Ian Christie reflects on the life of philosopher and writer Sir Roger Scruton. 24/01/2020
Sir Roger Scruton, who has died aged 75 after several months of illness, was a brilliant philosopher, writer and musician. He had a distinguished and sometimes chequered career as an academic, journalist, farmer, composer, and entrepreneur. He was knighted for services to philosophy and education; he founded what he once called ‘Britain’s fastest–growing postmodern rural consultancy’; and he was interrogated by the secret police in communist Czechoslovakia.
This all generated a huge body of books, essays, lectures, novels and short stories – and two operas. Roger was a friend and inspiration to many people, like me, who shared few of his political positions, just as he was to people around the world who embraced his distinctive conservative worldview. I knew Roger for over 20 years, and among the many occasions I had the pleasure of hearing him speak was at a Theos seminar a few years ago. It is a melancholy privilege now to offer this appreciation of him for Theos.
Roger’s erudition and range of interests and expertise were astonishing. His philosophical work spanned aesthetics, political theory, metaphysics, sexual desire, the sacred and many other themes. He wrote with exceptional clarity about Kant and Spinoza; he wrote with great wit and scorn about thinkers he saw as obscurantists – notably Heidegger. He was an expert on Wagner, and the aesthetics of music; and he was a gifted pianist. He persistently reworked his philosophy of conservatism, and he became the most thoughtful and coherent living theorist of that tradition. As if all that were not enough, he founded a publishing house; presided over his farm (‘Scrutopia’) in Wiltshire; wrote a funny and endearing wine column for the New Statesman magazine; and during the 1980s assisted Central European dissidents behind the Iron Curtain.
His conservative disposition was shaped by the tortured relationship he had with his father, a bleakly austere socialist; and, on Roger’s own account, by his reaction to what he saw as the nihilism and incoherence of the student revolutionaries in Paris in 1968. He was also profoundly affected by what he saw of the Communist dictatorships in Europe. This generated a tension in his conservatism.
His Burkean political philosophy was at its core one of caution, acceptance of incremental change, peaceful compromise and consensus–seeking, all based on a commitment to relationships in local and national communities of membership. However, his antagonism to the Marxisant leftists and regimes he encountered in his youth gave him a combative streak and a readiness to offend. He felt embattled by ‘the Left’. Hence the regular battles with leftwing academics and media down the years, that led him to feel strongly that he had been driven out of mainstream UK academic life for holding strongly conservative views.
If he could often display something of a persecution complex, he could plausibly claim justification for it at times. A case in point was the media storm following the New Statesman‘s publication last year of an interview with Roger in which his comments were edited to make him appear bigoted. MPs joined the Twitter ‘pile–on’, condemning Scruton and successfully calling for his dismissal from the chair of the UK Government’s commission on beauty and the built environment. There was time for repentance once the facts were revealed. Roger was reinstated, the minister concerned wrote an apology, and the journalist was disciplined. The episode revealed the risks inherent in social media, of spirals of mob denunciation and scapegoating, affecting people across the political spectrum. Scruton’s treatment – and that of many other public figures across the political spectrum – notably female MPs – offers a dispiriting case study of what we have to overcome in governing the digital public square as a civic commons.
Roger was surely right that many left–liberal people showed a striking lack of liberality in their demonisation of figures such as him, whether or (more likely) not they had read him or listened to his talks. They in turn could point to his track record of provocative and sometimes outrageous remarks against socialism, multiculturalism and political correctness. But he was a far more complex figure than the one painted by his detractors. Those political critics who got to know him, read him and hear him would often express amazement that the right wing villain they expected to encounter was in fact kindly, funny, wise, self–mocking, and worth collaborating with. He was, certainly in his latter decades, always willing to seek out common ground – especially on environmental issues – with sympathetic interlocutors from the Left.
These were in many ways more congenial associates than the libertarian conservatives in the USA who fêted him. Roger’s conservatism had in common with theirs a dislike of central state regulation and a celebration of liberty and enterprise. But he was no neoliberal ‘free–marketeer’, and disliked the cultural and environmental impacts of capitalist globalisation and commodification. He never developed a conservative political economy that would explain how, in the absence of strong public regulation, we can tame capitalism and ensure that the costs and harms of development are internalised by business. But he was clear that conservatism was about local and national values, attachments and virtues that could all be undermined by commodification and consumerism to disastrous effect. Among other achievements in developing his conservative political philosophy, he produced the most interesting and coherent account of conservative environmental thought in our time, in his book Green Philosophy. He was much more sympathetic to ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘Red Tory’ communitarianism and localism than he was to the disruptive neoliberalism embraced by the post–1979 Conservative Party and US Republicans.
Roger’s conservative philosophy emerged from his account of human nature. We are social animals who flourish in communities in which we find meaning and fellowship as members of a shared culture. We have a deep need for settlement and continuity. The wisdom embodied in settled traditions is hard won and should not be discarded in favour of top–down plans to remake society. In this vision, religion is a set of institutions meeting a deep need for the bonding of individuals and groups into a coherent culture and social relations. Roger’s attachment in the second half of his life to the Church of England – as a local church organist and as a member of the congregation – reflected a belief that the churches embody and sustain the traditions of English culture, linking the generations across the centuries in a common web of bonds, obligations and love of place. This vision of the role and significance of the church is expressed, amid some sweeping generalisations about Anglican history, in his book Our Church.
It could seem at times that for Roger the main role of the church, and of religion in general, was to incarnate nothing more than this idea of local belonging and of the mutual obligations and affections of community life. The Church of England was not so much the ‘Conservative Party at prayer’ as a great tradition of Burkean commitments to locality and nation. The presiding emotion is one of nostalgia and the ‘awkward reverence’ expressed by Philip Larkin’s speaker in his poem Church Going. However, there was more to his religious stance and vision than this. His account of human nature, as in his books The Soul of the World or On Human Nature, was not just about sociality and its tensions.
Influenced by Kant, he also saw in human rationality and in the first–person conscious perspective a profound mystery, one that could not be dispelled by reductionist accounts of the mind as the product of the brain. Consciousness, and the recognition of its presence and moral force in the face and life of the Other, pointed towards a transcendent dimension to existence. In The Face of God and other late works, Roger explored how far we can make sense of this.
At times, he seemed to come close to an account of transcendent meaning that ruled out, or at least did not depend on, the Christian hope of resurrection to eternal life. In this perspective, the sense of ultimate meaning achieved in self–sacrificial love is its own transcendent reward, even if Nothing lies beyond. Such seems to be the message in his analysis of Wagner, whose post–Christian art comes close to offering a new kind of religion for Roger, the only kind feasible in a world of post–Enlightenment modernity. However, at other times the Scrutonian philosophy of religion seems to be much closer to the orthodox Christian vision and hope. In the end, he was content to say that philosophy can only take us so far; music, such as the Liebestod in Tristan and Isolde, or poetry, such as that of Rilke or T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, can guide us further, towards the edge of understanding. Like Wittgenstein, he saw the mystical as a dimension we can simply gesture towards, not reach via analysis. Whatever final metaphysical conclusions he reached, he was clear that meaning, beauty and the good all come together in our expressions of self–sacrificial commitment and love.
His was a great life. While to die at 75 seems premature these days in the West, I suspect he would not have raged against the dying of the light, having achieved a serenity that eluded him in his earlier decades and that was not overcome in the turbulence of his final year. I shall miss him. RIP.
For those who want to read more of Roger Scruton, and in particular his views on religion, we would recommend:
The Soul of the World
The Face of God
‘Regaining my religion’, in Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life
On Human Nature
Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England