To those who knew him, Roger Scruton was a philosopher. Philosophy for him had little to do with that modern, tenured, and professorial guild that trades in logicism and dismisses wisdom as mere “folk psychology.” Rather, philosophy for Scruton was a studied way of living, something to be done, dependent both on rigor and dedication to truth—no matter what the cost—as much as common sense and humor.
A philosophical conversion at the barricades
Scruton spent a lifetime articulating a coherent vision of life and culture that is unmatched, and the breadth of his work is simply staggering, but he was an unlikely conservative intellectual. Born to a working-class teacher in Buckinghamshire who hated the upper class, Scruton showed brilliance early on and won a scholarship to Cambridge, eventually getting his PhD in philosophy. He was destined for a bright academic career, however, while living in Paris amidst the events of May 68, he had an abrupt and “extraordinary conversion.”
Quite suddenly I found myself on the other side of the barricades from everyone I knew. I did not fully understand what it was all about, but my instinct, at the sight of spoiled middle-class adolescents setting fire to the hard-earned cars of their social inferiors was to side with the owners of the cars. I asked my student contemporaries what it was they wished to achieve, and was assured by all of them that France had entered a revolutionary situation, and that the time had come to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to put the proletariat in its place. This didn’t square very well with my assessment of the class to which they or their victims belonged.
It is precisely this heroic truth-at-all cost attitude that so endeared him to many, and his path as anti-establishment hero began as a philosophy lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, where faculty socialism was de rigueur, and the only other conservative was the Italian tea-lady, who plastered pictures of the pope on the wall behind her to spite her customers.
His public position was solidified with the 1980 publication of his seminal The Meaning of Conservatism, and two years later he became the founding editor of the traditionalist journal The Salisbury Review, rapidly gaining a reputation as a leading thinker and frequently provoking the ire of the left with steady criticism of feminism, multiculturalism, and socialism. Scruton knew that if conservatism was to survive that era of socialism and Thatcherism, principles and a sound philosophy would be needed. Throughout the 80s he was also deeply involved in an underground educational network in Czechoslovakia, eventually being expelled by the communist government for subversive activities.
His oeuvre is littered with writings on philosophy (his aesthetics is renowned in the field), music, architecture, culture, literature, the environment, and leisure. He wrote a brilliant column in the Times (collected in A Philosopher on Dover Beach) and was the long-time wine critic for the New Statesman (collected in I Drink Therefore I Am). He was an expert in architecture and an accomplished musician who wrote three libretti and lectured on music theory. Although his opponents loathed him, his brilliance simply forbade his dismissal from the arena of ideas (I remember one philosophy professor at Oxford painfully admitting that his was indeed the best introduction to Kant).
Although trained in the analytic philosophy of Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein, he found it unable to answer the deepest questions of life and turned to literature, art, and continental philosophy. He was able to see immense good in French thought, but all the while he saw through its more superficial tendencies and was a perennial critic of Sartre, Derrida, and Foucault (see his essay “Confessions of a skeptical Francophile”).
Rejecting a comfortable suburban retirement, Scruton was strikingly honest and countercultural, and the last years of his life were spent farming. He reengaged the perennial project of life-lived realism, not merely theorizing, but actually living his great love affair with the English countryside. His was a joyous and public display of the Benedict option lived as a natural proclamation of belief to the world, not a retreat into political quietism, but a life doing philosophy.
A philosophical legacy
Roger Scruton’s greatest legacy, however, is more personal, and precisely more philosophical. A great friend and mentor to many, he was loved by countless people of all walks of life. To those who knew him, he was a man of immense gravitas, always courteous and attentive, with touches of unexpected warmth, in the odd English way, that embodied a refinement and thoughtfulness.
For hours he would patiently listen to the eager ideas of students and mentees, slightly slouched in his chair with his legs straight out and fingers barely touching his cheek. He seldom interrupted, and in fact frequently allowed himself to be interrupted by his evident inferiors. Only at the end of one longwinded monologue or another, in a low and reluctant voice, would he weigh in with a judgement that was always incisive and often hilarious.
Yes, Roger Scruton was also wickedly funny. The dry English wit that Americans revere (and are incapable of imitating) was his in spades, and frequently in the midst of conversation, with a renowned absence of expression, he would mumble a few unexpected words that would incite uproarious laughter.
But his humor was neither self-indulging and narcissistic nor fleeting and frivolous. Scruton laughed simply because that is precisely what the philosopher must do. In one hysterical flash, he would expose contradictions, chastise the irresponsible and self-seeking, and make light of incoherent and irrelevant pseudo-ideas. However, just as often, his formidable wit was turned on himself in a self-deprecatory nod that revealed him to be both pensive and unpretentious.
For Scruton, laughter was vital for the formidable task of human living, a safety valve on which human relations depend. Through laughter “human beings enjoy each other’s company, become reconciled to their differences, and accept their common lot. Laughter helps… to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair” (see his essay “The Decline of Laughter”).
And it was precisely this overcoming of despair that drove much of his work, because the demolition of Western culture—religion, art, architecture, music, literature, all part of a way of life—was simply unbearable to him: “faced with the ruin of folkways, traditions, conventions, customs and dogmas, we can only feel the helpless tenderness for these things which have proved, like everything human, so much easier to destroy than to create.”
One of the most striking aspects of Scruton’s work is the effect it has produced on such a wide diversity of minds, despite its plainly Kantian foundations. Many Catholics and Protestants of different stripes, as well as atheists and agnostics alike, admired him and frequently gathered with him to break bread and talk. No doubt this is as much a testimony to the litheness and sturdiness of his thought, as it is to his magnanimous personality, and most of all, to his do-or-die dedication to common sense reality.
Peter Hitchens described Scruton as “a man of immense courage, intellect, and fortitude, whose loss we can ill afford in these narrow, conformist times.” No doubt we have suffered a great loss, and it is now the task of conservatives to play the philosopher, claim his immense legacy, and carry it forward.
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