, but I say otherwise. They will least be remembered for the image they set loose upon the streets of London, a great howling cartoon on wheels: an ad banner on a city bus reading, if Professor Scruton has reproduced it accurately, what must be among the most magnificent public statements ever: "There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life."

Now I ask the reader to consider such a statement, pronounced in a public place with all the flourish and boldness of modern political theater, and estimate the number of times he has ever beheld such a remarkable juxtaposition of simultaneous innocence and arrogance as that ad banner. It is a stark staring caricature or cartoon on wheels. The New Humanist has managed to ridicule himself, unwittingly. He has momentarily silenced irony and disarmed parody by becoming his own satire.

The key is the second word. Whatever possessed the British Humanist Association to add this note of ambiguity or uncertainty -- such is not their habit -- must be accounted a marvelous whim of Providence. The New Humanist has outdone himself, and insured his memorial across time. Had he neglected that one beautiful word -- "probably" -- he would have been forgotten forever, but since has he left us this marvelous tableau of cluelessness, we shall have something to remember him by. The New Humanist ad's suggests a man perfectly bereft of self-awareness.

But while we can have our fun at the expense of the New Humanist, it should be recognized that part of the hilarity participates in a darker logic -- that of a Western world actually turning toward the madness advertised on the London bus. It is not a world phenomenon. Far from it: the world appears to be turning the other way. But it sure would be a sad conclusion to the grand story of Western humanism, to end at the feet of these blank negations and self-parodies.

Comments (24)

Apropos of the incoherent suspension of arrogance within a medium of seeming diffidence, I am reminded of the conclusion to James Caesar's response to the recent Tanenhaus "End of Conservatism" essay:

Pragmatism is the magic word to describe what liberals want, but do not want to argue for. It is at this point, as Burke might have said, that we enter "the fairy land of philosophy."

In neither case do our provocateurs deign to argue for their propositions, but they remain possessed of a functional certitude that you should live as though they were true. I leave it to others to diagnose the pathology indicated by these symptoms.

Excellent post.

Roger Scruton, as I've known him, is far too self-effacing ever to accept the appellation "titan."

But that's exactly what he is - by far the greatest conservative thinker of our time.

I'd be interested, Steve, in the other conservative thinkers of our age whom you're comparing Scruton to. If by "our age" you mean living conservatives, then I can't think of many people to compare him to. Kekes, James Q. Wilson, Kass--who else? Do any of the previous three compare?

A post worthy of Chesterton himself. Well done!


A delightful post. Michael Medved had a representative from the British Humanist Association on his radio show to talk about the bus ad campaign and she was a lot like the ad, a "man [in her case a woman] perfectly bereft of self-awareness."

What I find remarkable (and encouraging) is that Maximos is reading "The Weekly Standard". Next up, I send Maximos a gift subscription to "Commentary" and he has a full-blown road to Damscus conversion concerning Israel.

I believe it was Auster who recommended tongue-in-cheek that we start a bus ad campaign with the slogan, "There probably is no global warming. So stop worrying and enjoy life."

It would be a lot more reasonable. :-)

How about "There is probably no British Humanist Association; stop worrying and enjoy life"?

To be fair, the "probably" is reportedly a concession to the regulations of the initial English transit advertising authority, which declared that the much firmer "there is no God" was in some sense too definite a claim for a bus to endorse. The various groups who've propagated it throughout the world have kept the wording the same to maintain a consistent brand. It remains funny, however.

My favourite riff on this particular advertisement is "There's probably no Godot. Now stop waiting and enjoy your life." I wish I could remember who came up with it.

Steve Burton wrote:

"But that's exactly what he is - by far the greatest conservative thinker of our time."

How can we possibly posit that an atheist be worthy of this title? How can his thought satisfy truth without the Knowledge necessary to do so?

"How can we possibly posit that an atheist be worthy of this title? How can his thought satisfy truth without the Knowledge necessary to do so?"

My understanding is that Scruton has, in the last several years, returned to the Anglican faith of his youth (someone can correct me if I'm wrong). In addition, even when he was an agnostic, he was never a militant one and always seemed to have the 'old humanist' respect for religion which that sort of thinker tends to have.

I agree with Steve: Scruton is our Kirk, and conservatives who don't read him are very much missing out.

Bobcat - I have great respect for Kekes, but he can be a bit quirky. Back at RightReason, he dumped all over Alexander Pruss (a brilliant guy &, more importantly, a *good* guy) over some imaginary slight, and could never seem to admit that he had simply misread what AP had written. I have trouble getting past that unfortunate episode.

James Q. Wilson? He ranks with Charles Murray in my pantheon - but, like Charles Murray, he's a social scientist, not a philosopher.

Leon Kass? An awe-inspiring, charismatic figure. And he knows it.

Roger Scruton is far more approachable.

I feel bound here at least to point out one very seriously wrong-headed substantive position of Scruton's, from a conservative perspective: He holds that while euthanasia should be illegal on the books, the person who commits it should escape all penalty if he is able to provide an affirmative defense that he acted out of mercy and at the request of the other person. That just is not a conservative position. I realize that he was arguing it against people in his own original country (Britain) who wanted assisted suicide to be formally legal. Thus it may have been viewed as a conservative position. But in practice, it comes to the same thing. He took this position in so many words in a post at Right Reason. I prefer not to say any more than that, but I would urge caution before taking him to be anything like *the* conservative philosopher of our time or something. Somehow, I don't think Russell Kirk would have supported assisted suicide.

I thought of this post and the comments about Scruton, when I came across this intriguing post on another humanist in the Scruton mold.

And Steve, for what's its worth, a friend of mine was a student of Kass' and also turned to Kass for spiritual advice once or twice, so at least in this case, I can report back that Kass was a "*good* guy" to my friend.

Although, maybe it was just tribal affinity at work ;-)

Lydia, I never waded into that controversy, at the time, and I probably shouldn't now.

But, just for the record, I think there's a strong case to be made that, on this issue, Prof. Scruton is the hide-bound conservative, while you're the wild-eyed radical.

Jeff - Leon Kass was a "good guy" to me, too - and it had nothing to do with "tribal affinities" - 'cause I'm poor white trash, if ever there was such a thing.

Steve, if believing that actively killing your relatives and friends, yes even out of mercy (and/or ostensibly or really at their request) should be illegal, really illegal, makes me a "wild-eyed radical," then a wild-eyed radical I shall be. As my many posts on these and related subjects here at W4 make plain. In today's political lexicon, and the political lexicon that has been in place for a long time now, we all well know how the word "conservative" is used, how the term relates to life issues including euthanasia, and which of these positions is "conservative" in that sense.

I thought it only fair that amidst all this lauding of Scruton as ostensibly a great conservative of our time, etc., etc., the readers at W4, who are mostly staunchly pro-life, deserved to know what may otherwise be a little-known fact about Scruton.

And if the comparison is to be to Russell Kirk, I would be willing to lay a bet that Kirk would be a "wild-eyed radical" right along with me on this particular issue. Not that it would change my mind if I turned out to be wrong, but since the comparison was brought up, I make that prediction.

Although he's not a philosopher, I'd have to recommend Anthony Esolen as one of the great conservative thinkers/writers of our time. I don't think that I've ever read anything by him that I haven't benefited from in some way or another. And he's the model of approachability.

Amen, Rob!

I think there's a strong case to be made that, on this issue, Prof. Scruton is the hide-bound conservative, while you're the wild-eyed radical.

I'd like to hear that case; I really would. Is it based on the assumption that if Lydia's in the minority, then she must surely be wrong? Or is it that if one is blessed with the virtue of being "hidebound", he can consistently hold that murder committed upon request and for reasons of mercy is wrong but not really? He may be your conservative thinker of our time, but he won't be one for the ages.

Rob G,

I've seen no evidence that Scruton has "returned to the Anglican faith of his youth". His writings have always, and continue to have an unsatisfactory quality for me, albeit on a personal level. He always seems to come up "empty".

I agree with you that he is not "militant" in his atheism. In fact, he wrote an article entitled "The Return of Religion" in which he renounces what he calls the "evangelical atheists". Lawrence Auster discusses the article here:


**I've seen no evidence that Scruton has "returned to the Anglican faith of his youth"**

I believe he mentions it in his recent memoir "Gentle Regrets" (which I read about a year ago) but I don't have the book at hand to check. I can do so later though.

Scruton does indeed write about revisiting the "Christianity of his youth" in the last chapter of his 2005 memoir 'Gentle Regrets,' the title of which chapter is "Regaining my Religion."

Thanks for clearing that up for us, Rob G.

Thanks for the follow-up Rob. I'll be interested to find out more.

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