A few thoughts on the passing of the remarkable Sir Roger Scruton
It was not my intention to write a piece on the great Roger Scruton when I learned that he had just passed away on Sunday. But when a friend who also loves him and his work asked me to do so, I quickly reconsidered. So here it is. However, even this soon after his death there are already a number of excellent eulogies that have been penned about him, so there may be little of worth that I can further add.
First, a bit about him, for those not in the know. The English philosopher was a conservative and a Christian, putting him at odds with so much of academia, the intelligentsia, and the modern (postmodern) world. For all his detractors, he had countless supporters who so very much deeply appreciated the man and his work.
Scruton was born in 1944 and educated at Cambridge. He taught at various schools such as Birkbeck College in London, Oxford, Boston University, and the University of St Andrews. From 1982 to 2001 he edited a journal of conservative political thought, The Salisbury Review. He helped to establish the Claridge Press in 1987 (which in 2002 folded into Continuum).
He wrote about his Anglican Faith in Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (Atlantic Books, 2012). He was awarded a Knighthood in 2016. For more on his life – from his own pen – see his 2005 memoir, Gentle Regrets (Thoughts from a Life) (Continuum).
Let me mention one important highlight of his life – something that led to a major shift in his thinking. While doing his PhD in the late 60s, he briefly went to Paris where left-wing rioting was at its peak in May of 1968. What he encountered there resulted in his determined commitment to conservatism. As he later famously put it:
“What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilisation against these things. That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.” https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/07/13/the-cultural-revolution-50-years-on/
Back then when I was still an idealistic 15-year-old in Wisconsin I thought the rioting there and at UC Berkeley, UW Madison, and elsewhere were the wave of the future. It took me another three years to replace my own radicalism with conservatism, and my New Age-ism with Christianity.
As mentioned, much has already been written since his death. Another English conservative – but atheist – Douglas Murray said this in part about the man:
His achievements were remarkable. He was a man who appeared to know about absolutely everything, producing books on architecture, philosophy, beauty, music, religion and much more. In many ways – as his former student Rabbi Sacks once said to me – he seemed bigger than the age. There appeared to be no area he had not mastered.
He goes on to speak of all the controversy, opposition and attacks he had to endure for so many years, and then says this:
A man other than Roger might have become bitter about some of the treatment he received, but he never did. Whatever his complex views on faith, he lived a truly Christian attitude of forgiveness and hope for redemption. His last piece for The Spectator – a diary of his last year – radiates this. If he sometimes fitted uncomfortably with the age in which he found himself, it was principally because he did not believe in its guiding tone of encouraged animosity and professionalised grudge. He believed instead – and lived in – the spirit of a different age. One in which he encouraged his readers to share. That is a spirit of gratitude for what you have received, and forgiveness for what you have not.
One of my first grieving thoughts on hearing the news was how much I still had to ask him. But in that spirit which he encouraged I will instead turn to the shelves I have full of his books and marvel again at the huge amount he gave us. https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2020/01/roger-scruton-a-man-who-seemed-bigger-than-the-age/
One former student of his, Paul Krause, spoke of his commitment to freedom and anti-Communism:
During the 1980s he was also active in anti-communist underground circles in Eastern Europe. Unlike the closeted Stalinist academics ruling over the ivory towers or the anti-Stalinist intellectuals gathered around insignificant journals and newspapers in New York City or London, Sir Roger actually set foot in the battleground for the future of the West and decisively sided with the forces of liberty and equality against authoritarianism and state-sponsored oppression. He had greater wisdom than the so-called intelligentsia, most of whom were implicitly pro-Stalinist, and greater courage than the anti-Stalinist liberals, who comfortably denounced the Soviet Union from their journals and newspaper columns while never setting foot in any communist country. He was recently honored in the past few months by Poland and Hungary for his services to liberty in those dark days. https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/01/sir-roger-scruton-in-memoriam-paul-krause.html
Late in 2019 Scruton wrote about the year just gone by. He said this about December:
During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health. But much more was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defence, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude. https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2020/01/roger-scruton-1944-2020/
Books and quotes
Scruton penned around 60 books on a number of important issues: politics, philosophy, art, culture, sexuality, and religion. I must confess, I only have 17 of his volumes, but his passing has spurred me on to get more of his works. Someone just asked me online what his best book was.
I replied, “With well over 50 books, it would be hard to pick the best. It depends on the subject: he wrote on everything from politics and philosophy to hunting and wine drinking!” He even wrote some novels as well. He truly was a remarkable thinker and writer.
Perhaps one way of giving you some idea of his vast literary output is to simply alphabetically list the volumes of his that I happen to own – and cherish:
Animal Rights and Wrongs (Metro, 1996, 2000)
Conservatism (All Points Books, 2017)
Conservative Thinkers (Claridge Press, 1988)
Conservative Thoughts (Claridge Press, 1988)
Culture Counts (Encounter Books, 2007)
A Dictionary of Political Thought (Hill and Wang, 1982, 1984)
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2015, 2019)
How to Be a Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Liberty and Civilization (Encounter Books, 2010)
The Meaning of Conservatism (Penguin, 1980)
On Human Nature (Princeton, 2017, 2019)
Philosophy: Principles and Problems (Continuum, 1996, 2005)
A Political Philosophy (Continuum, 2006)
A Short History of Modern Philosophy (Routledge,1981, 2005)
The Soul of the World (Princeton University Press, 2014)
Untimely Tracts (St. Martin’s Press, 1984, 1987)
The West and the Rest (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002)
You can read my review of that last book here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2005/09/21/a-review-of-the-west-and-the-rest-by-roger-scruton/
I finish by offering just a few of many quotes from his writings that I have collected over the years:
“Nobody knows—or at least nobody has explained—what deconstruction is. But its very obscurity constitutes a large part of its appeal. By offering reams of gobbledygook, the deconstructionist is able to fortify his all-important assumption: that meaning is impossible. There is no such thing as the objective, decidable meaning of a word or argument. In the official jargon, there is no ‘transcendental signified.’ Every word, once uttered, is hostage to interpretation, and the decision to interpret the word one way rather than another is in the last analysis political—the only real questions are the old ones uttered by Lenin: Who? and Whom? Who is doing the interpreting, and against whom as his victim?”
“A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”
“This is how we should understand the events of 1968 – events that irreversibly changed the political and cultural landscape of Europe and America and which brought into being a kind of institutionalized nihilism. The activists of 1968 were not in the business of perfecting the world. Their utopia was entirely constructed by negation, and such – I maintain – is the character of utopia in all its forms. The ideal is constructed in order to destroy the actual.”
“Tenured professors enjoy all the privileges of the academy in return for relentless debunking of the civilization that made this possible.”
“Leftwing people find it very hard to get on with rightwing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with leftwing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken.”
“Marriage is pro-child and pro-women; it is our social insurance against the rising numbers of abandoned children, the ongoing rise of lone motherhood and the exculpation of men who no longer feel or even demand any responsibility for women or the children they bear with them. Marriage, in principle, is the most friendly of institutions to women, and the disassociation of marriage from children will further isolate and decouple the needs of women from the needs of men. It will erode and ultimately destroy the meaning of marriage.”
“While Islamic civilization is riven by conflict, Western civilization seems to have a built-in tendency to equilibrium. Freedoms that Western citizens take for granted are all but unheard of in Islamic countries, and while no Western citizens are fleeing from the West, 70 percent of the world’s refugees are Muslims fleeing from places where their religion is the official doctrine. Moreover, these refugees are all fleeing to the West, recognising no other place as able to grant the opportunities, freedoms, and personal safety that they despair of finding at home.”
“Islamism is not a cry of distress from the ‘wretched of the earth.’ It is an implacable summon to war, issued by globetrotting middle-class Muslims.”
“Because of this rhetorical disadvantage, conservatives often present their case in the language of mourning. Lamentations can sweep everything before them, like the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in just the way that the literature of revolution sweeps away the world of our frail achievements. And mourning is sometimes necessary; without ‘the work of mourning’, as Freud described it, the heart cannot move on from the thing that is lost to the thing that will replace it. Nevertheless, the case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents. It is not about what we have lost, but about what we have retained, and how to hold onto it.”
“What is being brought home to us, through painful experiences that we might have avoided had it been permitted before now to say the truth, is that we, like everyone else, depend upon a shared culture for our security, our prosperity and our freedom to be. We don’t require everyone to have the same faith, to lead the same kind of family life or to participate in the same festivals. But we have a shared civic culture, a shared language and a shared public sphere. Our societies are built upon the Judeo-Christian ideal of neighbour-love, according to which strangers and intimates deserve equal concern.”
“Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation is slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.”
This is my 30th article about, or quoting from, Roger Scruton. It will not be my last, even though he is now no longer with us. The world is a better place because he was here among us for his brief 75 years. And his influence will continue for far more years than that. God bless you Sir Roger.