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National Identity in Roger Scruton’s Work by Krzysztof Brzechczyn

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National Identity in Roger Scruton’s Work

Roger Scruton (1944–2020) is recognized together with Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott as one of the most significant thinkers in the history of British conservatism. Scruton wrote more than fifty books on a wide array of topics, from aesthetics to theology. Besides this, he composed music, wrote novels, and helped dissident movements form behind the Iron Curtain, cooperating with the Czechoslovak dissident movement from 1979 onwards. He was one of the founders of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation which helped the dissidents. In 1985, Scruton was arrested and detained by the militia in Brno and expelled from Czechoslovakia. He described his experiences in the novel Notes from Underground, published in 2014. In the 1980s, he also founded the Jagiellonian Trust which was in contact with conservative circles in Kraków, Lublin, and Warsaw, and which provided them with books and journals, and organized lectures abroad for them. The trust also financed conservative Polish publishing houses, and awarded grants. In 1998, for his help of Czechoslovak dissidents, Scruton was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit (First Class) by President Václav Havel. In 2016, he was knighted for ‘services to philosophy, teaching and public education’ by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2019, Polish President Andrzej Duda presented Scruton with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland and in the same year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decorated him with the Order of Merit of Hungary, Middle Cross.

Patriotism and Nationalism

Scruton carefully distinguished between patriotism and nationalism. He frequently quoted Sieyes’ words, holding them up as the best definition of the essence of nationalism: ‘The nation is prior to everything. It is the source of everything. Its will is always legal … The manner in which a nation exercises its will does not matter; the point is that it does exercise it; any procedure is adequate, and its will is always the supreme law.’

According to Scruton, nationalism is an ideology which—like all ideologies—aspires to being the absolute, which may have dangerous social ramifications as it justifies aggression and expansiveness. That happens because ‘nationalism, as an ideology, is dangerous in just the way that ideologies are dangerous. It occupies the space vacated by religion, and in doing so excites the true believer both to worship the national idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide—the ultimate purpose of life, the way to redemption and the consolation for all our woes.’ In nationalism, the nation is deified5, and national ideologies—which referred to fictional ideas of race and common origin—destabilized the political and social orders in nineteenth-century Europe and contributed to bloody revolutions and upheavals, starting from the Napoleonic Wars. However, a national ideology differs from a sense of national loyalty. Such loyalty is shaped by a sense of common history and cultural identity and is manifested in solidarity with people who share the same identity and live in the same territory. The nature of that sense of national loyalty is peaceful, but it does encompass a readiness to protect the community against an external threat. Scruton illustrates the mechanism of the creation and impact of national loyalty with the example of a home. He notes that the need to have a home is a fundamental human need: ‘Home is not just any place. It is the place that contains the ones you love and need; it is the place that you share, the place that you defend, the place for which you might still be commanded to fight and die.’ Referring to the work of phenomenologists, he observes that home is the place where we are raised, where our identity is formed, and where we learn love, responsibility, and freedom. It is in the home environment that we gain a special kind of knowledge—not practical or theoretical knowledge about laws and facts but tradition, the knowledge of how to behave appropriately or successfully in a given situation—that is, in accordance with other people’s needs and interests, which are rarely expressed directly.

Scruton explains: ‘Good manners form an excellent illustration of what I have in mind. Knowing what to do in company, what to say, what to feel—these are assets we acquire by immersion in society. They cannot be taught by spelling them out but only by osmosis, yet the person who has not acquired these things is rightly described as ignorant.’

According to Scruton, nationalism is an ideology which—like all ideologies—aspires to being the absolute

Scruton also referred to the example of a family when he described the impact of national loyalty: In families, people often get together to discuss matters of shared concern. There will be many opinions, conflicting counsels, and even factions. But in a happy family everyone will accept to be bound by the final decision, even if they disagree with it. That is because they have a shared investment in staying together. Something is more important to all of them than their own opinion, and that is the family, the thing whose welfare and future they have come together to discuss. Scruton claimed that belonging to a family is a part of the common identity of its members, so ‘a shared identity takes the sting from disagreement. It is what makes opposition, and therefore rational discussion, possible; and it is the foundation of any way of life in which compromise, rather than dictatorship, is the norm.’ The national community is supposed to function in the same way: ‘Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance—in something like the way people identify themselves with a family—the politics of compromise will not emerge.’ In that way, argues Scruton, national loyalty stabilizes the democratic order.

It is worth noting that in his view the attachment to the territory of the nation is a harmonious extension of the individual’s bond to his or her home and its vicinity. Moreover, loyalty to the nation presupposes an earlier ability to maintain a relationship with one’s home and close social milieu. In this respect, Scruton follows Edmund Burke, who made the following comments while criticizing the new administrative division in France, introduced by the Jacobins:

We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality. Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards by which alone men come to be affected, as with their own concern.

However, the relationship between home and homeland can also be perceived as less harmonious. For example, Stanisław Ossowski, a Polish sociologist, distinguished two forms of patriotism, one based on habitual and one on ideological bonds, and, consequently, two kinds of homelands, private and ideological. The former is based on the attachment to home and its vicinity where one has spent a sizable chunk of life, usually childhood and teenage years, that is ‘a period of life when we are susceptible to forming stable emotional bonds’. Patriotism stemming from the ideological bond is based on conviction and the will to participate in the life of a community residing in a territory and having a common culture. That community is the ideological homeland for individuals. Ossowski makes a clear distinction between the private and ideological homelands. One can identify with the ideological homeland without having ever visited the country itself. Ossowski explains that as follows: ‘that participation is a necessary and sufficient condition. It is sufficient for the children of emigrants, who have never seen their parents’ land, to consider it to be their homeland.’

How did the nation come into existence?

We should ask, therefore, if the national community is an artificial creation or a natural phenomenon and how it came into existence. Scruton emphasized the bottom-up nature and spontaneity of that process.

The essential thing about nations is that they grow from below, through habits of free association among neighbours, and result in loyalties that are attached to a place and its history, rather than to a religion, a dynasty, or, as in Europe, to a self-perpetuating political class. Nations can amalgamate into more complex wholes—as Wales, Scotland, and England have amalgamated—or they can break apart like the Czechs and the Slovaks, or as the United Kingdom will one day break apart as the Scots reclaim their sovereignty.

Scruton defined nation as ‘a people settled in a certain territory, who share institutions, customs and a sense of history and who regard themselves as equally committed both to their place of residence and to the legal and political process that governs them’. Moreover, people who belong to one nation have a common culture, and the pieces of literature and artistic works foster attachment to the homeland.16 A national community creates myths which affirm its past glory, devotion to the homeland, or motives of the emancipation of its members.

Such a national community is not the only type of community in the social world. Scruton also distinguished tribal and confessional communities. Tribal communities are organized in a hierarchical way, and their accountability is uni-directional: the subject is accountable to the tribal leader and not the other way round (the leader is not accountable to the subject). Additionally, there is no room for the rule of law in such communities. Familial and kinship bonds are more important. In a confessional community, on the other hand, the people are obedient to the priests. The bases of such communities are common beliefs and rituals in the same cult. Members of a tribal community view one another as relatives, members of a confessional community and—as believers, and members of a nation—as neighbours.

Scruton engaged with constructivist theories in which a nation is the creation of colonial bureaucracy,o r modernization, or a by-product of ‘print capitalism’. Scruton rightly noted that one can agree with the opinions of those authors that a nation is a specific social form which came into existence in modernity, but draw conclusions that entirely contradict them. Radicals will claim that nations are a temporary phenomenon without the godly right to eternal existence, and conservatives will argue that the nation is the greatest achievement of modernity because it has replaced earlier forms of social integration which were based on faith or kinship. He also observed the following: When it is said that nations are artifical communities, it should be remembered that there are two kinds of social artefact: those that result from a decision, as when two people form a prtnership, and those that arise ‘by an invisible hand’, from decisions that in no way intend them.

People who belong to one nation have a common culture, and the pieces of literature and artistic works foster attachment to the homeland

The institutions resulting from the operation of such mechanisms as the ‘invisible hand’ are created from the bottom-up, in a natural, spontaneous manner. The institutions which are formed top-down and which are imposed by the political powers lack such features. According to Scruton, nations are such spontaneous by-products of grassroots social interactions. Even if a given nation was created by way of a conscious political decision, the results of that decision will always depend on the level of advancement of ‘invisible hand’-type procceses which are bottom-up and spontaneous. Scruton provided the example of lord Acton’s view that a nation consists of people who inhabit the same territory and who, in order to resolve conflicts, apply the law. The law, however, must be passed, which requires the creation of a legislative power, so it triggers a political process ending in the construction of a nation state.

In Scruton’s view, the nation is a key achievement of European civilization, consisting in the replacement of religious loyalty with secular loyalty based on identification with a territory inhabited by people who share certain cultural characteristics. It would be a mistake to blame all social evils on the sense of nationality understood in that way because in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe was in a continuous state of religious conflict which only ended when a system of sovereign nation states was formed.

The Nation State and Democracy

Scruton wrote that the foundation of democracy is not necessarily liberalism but a sense of national loyalty. The law and lawmaking grow out of the interests and needs of the community, and the authorities are accountable to the community which appoints them. The concept of accountability is crucial here. In Scruton’s theory, national solidarity is the basis of citizens’ mutual loyalty. It connects laws with obligations and, in that way, facilitates agreement among various social classes, interests, and faiths. Patriotism is the foundation for the claim of sovereignty and the guarantor of the rights of individuals, which encompass freedom of religion, conscience, and speech. In Scruton’s interpretation, ‘National loyalty is the rock on which all such attitudes are founded. It enables people to co-operate with their opponents, to recognise an agreement to differ, and build institutions that are higher, more durable and more impartial than the political process itself.’

The accountability of the authorities to the citizens is a natural result of national sovereignty, which is now increasingly subverted and restricted by the actions of such transnational institutions as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Scruton notes that ‘in fact, almost every international institution, however good its intentions, is attempting to pass laws, conventions and treaties—if only to justify its existence and to have something for its overpaid bureaucrats to do’. The most powerful countries, including the United States of America, try to resist supranational regulations, partly by taking over key institutions and partly by imposing their own plans of action. Medium-sized nation states have fewer options in that regard, so their sovereignty is more fragile, and the accountability of their authorities is limited. Scruton illustrated that phenomenon with the example of African and Asian countries, which have to accept the regulations of the World Trade Organization. The unchecked opening of African and Asian local markets to food imports from the European Union, where producers receive grants from EU funds, is likely to ruin the agriculture in those parts of the world.

Scruton predicted that ‘despite the fact that virtually nobody explicitly wants it, a process is under way that will effectively extinguish the national democracies of Europe and erect in their place a European superstate, nominally a democracy, but with largely unaccountable legislative powers, hidden in bureaucratic institutions with their own long-term agendas’. In the case of Great Britain, most laws were imposed by the institutions of the EU. According to Scruton, institutions can only be legitimized in citizens’ eyes and become effective if they are rooted in pre-political loyalty. In the case of nation states, that loyalty is the sense of belonging to the nation. In the EU, national loyalty is treated with suspicion, to say the least, even though there is still no sense of supranational loyalty there. Scruton refers to the history of communist countries—the fact that although the constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was adopted in 1936 and was formally the most democratic constitution of the world during the rule of Stalin, it was not observed. Laws are not put into effect by ceremonious declarations but by procedures which must be independent from states and interests groups, and rooted in the practices of particular societies. One example of such a legal culture is the British tradition of common law.

The Culture of Rejection and Globalization

At the beginning of the 1990s, Scruton introduced the concept of oikophobia (which he also called ‘the culture of rejection’ or of ‘denial’). At first, he reflected on it in the context of American culture. He believed that the proponents and propagators of multiculturalism in American society claim that American culture is characterized by imperialism and the desire to destroy and dominate every competing culture, while other cultures should not only be present on the American intellectual market and in the American educational system, but also promoted and developed. According to his own reformulations of the arguments of American proponents of multiculturalism each culture ‘has its own set of values’, and each set of values ‘has equal claim to respect’.

He argued, however, that the basic task of the educational system is to provide reliable knowledge and not to cultivate various cultures. That is the reason why Shakespeare is taught at American universities and not Dynasty. Scruton also argued that the selection of values cannot be arbitrary because the basic distinction is the one between good and evil. In his words: ‘“Multiculturalism” is an attempt to “pluralize” what is essentially singular—my identity as social being. To regard the human world as a collection of equally valid “life-styles”, “cultures”, and values is to fabricate choices where there are none.’ Moreover, the reference point for a proponent of multiculturalism is always the culture of his or her homeland:

The advocate of multiculturalism is in a state of rebellion against the established order; he is suffering from a pathological oikophobia, a hatred of home, which has been a frequent disease among intellectuals since Enlightenment. He sees that which is his ‘own’, his inheritance, as an alien; he has fallen out of communication with it and feels tainted by its claims on him. He wants to be free of that claim—free from the pressure to belong, to be with ‘us’, to love something, believe in something, accept something what is his. Therefore, he portrays his home as something Other, by means of a stereotype that seems to free him from all obligation towards it.

In his later works, the definition of oikophobia was generalized to cover the rejection of the three natural forms of social belonging: home, family, and nation.

An oikophobic attitude is correlated with the attitude of accidental xenophilia, that is, an accidental and superficial interest in other cultures on the cultural market. The proponent of multiculturalism behaves like a child which flicks through television channels, choosing a new show every time the previous one becomes boring or is too difficult to understand.

However, one feature is constant in the multicultural attitude, namely hate for one’s own culture. Scruton supports that observation with examples from the United States of America where ‘what is most remarkable in the “multiculturalist” movement: it is unable to tolerate what it does not like—namely American “culture” as it is called’.

Where does an oikophobic attitude come from? In his works from the early 1990s, Scruton looked for the roots of that attitude in the social dimension; namely in the transformation of the intellectuals’ role: ‘Oikophobia, I believe, comes about with the secularization of society, and the final loss by the intellectual of his once priestly role.’ Because of the democratization of culture and knowledge, the intellectuals lost their privileged position in the social milieu and became increasingly frustrated and indignant. Those feelings gave rise to an aversion to their own society which could not appreciate their work, and a false stereotype of that society was thus formed. The stereotypes created by intellectuals are more dangerous than those developed by average people because they are supported by theories and, consequently, enjoy greater prestige and range of impact.

Only national loyalty can be the basis for the fulfilment of supranational obligations of the nation states

Later, Scruton noted the sources of oikophobia in the anthropological and political dimensions. In the former, oikophobia was a form ‘of intimate repudiation, such as young people direct towards their parents in the crisis of growing apart’. That kind of oikophobia, however, is temporary—one grows out of it. In the political dimension, oikophobia is more durable and socially dangerous because its proponents manifest the following: they are apt to promote transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws and regulations that are imposed on us from on high by the EU or by the institutions of the UN, and defining their political vision in terms of universal values that have been purged of all reference to the particular attachments of real historical communities. In their own eyes, oikophobes are defenders of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism.

As the attitude of rejection of national loyalty becomes more common, the legitimation of power in nation states is weakened, which, paradoxically, subverts the effectiveness of the legislative activity of the EU because at that moment, only national loyalty can be the basis for the fulfilment of supranational obligations of the nation states—on the condition that those obligations have been accepted voluntarily and not imposed top-down.


To sum up, Scruton derived his understanding of patriotism from the more general approach in political philosophy inspired by the traditions of British conservatism, and its affirmation of common sense and the hidden wisdom of tradition and mores. For Scruton, patriotism meant loyalty to, and solidarity with people living in the same territory and sharing a common culture, way of life, and history. Loyalty to one’s homeland was a simple extension of the loyalty to one’s home where one was brought up.

Scruton distinguished between that meaning of patriotism and attitudes leading to the deification and demonization of the nation. I will try to paraphrase that distinction in the conceptual apparatus of Nowak’s deformative concept of culture. Nowak distinguishes two types of deforming procedures: hard and soft. The hard deforming procedures are reduction and transcendentalization, the soft ones negative and positive potentialization. Let us assume that there is initial object o equipped with a set of properties of certain intensity. In the course of the transcendentalization procedure, that object is equipped with some additional properties which were absent in its original version. The reduction procedure consists in depriving object o of some properties which were present in the original object o. Once positive potentialization has been applied, the intensity of the properties of object o’ are higher than for object o. Negative potentialization, on the other hand, creates an object with lower intensities of properties with respect to those of the initial object. The images of social wholes are created with the use of various deforming procedures. Let us assume that the initial image of a social community (nation, class, state, and caste) is comprised of certain properties (features) considered to be merits and faults. Those features may occur with varying intensities: minimal or maximal. Deification and demonization result from the application of deforming procedures to the initial image of the national community, with the process occurring in opposite directions. The deification of the image of a national community consists in the elimination of all the characteristics of that community which are considered to be faults (reduction) and in the positive potentialization of those features which are viewed as merits. The received image of the nation is enriched by way of the procedure of transcendentalization—the addition of positive qualities absent from the original image. The demonization of that image takes place, as it were, in the opposite direction. By way of the reduction procedure, the merits of the nation are eliminated from the image, while the faults are maximized, and the result is additionally equipped with new faults which are not met in the original image.

The deification of the nation in nationalism leads to xenophobia, that is, the sense of superiority over other nations and contempt for them. In extreme cases, nationalism turns into chauvinism, and it may become a source of wars and aggressiveness. Demonization, in turn, leads to oikophobia—the feeling of inferiority and contempt shown to the national community—and to xenophilia, that is, the belief that other nations are superior simply by virtue of being different. In conducive conditions, the oikophobic attitude can justify the development of supranational institutions which restrict the sovereignty of a democratic nation state and, consequently, the power of the people. Although they are contradictory, the two attitudes— nationalism and oikophobia—are similar in that they create the image of the nation based on hard deforming procedures. In patriotism, on the other hand, soft deforming procedures are used in the process: the intensity of the characteristics considered by the community to be positive is strengthened by way of positive potentialization, while the intensity of the features viewed as negative is weakened (but not removed) from the constructed image by way of negative potentialization. It follows that the patriotic attitude does not preclude criticism with respect to one’s own nation, but that criticism should be constructive, not destructive, because the positive characteristics of the nation are given priority over the negative ones. Just as a positive self-image is the foundation of an individual’s psychological self-acceptance and his or her healthy relationships with other people, the positive image of a national community, accepted by most of its members, is the basis for the formation of durable social bonds.

Similarly, people are more willing to voluntarily give up some of their assets (money, time, work, and life) for the community they appreciate, culturally identify with and consider to be their own. Therefore, acceptance by most members of a nation, though not implying an uncritical attitude to one’s own national community, is the foundation of good relations both within and outside it. When most members of a given community share such an implied patriotic attitude, their relations with representatives of other national communities are devoid of an attitude of superiority and inferiority. This explains why, according to Scruton, patriotism is essentially a peaceful attitude towards others. In this way a national society can become a natural environment in which one can learn about and practice universal values which, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, never exist in their pure, abstract form but are always dependent on a particular place, time, history, and culture.

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