An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture
By Roger Scruton
St. Augustine’s Press, 2000, New ed. 2016.
Hardcover, 173 pp., $25.

This slim volume is invaluable in setting forth clearly a critical overview of contemporary culture and cultural trends, and belongs on the reading list of all who consider themselves engaged in the life of the mind. In this book, Roger Scruton, the newly-knighted contemporary philosopher best known for his work in the field of aesthetics, and author of many works advancing a conservative viewpoint (including his most recent major work, How to Be a Conservative, 2014), is concerned with the differences between culture and high culture, and what these differences mean in the trajectory of what used to be called “civilization” but is now generally simply called “world culture.” He is concerned to defend higher and more critical culture.

Scruton begins with definitions, in which culture is the set of broadly assumed and assimilated markers of what it means to be a person raised in a given time and place as an inheritor of shared norms. What Scruton refers to as high culture was called, in the nineteenth-century formulation of Johann Gottfried Herder, “civilization,” a term now deemed suspect in an era of multiculturalism. In the course of his critical survey of the differences between culture and civilization, Scruton takes his readers on a guided tour of the development of modern and postmodern thought, beginning with the Enlightenment and ending with the “deconstruction” of such postmodernist thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. His insights never lack in penetration (and often in humor), as he surveys the visual arts, philosophy, music, and drama to draw a picture of our current experience of alienation and lack of coherence in goals. The elites of our age not only feel that they are separated from the broader swathe of humanity, they are, and Scruton is incisive in his analysis of how and why.

The book would serve well as a diagnostic outline for seminarians, but it is in fact dated in a significant way. The writing dates from 1998–2000, and while it does address such phenomena as music videos and violence and pornography in cinema, the phenomena of online consumption and the social media are not considered or discussed. One may wish for a follow-up volume in which Scruton can explore whether social media are constructive or destructive in relation to community, but given the author’s insights offered in 2000 it is safe to conclude that he would view social media as instrumental in a further deconstruction of higher culture and critical faculties. Read this book to strengthen your own sense of higher culture and your own critical faculties.  

The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg is an Episcopal priest serving in Wisconsin, having previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.