Hungarian Conservative

In a World of False Idols Scruton’s Fiction Holds the Truth

The south view from the Town Hall Tower of Prague in 1983.
The south view from the Town Hall Tower of Prague in 1983.
Ágnes Vészi/Fortepan
While the supposed freedom of a materialistic culture will tend to undermine any sense of the sacred, we can be aware of the false idols and choose to tend to our souls. Scruton, indeed, left us a final work on this very topic.

This article was published in Vol. 3 No. 3 of our print edition.

Faber recently released a short volume of previously published speeches and essays by Milan Kundera entitled A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe.1 It is remarkably prescient in light of the Russia–Ukraine War; however, in this essay I would like to turn my attention to the West. Curiously, while re-reading Kundera’s speeches and essays, it was not Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being that came to my mind but another, less widely read novel, Roger Scruton’s Notes from Underground (2014).2 In Kundera’s famous 1983 essay, from which this collection takes its title, he poses a similar question to one that Scruton’s novel provokes: what has happened to Western European culture? Both authors address this question from similar starting points. Kundera was writing in 1983, when the Central European nations were turning to the West in order to understand themselves as a part of a European whole. Roger Scruton’s novel is set in Prague in 1985, and centres around a group of dissidents who have some contact with the West. Both consider European culture and Christianity to be under serious threat at this time, and Kundera says definitively that it has ‘bowed out’. Scruton’s concern is how to address the fact that ‘when freedom came, God disappeared’. Both reflections shed invaluable light on Europe immediately after the fall of communism, and the question Kundera asked with such urgency in 1983 remains important for us now. Their work warrants close examination.

Appearing in Le Débat in November 1983 (no. 27), Kundera’s essay ‘A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe’,3 a mere twenty pages, set off a tidal wave of reaction and discussion in Europe. It provoked polemics from Russia and Germany, and for the West, at a time when it no longer saw Central Europe as anything more than a part of the Eastern Bloc, it was a shocking wakeup call. Kundera vehemently reminded the West that Central Europe, by its culture, belonged entirely to the West. He emphasized that for the Central European countries, Europe does not represent merely a geographic phenomenon but a spiritual notion synonymous with the word ‘West’. He wrote that ‘The moment Hungary is no longer European—that is, no longer Western—it is driven from its own destiny, beyond its own history: it loses the essence of its identity.’4

Central Europe is distinctive, however, and Kundera understood the grouping as an ‘uncertain zone of small nations between Russia and Germany’ that share a culture insofar as they possess the ‘same memories, the same problems and conflicts, the same common tradition’.5 The key here is ‘conflicts’, and these nations are ‘small’ in more than a geographical sense. Their ‘smallness’ reflects an existential state whereby they are always under threat, a state they have been in in modern times since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and this has driven them to hold fast to their collective cultural memory. This feature, which distinguishes them from larger European nations, is even expressed in music. While the French, Russian, and British anthems speak of grandeur and eternity, the Polish anthem, Kundera reminds us, starts with the verse: ‘Poland has not yet perished…’. Kundera notes that in the revolts in Central Europe the contemporary creative effort assumed a far greater and more decisive role than in the history of any other European mass revolt, and we witness this reading Kundera’s 1967 Address to the Czech Writers’ Congress, which opens the collection. Kundera writes that part of the reason the West does not care to see the drama of Central Europe and has ‘not even noticed’ its disappearance or significance, is that the West does not even have a meaningful understanding of itself, particularly in its own cultural role. In Western Europe, ‘culture has bowed out’6 and the real tragedy for Central Europe is not Russia, but Europe itself.

Anonymous painter, Miracle of the Translocation of the Holy House of Loreto (16th century), Loreto, Italy. PHOTO: Wikipedia

European unity was once based on a shared religion, then, from the modern era, in which the medieval God was ‘changed into a Deus absconditus’, religion bowed out, giving way to culture, which became ‘the expression of the supreme values by which European humanity understood itself, defined itself, identified itself as European’. Now, however, ‘just as God long ago gave way to culture, culture in turn is giving way’, and Kundera asks the question that will be our concern: ‘But to what and to whom?’

‘What realm of supreme values will be capable of uniting Europe? Technical feats? The marketplace? The mass media? Will the great poet be replaced by the great journalist? Or by politics? But by which politics? The Right or the Left? Is there a discernible shared ideal that still exists above the Manichaeanism of the Left and the Right that is as stupid as it is insurmountable? Will it be the principle of tolerance, respect for the beliefs and ideas of other people? But won’t this tolerance become empty and useless if it no longer protects a rich creativity or a strong set of ideas? Or should we understand the abdication of culture as a sort of deliverance, to which we should ecstatically abandon ourselves? Or will the Deus absconditus return to fill the empty space and reveal himself? I don’t know, I know nothing about it. I think I know only that culture has bowed out.’7

Kundera holds no hope of the Deus absconditus returning and considers the mass media and the new ‘journalism’ as ‘indistinguishable from whatever the West today is meant to be’. He illustrates how the West has not even realized that this change has occurred by recounting a time when, still shaken by the invasion of Prague and all that it represented, he arrived in France and tried to explain to his French friends the massacre of culture that had taken place: ‘Try to imagine! All of the literary and cultural reviews were liquidated! Everyone, without exception! That never happened before in Czech history, not even under the Nazi occupation during the war.’ His friend’s response was a somewhat bemused one, ‘they looked at me indulgently with an embarrassment that I understood only later’. He realizes that there are no longer literary and cultural reviews in France, or if there are, people do not discuss them and would not notice if they vanished. Culture bowed out in France long ago: ‘In Paris, even in a completely cultivated milieu, during dinner parties people discuss television programs, not reviews. To be sure, there were great painters, playwrights, and musicians, but they no longer held a privileged place in society as moral authorities that Europe would acknowledge as its spiritual representatives. Culture no longer existed as a realm in which supreme values were enacted.’8

It is key to note here that, unlike many contemporary declinist accounts that lament the loss of ‘high culture’ and the rise of an unbridled mass media and tech world, Kundera understands culture to be made up of ‘moral authorities’ and ‘spiritual representatives’. Culture, as the only adequate replacement for religion, carries moral weight and takes on a sacred quality which makes it capable of uniting a people. In this way it should exist in a realm separate from, though unavoidably related to, politics. In a modern world however, this is impossible and it is interesting that Kundera takes 1937 as the time that the decline of culture in the West began, writing that in his experience it was identified by Franz Werfel at a League of Nations conference on ‘The Future of Literature’ where Werfel spoke against not only Hitlerism but what he saw as a totalitarian threat in general: ‘the ideological and journalistic mindlessness of the times that was on the verge of destroying culture’.9

In the wake of the collapse of communism it was not just Kundera who was attempting to make sense of European identity. Writers and thinkers had registered a significant change in Western culture for some time and the fall of the Berlin wall ushered in a wealth of proclamations and cultural observations from Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?’ (1989) to Uwe Steimle’s Ostalgie. The mood had been set in Europe by the ‘father of postmodernism’, Jean-François Lyotard, who wrote The Postmodern Condition in 1979, and European intellectuals were in the process of ‘deconstructing’ the culture of the West, conceived of as not just passé but now as ‘oppressive’—a white, Christian, imperial ‘hegemony’ that had continually subjugated minorities throughout its history and had a culture that needed ‘de-colonizing’ and ‘re-writing’. Cries of ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!’ were heard on university campuses and now seem tame considering we live in a world where anti-West revisionism is de rigueur du jour. Indeed, the contrast between the depth, humanity, and universality of the works of the Western tradition with the sheer crassness of the attacks continually mounted upon it by itself is almost unfathomable, but Kundera recognized that the seeds were sown long ago, and Douglas Murray’s recent book War on the West (2022) is a comprehensive account of the cultural iconoclasm that has occurred in recent times.10

Of more interest here are the changes that occurred immediately following the fall of communism, when the Western political class announced a New World Order. As David Martin Jones points out in his book History’s Fools, ‘For a brief, unipolar moment, liberal democracy flourished, and ideological conflict abated. World politics, channelling Francis Fukuyama, embarked on a path leading to the promised land of a secular, cosmopolitan, market friendly, end of history. Even though civilizations might still clash, political scientists were convinced that the “snowballing effect” of democracy’s third wave would prove irresistible. Or so it seemed.’11 Liberal democracy, the market, technology, and globalism all promised to unite in the name of ‘Universal Human Rights’ and abstract concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘tolerance’, and ‘justice’ became the popular slogans of a new decade. But this newspeak had real-world consequences. The expansion of the European Union meant new EU and UN declarations, and in 1995 the UN issued its declaration of Principles on Tolerance. It was as if Kundera’s musing that ‘the principle of tolerance’ as one of the supreme values Europe turns to in its attempt to unite had come true. It did. However, it came with Kundera’s caveat, ‘but won’t this tolerance become empty and useless if it no longer protects a rich creativity of a strong set of ideas?’

The elevation of foundationless, secular, liberal concepts to a religious realm is perhaps the defining feature of our contemporary Western world. This was visible in its infancy towards the end of the Cold War, when the Western media’s deification of the cause célèbre and its slogans served as particularly grating reminders of the West’s inability to comprehend both the complicated nature of communism and simple daily life behind the Iron curtain. But the slogans live on as the new holy writ, now understood through the concept of ‘fundamental human rights’. The consequences of this foundationless ideology for Western understandings of morality have been dire. Human rights ideology purports to offer the basis for moral opinion, for legal precepts, and for policies designed to establish order in places where people are in conflict. However, unlike religion, which gives a clear answer when asked what it commands or forbids, when you ask what rights are fundamental you will receive a different answer depending on whom you ask.

In Europe, we need to only look to the European Parliament to see the new religion’s approach to settling our deepest moral questions. Last year the members of the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution calling for the right to abortion to be included in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This Charter has the same value and power as EU treaties, so the right to abortion according to the EU is now a fundamental human right. This was a final blow in a long, sustained attack on Christianity in Europe, and it was a real-world result of what happens when a society has a weak or fragmented moral tradition and creates the opening for self-appointed moral teachers. The problem with these abstract ‘rights’ is that they presuppose that without a codified set of rules we are without moral resources. We are not, and our deepest moral resources find articulation not just in our character or disposition but in our cultural norms and artistic expressions, and they connect all generations of a particular culture. This was the dilemma that the newly ‘liberalized’ peoples of Central Europe faced after the fall of communism, that Kundera so forcefully identifies. So, as Scruton prompts us to ask, what to do when faced with the fact that ‘when freedom came, God disappeared’?12

‘While the supposed freedom of a materialistic culture will tend to undermine any sense of the sacred, we can be aware of the false idols and choose to tend to our souls’

Roger Scruton’s Notes from Underground is set in Prague in the twilight years of the communist regime and follows a young Czech writer, Jan Reichl. At the outset of the novel we find Jan in the United States in the early twenty-first century, where he has ended up working as an academic, and the story of his time under the Iron Curtin is told through his retrospective recollection from the US. As the events of the novel are already known to our unreliable narrator, the book requires at least two readings. When considering the ‘ideas’ found in the novel, it is unavoidable and indeed useful to keep Scruton’s authorial voice in mind, and his personal experience of teaching in Tomin’s underground education network in Prague and Brno. Indeed, many of the vivid and beautiful descriptions of architecture and the countryside in particular are taken from his time there, and the novel is worth reading for those alone. Readers have focused almost exclusively on this potentially autobiographical aspect, and I think in doing so they have failed to acknowledge the novel’s literary merit and intellectual force. Ferenc Hörcher, for example, mentions Notes briefly in his towering Art and Politics in Roger Scruton’s Conservative Philosophy, writing that ‘to the present writer, who was born and brought up in Communist Hungary, Scruton’s vision of Eastern Europe in this novel always seemed to be somewhat caricature-like, a Romantic expressionist, or a Freudian world of dark instincts and repressive political power’, adding that this might be the result of Scruton’s own subjective impressions in those countries before the fall of the Iron Curtain.13 These remarks bring up aspects of the novel that are in fact important. On close examination we find that Scruton’s use of caricature and his framing of perspective in the novel are key to elucidating his understanding of the problem dissidents faced after the fall of communism, and our present question for the West.

Jan comes to the attention of the semi-official ‘underground’ after writing a samizdat volume clandestinely published by his mother, who runs a samizdat press. She is captured by the secret police and her imprisonment frames the plot. Early on, in the need to address her predicament, we are introduced to the West and the elusive notion of ‘human rights’. Jan and his group make contact with the chief representative of the ‘human rights machine’, an American press attaché by the name of Bob Heilbronn who manages to get her charge changed from one of subversion in collaboration with foreign powers to the lesser ‘misuse of socialist property for private gain’. Heilbronn uses Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle, and Jan’s mother becomes a cause célèbre in the West. The way this unfolds reveals the deep chasm between the reality of everyday life under the Iron Curtain and the liberal ideology of the West. While Jan insists that his mother’s case is not about ‘human rights’ but about ‘those precious things…realities, reimagined over centuries and constantly loved’,14 Heilbronn, who capitalizes greatly off his work after the fall of the Berlin Wall, can only think through prisms of power and in abstractions: ‘Mr. Heilbronn swivelled his glasses round to me. Trust me. It is about human rights.’15

While Heilbronn and human rights do help, they are a double-edged sword, and the dissidents get a taste of what the new world will be with the arrival of a less-than-welcome visitor to their seminar group. The dissident seminar group operates as a ‘parallel polis’ in the novel, a concept taken from Václav Benda’s samizdat essay of the same name. When Jan attends his first meeting he is ‘astonished to find [himself] in a gathering where questions were posed as though they were common property and where knowledge was assumed, not displayed’ and leaves feeling as if ‘he is walking on air’.16 Looking back from his university post in Washington DC twenty years later, ‘where the ripe fruit of abundance hangs from every tree’, he reflects on the superficiality and atomizing nature of that freedom: now ‘fear is a product, to be bought and sold in videos or downloaded from the internet…how can I conjure a world where words were kept close like secrets, and friendship had the furtiveness of sin?’ The unwelcome visitor is from the land of the free, a New York professor who specializes in human rights, Martin Gunther. Scruton reminds us again that Jan is writing from America: ‘I can no longer be surprised by the individual instance of Professor Gunther. Then, however, I looked on him as a creature belonging to another form of life, about as relevant to our situation as a migrating bird to the branch she sits on.’17 This is important, as Scruton does not often draw our attention to Jan’s self-conscious narrative position, preferring to let the reader get lost in the imaginative, ornate descriptions of buildings and landscapes, particularly when evoking Eden-like images of ‘home’.

Home has been disrupted, and Professor Gunther does not ‘sit’ but is ‘installed at Rudolf’s desk’ and one can imagine him installed like a shiny new Apple II breadbox with a colour screen and floppy disk slot. ‘His was a mobile face, of a kind that we Czechs, in our attempts to go unnoticed, had long since discarded’ and Jan takes immediately against him, distrusting him, but ‘distrusting my judgement too’.18 Here the older Jan labours to stress that, at the time, he was genuinely curious about Professor Gunther’s ideas, but has since come to detest them. He is barely able to separate the two minds, however: ‘Rudolf’s face glowed with self-importance as he spoke, and this too displeased me, since I saw the whole episode as a needless provocation…but Professor Gunther was enjoying his part in the affair, and stood up to address us with that air of cost-free humility that I have come to know so well in America.’19

Scruton then begins to break the fourth wall, closing in for his critique of human rights, and Gunther begins to traverse through the Enlightenment canon with names like ‘Kant’ and ‘John Stuart Mill’ and words like ‘justice’, ‘oppression’, and ‘power’ coming to assert that a consensus gradually emerged in America that rights protect groups against their oppressors. For Jan this is as foreign as it can get: ‘our small-scale local conflict was absorbed into a “struggle” as vast and all-embracing as that of the Russian Revolution. But the contours of this struggle were unknown to us. Nothing concrete or familiar was suggested by Gunther’s words, and for a while we floated in a dream of pure abstractions, liberated from reality and staring in wonder at the visiting lion.’20 The voice of Scruton then pipes up, playing devil’s advocate through Gunther: ‘The true belief, we learned, is the useful belief, the one that enables you to affirm the rights of your group, and to gain the illuminated plateau of liberation. Truth means power, just as Nietzsche and Foucault had said.’21 The crux of human rights doctrine espoused by Gunther is revealed when he tells the room ‘that claims to human rights, whenever made by a community in search of liberation, are inherently justified’. Young Jan’s head spins out of control: ‘Whose side was he on? And on whose side was I?’22

And suddenly, Professors Gunther’s discourse becomes concrete, and the dissidents are plummeted to earth under the weight of a new kind of Newspeak: ‘Women, Gunther told us, are an oppressed class, whose reproductive nature has been stolen from them by patriarchal structures installed for the benefit of men.’23 A collective outburst ensues, and Father Pavel, the artful philosopher-novelist who makes things of the spirit, so fragile in the kingdom of falsehood, palpable, reveals how the foundationless nature of the ideology of ‘human rights’ means that it is too malleable to settle our deepest moral questions. It leaves no room for our deepest moral concerns:

‘According to you, the professional woman has the right to kill the child who hampers her career, while the child has no right to her protection. Maybe your subtle philosophers and judges have impeccable arguments for thinking that the unborn can be disposed of according to our convenience. For us the word právo means right and also justice, and it is one part of pravda, meaning truth. I am the way, the truth, and the life, said our Savior, and he gave his life so that we should live. In the catacombs we make use of this word “right”, not because we have those subtle arguments, but because it expresses the thing that they cannot steal from us, which is our humanity. It tells us to protect those who have done no harm and who come into the world without offending it. But you tell us that such people have no rights.’24

Professor Gunther can only end his talk with ‘a friendly gesture of shared triumph’ concluding that ‘however much we Czechs may suffer from the unjust restriction of our human rights, so too did women suffer in America’.25 However, the experience left the dissidents in a state of shock that Jan observes ‘cast a new and disturbing light on our previous discussions’.26 In a discussion on abortion that was not informed by religion or the communist state they had ‘entered a rough terrain of conflict, where we were divided against each other, as individuals making our separate ways…we were discussing things as though preparing to make real choices, laying down paths into the future that would be many and divergent when the time for action came. We were shaping ourselves, for the first time, as the free citizens we would one day need to be.’27 We are acquainted with this free world at the end of the novel, and in the fate of Father Pavel, or in his fate we see through Jan’s eyes, lies Scruton’s commentary on what to do when faced with the fact that ‘when freedom came, God disappeared’.

Jan only hears that Father Pavel had left his work, and his church had been definitively sealed up with metal screens. Then, sometime later, when back in Prague visiting his mother, Jan walks by an office of the local branch of the Civic Forum. He sees Father Pavel ‘speaking to a small crowd of young people about the need for a new kind of politics, an “anti-politics”, which would permit us to be no longer slaves or subjects but citizens, enjoying our freedom and our rights. The speech could have been scripted by Professor Gunther, so replete was it with clichés, and so far from the mysticism that had awoken in me the frail spirit of discipleship.’28 It then occurs to him in the street that it was not Father Pavel, but that ‘this last image from a vanished world was just another fiction, born of my need’.29 The reader is left to decide whether Father Pavel has transformed into a liberal prophet who worships the new false idols or if he remains somewhere in the catacombs where there is humanity and truth.

Scruton, in this final gesture, invites the reader to pay attention to the ‘fiction’ and understand that it is born of Jan’s need to glimpse the soul that is still lying beneath the new clichés. He is criticizing those clichés that the new neo-liberal human rights activists co-opted from dissidents such as Václav Havel, but also reminding us of that need for the sacred in a materialist capitalist world seemingly devoid of religion and culture. While the supposed freedom of a materialistic culture will tend to undermine any sense of the sacred, we can be aware of the false idols and choose to tend to our souls. Scruton, indeed, left us a final work on this very topic. He completed his libretto An Angel Passes shortly before his death, and it is currently being set to music by David Matthews. In it, I think we might find Father Pavel in his Church of Saint Elizabeth, lighting a candle for the West. Anthony O’Hear has written this about it:

‘To my mind, even as a bare libretto, An Angel Passes encapsulates some of Scruton’s most profound and revelatory thinking, nowhere more so than in the enigmatic words of our title…Without going into detail or revealing its denouement, An Angel Passes is set in Eastern Europe (possibly Czechoslovakia) a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It deals with the dilemma faced by those who had stood out against Communism but are now largely disappointed by the materialistic capitalism which replaced it. The liberation itself, and the new cost-benefit mentality which accompanies it, turn out to be yet another way of denying the deepest yearnings of the soul; yearnings which, under communism, had often found expression in religious thought and practice.

It may surprise some to think of dissidence in communist Czechoslovakia in religious terms. Doubtless not all of the dissidents were religious—some were explicitly agnostic or even atheist. Nevertheless, many of those who visited that country in the 1980s and who moved in anti-regime circles were surprised to see the extent of unofficial religious activity there. In a (necessarily) pseudonymous article from Czechoslovakia published by Scruton in the Salisbury Review in 1983, we read that the most revealing feature of the Czech intellectual atmosphere of the eighties is the growing religious revival, particularly among those young people who are looking for firm ground and a meaning for life, which will be unpolluted by the disgusting material and ideological needspropounded by the regime…But, and this is the paradox explored in An Angel Passes, when the explicit censorship and control is lifted, a vacuum arises in which more immediate, more noisy and more materialistic values can flourish unchecked, drowning out those intimations of something higher which had kept the spirit alive under communism. The situation is even more poignant when those who are profiting most in material terms from the new atmosphere of freedom include many who had belonged to the higher echelons of the old regime, together with westerners of a rapaciously exploitative bent.’ 30


1 Milan Kundera, A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe (Faber and Faber, 2023).

2 Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground (Beaufort Books, 2014).

3 Kundera, A Kidnapped West, 37.

4 Kundera, A Kidnapped West, 37.

5 Kundera, A Kidnapped West, 37.

6 Kundera, A Kidnapped West, 37.

7 Kundera, A Kidnapped West, 37.

8 Kundera, A Kidnapped West, 61.

9 Kundera writes that ‘The last direct personal experience of the West that Central European countries remember is the period from 1918 to 1938. Their picture of the West, then, is of the West in the past, of a West in which culture had not yet entirely bowed out.’ A Kidnapped West, 59.

10 Douglas Murray, The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (HarperCollins, 2022).

11 David Martin Jones, History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics (Hurst, 2020), 13.

12 Roger Scruton’s website, standpoint-22-june-2020.

13 Ferenc Hörcher, Art and Politics in Roger Scruton’s Conservative Philosophy (Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism, 2023), 80.

14 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 148.

15 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 148.

16 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 98.

17 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 98.

18 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 238.

19 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 239.

20 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 243.

21 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 244.

22 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 244.

23 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 245.

24 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 247.

25 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 245.

26 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 248.

27 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 249.

28 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 325.

29 Scruton, Notes from the Underground, 326.

30 This is the only information we have on Scruton’s libretto at the time of writing,

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While the supposed freedom of a materialistic culture will tend to undermine any sense of the sacred, we can be aware of the false idols and choose to tend to our souls. Scruton, indeed, left us a final work on this very topic.