Two intellectual giants left us very recently: they were the American, Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922-2019), and the Englishman, Sir Roger Vernon Scruton (1944-2020). I am considering them together for several reasons: firstly, because they shared many attitudes, not least recognition of the role of religion in shaping society; secondly, because they did not kow-tow to baying Mobs unaware of anything other than Received Opinion; and thirdly because the so-called “lefties” loathed them. All are excellent reasons why we should respect both.
I first came across the name of Gertrude Himmelfarb when I reviewed The Victorian City: Images and Realities, edited by Jim Dyos and Michael Wolff, in 1973.In that massive publication is an excellent essay by her in which her erudition, scholarship, humanity, intelligence, and understanding ring out loud and clear.
Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia who had a huge respect for learning. She acquired a deep interest in British history during her time at Girton College, Cambridge, and on returning to the U.S. she wrote The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion, in which she described the Victorian responses to the problem: she held such responses were disciplined and realistic rather than self-indulgent and sentimental, and that poverty needed to be discussed using language that was moral, not merely based on narrow economics. Victorian notions of responsibility and compassion, she argued, needed to be introduced into contemporary debate. In my own work on philanthropic housing, I recognized the huge importance of Christianity through channels such as the Clapham Sect Evangelicals or the Hackney Phalanx High Churchmen in not only drawing attention to a massive and scandalous problem, but in coming up with practical exemplary solutions. What I termed The Evangelical Conscience was a powerful catalyst in the campaigns for model housing and healthy nations, especially through the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes and the work of its honorary architect, Henry Roberts (1803-76). Himmelfarb regarded religious belief in general as a vital underpinning of social thought, and of course recognized that Jewish immigrants to Britain themselves became model Victorians, with their desire for self-betterment, their family values, their respect for learning and order, and their self-discipline.
She hugely admired George Eliot (1819-80), regarding her as the greatest novelist of Victorian England (I would certainly hold that Middlemarch is a masterpiece), not least for Eliot’s intellectual roots in Europe and her position as a profound English moralist. Himmelfarb was also fascinated by Eliot’s introduction of Jewish characters in her writings and by her obvious interest in Jewish life. But Himmelfarb began to take a cautionary view of modern society after early dabblings with the Far Left and Trotskyism in the 1940s, prompted, no doubt, by grave concerns concerning Stalinist repression. Her immersion in Victorian studies led her to a belief in the vital importance of individual responsibility as well as a profoundly unfashionable advocacy of the role of religion as the glue of cohesion in the structures of society. This was undoubtedly because of her realization that the Victorian virtues she had come to admire in her studies had not been passed on to later generations in Britain, and indeed had been ridiculed, subverted, discouraged, and denounced, as the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith” (as Matthew Arnold memorably described it) had further been stirred to anger by what she perceived as dangerously corrosive liberalism, something the Holy See had been worried about a century earlier, especially during the reign of Pio Nono (1846-78). But by the time Himmelfarb was concerning herself with these matters, she feared that post-1945 America, and indeed the whole of the West, had slipped or even lost its bearings, and was sinking into a swamp of grievous moral disorder. That moral disorder could also be seen in the physical shambles, the dystopian horrors, wreaked on city after city, by Modernists for whom the past, and especially the Victorian past, meant nothing, and any reminders of it had to be destroyed. It was a catastrophe.
Himmelfarb saw that the nineteenth-century virtues of work, thrift, prudence, temperance, self-reliance, and personal responsibility were among those “Victorian values” dismissed by trendy lefties, prompting her to write The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, in which she made it clear that she believed that one of the prime causes of the terrifying statistics about crime, drunkenness, welfare dependency, drug-addiction, and so on, was the jettisoning of a sense of morality, and that, in turn, was because of the erosion of the role of religion in society. She also mentioned the distinction, found in much of the Victorian literature on the subject, between the deserving and undeserving poor. These views brought opprobrium in bucketloads on her head from the so-called “liberal-left,” habitual readers of The Guardian, and the reptiles of the media generally. Predictably, she was denounced as reactionary, mean-spirited, absurd, partisan, and so on by those for whom anything Victorian was a target for hatred, and for whom, peering through fogs of invincible ignorance concerning the Victorian period, the objects of their hatred were all heartless exploiters, grinding down the poor and wallowing in religious hypocrisy. Himmelfarb, on the contrary, held that study of the Victorian period and personalities who molded it would be of enormous benefit in the increasingly dangerous and rackety world of today.
She also studied the Scottish Enlightenment, contrasting it and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English liberalism with the violent distortions of “liberty” that ended in the absolutist, dictatorial, anticlerical, destructive blood-bath of the French Revolution and the Terror, through which a whisper out of place, or deliberately uttered in an atmosphere of hysterical paranoia, led to Madame Guillotine and the shrieks of approbation from the Mob, for the Mob always loves to enjoy human beings being humiliated, and it is even better when there is plenty of blood. Himmelfarb was fascinated as to why religion and reason managed to co-exist and even find some sort of common ground in England and Scotland during the later years of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century, whereas in France the violence was truly sickening, and the European-wide destruction that followed might suggest lessons to those capable of uncloudy thought. Her The Roads to Modernity is also worth reading again, especially today, for she understood that the deepest beliefs of key figures and groups are enormously important in determining the way society changes, and so she deemed it essential for historians to understand what she called the élite processes of opinion-formation, while many others were concerning themselves only with working-class histories. Her passionate belief in learning from the past brought her concepts of history into modern debates, but earned her few friends among the shallow and trendy.
Roger Scruton was assumed by dimwitted mental adolescents to be some sort of High-Conservative privileged toff, but his background was actually quite humble, with a grandfather who was a laborer, a primary-school-Socialist father who prohibited his children from reading books such as those featuring Benjamin Bunny and other characters by Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) on the grounds that such stuff was bourgeois (the most cutting term of abuse used by those of leftist persuasion), and a mother who accepted the social distinctions his father wished to abolish. Precociously bright, he was schooled in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and won an Open Scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read philosophy, graduating with a Double First. With such phenomenal success, he might have been expected to stay on at Cambridge to research and teach, with a Fellowship to go with such activities, but he did not care for “the mist of nostalgic paederasty“ that hung around the Cambridge courts, so traveled in Europe instead.
It was in Paris in 1968 that he experienced his epiphanic moment: as he witnessed mobs of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans smashing things up, erecting barricades, hurling missiles at the police, mouthing sub-Marxist drivel, and screaming insults against the bourgeoisie (a group from which they themselves had emerged), he realized how important it was to defend Western civilization and culture against the sort of mayhem that had led to the horrors of the French Revolutionary and Bolshevik Terrors. He became a conservative, on the side of those who wished to conserve things rather than destroy them, but over the years his valiant attempts to instill a notion of conservatism into the British (largely English) Conservative Party failed, perhaps because the Conservative Party no longer exists. It is more like the Gladstonian Liberals of the nineteenth century, without the intellectual clout.
Despite his early reservations, Scruton returned to Cambridge to take up a research fellowship at Peterhouse, and acquired his Doctorate in aesthetics, but while at Peterhouse he met the architectural historian David Watkin (1941-2018), who, influenced by Monsignor Alfred Newman Gilbey (1901-98), Roman Catholic Chaplain at the University, cultivated fastidiousness in sartorial matters, courtesy, high standards of scholarship, abhorrence of Modernism in all its forms, and deep respect for the Church, thereby incurring the displeasure of the scruffy, the trendy, the sloppy, and the left.
Scruton went on to become a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, gaining a Readership in 1979 and a Chair in Aesthetics later. Throughout the 1970s he became more and more disenchanted with British politics, especially with the “deviousness” of Edward Heath (1916-2005—a prime minister who led the country into Europe on largely false premises) and the ‘dreariness’ of the Labour Party, but he was even more alarmed by the very obvious decline of English institutions, as they were invaded by, then taken over, by the Left. All this encouraged him in his quixotic belief that the Conservatives “needed to think more” (a forlorn hope), and he published his influential The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980, which scuppered any chance he might have had of rising to the very top of Academe with an Oxbridge Chair. He was by then seen as a “right-wing academic” in a climate where the vast majority of so-called “academics” had embraced the received opinions of the liberal-left. Scruton’s criticisms of the whole notion of human “equality” went against an entire quasi-religious orthodoxy that was the fundamentalist belief of what was, in effect, a Mob.
In 1982 Scruton became editor of The Salisbury Review, a periodical with a very small circulation but big ideas concerning the need to establish a true conservative dominance in intellectual life. In 1984 the journal published an article by the headmaster of a school in Bradford, Ray Honeyford (1934-2012), in which he criticized political correctness and adherence to the mantras of the misplaced orthodoxy of fashionable “multiculturalism” because it actually disadvantaged children from families not speaking English, and was really only about furthering the careers of those in the race-relations industry, while making the lives of teachers impossible, among many other perfectly valid points. The ensuing uproar was predictable, and Honeyford was suspended: after an appeal to the High Court, he was reinstated, but such was the hatred deliberately generated by the left and the Mobs shrieking “racist” that Honeyford had to be protected and took early retirement. Scruton’s robust defense of Honeyford led to Scruton’s character-assassination in the public prints, attempts to silence him from giving lectures (the Mob would be waiting to hurl abuse at him, so town-councils and other bodies who could not “guarantee his safety” canceled his speaking-engagements as the easy way out), several lawsuits, two interrogations, an expulsion, the end of his university career in Britain, the vitriolic hatred of those who claimed to be “liberals,” endless sneering, contemptuous reviews, and cowardly suspicion of, and distancing from, him by the mis-named “Conservative” party.
Undeterred, he went on the attack with Education and Indoctrination in which he demonstrated that school-lessons were really becoming left-wing propaganda from which inconvenient facts were discarded, and in Thinkers of the New Left he attacked several well-known “intellectuals” who were held to be “progressive.” Much of the detestation of Scruton expressed in print or in speech came from more-than-comfortable “Champagne-Socialist” enclaves such as Islington, where sartorial denim-clad conformity spoke inelegantly of admiration for Mao’s Little Red Book, claimed as almost Biblical authority in up-and-coming circles within the People’s Republic on North London. In such milieux, phenomena such as the Cultural Revolution or Stalinist Purgings were whitewashed or excused as “necessary,” so it is not surprising that those having to suffer Soviet repression began to see Scruton as a gleam of light in a dark world: his writings began to circulate in Eastern Europe, where dissident groups eagerly read what he had to say. Scruton learned Czech, and taught Václav Havel (1936-2011—after the fall of Communism, President of Czechoslovakia 1989-1992, and then of the Czech Republic 1993-2003), whose origins as a bourgeois had severely disadvantaged him under the brutal Communist régime. Scruton was arrested by the Communists and expelled from Czechoslovakia, and during his frequent visits to Communist Poland was tailed by the secret police, both facts which should have won him plaudits among those apparatchiks who pretended they were in the “liberal” camp in Britain, but who in reality mourned the passing of the Soviet-dominated East.
Returning to academic life, albeit in a far more lowly position than his intellect might have taken him, he carried on a relentless campaign against Modernism, and especially in its architectural manifestations. This had its beginnings in his Art and Imagination of 1974, and continued with his works on aesthetics in which the influence of both Kant and Burke can be readily detected. In 1992 he left Birkbeck, and took up a chair in Boston, Mass., where he found satisfaction in teaching some of the more religious students because they “had that residue of European culture which most young people in England no longer had,” an observation I can wholeheartedly endorse from my own experiences in academe in England and America. “Education” has been so narrowed and corrupted in England that very few young people have any understanding of their own country at all, let alone of its place in European culture: in fact they are culturally ignorant and deprived, knowing nothing of the great Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome from which European civilization has evolved, having been brainwashed in “multiculturalism” and all the other recently fashionable fads imposed by “educationalists” determined to ensure education is no longer liberal in any sense, but one-track indoctrination into rejection of the West, its history, its culture, and its values. In particular, what he saw as the sacred duty to preserve great art, music, literature, architecture, and so on, informed his view on education, but he became deeply pessimistic, as do many of us, believing that pop music and other deeply malign forces, not least celebrity culture, vulgarity, trivialization, dumbing-down, political correctness, acceptance of the Mob as the arbiter of everything, and the all-pervading dictatorship of the liberal-left (which is illiberal and intolerant) were undermining what remained of the severely weakened defenses of High Culture.
Scruton was a deeply serious man, albeit with a wry, dry sense of humor. He believed that conserving High Culture was a sacred duty, and was passionate about the English countryside and its customs (he was devoted to the Hunt, which earned him further opprobrium from the bunny-huggers and suburban ignoramuses who have no conception of what a fox can do in a hen-run), an understanding of beauty (a word Modernists banished a century ago), traditional values (including common decency, respect for the law, and discipline), real architecture with meaning (as opposed to the flatulent emptiness of dystopian bling), and true in-depth understanding of Western history. Although, like many of us, Scruton had difficulties with religious belief, finding even acceptance of the existence of a Deity tricky in a great many ways, he supported the notion of religion in a social role, and actually became an Anglican, playing the organ in his local parish-church (a devotee of the works of Wilhelm Richard Wagner [1813-83], he was also a composer, with two performed operas [The Minister and Violet]to his credit), so, like Himmelfarb, he appreciated religion as a kind of binding agent necessary for a decently functioning society.
Given his considerable work on aesthetics, Scruton was appointed to chair the British Government’s Commission concerned with Building Better, Building Beautiful, as a few politicians had finally woken up to the fact that Britain had been and was being wrecked by bog-standard hideous dystopian developments that were aesthetically indefensible, and did not work either, in any way (however, and predictably, they invariably won plaudits from the lefties and their architects received honors galore). Once in post, and working on his brief with his colleagues, Scruton was unwise enough to agree to an interview with the left-wing New Statesman, which duly picked several remarks out of context, and made sure those selected titbits were made widely known. In a breathtaking act of knee-jerk cowardly reaction on the part of the “Conservative” Government, Scruton was sacked from the unpaid post, and the interviewer loutishly trumpeted his triumph by posting an image of himself swilling Champagne to celebrate the feeling he had by getting a “right-wing racist and homophobe” sacked. However, a transcript surfaced, and it was obvious from it that Scruton’s words had been “misrepresented,” to be mild about it. The New Statesman was obliged to print an apology, and Scruton gently, with old-world courtesy his detractors certainly did not deserve, observed that there was a “general recognition” that he had been “traduced” by a “wretched interviewer,” and was duly reappointed to the Commission as co-chairman. The Commission’s report duly appeared early in 2020.
But by then it was too late. Scruton died on January 12, 2020. Was his fatal illness partly triggered by the disgraceful way in which he had been treated? That is a question to which no answer can be given. He was always aware that he was a member of a true conservative counter-culture, having, like others of like mind, to move and act very quietly and discreetly within supposedly intellectual circles, “catching each other’s eyes across the room like the homosexuals in Proust,” as he deliciously put it in a typically Scrutonian drily humorous aside, which no doubt aroused squeals of abusive comment accusing him ever-more vehemently of being “homophobic,” but then I am sure his accusers have never read Proust, and one suspects that some of those ignorant, infantile fools have never, ever heard of the author of À la recherche du temps perdu.
Professor James Stevens Curl is a leading British architectural historian. His most recent book is Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (Oxford University Press). In 2019, The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art of America honored him with an Arthur Ross Award for Excellence in the Classical Tradition (History & Writing).