The death of Roger Scruton on January 12, 2020, came as a surprise, even a blow, to me. I knew he was fighting a terrible battle with cancer, but I was under the misimpression that he had turned a corner for the better. We had been intermittently in touch by email in recent months, and I admired his spirit and his continuing vigor and alertness. He had been honored throughout the fall of 2019 by the Czech, Polish, and Hungarian governments, respectively, in a welcome display of gratitude for his courageous efforts to aid the intellectual underground in each of those countries in the decade before the revolutions of 1989 that felled European Communism, seemingly once and for all. That story is best told in Chapter Five of Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016), discourses ably initiated and conducted by the Irish philosopher Mark Dooley. I know that these honors meant a great deal to Roger, as one can immediately tell by looking at the photographs of him as he was about to address the Czech Senate in the fall. This English patriot, this able theoretician of the dignity of territorial democracy and national self-government, was also at home in the great and ancient nations of Eastern Europe, in his beloved France (a second intellectual home that took great interest in his work in the last few years), in the United States (where he had so many friends and admirers), and even in Lebanon (whose decimation at the hands of assorted fanatics he chronicled in one of his first and best books). As he argued in his splendid address upon receiving the Western Civilization Award from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in the fall of 2019 (given his illness, his remarks were delivered by Skype), to be a friend and partisan of Western civilization is to be a friend and partisan of civilization, simply. His oikophilia, his principled love of home, was in truth a proposition for all mankind.
I followed Roger’s work intermittently in the years after 1980. He won me over almost immediately with his elegant and persuasive defense of the human soul against every form of reductionism and his eloquent and passionate opposition to what he so aptly called the “culture of repudiation.” I must have quoted that phrase in fifteen of my articles and books, never tiring of a line that captured the phenomenon of Western self-hatred and self-recrimination so perfectly.
We first met at a three-day conference sponsored by isi in Oxford in the early 2000s, where Scruton brilliantly articulated the relationships among Edmund Burke’s aesthetics, conservatism, and defense of ordered liberty. Sometime after that I read Scruton’s autobiographical Gentle Regrets (2005), which left a deep impression on me. As a student and admirer of Burke, Tocqueville, Raymond Aron, and Charles de Gaulle, I was captivated by Roger’s account of his turn to conservatism beginning, in May 1968, with his front-row seat to a Paris on fire with nihilistic rage and reckless admiration for Castroite and Maoist despotism. Scruton, reading de Gaulle’s captivating Mémoires de Guerre, saw in contrast what it meant to love and preserve a great people and nation. His experience of revolutionary antinomianism in Paris, his turn to Burke’s aesthetics and politics, and his deep and principled anti-totalitarianism were all of a piece.
One other thing in Gentle Regrets particularly caught my attention. Scruton, it seems, was evolving from a humane and dignified, but still secular, personalism (largely influenced by Kant) to a more open and sympathetic stance toward the Christian religion. To this day, many see in him “a cultural Anglican” whose love of beauty and high culture went hand in hand with a rather sophisticated atheism. This judgment cannot be more false, as I will attempt to explain later in this piece.
I met Roger again in the spring of 2015 at a conference at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, sponsored by his good friend, exegete, and admirer—and my friend, too—the political theorist Dan Cullen. By that time, I had reviewed half a dozen of Roger’s works, seeing in them a wellspring of impressive conservative and philosophical wisdom. Given my work on Solzhenitsyn (and to a lesser extent Václav Havel), I immediately took to his profound and lyrical novel Notes from Underground, published by Beaufort Books in 2014. Here was a book that got to the heart of totalitarian mendacity while depicting the efforts of a small minority of self-respecting Czechs to “live not by lies,” in Solzhenitsyn’s inestimable phrase. At the conference, I presented on the book, one that continues to preoccupy me. Better than any recent book I knew, I argued, Scruton’s novel illustrated the profound truth that human beings are above all persons to be respected and not playthings to be endlessly manipulated by ideologists, technocrats, and soulless bureaucrats. His unforgettable characters—Jan Reichl, Betka Palková, Father Pavel—were less sainted “dissidents” than imperfect human beings who attempted to maintain their personal integrity and moral dignity in a phantasmagorical world marked by the loss of personal responsibility and moral agency. Scruton wrote with passionate sympathy for these men and women who refused to succumb to the ideological Lie even as he avoided anything resembling hagiography. The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka’s “solidarity of the shattered” became palpable in Scruton’s artful and moving book. Scruton was pleased by my engagement with his book and encouraged me to develop it into a full-blown essay. I did so in the summer of 2019, writing a twenty-six-page engagement with Notes from Underground that appeared in VoegelinView in the fall of 2019, and that will appear in essay form in a book on Roger Scruton’s thought being prepared by Cullen. I was touched and pleased when Roger recommended my essay to his readers and admirers in his fall newsletter from “Scrutopia,” his farm and intellectual enclave in Wiltshire, England, which brings together, as Dooley has so deftly put it, “farmers and philosophers, Wagner and wine, Aristotle and animals.” It doesn’t get better than this—a conservative utopia that could be someplace precisely because it respects persons as such.
Cullen and I also plotted to bring Roger and the contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manent together. We almost succeeded when I was president of the New England Political Science Association in 2016, but poor Roger was too injured to travel after he fell off a horse on his Sunday Hill Farm. Scruton and Manent were the most thoughtful and persuasive defenders of humane national loyalty and national self-government writing at the time. They thought deeply about human nature, practical reason, and the natural moral law, themes superseded by the regnant relativism and nihilism. They both had contempt for the post-political nihilism and antinomianism arising out of the May events in Paris in 1968. Both defended the secular state while doing full justice to the “Christian mark” of Europe, to cite Manent’s suggestive phrase.
They finally came together for a dialogue at a conference sponsored by the Institut Thomas More in Paris at the end of May 2019. I, alas, had to miss the event I was so looking forward to because my nephew (one of my favorites) was getting married in Vermont at the same time. But my friend Giulio de Ligio reports that it was a most memorable conversation, with both agreeing on the absolute indispensability of the self-governing nation-state and the need for a properly “conservative” attitude to recover “what we love and the capacity for action.” The first is Scruton’s preeminent theme, the second Manent’s. One citing Burke, the other Tocqueville and Aristotle, these two philosophers (they surely deserve the name) give one hope that the cause of Western liberty can be sustained and revitalized if we draw on the humanizing wisdom of the past to recover the prospects for reasonable thought and action in the future. A recovery and revitalization of old wisdom is a precondition for the reassertion of reasonable choice—and thoughtful action—in an era marked by debilitating relativism and angry moralism. Together, Scruton and Manent point in a much more humane, truthful, and salutary direction.
As others have pointed out, Scruton’s conservatism has both a metaphysical and empirical dimension. Long before he returned to a rather distinctive Christian affirmation, he rejected every form of materialistic and scientistic reductionism. At the center of his thought was the life world, the world of concrete experience where humans came to sight as persons. This was a world marked by freedom and accountability, and not a web of necessity that knows nothing of the self-conscious, dignified, acting person. But for Scruton, human beings were embodied or “incarnate” persons, and not noumenal selves, to use Kant’s term, free from all natural and external limitations. The free and accountable human being accepts legitimate authority and the limits inherent in the human condition with grace and equanimity. He does not confuse them, as Michel Foucault and the postmodern Left so recklessly do, with coercion and imperious domination. Where the Left sees only “false consciousness,” Scruton affirmed legitimate authority—moral, intellectual, and political—that is the other side of human freedom. His writings on sexual desire (including his 1986 book of that name) are profoundly personalistic, even if not expressly Christian. Still, a self-declared “godless conservative” before his return to religion so luminously described in Gentle Regrets, he nonetheless saw that sexual virtue “reconstitutes the physical urge as an interpersonal feeling.” Incarnate persons do not stand in an instrumental relation to their bodies: as embodied persons, fidelity to the self-restraint inherent in sexual morality allows genuine communion with another human being.
I have already referred to Scruton’s courageous opposition to the monstrosity which was Communist totalitarianism, even in its somewhat less malignant form in East-Central Europe in the years after the death of Stalin. This noble witness for truth and liberty had little or nothing to do with an abstract attachment to “human rights” or political democracy. Rather, Scruton saw in ideological mendacity, in the regime of the Lie, a self-conscious effort to deface the very personhood of human beings. As in earlier waves of Jacobin and Communist terror, he saw exactly what the “revolutionary mentality” took aim at, namely the dignity of “the animal in whom the light of reason shines, and who looks at us from eyes which tell of freedom.” For decent and humane politics, and true philosophy and religion, that direct experience of the human face, of eyes that ask for human respect and affection, illumines the reality of the sacred, as well as the necessity of both moral accountability and political reciprocity of the “ruling and being ruled in turn” first heralded by Aristotle. But modern ideological revolution “leads to murder for the simple reason that it rids the world of the experience”—of the self or soul, the incarnate person—“upon which the refusal to murder depends,” to quote Scruton’s remarkable 1989 essay “Man’s Second Obedience: Reflections on the French Revolution,” which appeared in The Philosopher on Dover Beach: Essays.
As a visiting student in France in 1968, Scruton understood Charles de Gaulle—the “old fascist” denounced by the soixante-huitards—as the noble guardian of the French inheritance, and he saw the radical students as middle-class brats, inebriated by ideology, who knew only how to tear down and destroy. Edmund Burke gave theoretical expression to Scruton’s natural piety: revolutionaries displayed “self-righteous contempt” for the wisdom of the ancestors, and they gave little thought to their responsibilities toward the yet to be born despite all their talk about “progress” and the “future.” They transgressed against the great primordial contract, so eloquently affirmed by Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, that reflects the great and enduring “partnership between the dead, the living, and the unborn.” That primordial contract, and not a misplaced confidence in inevitable moral progress, is the precondition for a renewal of the Platonic commitment to “care of the soul . . . which would also be a care for absent generations.” In Scruton’s mix of concerns, affirmations, and judgments, Kant’s emphasis on the free and morally accountable person, Burke’s politics of prudence and of civilizational continuity, Plato’s defense of “care of the soul,” and an Aristotelian defense of moderation and practical reason go hand in hand. In Scruton’s thought and writing, multiple and overlapping philosophical, moral, and political traditions come alive—not to proffer a misplaced call to liberation but to provide tender care and intellectual support for those aspects of our inheritance that are in the process of being lost: self-government, a disinterested appreciation of beauty, a commitment to home against the railings of oikophobes, and a conception of the person that does not explain away the ennobling experiences at the foundation of our humanity.
In a nutshell, Scruton shows that high philosophy has a duty to come to the defense of the home and starting point of all incarnate persons. I have my doubts about Scruton’s “cognitive dualism,” his Kant-inspired view that the incarnate person and the web of causal necessity exist in two spheres that are strictly distinct. This seems strained to me, a rare concession on Scruton’s part to the priority of abstract theory (a scientific account) over lived experience. But see how Scruton brings to light, against faux sophisticates, the fact that architecture should aim both to be fitting and to endure. He eloquently exposes the “self-centered” character of modernist public building: Boston City Hall (an ugly monstrosity that I know well), London’s South Bank, and New York’s Lincoln Center are indeed all “crumbling dysfunctional survivals from the age of ill-considered and temporary things.” But Scruton is never simply or primarily negative when he addresses matters of common culture. He always puts forward a positive vision of the fitting, the useful, the beautiful, and the things that are made to endure.
Following but modifying the Kant of the Third Critique, Scruton defends the “disinterested pleasure” that true art gives to a rational and sentient being. It is precisely because we are beings with “language, self-consciousness, practical reason, and moral judgment” that we can look out and appreciate the beauty in the world in an “alert and disinterested” (but not uninterested) way. And, as Scruton writes in his 2009 book Beauty (written to accompany his documentary on the same subject), aesthetic experience and judgment are never truly relative or arbitrary. The “experience of beauty,” Scruton tells us, is “well founded.” Against the scoffers who deny the presence of beauty in the soul, Scruton reaffirms the classical insight that for a free being, the incarnate person to whom we have freely made mention, “there is right feeling, right experience and right judgment just as much as right action.”
Kant’s Critique of Judgment leads Scruton back to a more classical view of the capacity of the human soul to connect with the natural order of things. Scruton is never doctrinaire or dogmatic when he recovers the intimations of transcendence that we experience in our souls and that peer at us from “the edge of things.” Unlike Kant, however, for Scruton here is no absolute and impassable divide between the noumenal and the phenomenal, the metaphysical and the empirical. Human beings are neither matter in motion, brains that are compelled to act independent of human agency, nor noumenal selves who need not respect the requirements of the world around them.
Perhaps it is in his writings on music, ample as they are, that Scruton best shows us how beauty of the first order allows us to obtain a glimpse within our souls and the world, of that sublime encounter where “the intersection of the timeless and time” becomes available to human beings. Once we recognize ourselves as persons and remain faithful to all the intimations available to the soul, scientism and aesthetic relativism reveal themselves to be desperate efforts to escape from the freedom, accountability, and judgment that marks persons as persons.
I have no doubt that Roger Scruton lived and died as a Christian. He had his doubts and knew that philosophy could only provide so much support for an explicitly Christian affirmation. But he knew that “our consciousness of consciousness” made us aware of “a light shining in the center” of our very being as humans. His fundamental stance was that of the life world and not that of the causal necessity that explained away human consciousness as if it were a barrier to true scientific understanding. Who, after all, is this “I” doing the knowing? About that, reductionists have nothing compelling to say. The freedom, responsibility, and mutual accountability of human beings with souls meant that Martin Buber’s “I–Thou” relationship was the one proper to human beings, who are never mere objects. And the light of reason and accountability at the heart of the incarnate person perhaps pointed to “the ‘I’ of God, in which we all stand judged, and from which love and freedom flow.” Without too much fear and trembling, Scruton returned to the Anglican Church, playing the organ in his little rural parish in Wiltshire. As Father Pavel argues in the most moving terms in Notes from Underground, God may be “silent,” or largely silent, but he is not dead. He is present in suffering, in the light of the soul that still shines from human eyes, and in “the solidarity” of those who affirm goodness and truth against the all-pervasive lies of a totalitarian political order. Even in ordinary things, in the “everydayness” that Martin Heidegger looked at with suspicion, one can glean the irreducible dignity of the human person which points to both moral accountability and judgment—and to a transcendent source of this realm where freedom and responsibility rule, not some inhuman necessity beyond good and evil.
But Scruton was never a sentimentalist, a political utopian, or a believer in the prospects for making the “kingdom of Ends”—subjects without form or limits—the basis of a community of incarnate persons. Just as he resisted Communist totalitarianism and every call to appease the West’s implacable foes during the Cold War, he too believed that free peoples were obliged to defend citizenship in a territorial democracy against demands for sharia and religious conformity. And he famously preferred “cheerful drinking” to “censorious abstinence” (Scruton and the great Churchill had that in common). He believed, as he put it in a late essay called “Defending the West,” that we, the citizens of Western liberal societies, “must respond” to the violence of Islamist terrorists “with whatever force is required to contain it, if we can.” Scruton defended a secular state whose home was territorial democracy informed by humane national loyalty and the broader Judeo-Christian inheritance of the West. But in the private sphere, he counseled a “spirit of forgiveness” that freed the soul from the endless cycle of anger and recrimination (Réné Girard was an influence here). But he knew this was “the hard part of the task—hard to perform, hard to endorse and hard to recommend to others.” He never advocated pacifism, since the weak and defenseless must always be defended against the unscrupulous enemies of freedom and civilization. Out of self-respect we must defend our home and the decent and free political arrangements to be found there.
In Scruton’s view of the world, rights are always accompanied by obligations, and love of home (and civilization more broadly) is rooted in respect and affection for actual persons. In Scruton’s myriad writings, fifty books and countless articles and columns, the metaphysical grounds of human dignity come together with a politics of prudence, a melding one might say of Kant’s personalism with Aristotle’s and Burke’s appeals to practical reason. In all his books and writings, the sacred, the person, and the freedom and accountability of human beings are defended against the totalitarian temptation and every form of scientistic reductionism.
I concluded my review of Conversations with Roger Scruton (“Dialogues in Scrutopia,” The New Criterion, May 2017) on a hopeful note. At the end of that charming and instructive book, Dooley and Scruton expressed (qualified) hope that the days when Roger was considered an “intellectual pariah” were long behind him. Many well-deserved honors had come, including knighthood. He was now a member of the esteemed British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature (the latter meant much more to him given how much he valued excellent writing). But in the spring of 2019 the other shoe dropped.
There had been a brief brouhaha when Sir Roger was appointed to be the unpaid chair of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. No one was more qualified for the job. But the illiberal Left came out of the woodwork screaming and yelling, and practically identified Scruton with fascism. His “cultured despisers” were the living, breathing embodiment of the culture of repudiation in its most hysterical form. Then came the interview in the New Statesman with a young man, George Eaton, who set out to destroy Sir Roger’s reputation. Quotations were doctored, words were taken out of context, and some alleged remarks were simply fabricated. James Brokenshire, the Tory Secretary of State for Housing, fired Sir Roger without even making an elementary effort to examine the New Statesman’s hit job and without consulting with Roger himself. The cancel culture set out to destroy Sir Roger, once and for all. Yet letters of support came (literally) from all over the world. The conservative public intellectual Douglas Murray managed to obtain the original tapes, thus vindicating Sir Roger against calumnies which included Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and even hatred of the Chinese people (and not the Communist dictatorship that he deplored). Eventually Scruton was vindicated, and the New Statesman offered an apology. He was reinstated to the government commission from which he had been so unceremoniously sacked. The cowardice of the mainstream Tory establishment was revealed for all to see.
In the midst of this controversy then came a virulent form of cancer. Through these terrible trials, Roger kept his honor, his dignity, and his self-respect. In a 2019 diary, published in the London Spectator, Roger ended gracefully with an admirable expression of gratitude. He was grateful to Murray and other friends who rallied to his defense. He was grateful for the doctors who cared for him during his illness. And he was grateful to all those from around the world who rallied to his defense even as he was bitterly and unfairly maligned in the Britain he loved. But mainly he was grateful for the gift of life, whose goodness impending death reveals in full clarity. And finally, I suspect, he was grateful to the Most High for having the privilege to live as an incarnate person in a world where trust, fidelity, friendship, and beauty are great gifts and not passing and ungrounded illusions as our intellectual sophisticates so dogmatically and falsely claim.
I am grateful to Roger Scruton for everything he has taught me about civilized life and the gift that we call the soul. I will miss his books, coming out one or two or three a year, giving students and admirers of Sir Roger so much to ponder, debate, and admire. A book on Wagner’s Parsifal is scheduled to come out in May. And who knows? There may also be other surprises—other gifts down the line. We have many reasons to be grateful to this learned, humane, and courageous defender of the human soul and the rich inheritance that is Western civilization.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 14
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