Roger Scruton, 1944-2020
Roger Scruton, the British philosopher who died this past Sunday at the age of 75, wrote with such authority, perspicacity, and depth on such a broad range of topics that very few people can claim to be competent judges of—or even conversant with—his whole body of work. In countless articles and more than fifty books, Scruton wrote on philosophy, politics, law, architecture, music, wine, hunting, sexual desire, and opera, among many other topics. His first book, Art and Imagination, came out in 1974 but The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980, was, in Scruton’s words, “when I actually began to write from the heart.” Though Scruton once told me that his more recent volumes on conservatism are meant to update and replace this 1980 book, it retains its vitality, lucidity, and even a certain brashness and should be read by anyone interested in the conservative sensibility.
Scruton was a conservative in the Burkean tradition and surely that tradition’s most eloquent and articulate defender in recent times. This put him at odds with the prevailing political and philosophical schools in academia. But he proved willing and eager to engage with thinkers and writers with whom he disagreed. His 1985 volume Thinkers of the New Left (updated in 2015 as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands) was, he said, “the beginning of the end for my university career.” Scruton refused to shy away from pointing out the follies of education as conceived by those whose views predominated. In his first column for the Times of London in 1983, we find him defending education for its own sake against those who think it must be made more “relevant”:
This is the secret which civilization has guarded—that power and influence come through the acquisition of useless knowledge. The answer is, therefore, to destroy the effect of education—by making it relevant. Replace pure by applied mathematics, logic by computer programming, architecture by engineering, history by sociology. The result will be a new generation of well-informed philistines, whose charmlessness will undo every advantage which their learning might otherwise have conferred.
That early column carries the characteristic Scruton combination of paradoxical insight, witty challenge, and deep reflection on the heart of things.
Scruton was not just a writer and erstwhile academic but also an intellectual impresario: He filmed a BBC documentary about art and beauty; he organized conferences, often bringing together interesting thinkers who had never met; and he was for nearly two decades the editor of The Salisbury Review, a conservative quarterly he co-founded at a time (1982) when writing as a conservative could come at a professional cost.
In an important instance, Scruton’s courage was not only intellectual and professional but physical. In 1979, Scruton visited Poland and the former Czechoslovakia—his first time behind the Iron Curtain. He traveled to Prague at the behest of an Oxford professor named Kathy Wilkes, who had agreed to find Western academics to visit the city and participate in its intellectual underground. These seminars, attended mostly, though not exclusively, by young men and women whose families were in some sort of trouble with the Communist authorities—people in search of a genuine education outside of the dead husk of Marxist-Leninism. Though Scruton was in no way naïve about the reality of communism, one gets the sense that he did not expect what he found in central Europe and it changed him profoundly.
Reflecting on that first visit years later, Scruton said it was as if you found yourself
in a dark place where you are the only free person. You are the only person who has the right to walk out of the door. It was both oppressive and inspiring, because people turned towards you faces of a kind you never see in your life here: faces full of suffering, longing to trust but never sure that they can.
Scruton would return to Prague on numerous occasions through the early 1980s to run lectures and discussions. One evening in October 1983 he lectured on Burke and the French Revolution with Alena Hromádková translating into Czech as he spoke (Scruton would himself soon be fluent in Czech). Jessica Douglas-Home, another English visitor present at that lecture, could see that Burke was a revelation for his listeners. “For me, too, in this setting where politics was no academic game but a matter of survival or annihilation, I felt that night that Burke’s insights into the interplay of change and continuity, freedom and social order brought me as close to the meaning of political life as it was possible for me to reach.”
By his own account it took Scruton a long time to make sense of this stifling and disorienting world.
And perhaps the strangest of the many experiences that occurred in the catacomb where I found myself was the experience of love. . . . To stand before the other entirely naked, with no means of appeal, no identity, no social role or influence, but only the fragments of soul picked up in art, music and literature, became a kind of ascetic mission, a sort of erotic monasticism, if I can so express it.
Scruton would explore these experiences in a beautiful novel about love and sacrifice in the midst of totalitarian tyranny called Notes from Underground (2014). I suspect this moving book will grow in stature over time.
In 1980, Scruton helped found the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, which sponsored the travel of over one hundred Western academics to Prague, Brno, and Bratislava throughout the 1980s (many making multiple visits). The foundation also helped support the production and circulation of samizdat publications and the translation into Czech of Western books and essays. Scruton’s own visits, though, stopped in 1985. He later recalled sitting on a bench in a park in Brno, when he lifted his eyes “to find two sinister young men looking down at me from what seemed—in my momentary dismay—a supernatural height.” After staring at them blankly for a few seconds, the reply came, “We know very well that you speak Czech Mr. Scruton. We should like you to come with us for questioning.” After two interrogations Scruton was given a few hours to leave the country and escorted to the Austrian border.
For all his tireless and extensive work on behalf of the Czech dissidents, Scruton was awarded the Order of Merit of the Czech Republic by President Václav Havel in 1998. He returned to Prague this past November to accept a medal from the president of the Czech Senate. During that visit, at a dinner in Scruton’s honor, a frequent attendee of those long-ago underground seminars, Pavel Bratinka, reflected, “Roger came regularly to a spiritually bleak landscape to help keep small flames of intellectual curiosity alive. This was a defiance of the forces of resignation and despair. A very rare act, indeed, in those times. For that he deserves honors and glory.” Scruton continued to reflect on these experiences up to the end of his life. The last time we corresponded, this past July, he included the libretto for an opera he was working on set in the midst of a collapsing communist regime.
I first encountered Roger’s work many years ago when a friend recommended I read The Meaning of Conservatism. Eventually, due to my own research and writing about totalitarianism and Czech dissent, I had the pleasure of corresponding with him about his experiences in the intellectual underground of the 1980s. Then, in 2015, I invited Roger to deliver a lecture at Skidmore College, where I teach. I’ll never forget seeing the great Scruton emerge from the train with his characteristically tousled hair and slightly disheveled appearance. As we drove through Saratoga Springs he commented joyfully on the architecture of its City Hall. Over lunch, I picked his brain about those days in the underground—he was so quiet and modest, but what an extraordinary accomplishment for a writer and thinker! As his friend and colleague Barbara Day from the Hus Foundation put it to me, “Roger was energetic, imaginative, humorous, tolerant, practical. He trusted people and built their confidence.”
In his writing and public speaking, Roger sought to sustain our capacity to see things as they are. It is the utopians and unscrupulous optimists who are always bound to be disappointed and crushed by reality. For them, as he put it in The Uses of Pessimism (2010), hope “ceases to be a personal virtue, tempering griefs and troubles, teaching patience and sacrifice, and preparing the soul for agape. Instead it becomes a mechanism for turning problems into solutions and grief into exultation, without pausing to study the accumulated evidence of human nature, which tells us that the only improvement that lies within our control is the improvement of ourselves.”
We can see in Roger’s conservatism a clear-eyed sense of the limitations of the given world, but one that is—for all its pessimism—not bereft of hope. For who but a profoundly hopeful and imaginative human being would write so many books making the case for beauty, order, and love? And who but someone deeply hopeful about the human future would be willing to take on the scourge of totalitarianism through teaching and learning alongside the unfortunate peoples suffering under it?