Do try to keep up, dear boy

Roger Scruton, with an eyebrow (if not two, or six) lifted in amused skepticism, reads Anthony Grayling. Oh these funny little people who prefer mental freedom to the other thing – how droll they are, but in the end how tarsome.

While treating us to some agreeable ventures in the history of ideas, he recycles the Victorian notion that the West has progressed from oppressive superstition to enlightened liberty.

Dear me, does he really, how very old hat. (But then if we think progress from this to that is a silly idea, why does it matter that it’s old hat? Well because my dear you know ‘Victorian’ – they never got any sex, so it always pays to throw them in by way of eyebrow-raising.) How could anyone think that we had progressed from oppressive superstition to enlightened liberty? Because there used to be laws requiring church attendance? Because atheism got the death penalty? Because of the Inquisition? Because of witchcraft trials? Pffff – nonsense. Simply because we’ve left all that behind, is no reason to think we’ve gained any enlightened liberty. It’s Victorian to think we have. Prudish, sentimental, and above all girly.

Grayling’s scholarly account…makes up for his one-dimensional view of Western history, in which the Good forces of liberty, secularism, democracy, equality and enlightenment are locked in “struggle” (how I hate that word!) with the Bad forces of religion, authority, hierarchy, inequality and darkness. Grayling is surely right to believe that people aspire to freedom and light; but he cannot see, from his ivory tower, that they also need obedience and shadows.

Oh do they. Obedience to what, exactly, on whose terms, for what reasons, in pursuit of what ends, according to what criteria? He doesn’t say. He doesn’t even say why people need obedience. Check out Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the joy of escaping obedience, and then ask yourself what on earth Scruton has in mind.

Grayling sees all liberal ideas as summed up in a single moral imperative, which is the defence of “human rights”. His hostility to Christianity causes him to ignore the church’s defence of natural law, from which the idea of human rights derives. The rights defended in secular terms by John Locke were spelled out more thoroughly by Thomas Aquinas, who is given only fleeting credit. For Grayling, the political influence of the medieval church is symbolised not by Aquinas but by the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada. Why not say, rather, that, while Torquemada disgraced the Dominican Order, Aquinas redeemed it? Aquinas stands to Torquemada roughly as Condorcet stands to Robespierre.

Allow me to quote a comment by Ronald Lindsay, Director of Research and Legal Affairs of the Washington D.C. Center for Inquiry.

For its shameless intellectual dishonesty, this assertion must rank among Scruton’s 10 best distortions. Leaving aside the point that, with the possible exception of Jacques Derrida, Aquinas is the most overrated “philosopher” in the West (and Derrida had better hair), Aquinas expressly endorsed what Torquemada carried out. In the Summa Theologica, Tommy argues that it is imperative that heretics be killed as quickly as they are convicted. ST II-II, Q. 11.

Condorcet, of course, opposed Robespierre. Aquinas would have applauded Torquemada.

That’s probably why not say that while Torquemada disgraced the Dominican Order, Aquinas redeemed it: because he didn’t.

Grayling concludes his book with an extended warning against the way in which the hard-won liberties of the subject are being eroded in Britain and America. He makes a strong point with good-natured grace. But…The right to hunt – on which the way of life of my neighbourhood depends – was recently taken away by a dictatorial House of Commons.

The right to hunt. The right to preserve foxes so that they can be hunted under the pretext that they prey on chickens – that right. Nothing Victorian there – that’s pure Regency. Butch, dressy, exhibitionist, and expensive. Darling Prinny, how we do miss him.

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