The Gentle Regrets of Roger Scruton

What we can learn from this great thinker:

We are all impacted by others for good or ill. Some are quite aware of this while others are not. Some who go on to make a name for themselves will acknowledge some of these past influences on their lives. Because one can never get enough of the English Christian, conservative and philosopher Roger Scruton, I want to look at some of the things that he says impacted his beliefs and values. For those who know little or nothing about this champion, see this earlier piece of mine:

Scruton wrote more than one autobiographical work. For example, he discussed his Anglican faith in Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (Atlantic Books, 2012). But it is his 2005 memoir, Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (Continuum, 2005) that I will draw upon here.

As he states in his Preface: “How did you come to be what you are? This question is often asked of me, and from time to time I have found myself revisiting the past in an attempt to answer it.” So let me offer a few snippets from this volume. The first one is something that I have shared before, since it accounts for how he “discovered books”. He writes:

Although my father was a teacher, books did not play a large part in our home. Those that could be found in the house were of a useful or improving kind: encyclopedias, the Bible, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, some gardening books, the Penguin Odyssey, and memoirs of the Second World War. By way of shielding herself from my father’s gloom, my mother dabbled a little in exotic religions, which meant that pamphlets by Indian gurus would from time to time occupy the front room table. But neither she nor my father had any conception of the book, as a hidden door in the scheme of things that opens into another world.


My first inkling of this experience came from Bunyan. The year was 1957. I was 13, a day boy at our next-door grammar school, where I learned to distinguish books into two kinds: on the syllabus; and off it. Pilgrim’s Progress must surely have been off the syllabus; nothing else can account for the astonishment with which I turned its pages. I was convalescing from flu, sitting in the garden on a fine spring day. A few yards to my left was our house—a plain whitewashed Edwardian box, part of a ribbon development that stretched along the main road from High Wycombe halfway to Amersham. To the right stood the neo-Georgian Grammar School with its frontage of lawn. Opposite was the ugly new housing estate that spoiled our view. I sat in a nondescript corner of post-war England; nothing could conceivably happen in such surroundings, except the things that happen anywhere: a bus passing, a dog barking, football on the wireless, shepherd’s pie for tea.


And then suddenly I was in a visionary landscape, where even the most ordinary things come dressed in astonishment. In Bunyan’s world words are not barriers or defenses, as they are in suburban England, but messages sent to the heart. They jump into you from the page, as though in answer to a summons. This, surely, is the sign of a great writer, that he speaks to you in your voice, by making his voice your own.


I did not put the book down until I had finished it. And for months afterwards I strode through our suburb side by side with Christian, my inner eye fixed on the Celestial City. pp. 1-2

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Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life by Scruton, Roger (Author) Amazon logo

In a chapter on how he became a conservative, he reminds us how this will be resisted by the progressives:

There was a price to pay. It became a matter of honour among English-speaking intellectuals to disassociate themselves from me, to write, if possible, damning and contemptuous reviews of my books, and to block my chances of promotion. Some of my criticisms were justified; once stigmatized as a conservative, however, there was nothing I could do to avoid them….


Someone who believes in real distinctions between people has no place in a humanities department, the main purpose of which is to deliver the ideology required by life in the postmodern world. What the soixante-huitards hoped to achieve by violence has been accomplished more effectively by the peaceful self-censorship natural to the academic mind. The attacks that I suffered showed the health of the university organism, which surrounds each invading germ with antibodies, and expels it from the system. Perceiving the rightness and necessity of this I left the university and took up farming – or rather ‘metafarming’, a practice that I describe in News from Somewhere.


Nevertheless I remain what I have been since May 1968 – a conservative intellectual, who not only loves the high culture of Europe, but believes it to be a source of consolation and the repository of what we Europeans should know. It is, to put it bluntly, our best hope for the past. Such a hope animated de Gaulle; it enabled him to save his country not once but twice from destruction. And, by deflecting us from our self-centred projects, it offers a guarantee of national survival. That, to me, is the lesson of conservative politics, and it is one that will never be understood by those who place their hopes solely in the future, and without faith in the past.


The years of conflict have taught me that few will share my convictions, and that all attempts to conserve things come too late…. pp. 55-56

On the issue of marriage and family he says this:

It is only since becoming part of a family that I have fully gauged the depth and seriousness of the opposition between the family and the State. The family has become a subversive institution—almost an underground conspiracy—at war with the state and the State-sponsored culture. Hence, the family has been rigorously excluded from the official curriculum. Mothers appear from time to time in schoolbooks, but they are conspicuously single. Fathers have become unmentionable, as trousers were to our Victorian ancestors. The state-imposed lessons in sex education seem to be designed precisely to sever the link between sex and the family, by showing the family to be an “option” rather than a norm. These lessons will ensure that the next generation will not form families, since it will have destroyed in itself everything that leads one sex to idealize the other and so to channel erotic feelings into marriage.


Sophie and I belong to a growing class of dissidents, at war with the official culture and prepared to challenge it. This official culture is founded on the premise that human material is infinitely plastic, and can be moulded by the State into any shape required. This is one of the first of the official doctrines that you learn, as a parent, to doubt….


Idealization is natural to human beings; for it is the process whereby they try to make themselves lovable and to live in the only security that our life provides. In our marriage vows, Sophie and I were making the same attempt. We knew the fickle lot of the human animal; we knew that married life would be fraught with temptations. But we knew also that those things are not the only reality. We become fully human when we aim to be more than human; it is by living in the light of an ideal that we live with our imperfections. That is the deep reason why a vow can never be reduced to a contract: the vow is a pledge to the ideal light in you; a contract is signed by your self-interested shadow.


Happiness comes through ideals, and it is only by idealizing each other that people can really fall in love. The strange superstition has arisen in the Western world that we can start all over again, remaking human nature, human society, and the possibilities of happiness; as though the knowledge and experience of our ancestors were now entirely irrelevant. But on what fund of knowledge are we to draw when framing our alternative? The utopias have proved to be illusions, and the most evident result of our ‘liberation’ from traditional constraints has been widespread discontent with the human condition. It seems to me, therefore, that you should prepare your children to be happy in the way that you are happy. Treat them exactly as you would if your own ideals were generally shared. After all, your ideals, like your children, define you: between them, they are all that you have. pp. 117-119

Lastly, he offers some reflections on the decline of religion in the UK:

In the England of today, God is a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, with aggressive manners and a violent way of intruding into every gathering, even in the middle of the working week. The Muslims in our midst do not share our impious attitude to absent generations. They come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet and his hands full of strange gods. They are manifestly in the business of social, as well as biological, reproduction. They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred: namely, the future. In the presence of this new religious spirit the voice of the English churches becomes ever weaker, ever more shy of doctrine, ever more conciliatory and ill at ease. The idea that the British should be re-evangelized would be dismissed by most of the official clergy as an act of aggression, even a racist affront to our Muslim minorities. The Church is not there to propagate the Christian faith, but to forgive those who reject it.


Now of course it is one of the great strengths of Christianity that it makes forgiveness a duty and freedom of conscience a religious ideal. But Christians recognize the duty of forgiveness because they seek forgiveness too. Those brought up in our post-religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment, and can neglect their duties without being crippled by guilt. Since religion is the balm for guilt, those brought up without religion seem, on the surface, to lose the need for it.


But only on the surface. You don’t have to be a believer to be conscious of a great religious deficit in our society…. pp. 229-230

And again:

Although doctrine has no place in our public life, a fear of heresy is beginning to grip the countries of Europe – not heresy as defined by the Christian churches, but heresy as defined by a form of post-Christian political correctness. A remarkable system of semi-official labels has emerged to prevent the expression of dangerous points of view. And a point of view is identified as dangerous if it belongs to the old Judaeo-Christian culture, thereby reminding us of what we were when we actually believed something. Those who confess to their Christianity are ‘Christian fundamentalists’ or even part of the ‘Christian fundamentalist right’, and therefore a recognized threat to free opinion; those who express concern over national identity are ‘far-right extremists’ – a label attached to Holland’s Pim Fortuyn, despite his impeccable left-wing credentials; those who question whether it is right to advocate homosexuality to schoolchildren are ‘homophobic’; defenders of the family are ‘right-wing authoritarians’, while a teacher who defends chastity rather than free contraception as the best response to teenage pregnancy, is not just ‘out of touch’ but ‘offensive’ to his pupils. To criticize popular culture, television or contemporary rock music, even to press for the teaching of grammatical English in English schools – all these are proofs of ‘elitism’, whereby a person disqualifies himself from the right to speak. It is as though our society is seeking to define itself as a religious community, whose very lack of faith has become a kind of orthodoxy. pp. 231-232

Much more could be shared from this important volume, but hopefully enough has been to tempt you to get the book and enjoy it for yourself in full.

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