The Music of the Future

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sir Roger Scruton was invited to the prestigious Donaueschingen Festival, at the very heart of music’s avant-garde movement, where he delivered this lecture in October 2016. We think it may be of interest to the many people who have been following our sometimes controversial series on the Darmstadt School’s role in undermining contemporary composition and diminishing our audiences. It is printed here with the gracious permission of the author.

Important composers, from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to Ligeti and Stockhausen, have been premiered in this place and before this audience. Along with Darmstadt, Donaueschingen has helped to restore Germany to the central place in European musical culture that it has occupied in the past and will always deserve. Now, in its latest and securest phase as the Musiktage, the Donaueschingen festival has become a symbol of musical modernism, and it is a great honour to be invited to speak from this podium to one of the most educated musical audiences in the world today. But in this short talk I will try to outline why I question the prominence in our musical culture of the experimental avant-garde.

In 1860 Wagner published a now famous pamphlet entitled The Music of the FutureZukunftmusik. In it he expressed his view that it was not enough for music to be merely contemporary – zeitgenössisch; it had to be ahead of itself, summoning from the future the forms that already lay there in embryo. And of course Wagner was entitled to write in this way, given what he had achieved in Tristan und Isolde, which was finished the year before his essay appeared, and which introduced the chromatic syntax that was to change the course of musical history.

We should not forget, however, the wider context of Wagner’s argument. The obsession with the future comes from Ludwig Feuerbach, and ultimately from Hegel’s philosophy of history, which represents human events as motivated by the always-advancing logic of the dialectic. For Hegel history has a direction, and this direction is revealed in laws, institutions, and sciences, as well as in literature, art, and music. Each period is characterised by its Zeitgeist, shared among all the products of the culture.

In Feuerbach the Zeitgeist idea is allied to the belief in progress, understood in terms of the life and energy of human communities. The future, Feuerbach believed, is not merely a development of the past; it is better than the past. It marks an increase in knowledge and therefore in power over our own destiny and therefore in freedom. It is not easy now, after the communist and fascist experiments, to endorse the belief in progress that they both so vehemently shared. But somehow, in the arts, the belief survives. We spontaneously incline to the view that each artistic form and style must be superseded as soon as it appears, and that the true values of art require constant vigilance against the diseases of nostalgia and pastiche. Each composer faces the challenge: why should I listen to you? And each claims originality, authenticity, the plain fact of being me, as a vindication. Hence each tries to avoid repeating what has been done already or relying on formulae that, by dint of over-use, have become clichés. In everyday life clichés may be useful, since they evoke stock reactions and settled beliefs. In art, however, clichés are inherently meaningless, since they place mechanical reactions where real inspiration should be.

Wagner’s emphasis on the future of music was influenced by the Hegelian theory of history and Feuerbach’s use of it. But it was also rooted in a real sense of tradition and what tradition means. His innovations grew organically from the flow of Western music, and his harmonic discoveries were discoveries only because they also affirmed the basic chord-grammar of diatonic tonality. They were discoveries within the extended tonal language. Wagner was aware of this, and indeed dramatized the predicament of the modern composer in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is his own striking reflection on ‘tradition and the individual talent.’ In that opera the plodding C major tonality of the Mastersingers is brought to life, not by remaking it entirely, but by moving it onwards, through the use of chromatic voice-leading, altered chords and a new kind of melody in which boundaries are fluid and phrases can be repeated and varied at liberty within them. In the course of the opera the chorus brings the new melody and the old harmony into creative relation, and the work ends jubilantly, with the new incorporated and the old renewed. This is nothing like the radical avant-garde departures that have dominated music in more recent times.

Right up until Schoenberg’s experiments with serialism, musical innovation in the realm of ‘classical’ music proceeded in Wagner’s way. New harmonies, scales, and melodic ensembles were imported into the traditional musical grammar, new rhythms and time-signatures were adopted, and with Stravinsky and Bartók organisation was inspired more by dance than by the classical forms. Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s introduction of the octatonic scale led to music in which, while there was melodic and harmonic progression, there was often no clear tonic, or two competing tonics, as in much of the Rite of Spring. Schoenberg wrote of ‘floating tonality,’ others of atonality, meaning the loss of the sense of key, and the use of harmonies which, even if tied to each other by voice-leading, seemed to be unrelated and, by the old standards, ungrammatical.

None of that involved any rejection of the classical tradition: composers like Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky were renewing that tradition, and what they wrote was not merely recognizable to the ordinary educated listener, but also interesting and challenging on account of its new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmical devices. Both the continuous development of the romantic symphony in Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, and the incorporation of modernist devices into the tonal language, lay within the scope of the existing language: these were developments that issued naturally from the pattern of musical discovery that has characterised Western classical music from the Renaissance.

As things stand now, however, there is absolutely no guarantee that a new work of music will be recognized as such by the educated musical ear, or that it will be possible to hear it as an addition to the great tradition of symphonic sound. A radical break seems to have occurred, with two consequences that the listening public find difficult to absorb: first, modern works of music tend to be self-consciously part of an avant-garde, never content to belong to the tradition but always overtly and ostentatiously defying it; second, these works seem to be melodically impoverished, and even without melody entirely, relying on sound effects and acoustical experiments to fill the void where melody should be. I don’t say the emphasis on acoustics is necessarily a fault from the artistic point of view. I draw your attention to the example we heard yesterday, when Nathan Davies used live filtering to give the effect of resonators, extracting tones from white noise, and turning those tones towards music. The effect was undeniably striking, at times entrancing: as though the tones were being purified so that they can be used as though new.  But until those tones are used, and used in melodic and harmonic structures, the result will remain at a distance from the audience, outside the reach of our musical affections. It is only the loved and repeated repertoire that will ensure the survival of music, and to be loved and repeated music requires a dedicated audience. Music exists in the ear of the listener, not on the page of the score, nor in the world of pure sound effects. And listeners, deterred by the avant-garde, are in ever-shorter supply: not in Donaueschingen, of course, but in the wider culture of our cities, where music will survive or die.

I identify four developments that have led to the place where we now are. Thanks to these developments a new kind of music has emerged which is less music than a reflection upon music, or perhaps even a reflection on the lack of music, or on the impossibility of music in the age in which we live.

The first development is, in many ways, the most interesting from the philosophical point of view, and this is the radical attack on tonality by Theodor Adorno and his immediate followers. Although Adorno linked his argument to his advocacy of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism, the force of the argument is largely negative. It concerned what he was against, rather than what he was for. And Adorno’s argument carried weight in the post-war period because he was an ardent critic of the culture of capitalism, one who had attempted to adapt the Marxist critique of bourgeois society to the new social and political realities. Adorno’s critique of tonality was part of a systematic theory of the death of bourgeois culture. Tonality had to die because the bourgeois order had to die. And the desire nevertheless to cling to tonality, in the manner of Sibelius or Copland, even in the manner of the neo-classical Stravinsky, is bound to lead, Adorno thought, to empty clichés or sterile kitsch. Such is the inevitable result of attempting to make use of an idiom that has died.

This argument of Adorno’s, which is an application of the Hegelian Zeitgeist theory, is not easily answered, even if it is easily doubted. All artistic people are aware that styles, idioms and forms are living things that can also die, and that there is a need, integral to the artistic enterprise as such, to ‘make it new.’ This does not mean being iconoclastic or radical in the manner of the modernist avant-garde. It means conveying a message and an inspiration of one’s own. The true work of art says something new, and is never a patchwork of things already said. This is the case even when the work employs an idiom already perfected by others, as when Mozart, in his string quartets, writes in the language of Haydn.

Thomas Mann wrote a great novel about this, Doktor Faustus, meditating on the fate of Germany in the last century. Mann takes the tradition of tonal music as both a significant part of our civilisation, and a symbol of its ultimate meaning. Music is the Faustian art par excellence, the defiant assertion of the human voice in a cosmos of unknowable silence. Mann therefore connects the death of the old musical language with the death of European civilisation. And he re-imagines the invention of twelve-tone serialism as a kind of demonic response to the ensuing sense of loss. Music is to be annihilated, re-made as the negation of itself. The composer Adrian Leverkühn, in the grip of demonic possession, sets out to ‘take back the Ninth Symphony.’ Such is the task that Mann proposes to his devil-possessed composer, and one can be forgiven for thinking that there are composers around today who have made this task their own.

This brings me to the second development that has fed into the obsession with the avant-garde, and that is the invention of serialism. I call this an invention, rather than a discovery, in order to record the wholly a priori nature of the serial system. The new harmonies and chromatic melodies of Tristan were discoveries: musical events that came into being by experiment, and were adopted because they sounded right. In retrospect you can give quasi-mathematical accounts of what Wagner was doing in the first bars of Tristan. But you can be sure that you will not thereby be identifying Wagner’s own creative process, which was one of trying out new combinations and seeing where they lead.

By contrast, serial organisation was an invention – a set of a priori rules laid down by Schoenberg and adapted and varied by his successors. These rules were to provide a non-tonal grammar for music, determining what comes next independently of whether its coming next sounds right or wrong to the normal musical ear. It is not the tone or the scale but the maths that matters. There is no reason, of course, to think that serial organization should not also lead to sequences that do sound right, or come to sound right in time. But their sounding right is quite independent of the serial organisation.

One of the advantages of working with a framework of a priori rules is that you can say just why this note occurs in just this place: the series requires it. But in another sense you lack such an answer, since the series requires the note regardless of the heard relation to its predecessor. Moreover the grammar of serialism is not based on the scale or any other way of grouping tones dynamically, in terms of what leads to what. A series is the basis for permutations, not linear movements. In listening to music, however, we listen out for progression, prolongation, question and answer – all the many ways in which one tone summons another as its natural successor. Serialism asks us to hear in another way, with the brain rather than the ear in charge.

The result of this is that, while we can enjoy and be moved by serial compositions, this is largely because we hear them as organised as tonal music is organized, so that ‘next’ sounds ‘right.’ We may notice the serial structure; but it is the progressive, linear structure that we enjoy. In a great serial composition, such as the Berg Violin Concerto, we hear harmonies, melodies, sequences, and rhythmical regularities, just as in the great works of the tonal tradition, and we do so because we are hearing against the serial order. It is as though the composer, having bound himself in chains, is able nevertheless to dance in them, like a captive bear.

The third development, associated particularly with Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono, is the move towards total serialisation. Composers decided to serialise time values, unpitched sounds, and timbres, hoping thereby to exert total control over everything. Interestingly enough this development went hand in hand with the emergence of aleatoric scores, in which instrumentalists are handed bundles of notes that they could choose to assemble in any order, or scores which ask for indeterminate sounds. Randomisation had the same effect as serialisation, which was to deprive musical elements of their intrinsic ways of relating to each other. Whether we impose a dictatorial serial order, or present notes in unordered bundles, we undo the demands of melody, harmony and rhythm, which are inherent in the traditional grammar, and replace them with systematic requirements that can be explained intellectually but not, as a rule, heard musically.

In 1970 Stockhausen composed a two-piano piece, Mantra, for this festival. In a subsequent lecture delivered in Britain, which can be seen on YouTube, he sets out the twelve-tone series on which the piece is based. He plays the notes one after another, assigning an equal time-value to each, and tells us that this melody occurred to him at a certain point, and that he decided to work on it, composing flights of new notes around each of its elements, arranging the series in conjunction with its own retrograde, and so on. What was most striking to me about Stockhausen’s description of what he was doing was the word ‘melody,’ used of this sequence that is not a melody at all. Of course there are twelve-tone melodies – for example the beautiful melody that Berg assigns to his destructive heroine Lulu in the opera of that name. But all that makes sequences into melodies is absent from Stockhausen’s theme: it has no beginning, no end, no up-beat, no tension or release, no real contour apart from its pure geometrical outline. It is a musical object, but not a musical subject. And as he explains what is done with it you understand that it is treated as an object too – a piece of dead tissue to be cut up beneath the microscope. We understand the distinction between subject and object because we ourselves exemplify it. The true musical theme is a subject in something like the sense that I am a subject: it has a consciousness of itself, a meaning and a point of view. This is simply not true of the helpless dead sequence that Stockhausen presents us in his lecture.

The effect of such innovations was to replace the experience of music by the concept of music. The typical avant-garde work is designed as the concept of itself, and often given some portentous title by way of illustrating the point, like Stockhausen’s Gruppen: a work for three orchestras in which notes are amalgamated into groups according to their acoustical properties, and tempos are defined logarithmically. Much can be said, and has been said, about this momentous, not to say megalomaniac, composition, and indeed its great success, like that of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, is not independent of the fact that there is so much to say about it, some of which Stockhausen himself had anticipated in his article ‘wie die Zeit vergeht..’, published in the third issue of Die Reihe. The score is not a notation of musically organized sounds, but a mathematical proof, from which the sounds can be deduced as theorems.

The eclipse of art by the concept of art occurred at around the same time in the visual arts, and for a while the game was amusing and intriguing. However, this particular bid for originality has dated much more rapidly than any of the harmonic discoveries of the late romantics. Do it once, and you have done it for all time. This is certainly what we have seen in the realm of conceptual art in our museums and galleries. And it is what we have heard in the concert hall too. In conceptual music the creative act is always, from the musical point of view, the same, namely the act of putting an idea about music in the place where music should be.

This leads me to the fourth development, which is in many ways the most interesting, namely the replacement of tones by sounds, and musical by acoustical hearing. Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer and their immediate successors awoke composers and audiences to the many new sounds, some of them produced electronically, that could enter the space of music without destroying its intrinsic order. These experiments are not what I have in mind when referring to the replacement of tones by sounds and musical by acoustical hearing. I am thinking of a more general transition, from Tonkunst to Klangkunst, to use the German expressions – a transition of deep philosophical significance, between two ways of hearing, and two responses to what is heard.

Sounds are objects in the physical world, albeit objects of a special kind whose nature and identity is bound up with the way they are perceived. Tones are what we hear in sounds when we hear the sounds as music. They have features that no sound can possess – such as movement, gravitational attraction, weight, and position in a one-dimensional space. They exemplify a special kind of organisation – an organisation that we hear and which exists only for someone who can hear it. (Someone might be an expert at hearing pitched sounds, and may even be gifted with absolute pitch, but still be ‘tone deaf,’ since unable to hear the musical organisation. Sequences don’t sound right to such a person, because they never sound wrong.)

The object of musical hearing is organised by metaphors of space and movement that correspond to no material realities. Music goes up and down, it leads and follows; it is dense, translucent, heavy, light; it encounters obstacles and crashes through them, and sometimes it comes to an end which is the end of everything. Those metaphors, and the order derived from them, are shared by all musical people. The order that we hear is an order that we – the musical public – hear, when we hear these sounds as music. And although there is, at any moment, an indefinite number of ways in which a melodic line or a chord sequence can continue without sounding wrong, the ideal in our tradition has been of an uninterrupted sense of necessity – each melodic and harmonic step following as though by logic from its predecessor, and yet with complete freedom.

When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves.

Of course there are sound effects too: sounds from the real world intrude into music, like the unpitched sounds of the percussion section, or the recorded bird-song that intrudes into Respighi’s Pines of Rome. But when we hear these sounds as part of the music they change character. They are no long noises, no longer events in the ambient soundscape, like the coughs from the audience on a cold winter’s day. They are caught up in the musical movement, becoming one with it, and dependent on the forward propulsion of which they are now a part. Thus a single piece of music, with no repeats, may nevertheless contain multiply repeated sequences of sounds. As objects in the material world sounds are identified and counted in another way from the way in which melodies, which are intentional and not material objects, are counted.

The intrusion of acoustical ways of thinking into the practice and teaching of music is something we owe to Boulez and Stockhausen, and to the educational practises that they established. In Stockhausen sounds from everyday life are accorded exactly the same value as sounds within music – they are, as it were, invited in from the surrounding world, as in the work Momente, in which all kinds of sounds and speech-forms are brought together in a potpourri of fragments. As Stockhausen himself says, this work has no real beginning and no end: like all his works it starts without beginning and finishes without ending. For it lacks those elements of musical grammar that make beginnings and endings perceivable. It starts nowhere and stays at nowhere until ending nowhere. The same is true of Boulez’s Pli selon pli, in which the exotic instrumentation and serial organisation do not conceal the fact that no moment in this work has any intrinsic connection to the moment that comes next. The experience of ‘next,’ and the inevitability of the next, has been chased away. In a concert devoted to music of this kind the audience can know that the piece is ended only because the performers are putting down their instruments.

Music (music of our classical tradition included) has until now consisted of events that grow organically from each other, over a repeated measure and according to recognizable harmonic sequences. The ‘moving forward’ of melodic lines through musical space is the true origin of musical unity and of the dramatic power of traditional music. And it is this ‘moving forward’ that is the first casualty when pitches and tempi are organised serially, and when sounds are invited in from outside the music. Add the acoustical laboratory and the result is all too often heard as arbitrary – something to be deciphered, rather than something to be absorbed and enjoyed in the manner of a conversation.

This is not to say that acoustical processing may not have a part, and an important part, to play in bringing sounds into a musical structure. Joanna Bailie, to take just one example, has used the recorded and digitally processed sounds culled in public spaces as inputs into music for which instrumentalists and singers create the musical frame. The atmospheric effect of this was heard here in Donaueschingen a day ago. However, in the work of such composers we see the reassertion of the musical against the acoustical ear, and perhaps even a path back to the place where music reigns in a space of its own.

All those four developments are of the greatest musicological interest, and I do not deny that they can be used effectively, to produce works of real musical power. But it is also clear to my way of thinking that they are responsible for a growing gap between serious music and the audience on which it depends, not necessarily financially (since after all there is a massive machinery of subsidy that keeps the avant-garde in business), but at least spiritually. If avant-garde music is ever to step down from the world of concepts into the world of tones, then it will be because the audience exists in whose ears this transition can occur. Take away the audience and you take away the concrete reality of music as an art. You turn music into an arcane exercise in the acoustical laboratory, in which groups of patient instrumentalists pump out sounds according to formulae which mean nothing, since meaning lies in the ears that have fled from the scene. Of course, not here in Donaueschingen, where the distinctive physiognomy of the avant-garde ear is very apparent all around us.

It is not enough to say that, of course. Adorno may have been right that the old grammar was exhausted, that post-romantic harmony had taken tonality as far as it could go, and that music must therefore find another way into the future, whether or not led by the avant-garde. The great question that we must still confront is whether rhythm, melody, and harmony are still available to us, in whatever modified forms, as we endeavour to write music that will be not only interesting, as so much avant-garde music undeniably is, but also enjoyable and calling out for repetition. We all know Schoenberg’s remark, that there is plenty of music still to be written in C major. But where is that music? Or rather, where is that way of writing, downstream from C major, that will restore to C major its undeniable authority for all of us, as it was restored by the final chords of Die Meistersinger?

Two aspects of modern culture place obstacles in front of us, as we search for the new idiom that will renew our musical tradition. One is the insistent presence of easy music; the other is the dictatorship exerted on behalf of difficult music. By easy music I mean the ubiquitous products of pop and rock, which influence the ears and the attention-span of young people long before they can be captured by a teacher. The audience for new music must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord-grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues, and sarabands – dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body, and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention. And the great question is how it can be done without lapsing into banality, as Adorno told us it must.

Americans tend to accept popular music and the culture around it, as providing the raw material on which the serious composer gets to work. From Gershwin to John Adams it has been normal to take some aspect of the popular music of the day and to show its connection to other and more long-term ways of musical thinking. Just as Gershwin rewrote jazz sequences in the language of counterpoint, so does Adams lift the ostinato four in a bar of the Rock group into an orchestral empyrean, where the flat-footed dance gives way to a gravitationless rhythm that moves and develops with the harmony. Adams uses the tonal language, not to make the kind of profound statement of a Beethoven or a Bruckner, but nevertheless to lift the young ear out of its groove and to make it listen. There is a lesson to be taken from this, which is that music is tested in the ear of the listener and not in the laboratory, and the ear of the listener is plastic, moulded both by the surrounding culture and by the everyday sounds of life as it is now. In a way Stockhausen acknowledged this, with his works that snatch sounds from the surrounding world, and work them into his quasi-mathematical textures. But the textures are feeble, with no musical propulsion, no intrinsic ‘next’ to bind one event to its neighbours. Adams wished to provide that propulsion, into which the sounds of the modern world could be dropped and immediately reshaped as music. But maybe there is something mechanical here too – an ostinato that uses rhythmic pulse to carry us through whatever harmonic and melodic weaknesses we might otherwise hear in the score.

The contrary obstacle also lies before us: the dictatorship of the difficult. Bureaucrats charged with giving support to the arts are, today, frightened of being accused of being reactionary. I suspect that everyone in this room is frightened of being accused of being reactionary. The history of the French salons in the 19th century, and of the early reactions to musical and literary modernism, has made people aware of how easy it is to miss the true creative product, and to exalt the dead and the derivative in its stead. The safest procedure for the anxious bureaucrat is to subsidize music that is difficult, unlikely to be popular, even repugnant to the ordinary musical ear. Then one is sure to be praised for one’s advanced taste and up-to-date understanding. Besides, if a work of music is easy to assimilate and clearly destined to be popular it does not need a subsidy in any case.

It is surely in this way that Boulez rose to such an eminence in France. In a book published in 1995: Requiem pour une avant-garde, Benoît Duteurtre tells the story of the steady takeover by Boulez and his entourage of the channels of musical and cultural communication, and their way of establishing a dictatorship of the difficult at the heart of the subsidy machine. At the same time as vilifying his opponents and anathematising tonal music and its late offshoots in Duruflé and Dutilleux, Boulez achieved a cultural coup d’état, which was the founding of IRCAM. This institution, created by and for him at the request of President Pompidou in 1970 reveals in its name – Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique ­– that it does not distinguish between sound and tone, between Klangkunst and Tonkunst, and sees both as matters for ‘research.’ Maintained by government funds in the basement of its architectural equivalent, the Centre Pompidou, and absorbing a substantial proportion of a budget that might have been used to sustain the provincial orchestras of France, IRCAM has produced a stream of works without survival value. Despite all Boulez’s efforts, musical people still believe, and rightly, that the test of a work of music is how it sounds, not how it is theorized. But only if it sounds difficult, disturbing, ‘challenging,’ ‘transgressive’ could a bureaucrat dare to provide it with a subsidy.

And this is why it is good that this festival exists. Even if it depends on the support of state institutions, it is also addressed to the musical public: it is an invitation to people to make their feelings known, and to make judgments for themselves – which is what I have been doing. It has played a part in exposing the avant-garde to judgment, and also in giving opportunities to young musicians to wrestle with difficult music and to find what inspired it. This place is testimony to the crucial relation between the work of music and its audience. It is proof that there can be an avant-garde in music only if there is an avant-garde audience to listen to it. Whatever the results, you are that audience and far more practised at stretching your ears in new directions than I am. I only wonder whether you might, from time to time, entertain the thought that one can be modern without being avant-garde, without lapsing into sound effects, and instead thinking in the old musical way, in terms of grammatical sequences, with a beginning, a middle and an end, sequences that linger in the ears and the memory of the listeners, so that even if they never hear the piece again, they sing it to themselves inwardly and find in it a personal meaning. It seems to me that, if there is, now, to be a music of the future it will, in that way, belong with the music of the past.

The Assault on Opera

The disappearance of the bourgeoisie has led to a crisis in the arts. How can we track down the defeated remnants of the philistine class, in order to disturb them with the proof of their irrelevance? Theatres, galleries, restaurants and public resorts all offer impeccable post-modern fare, addressed to non-judgemental people. Television has been dumbed down below the horizon of bourgeois awareness, and even the churches are rejecting family values and the marital virtues. Yet, without the bourgeoisie, the world of art is deprived of a target, condemned to repeat worn-out gestures of rebellion to an audience that long ago lost the capacity for outrage.

All is not lost, however. There is one last redoubt where the bourgeoisie can be corralled into a corner and spat upon, and that is the opera. Believers in family values and old-fashioned marriage are romantics at heart, who love to sit through those wonderful tales of intrigue, betrayal and reconciliation, in which man-woman love is exalted to a height that it can never reach in real life, and the whole presented through heart-stopping music and magical scenes that take us, for an enchanted three hours, into the world of dreams. Siegfried’s love for Brünnhilde, shot through with unconscious treachery, Butterfly’s innocent passion built on self-deception like an angel on a tomb, Grimes’s death-wish, rationalised as a longing for Ellen’s maternal love – these are dramatic ideas that could never be realised through words, but which are burned into our hearts by music. Is it surprising that our surviving bourgeoisie, surrounded as they are by a culture of flippancy and desecration, should be so drawn to opera? After a performance of Katya, Pelléas, La Traviata or Figaro, they stagger home amazed at those passions displayed on the stage, by creatures no more god-like than themselves! They will come from miles away to sit through their favourite fairy-tales, and drive home singing in the early hours. They will pay 200 dollars for a mediocre seat, in order to hear their chosen prima donna, and will learn by heart the arias which they are never satisfied to hear unless in the flesh. Take any performance of an operatic classic anywhere in the world, and you will find, sitting in close confinement, motionless and devout for the space of three hours, the assembled remnant of the bourgeoisie, innocent, expectant, and available for shock.

The temptation is irresistible. Hardly a producer now, confronted with a masterpiece that might otherwise delight and console such an audience, can control the desire to desecrate. The more exalted the music, the more demeaning the production. I have come across all of the following: Siegfried in schoolboy shorts cooking a sword on a mobile canteen; Mélisande holed up in welfare accommodation, with Pelléas sadistically tying her to the wall by her hair; Don Giovanni standing happily at ease at the end of the eponymous opera while unexplained demons enter the stage, sing a meaningless chorus and exit again; Rusalka in a wheelchair from which she stares at a football in a swimming pool, while addressing the moon; Tristan and Isolde on a ship divided by a brick wall, singing vaguely of a love that hardly concerns them since each is invisible to the other; Carmen trying in vain to be a centre of erotic attention while a near naked chorus copulates on stage; Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail set in a Berlin brothel; Verdi’s masked ball with the assembled cast squatting on toilets so as to void their bowels – not to speak of the routine Hitlerisation of any opera, from Fidelio to Tosca, that can be squeezed into Nazi uniform. Wagner is always mercilessly mutilated, lest those misguided bourgeois fall for his seductive political message; and as for Madama Butterfly, what an opportunity to get back at the Americans for that bomb dropped on Nagasaki!

The extraordinary thing is not that this mutilation occurs, but that it is paid for by the taxpayer. Opera productions are expensive, and the more facetious they are the higher the cost in the props that are needed to grab the attention of an audience lost in wonder as to the meaning of it all. The producers too are expensive. People like Peter Sellars, who have made a living out of the effort to astonish, are international stars. There is a frenzied competition among such avant-garde producers as to who can squeeze the greatest emotion – positive or negative, it hardly matters – from the reviewers. And it seems that, when it comes to claiming subsidies from city councils and arts bureaucracies, what matters is not what the critics say but how loudly they say it. An opera house, to claim the standing required for a state subsidy, must be ‘controversial’, given to ‘path-breaking’ and ‘challenging’ productions. The bureaucrats need to be persuaded that, without a subsidy, something very important to the future of the city or the nation will be jeopardised. And its importance is proved by the protests that are inspired by it.

What should be our response to this on-going assault on one of the world’s greatest art-forms? One argument that I frequently hear goes like this. Operas are expensive to put on; to charge the full price to the audience would be to price the art-form out of the market. Subsidies are therefore necessary. And subsidies are obtainable only if those who provide them can be persuaded that they are not funding old-fashioned bourgeois audiences, since such audiences have had their share of life and are soon for the chop in any case. Controversial productions are therefore necessary, since the alternative is no productions at all.

There is a measure of truth in that argument. The bourgeois audience is necessary to inspire the modern producer, since otherwise he has no one to offend. But the offence is necessary otherwise the bureaucrats will think that they are subsidising the bourgeoisie, which God forbid. The problem is that the argument is based on a false premise. Opera productions do not in fact need subsidising. For it is not productions that are expensive, but producers. They are expensive because, like Richard Jones, Peter Sellars and Pierre Audi, they have a deep psychological need to draw attention to themselves, at whatever cost to the music. This means outlandish props, lighting effects, strange gestures imposed on the singers in opposition to the natural movements inspired by the music.

I am the more persuaded of my view in this matter by small scale honest performances of the kind that come our way in rural England, or which used to be put on by the great Lorin Maazel at Castleton in Virginia. Every summer we in rural Wiltshire are visited by a small group called Opera à la Carte, under the leadership of Nicholas Heath, who brings classics from the repertoire, from Don Giovanni to Madama Butterfly, performing them on improvised stages in tents or drawing rooms, accompanying the singers with a chamber ensemble, and allowing the magic of the story to spill out over the audience, with only costumes and few unpretentious props to create the scene. At Castleton Maazel enjoyed a small theatre, and later a larger one built to his specification, together with an orchestra put together from the young musicians whom he mentored so generously. But again nothing was spoiled by over-production, the music was allowed to speak for itself, and costumes and a few stage effects were enough to create the atmosphere.

What modern producers seem to forget is that audiences are gifted with the faculty of imagination. This faculty is not extinguished by being bourgeois. Indeed, it is one of the faculties that an ordinary decent bourgeois has to exercise continuously, if only in order to respond forgivingly to the contempt of which he is the target. The obvious truth, that opera stimulates the imagination by presenting a drama as sung rather than spoken, seems to escape the attention of the new school of producers, perhaps because so many of them spend their apprenticeship in the spoken theatre. Perhaps they do not fully understand that serious music, by existing and moving in a space of its own, automatically transports us to an imaginary world. Put singers in costumes that distance them from the audience and, even without stage sets and props, they will move in a world of their own. The music itself will tell them where to turn, and with what expression on their faces. Add a prop or two and all the meaning that the composer intended is there in the room, and only the quality of the performance will affect whether the audience can grasp it.

And here is where I think the greatest disservice has been done to opera by the new style of production. In the past a production was designed to present an opera; now it is designed to interpret it, to attach a meaning to it, whether or not it is a meaning that the work can easily bear. The work is seen as a vehicle for the ideas of the producer, rather than a drama whose meaning lies in itself. Instead of allowing the music to speak the producer stands in front of it, so to say, moralizing at the assembled bourgeoisie, saying that this or that feature of the text or the music must be pinned to some allegorical or symbolic meaning, and that in any event the whole thing has to be made into a relevant commentary on the psychic traumas of the day – otherwise how can we take it seriously? In short the magic of opera, its capacity to create an enchanted world of its own, must be neutralised by an interpretation that brings it down to earth, that pins it into some sordid corner, as Peter Sellars did with Pelléas et Melisande, so that the imaginary world intended by the composer is blotted out by a screen of the producer’s usually half baked and in any case self-aggrandizing ideas.

In Defense of Elitism

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at the University of Baltimore’s Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics as part of our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. You can also view the video of this lecture here.

There’s a very famous phrase, “the tyranny of the majority,” that was introduced into political discourse by two near contemporaries in the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French writer who wrote Democracy in America, travelled around this country trying to understand how it is that people can survive without an aristocracy. He was amazed to discover that they did, he being a member of the aristocracy. And while he thought that human life could change in a democratic direction, he discerned a permanent danger, which he described in these terms: the tyranny of the majority – that is to say, the danger that every public decision will be taken by the majority for the majority and disregard both the rights of minorities and the possibility of disagreement. He discovered that in America this tyranny of the majority had not emerged. So he asked the question, why?

John Stuart Mill, the famous English political philosopher, issued a similar warning. He worried that if one had a real democracy, which was then beginning to emerge in England and had already emerged in America, individuals, minorities, and legitimate groups would lose protection against majority opinion. And, as we know, majorities have more power than minorities. If they have the power to impose their views, then what happens to the minorities? What happens to the people who disagree?

Both Tocqueville and Mill recognized that a true political order can only exist if there is discussion about the issues of the day. There can only be discussion if there is legitimacy of disagreement. But people don’t actually like disagreement. So how do you make disagreement possible? How do you get the majority to accept the fact that there are people who are not part of it?

And it was understood, in America at least, that you need a constitution that in some way stands above popular sentiment and also sets a limit to it. There are many reasons for this, but one in particular is what I call “the liberal fantasy”: the fantasy that people are basically nice, whereas power and privilege are nasty. And so we mustn’t have these powerful things like constitutions or rule of law, people who hold judicial office, or people who stand above the majority and tell them what to do. That’s because people, being basically nice, will always do the right thing as long as you leave them free to do so.

Now, most of you are young and have not yet had the full experience of the nastiness of other people – or the nastiness of yourselves. But there are plenty of opportunities out there, and that will, no doubt, change over time. Although some powers and purposes are nasty, others are necessary in order to make people nice. Incidentally, I think that’s part of what education is: we hope that you young people will emerge from your time here in some measure improved – not just having more knowledge, but having perhaps more ability to get on with others, to make your mark in society, to cooperate, to be the kind of person who doesn’t have to punch somebody in the face in order to have his way.

So people, in general, need managing. And I think all political philosophy needs, in the end, to reflect on what it is in human nature that creates this need for managing. There are certain aspects of the human condition which people are reluctant to think about. You are all reluctant to think about things in yourselves which you know not to be agreeable to yourself and to others. But there are also general features of the human condition which we find difficult to think about.

The first is envy and resentment. People feel resentment towards the goods, the status, the talents of others, and this is normal. Nietzsche, the German nineteenth-century philosopher who I’m sure you’ve encountered in one aspect or another, thought that ressentiment – he used the French word for reasons of his own – was the default position of human communities. In the end, it’s resentment that makes the world go round, and it’s why the world is so awful. And Nietzsche didn’t really belong to the world himself. He was a curmudgeonly kind of guy. He advocated a much more solitary approach to things than most of you would be able to manage. Leaving aside his so-called ‘positive philosophy,’ I think most people would recognize that he’s onto something. Sure, people resent each other, and one thing we most resent in others is the fact that they are doing better than we are. And that resentment is going to be always there – especially when we’re in close competition for something that we really want. We’re in competition for, say, a job or a lover or a social position or status, and we see the other person get it. And we can’t control what we feel.

There’s another part of people that needs managing, however. This was much more interesting to John Stuart Mill, and it is the desire for orthodoxy. Mill believed that orthodoxy, rather than freedom of opinion, is the default position for human societies. He believed that orthodoxies prevail and that we take refuge in them. We know that if we repeat what everybody else is saying, even if we don’t believe it to be entirely true, nevertheless we’re safe, we’re not going to be attacked. And to stand out and say the thing that is generally disapproved of, even if it’s staring everybody in the face, requires courage.

Another feature of the human condition, which has been much emphasized by the French philosopher, critic, and anthropologist René Girard, is that we have an inbuilt need for scapegoating, for persecuting the heretic. If society’s in a difficult position, people are at loggerheads with each other, they’re not able to agree about some issue of the day, or perhaps there’s some threat facing them, it helps in a way to find a person to blame. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t actually to blame; we get hold of him and we persecute him, and we all unite against him and we all feel good about it. We all feel that we found the trouble and we’re getting rid of it. This is what Hitler did, of course, with the Jews in Germany in the inter-war period: he said, “Don’t worry. The reason our society is in total chaos is not because I’m in charge of it. On the contrary, it’s because of all those Jews who are uniting against us, conspiring to undermine the pure behavior of the Aryan majority. So we’re going to persecute them and get rid of them.” And I think if you look back over history, you will see scapegoating as one of the most important features of human society.

And all these three features point to the fact that forgiveness is hard for human communities and hard for individuals. It is difficult to forgive people for being better than yourself, to forgive people for standing out with an opinion of their own, to forgive people for just being the heretic. And penitence is rare. People don’t very often confess to their faults, nor do they undergo any kind of penitence or repentance in order to atone for them or to make amends. And I think you all know this from your own life. And we also know, however – partly because of our Judeo-Christian inheritance – that forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to the kind of social order that we enjoy. People can live at peace with each other in this society because they are ready to forgive others’ faults and to confess to their own faults.

Now, in the light of all these, you can see why it is dangerous to be – or to aim to be – a member of an elite. And in America it’s a fairly normal thing to apologize for being such a thing. Apology is an excellent thing, but it can be taken too far. You’re all used to the American habit of apologizing when someone bumps into you in the street – you spontaneously take the blame for everything that’s going wrong in order to have a kind of preemptive, peaceful relation. Apology in America is a kind of peaceful exit from the ghastliness of human society. Whenever it thrusts itself upon you, you say, “Sorry, sorry,” and you move off. Well, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but of course it doesn’t solve all problems.

The consequences of those features of the human condition are that, first of all, there is a kind of clamour for equality – and this is obviously the case, especially in this society. In every sphere today there is a desire to equalize. People don’t like hierarchies and privileges, and there is a natural disposition to say that they’re not deserved. When anybody claims some kind of hierarchical position, the question is raised, “Who is he? Who does he think he is? And by what right does he claim this superiority over me?” And hierarchical organizations, therefore, such as the Catholic Church, are attacked frequently as anachronisms. People say, “That was fine in the Middle Ages, but we don’t need things like that now – in fact, they’re somehow inherently incompatible with the kind of society that has evolved since.” And the Catholic Church, as you know, I’m sure, is suffering from this – and from other things, too – because people don’t accept this idea that there’s an authority handed down from above, embodied in the person and the office of the Pope and filtering down through all the bishoprics and so on, to the ordinary worshiper. In opposition to that idea you have the Evangelical churches that want to bring everything up from below, saying that the Holy Spirit visits us all equally.

Then again, wealth and privilege, culture and intellect, are all targets of resentment in our society. This is because it’s very hard to take pleasure in assets that you do not share. To take pleasure in somebody else’s good fortune is a rare thing. It involves a work of forgiveness: you have to forgive him for being better than you, for getting the girl that you wanted, and so on. And, as I say, forgiveness is rare. And yet, it is one of the traditional virtues of the American people to take pleasure in somebody else’s success. And I think this is one of the things that makes this society so hopeful. In Europe, it is extremely rare for people to take pleasure in any success except their own. And even then, the first thing that they do with their success is hide it, in case anybody else should know about it. Here, however, being successful, you go out and say, “Yeah, I’ve done it!” And other people who haven’t done it will nevertheless pat you on the back and say, “Great, I’m really pleased for you.” That’s partly because people in this society do recognize that there are opportunities for themselves as well. The sight of somebody achieving something reassures them that maybe one day they’re going to achieve, too.

But, because of the legacy of resentment and because forgiveness is rare, there is a desire to bring down the mighty and to make distinction either nonexistent or worthless. Not in every sphere – and I think this is extremely interesting. In sport, for example, talent is still universally recognized and widely praised. In some way, we feel we are not judged by another person’s sporting success. I would never have had a chance at American football, or indeed at any sporting enterprise, so I don’t worry. I measured my life so that I don’t compete in that sphere, so to speak. But it’s a very interesting question: why people in general don’t really worry much about distinctions in the realm of sport. One suggestion is that it’s so obvious there – that there couldn’t be a realm of sport if there weren’t people who excelled at it, and how could you possibly play a game if you didn’t have the goal of succeeding? It’s built into the very enterprise. But people doubt that it’s built into other enterprises which are really important to us.

There’s a downside to all this. The German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that in every human community there is a motive for the debtors to gang up to dispossess the creditors. And we see this happening in the political process, too: the majority will vote to dispossess the successful, because they believe that wealth doesn’t really belong to those people who’ve got it. Rather, it’s a social asset and it should be distributed more fairly. And through the state we can distribute it more fairly. We can tax the rich and distribute it amongst the rest of us.

And many political philosophers justify this – not quite in the crude terms that I’ve just uttered or the terms that Weber uses. Weber is just speaking the truth. Political philosophy is a wonderful tapestry of lies designed to hide this kind of truth. But John Rawls in his famous book on justice essentially thinks in the same way: wealth is a social asset and it is not owned until it’s distributed. Moreover, it has to be distributed according to a plan which takes account of the social needs of all people, and which, of course, has therefore to be put into action by the state. So, because of this feeling that assets are really in some way socially owned, the majority of people vote not only to redistribute the economic assets of society but also in some way to abolish the threat that is posed by universal education.

There’s been a move towards a curriculum without distinctions – so that everybody gets an ‘A,’ everybody emerges with an honors degree. And this, of course, has the effect of downgrading the value of a degree to the point where maybe there’s no reason to have one anyway. This poses a kind of threat to the education that you’re working so hard to achieve. I know you’re working hard or else you wouldn’t have come here today. You’re working hard not to be given a worthless document, but to be given something which actually shows that you’ve achieved, that your work was worthwhile.

But again, the majority can’t easily distinguish genuine culture, which is the province of a minority, from fake culture, which we can all acquire. And this is something which much concerns the advocate of classical music, because he knows that the classical tradition of music contains within it precious achievements, precious knowledge, and a precious world of feeling which requires a certain effort to enter. Many people say, “No, let’s not bother with that. Let’s just stay with Lady Gaga.” But, without saying anything about Lady Gaga, it is, nevertheless, worthwhile to make that effort. Until you’ve made it, though, you don’t know why. There are a lot of things like this in human life: you know the value of something only when you have become acquainted with it. But to get acquainted with it, you’ve got to be persuaded of its value. It’s a kind of paradox, isn’t it? It’s like Groucho Marx’s famous paradox of club membership: “Why should I belong to a club that would have me as a member?”

As a result of these things, people begin to suspect the whole idea of judgment, concluding that it’s wrong to be judgmental. And the judge is becoming a kind of social outcast in our society. There are some consequences of this fact. One is the attempt to seize and redistribute the assets of the successful. The problem with this, of course, is that it penalizes success so that the assets are no longer there. And this is what we saw in Communist Europe: the confiscation of all the profits of any enterprise led to the disappearance of those profits, so there was nothing to redistribute in the end and society became poorer and poorer. But nevertheless, the majority clamours for more, which, as a result, forces governments to borrow from the future. We must have what we’re used to – not just the opportunities, but the entitlements that our government has promised us, even though there are less and less economic assets from which to renew those entitlements. And we’ve seen this in our societies all through the Western world, too – this borrowing from the future, about which many people are now extremely alarmed. What happens when the creditors say, “It’s time to pay us back”? We saw what happened in Greece and Portugal recently. Greece was rescued, of course, by the European Union, but only by transferring the problem to the rest of the Union. The problem hasn’t actually gone away. So there’s a growing indebtedness and a looming fiscal crisis, and most people would say that the day of reckoning has to come. And we don’t know what it will look like.

Another consequence is the destruction of high culture – the kind of culture that universities should be committed to purveying. Few people have a critical understanding of their own motives. The appetites trump reflection. And people are always looking around for the other person who is really to blame. And this leads in turn to hostility towards distinction in all its forms and a kind of expanding culture of mediocrity. “It’s okay to be what I am, and I don’t care if you think you’re better than me. I’m just happy as I am.”

But there’s an upside to all this. We can get through it. We all know that if you keep your head down, people will leave you alone. And that’s already at least a temporary solution to the problem. I, unfortunately, throughout my life have not kept my head down, and it’s a very bruised part of my anatomy. But it’s still here and I’m soldiering on. And now, having entered my seventies, it doesn’t really matter much what happens to me.

More importantly, we have accepted the need to protect minorities, even educated minorities. And that’s because we recognize in our hearts, especially if we have children, that we want opportunities not only for ourselves but for them. And therefore we do need a culture in which success is distinguished from failure. We may not know what sphere our children are going to be competing in, but nevertheless we do know that there is a difference between success and failure and we certainly don’t want them to fail. So people are not totally committed to mediocrity. I think all parents have a desire for standards in education. And all people who are making a sacrifice to achieve an educated worldview themselves accept that there must be standards. Why else would they be they doing it?

Moreover, parents are competitive. Competition lies in the nature of the reproductive process. Reproduction is not yet a thing of the past, which I’m sure you realize because here you are in this room. I know it doesn’t get a good press today and the numbers are going down, but, still, people do regard reproduction, if only as an unwanted byproduct, as something that happens. And then there those children are, and we do want them to succeed. Competition lies in the very nature of this process. Everybody in the room who has children knows this. You’re in charge of the life of this thing, you’re going to protect it, you’re going to make sure that it’s okay. And that is an essentially competitive attitude because the world is harsh. Real egalitarians, people who believe that equality is everything, tend to be childless – or else, like our politicians, they secretly secure advantages for their children while imposing mediocrity on everyone else.

So, I’ll offer a few defenses against mediocrity. As I say, minorities have rights, and one is the right of association. The right of association serves to protect their assets. We have a right to set up schools and colleges of our own. In a majoritarian culture, these two are under threat – in my country of Britain, they are under threat. Under a Labour government it may not be possible for private schools to exist anymore. But as long as we think there is a right of association, people will get together and try to rescue themselves. And that’s how things perhaps should be.

The lesson of the 20th century, however, is that everything beautiful has been prepared as a sacrifice. If you look back at what happened to Europe in the 20th century – if you look back at the most beautiful culture that has existed, really – you’ll see that everything beautiful in it was sacrificed. Not just the people, but the cities, the institutions, the beautiful systems of law that we inherited, everything was sacrificed – except in Britain, and even there it was fatally damaged. And I think that this is something that all human beings must acknowledge in the end: that everything beautiful is prepared as a sacrifice.

But we must go on, and to some extent we can. We should devise constitutions that contain something of the old idea of inheritance – constitutions which are obstacles to majorities so that they can’t tyrannize over the minorities that want to improve themselves. Then we need a kind of political discourse that conceals this fact from the majority. This is where things become difficult. You have to tell, in the end, a few lies. You have to say, “Of course, this society is all about equality.” And Americans have always said so even though they have a constitution which was carefully designed to prevent that from being the sole truth. The American constitution was designed to protect minorities, to protect people’s abilities to advance and to obey stricter standards than would be available for the majority alone.

And that’s the hardest task, but I think young people go along with it. They instinctively want to regard their activities as achievements. Meanwhile, however, you have to practice the art of concealment. There’s a beautiful Arabic word for this: taqiyya. It was introduced into the thinking of the Shiites in the Middle Ages in Iran, when they were living under Ottoman or Sunnite rule which forbad their particular form of religion. And the word taqiyya comes from their word for holiness, actually. They said, “You must practice these things: whenever confronted by another, learn how to say that you believe exactly as he believes, that you live your life exactly as he does. And inside, suffering plaintively but not revealing itself, is that soul which knows the truth.” Granted, that’s an exaggerated way of describing the condition of people like me, but it is still the case that one must make an effort to conceal sometimes. Now I’m not making an effort to conceal what I think so I’m in a dangerous position. I might become like that sacrificial victim, the scapegoat.

But this is the problem that afflicts us. The advice that must be given cannot easily be given openly. And you have to conceal your distinction in many circumstances of modern life. You don’t necessarily let on that you are less ignorant than your neighbor. Don’t confess to your culture or make any effort to criticize his lack of it. Joyfully condemn yourself as an idiot like him. One of my old students from Princeton came to stay the other day. He’s working at a high-flying financial institution in London, and I said to him, “Well, that’s great, what you’ve got there. It’s terrific. It’s worth all that effort you put into learning classical languages and the works of Goethe in German and all that philosophy I taught you.” And he said, “Yes, but much more useful was learning to talk about football because it’s the only thing they talk about in the office. Once I let slip a remark about Goethe and it became very clear that my career was on the line.” I replied, “Yes, of course, but didn’t I tell you about that?” And he said, “Yes, sorry, but I forgot.”

In the end you have to humbly confess to the right of the other as a member of the majority to determine the future of the society that includes you. You don’t let on that you have the secret desire to pass on another kind of culture. So, what kind of culture? These will be my concluding remarks.

I think we do want to pass on, especially in universities, a culture that is based in knowledge and in the distinction between real knowledge and mere opinion. Obviously, it is very difficult for you personally to distinguish among your opinions the ones that are real knowledge from the ones that are not, because they’re all the same from your point of view. But, in the context of open debate in a university, you’ll come to realize that your opinions have different weight. Some of them are fragile and mean nothing. They don’t go into the balance of discussion in an effective way. But some, when you put them forward rightly, you can get others to believe in and to accept, because they are founded in something else.

And this knowledge must make judgments and set standards, it must distinguish the true from the false, the good from the bad, the virtuous from the vicious, and so on.

It must respect, I think, institutions, inheritances, and enduring traditions. That is one of the difficult things for people of my generation to put across to people of your generation. Obviously, the institutions that I inherited have changed an awful lot over the fifty years that I’ve been conscious of them. But I still believe, not in the value of all of them, of course – some of them have changed and some of them have been got rid of rightly – but nevertheless I believe in their core inheritance that’s responsible for me standing up here now and speaking my mind. And I want to pass that on. And I think it can only be passed on if we respect the idea that it’s already there.

It’s there because it’s been bequeathed to us by people who made sacrifices in order that it should occur. And we I think should learn to honour those sacrifices and to do our part in passing on these institutions and traditions in our turn. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything about them. We have to, on the contrary, make our own living contributions to them. And they have to be amended in lots of ways.

But I think, above all, we have to keep alive the collective memory of what we are as a people. That doesn’t reduce to merely what the majority of people presently happen to want. In America, especially, the demographic nature of the country changes rapidly from generation to generation, and yet there is a sense that we belong together and that we share the thing that we’ve inherited. We want to change aspects of it, but nevertheless without it we wouldn’t be peacefully together in the same place. And I think this involves an active work of memory in which we confront some of the bad things that have happened and nevertheless rescue from them the good things that we want to perpetuate. I think this collective memory must, in turn, be open to the idea of achievement and to the aspirations and ideals that people can still have in the changed circumstanc


Your map to places only the dorkiest dare to go.

Subscribe to find out more about the ideas behind our ideas. And the progress of our projects.

Your email address is safe with us. Unsubscribe anytime.