British philosopher and conservative polemicist Scruton (An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Philosophy, 1997) attempts to defend the high culture of the West by means of an all-embracing theory of modern culture’s development and decline.
Drawing on the work of anthropologists and sociologists, Scruton traces the core of any common culture to its roots in religion. Here, he maintains, in the beliefs and observances that surround the various passages of life (i.e., birth, death, and marriage) the community provides not only for its physical reproduction, but for its cultural reproduction as well. High culture, Scruton holds, is no less dependent on religion; it, too, in a heightened and imaginative form, provides a moral education in a world where religious faith is no longer a live possibility. In his fascinating historical narrative, Scruton traces the development of high culture from the Enlightenment (when aesthetics supplanted faith) through the development of Romanticism (and the growth of sentimentality) to the high Modernism whose death is the central fact of today’s culture. Scruton sees Modernism (and its paradigmatic figures, such as Wagner, Manet, Baudelaire, Eliot, and Schoenberg) as a last, heroic attempt to reassert the ordering power of art against the tsunami of popular, commercial culture. As Modernism degenerated into the merely avant-garde, however, high culture embraced kitsch and lost its ability to create order within the culture it had erected. The second, more polemical half of Scruton’s survey examines the shortcomings of such disparate features of our cultural landscape as photography and film, British youth culture, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Taking his cue from Confucius’s Analects, Scruton concludes with a call to live “as if”—to cling to the traditions of our culture without metaphysical systems or religious creeds.
In the end, this generally interesting—and, in parts, fascinating—look at culture and its vicissitudes is long on diagnosis and very short on treatment. In a world without faith (and, increasingly, without its aesthetic transposition), Confucius isn’t going to point the way.