In June of this year, the English polymath Roger Scruton was knighted “for services to philosophy, teaching, and public education.” Scruton was raised in a working-class home in Reading, England, and turned against his left-wing upbringing after witnessing firsthand the revolt of the Parisian elite against President Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic in May of 1968. Scruton made a name for himself in the 1980s for his work among networks of resistance in the Communist eastern bloc, and for being a harsh critic of his academic peers in the U.K., notably in the pages of The Salisbury Review, a conservative journal. His writings are copious, ranging from the highest-level professional philosophy to more accessible works of art appreciation, politics, and leisure pursuits.
As a tribute to Sir Roger’s achievement, I offer here the first in a two-part tribute to some of his recent writings.
The Uses of Pessimism (Oxford University Press, 2010) is most valuable to a newcomer to Scruton’s thought as a defense for why we need people like him. Scruton identifies seven fallacies for which a conserving voice, if heeded, may offer a hopeful corrective. He argues that an “unscrupulous optimism” undermines human community and inevitably leads nowhere except a soul-destroying tyranny.
Throughout the book we hear echoes of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and an insistence on the democracy of the dead and unborn. In case we had forgotten, Scruton reminds us that Truth dwells most of all in specific contexts — the real world rather than Utopia. The prophets of Israel knew this, and so does Scruton. But you might actually want to find yourself next to Sir Roger, unlike Jeremiah or Amos, at a cocktail party. He quips:
Truly cheerful people … who love life and are grateful for the gift of it, have great need of pessimism, in doses small enough to be digestible, but astute enough to target the follies that surround them, which otherwise poison their joys. … In short, truly cheerful people will be concerned to defend the truths from which the unscrupulous optimist turns away. (pp. 165-66)
He concludes the book with an appeal to the glory of Christian charity: Forgiveness and irony are the two greatest assets at our disposal in Western civilization. Unscrupulous optimism is an absolutist monomania that eschews both, and it leaves culture strangely bereft of hope. What Scruton saw on the short-lived barricades of ’68 was a perverse alternative to human flourishing.
But if we are to turn against prevailing progressivism, what are we for?
How to be a Conservative (Bloomsbury, 2014) is a manifesto in search of the answer to this question. It is a masterful alternative view of human life. Again, the specter of Chesterton presents itself, but with a very un-Chestertonian defense of the invisible hand that could almost be swapped out for the word grace — or is it nature? If you ever wondered how anyone could take any form of Toryism or the GOP seriously, you should read every page of this book. (And I highly recommend his reflection on Brexit.)
But Scruton does so much more than party politics. Following T.S. Eliot, he offers a quasi-poetic defense of the sacredness of inherited culture: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” After a lot of practical considerations, approaching every angle to words like nationalism, internationalism, socialism, and capitalism, he completes his apologia with tear-jerking virtuosity. This passage (a shorter form of which I posted here) concludes the book:
We recover the truth by re-covering the void. The void that Matthew Arnold perceived beneath the world that he was busy restoring will always be there. But we can cover it by our own devices, not staring into it mournfully until we faint and fall, but turning away from it, and shoring up the structures that it threatens. We should live in the spirit of our Remembrance Sundays, seeing our losses as sacrifices that have purchased the reprieve that we still enjoy. And we should resist those who wished to turn their backs on loss completely, to sweep away the shadows and the corners of the old loved doorways, and to replace the city with a great glass screen above the chasm, into which we will stare forever more.
As William F. Buckley famously declared, it is not only possible but desirable to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop.” Conservatism is not nostalgia for the past but courage for the future, and Scruton’s wistful defiance in the face of otherwise assumed cultural defeat is inspiring. It continues in his most explicitly Christian work.
Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (Atlantic, 2012) may be of the most interest to readers of Covenant, and is clearly an influence on the last chapter of How to be a Conservative. For all the post-Christendom opportunities ahead of us in counter-cultural living and evangelizing “nones,” Scruton invites us to imagine the possibility that Christian society could still be the way forward. Here Eliot looms again in the background, and likewise we perceive an Anglican perspective akin to the recent Catholic posture of R.R. Reno and First Things. We hear echoes of Burke too.
Simply put: the Church as a cultural institution is good for the world, in a bottom-up infiltration of particular societies. To Scruton, the sometimes too tepid faith of the comprehensive Church of England throughout time is ultimately for the best. A pure church only creates a society lacking cohesion, and souls may be better won amid institutional stability and strong families. Scruton is reticent about his lack of theological sophistication and honest about his uncertainties of faith; but the whole point is that the body of Christ is always something bigger than “I.”
This sovereignty of the “I” only within the “we” is a central thought in many of Scruton’s works. He says in The Uses of Pessimism: “There, before us, is the ‘I’ attitude, crying in triumph from the midst of a mutilated ‘we’” (p. 149). The Church throughout time and space — “now and England,” as T.S. Eliot says — gets the ordering of “I” and “we” right.
The Church, therefore, matters to Scruton most importantly because it has mattered to those who came before him, and they know better than he does. His obedience is therefore an act of healing for the “mutilated we.” Scruton may be “spiritually second rate,” but he shows up Sunday after Sunday to receive the Sacrament and pray in common with his fellows. He even plays the organ. He is a huge fan of the traditional Book of Common Prayer, whose great gift to English-speaking people is “the achievement of sacramental religion everywhere — namely, the consecration of ordinary life, and the opening of the heart to seriousness.” The “subtle traps of law and custom” inherent to English Christianity have been for his benefit and should benefit his grandchildren too if left alone (or rediscovered). Their deterioration takes down both the body of Christ and the body politic.
Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (Bloomsbury, 2015) bridges the gap between the Church/State conservatism outlined in the preceding works and the aesthetic conservatism of the ones I shall examine in my next post. Here Scruton engages with the likes of old-school Marxist historians like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, as well as Continental “lit. crit.” darlings past and present: Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Slavoj Žižek, and others.
He revisits and recrafts essays from his highly controversial 1989 volume, Thinkers of the New Left, and elaborates on thoughts sprinkled throughout Pessimism and elsewhere. His argument: The progressive academy and her public intellectuals are essentially saying nothing, or at least nothing intellectually defensible; and the incoherence of the elites leads to deep distrust and fragmentation among the masses. (One can almost imagine Scruton as Professor Kirk in Lewis’s Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Logic! Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”)
Scruton’s critique of the academy is akin to responses to leading atheists by David Bentley Hart and Denys Turner. He knows the case of his opponents better than they do, concluding — to borrow from their own jargon — that intelligentsia represent a giant empty sign. His opponents defend ideology against reality, in an attempt to address problems with solutions that have become sacrosanct ends in themselves. The academy leads us to a deity like Tashlan in The Last Battle (Lewis again) — a false god of artificial absolutes whose power achieves nothing but obscures the Real.
For Scruton, a culture built on intellectual deception threatens the very foundations of human life. It is, then, an aesthetic problem with the deepest spiritual resonance: a fake culture and a culture of fakes:
Beauty, as we shall see in Part 2, is a large part of a hopeful reaction. To maintain and create things that endure — things that point to truly holy ends — is therefore the mission of the conserving soul in every age. Someone simply has to do the work.