The most important conservative thinker of his generation, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, has died. He was 75 and suffering from cancer. In his life he published scores of books on a dizzying number of topics, ranging through politics, art, music, the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, religion, and fox hunting. He also wrote fiction, including the novels Notes from Underground and The Disappeared and the collection Souls in the Twilight. He composed an opera (The Minister) and a handful of songs. He is survived by his wife Sophie, a historian, and two children, Sam and Lucy.
There are three stories that Roger Scruton shared about his life, frequently. The first involved drawing the character of his father, a working-class man and avid conservationist, who disliked the idea of his son going to a Royal Grammar School (a “public school,” in English phraseology) and rising above his station. Of his father, he recently wrote affectionately:
He believed that his country was ruled by a conspiracy of public school boys, and that there would not be social justice in Britain until the privileges that enabled such undeserving and treacherous characters to advance were finally abolished. He saw in the House of Lords, in the established Church and in the Monarchy, branches of this long-standing conspiracy and he understood all of our history in terms of it — as a never-ending confiscation of England from its rightful owners by a class of privileged usurpers.
Scruton’s father had escaped a difficult life in the slums by way of military service and had become a schoolteacher. His son’s story is how his grammar school and Cambridge enabled his climb out of his father’s working-class shadow, showing that even in a society as class-conscious as England’s there was still mobility and advancement.
Scruton would tell another story of his political awakening, appropriately, in the spring of 1968 in Paris. From his apartment, he watched students, many of them his own age, overturning cars, uprooting paving stones, and smashing shop windows while building barricades in the streets. He was disgusted. And then a friend of his returned from the barricades, full of revolutionary fervor. For The New Criterion, in a passage worth quoting at length, he wrote of how he discovered himself a conservative:
The ensuing argument is one to which I have often returned in my thoughts.
What, I asked, do you propose to put in the place of this “bourgeoisie” whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barricades? What vision of France and its culture compels you? And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them? I was obnoxiously pompous: but for the first time in my life I had felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.
She replied with a book: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the “discourses” of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue — by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies — that “truth” requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the “episteme,” imposed by the class which profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy. In the street below my window was the translation of that message into deeds.
Plus ça change . . .
In the years afterward, the inheritors of the revolution would try to destroy Scruton. He was the founding editor The Salisbury Review, a journal of serious conservatism. In 1985, he also published Thinkers of the New Left, a book that exposed trendy left-wing thinkers to serious criticism. The work was treated as an intellectual crime, and the publisher cravenly caved in to demands to withdraw the book from sale. Scruton was sensitive to vilification, making his willingness to receive it all the more astonishing. Thankfully, the book was reissued and expanded 30 years later as Fools, Firebrands, and Frauds.
Last, of the three stories Scruton told of his life and of his work, is the one about creating an underground university with Julius Tomin in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. There he gave lectures on philosophy, history, and literature — meditations on the whole inheritance of Western civilization — that were forbidden by Communist authorities. Scruton would be detained by secret police and his name placed on the Index of Undesirable Persons. From How to Be a Conservative, he described the apartment in which he and Tomin met:
In that room was a battered remnant of Prague’s intelligentsia — old professors in their shabby waistcoats; long-haired poets; fresh-faced students who had been denied admission to university for their parents’ political ‘crimes’; priests and religious in plain clothes; novelists and theologians; a would-be rabbi; and even a psychoanalyst. And in all of them I saw the same marks of suffering, tempered by hope; and the same eager desire for the sign that someone cared enough to help them. They all belonged, I discovered, to the same profession: that of stoker. Some stoked boilers in hospitals; others in apartment blocks; one stoked at a railway station, another in a school. Some stoked where there were no boilers to stoke, and these imaginary boilers came to be, for me, a fitting symbol of the communist economy.
This was my first encounter with “dissidents”: the people who, to my later astonishment, would be the first democratically elected leaders of post-communist Czechoslovakia. And I felt towards these people an immediate affinity. Nothing was of such importance for them as the survival of their national culture. Deprived of material and professional advancement, their days were filled with a forced meditation on their country and its past, and on the great Question of Czech History that has preoccupied the Czechs since the movement for national revival in the nineteenth century. They were forbidden to publish; the authorities had concealed their existence from the world, and had resolved to remove their traces from the book of history. Hence the dissidents were acutely conscious of the value of memory. Their lives were an exercise in what Plato called anamnesis: the bringing to consciousness of forgotten things. Something in me responded immediately to this poignant ambition, and I was at once eager to join with them and make their situation known to the world. And I recognized that anamnesis described the meaning of my life too.
Scruton would be involved in dozens of great controversies even up to the last days of his life. He took up the causes of traditional architecture and high culture. He defended the Anglican Church, though his own relationship to Christian faith was complex. His book The Face of God is an astonishing Christian philosophic reflection on the meaning of personhood, love, and the divine. He played the organ in his church. But, perhaps lacking the gift of faith in the Resurrection, he seemed also to believe that the horizon of life ended as in Wagner’s great work Tristan and Isolde, which Scruton described as containing no afterlife “but only the great darkness in which you become what you truly are, which is nothing.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Roger Scruton a few times in this life and had a brief correspondence with him. But I’ve had the joy of reading him and learning from him all my adult life. Most formative was his book The Meaning of Conservatism, which tried to preserve the social, cultural, and institutional aspects of conservatism during the period of Margaret Thatcher’s years as prime minister; Scruton understood her limitations long before others appreciated her virtues. I particularly recommend The Uses of Pessimism; The West and the Rest; Fools, Firebrands, and Frauds; Beauty; The Face of God; and The Soul of the World.
From him most of all I took my own idea of what conservatism is, the attempt to preserve or recover a home in this world — a place of consolation, a sanctified somewhere that connects us to the dead, the unborn, and our neighbors through love, memory, and sacrifice. A place that belongs to us and implants in us a longing for the true home that can never be destroyed by storms, war, neglect, or the encroachment of speculative exurban developers who want to replace our homes with parking lots and Panera Bread. We put in our labors to preserve freedom, decency, and culture, so that our children receive this somewhere as a place prepared for me by my father.
Scruton may be the only conservative of this generation whose work will be read 100 years hence. And while we pray for the repose of his soul, and for comfort for his family and close friends, we should also pray that then, unlike now, his work and his courage receive the recognition they deserve. Scruton has labored and sacrificed. He is not becoming “nothing” but the gentle, sweet, and courageous Knight who saved his home from the destroyers.