Catching Up with Roger Scruton: The Philosopher as Composer and Novelist

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has done some surprising things lately

The writer and philosopher Roger Scruton (www.roger-scruton.com) is perhaps most famous for being the scourge of the Left. Foregoing a conventional academic career, he has forged his own way and put his rare talents to work as a freelancer. Writing more than fifty books, he has produced a remarkable corpus of philosophical and political writings devoted to sundry aesthetic topics and conservative causes.

Scruton has written some especially thought-provoking meditations on music and modern culture. This comes as no surprise when you learn he is a philosopher who also composes musical works, writes poetry, and publishes novels. Just recently, he has produced two extraordinarily accomplished works of literary fiction that defy easy categorization: Notes From Underground (Beaufort Books, 2014; paperback edition 2015) and The Disappeared (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Bloomsbury has just reissued an updated and expanded version of Scruton’s classic book, Thinkers of the New Left (1985), under the new title Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (2015). Already available in the U.K., it is due to be out Stateside in December. From the standpoint of a serious conservatism, it honestly assesses the political and philosophical contributions of the Left. The book also addresses what is likely our most pressing question: “Can there be any foundation for resistance to the leftist agenda without religious faith?”

CWR: Your new book is a fresh update on politics that begins with an amusing title: Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. What has stayed the same about the Left since you first published Thinkers of the New Left in 1985? What has changed?

Scruton: Nothing, apart from a general cultural decline. The obsession with equality remains, the anti-capitalist rhetoric is accompanied by a slight increase in ignorance as to what the term ‘capitalism’ means or where it came from, and there has been a shift of emphasis in the search for new victims with whom to identify. Otherwise the same negativity, and the same joyful adoption of nonsense whenever it seems to justify the negativity.

CWR: What important new materials do you add to this new edition of Thinkers of the New Left?

Scruton: I add a consideration of Hobsbawm and Adorno, touch on Rorty and Said, and explore the Parisian nonsense machine, with Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan and Badiou. I end with Žižek.

CWR: Why is it important to pay attention to these leftist thinkers? Shouldn’t we just ignore such nonsense? Why do it any favors by drawing attention to it?

Scruton: It is important to offer students an account of why these thinkers are talking nonsense, and why that nonsense serves to attract attention away from real, hopeful, and constructive ways of thinking. It does not matter if only one student is saved — the future of truth is secured this way.

CWR: Do you think Pope Francis is a leftist? Or, if not, do you see ways in which leftist thought adversely shapes him?

Scruton: Pope Francis clearly has the desire to be accepted by the secular culture, and regarded as legitimate by those who disagree with him. He has adopted a lot of the leftist agenda, possibly without thinking too clearly about it. And of course he has made the fatal identification between poverty and inequality, failing to realize that the only way to secure equality is by making everyone equally poor. On the other hand, much that he says seems to be orthodox theology, founded in Christian principles.

CWR: Do you have any favorite observations by Pope Francis? What do you think about his remarks on modern architecture in Laudato Si? “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything,” he writes (Laudato Si 113).

Scruton: He is absolutely right about the dehumanization of our environment by concrete, glass, and steel, and about the marginalization of the sense of beauty. He is endorsing things that I have devoted many waking hours to expressing.

CWR: You are a famous critic of modern pop music. How were you able to construct such a sympathetic and insightful portrait of one of the main characters in your novel, The Disappeared, who is both an ardent fan and performer of heavy metal music?

Scruton: I wanted to enter the soul of someone whose sense of his masculinity had been damaged, and who compensated through this kind of dramatization of the primordial male. I also think that metal is the creation of people with real musicality, who have developed the muscle of music as though by weight lifting, and lost that beautiful, inner, female thing, which is the sung melody.

CWR: One of Pope Francis’ great concerns is human trafficking. What do you think of his efforts to combat the problem? Pope Francis has helped launch the #EndSlavery social media movement and the Web site EndSlavery.va devoted to raising awareness and mobilizing concerted action.

Scruton: I am not aware of his efforts to combat the problem, but whatever they are I endorse them, to the extent that they are effective.

CWR: Not only does The Disappeared portray how human trafficking affects our world, it also has profound insights into contemporary relations between men and women that are also very topical. It’s the sort of book every serious university student should read, in order to learn about love and marriage. What obstacles are there to such readers ever finding your book?

Scruton: OK, it is an e-book, and available in print form only from Amazon. But when the world wakes up to the need for it — which I hope will be soon — Amazon will be flooded with demands for it.

CWR: Notes From Underground is another novel that you published recently. It too is astonishing in its range of unusual human sympathies and its careful artistic achievement. Has anyone every told you that perhaps you should be writing novels instead of all your political and philosophical works? Would you be surprised if posterity remembers you most for your fiction writing?

Scruton: I would be surprised to be remembered in that way, but I have to say I like the two books you mention, put more of myself into them than into most of my philosophical writings, and know that they express what is dearest to me, which is sympathy for the inner life and the desire for spiritual order in a disordered world.

CWR: Do you think novels have a future in human culture? Or is technology disrupting young minds too much for such art forms ever to touch souls in the future as they have in the past?

Scruton: This is a matter of some concern to me, of course. I don’t think novels will have the same significance in the future as they have now, and the visual fixation of our culture will certainly destroy much of the impact of the written word, which to me has always been a holy thing. But still, there is hope, since after all you read my stuff and send me such encouraging messages about it.

CWR: What is the future of liberal arts education? How can conservatives realistically hope to conserve anything via education anymore when adverse forces control so much of it?

Scruton: I think it is necessary to build up networks of cultural exchange outside university and college. It was inevitable, when higher education expanded, that quality would decline, and of course there has been a politicization of the teachers, which is the inevitable result when second-rate people compete for scarce positions, and look for a way of excluding their rivals (as ‘right wing’ or ‘conservative’).

CWR: Do you have plans for any more artworks in the near future? Can we expect new operas or novels from you?

Scruton: I have a few stories I might work up, and also the libretto for an opera — Going Home — set in a railway station.

CWR: What books would you encourage smart young people, 14 years or older, to read as soon as possible?

Scruton: Heart of Darkness, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Four Quartets.

CWR: How can young people be best introduced to good music at an early age? What is the optimal way to inoculate them against the adverse effects of bad music on their souls?

Scruton: I think it is very important to learn to sing in choirs, and if possible to learn an instrument, even if only the recorder or the guitar. To read music, to play for yourself, to sing melodically — all these establish the link between music and the inner life which will serve to inoculate the young person against the worst kind of musical influenza.

CWR: What does Roger Scruton most desire to see in his lifetime?

Scruton: Peace in the Middle East and the restoration of the Christian communities there.

CWR: Perhaps the next book of yours to be reissued with updated materials should be A Land Held Hostage: Lebanon and the West (1987). That said, I do hope that especially your novels, which are so beautiful, will find their way into the hands of more and more readers.

About Christopher S. Morrissey 32 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.