Roger ScrutonCulture and Politics

The Life and Legacy of Sir Roger Scruton

For most of this summer I have been walking the streets of Florence, visiting the many churches, museums and galleries, admiring the architecture of old apartment buildings which displayed in their balconies little gardens of colourful flowers, letting the candid sunlight guide my path alongside Arno as I travelled throughout the city and on the hills around it.

I remember the distinct and overwhelming feeling of seeing for the first time the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the famous Florentine Duomo. It was the morning I just arrived in the city. The sky was a clear blue, and the sunrays weren’t too bright or too hot. The air was fresh and there weren’t too many people on the streets that early in the day.

I made my way towards the Cathedral from the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, another astonishing construction. From the streets below, you start to see The Baptistery of St John, located only a few meters from the Cathedral, and behind it, this magnificent, detailed and imposing sanctuary – the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) – decorated with statues and symbols that blend together the Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance styles, while dark green and a light shade of crimson paint adorn the white marble panels.

One can only sit still and admire this sight as if it was a revelation in a dream. However, this wasn’t just a single, isolated situation: there were many occasions through my travels in Italy when the aesthetics seemed to fit together in perfect harmony, prompting a subtle yearning for something which the eye could not see, nor the hands could touch. For something that could only be reached in a meditative state. That is when I realised that I was in the presence of beauty.

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The fact that I recognised the impact of beauty on me immediately reminded me of my first encounter with Sir Roger Scruton’s work sometime during 2016: a YouTube upload of “Why Beauty Matters”, which was produced in 2009. In this fascinating documentary, Scruton argued about the importance of beauty in our lives. It was Roger’s perspective that beauty puts us in a contemplative state which connects us to our surroundings and to those who share our environment.

However, Scruton’s work was not limited to aesthetics. Indeed, he had a “distinguished and sometimes chequered career” as an academic, journalist, farmer, composer, and entrepreneur, writing over 40 books, as well as a number of essays, lectures, novels, short stories and two operas. His body of work covers philosophy, aesthetics, politics, the environment, the concept of home and morality, among others.

Born in 1944 in Buslingthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, Scruton grew up in the presence of his left-leaning father who was “a bleakly austere socialist”. “A primary school teacher, Jack Scruton was an enthusiast for the English countryside and ancient building, which influenced the young Scruton positively, but he was also an implacable opponent of the political status quo and what he saw as the English establishment and class system. He even opposed the grammar school system from which his son was benefiting”, reads Anthony O’Hear’s account of Roger’s father.

Naturally, this had an influence on the young Scruton but any flirtations with the ideas and causes promoted by left wing thinking were shattered when he witnessed from up close the mindless violence, nihilism and incoherence of students that partook in the 1968 Paris riots.

In the spirit of Edmund Burke, who observed in his reflections on the French Revolution that “rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years”, the English philosopher said this about the 1968 riots:

“The thing that most struck me about these students in the streets, was the sentimentality of their anger. It was all about themselves. It wasn’t about anything objective. Here were the spoiled middle-class baby-boomers who never had any real difficulties to cope with, shouting their heads off in the street, burning the cars belonging to ordinary proletarians whom they were pretending to be defending against some imaginary oppressive structures erected the bourgeoisie. The whole thing was a complete fiction based on antiquated ideas of Karl Marx. Ideas which were already redundant in the mid-nineteenth century. But they [the rioters] were enacting out a self-scripted drama in which the central character was themselves” – Sir Roger Scruton

Scruton was also deeply affected by what he saw of the communist dictatorships in Europe. He was directly involvement in the opposition to the communist regime and played a significant role in dissident movements in the Eastern bloc before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1978, Roger co-founded the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in Prague. He gave clandestine lectures, supported dissident activism, and smuggled banned works into the Soviet bloc. Consequently, he was arrested and thrown out Czechoslovakia numerous times during the 1980s.

Roger evoked the world of 1980s Czechoslovakia in his novel, Notes from the Underground which reveals to the reader the essence of communist regimes: “a world in which every word and gesture bears a double meaning, as people seek to find truth amid the lies and love in the midst of betrayal”.

Additionally, in 1982 he launched The Salisbury Review which he edited until 2001. The Review published many prominent thinkers such as Enoch Powell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Quinlan Terry and also provided a platform for smuggled correspondents from the European countries under communism. Many of these articles were stressing out the importance of religion in the fight against the Bolshevik ideology.

During the eighties The Review became known in underground circles in Eastern Europe and a regular column gave dissidents behind the wire the opportunity to express their ideas and comment on events”. For his courageous support in the fight against the far left oppressors, after the fall of communism regimes, Scruton was awarded medals by the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.

However, the Salisbury Review wasn’t viewed in a positive light at home, in Britain, where its ideas were at odds with the predominantly left-leaning body of intellectuals. In “How to be a conservative”, published in 2015, Roger observed: “It is not unusual to be a conservative. But it is unusual to be an intellectual conservative. In both Britain and America some 70 percent of academics identify themselves as ‘on the left,’ while the surrounding culture is increasingly hostile to traditional values, or to any claim that might be made for the high achievements of Western civilisation.”

Later on in life, Scruton found an answer for why this was (and still is today) the case: “If you start thinking about politics in an intellectual way, you are likely to be on the left because that provides a systematic solution and answer to the questions, puts it all in a system and also gives you a dignifying and self-congratulatory place in the system”, he explained in a 2018 interview with Hamza Yusuf.

Indeed, this intellectual class ‘on the left’ cannot identify itself with the common people going about their daily lives, trying to survive. It places itself outside of the community, being therefore critical of anything that goes on inside the community while also positioning themselves on some sort of perceived moral high ground. However, because of this distance, this disconnect between the observant intellectuals and the people, those on ‘on the left’ try to reconstruct their identity through an ever expanding criticism, often never putting anything back to replace the values, customs and traditions that their works tore down, leaving a cultural and spiritual chasm in the community that resembles their own inner existence.

Roger took on the challenge of providing an alternative to the onslaught of left-wing criticism addressed towards the Western civilisation, what Scruton called “a culture of repudiation”. This “[…] is a culture built on negation. […] eventually our protestors having torn down all they can, they will have nothing to resent except one another”, paraphrased from “The West and the Rest”.

His alternative was a way of life that does not embrace change for the sake of change, to approach traditions with empathy and understanding, as well as with critical thinking, to view the past as our own because the past is not there simply to be examined but we inherit it, to live in a way that recognises the complexity and sanctity of the individual, in a way that acknowledges that people cannot be boxed into labels, to seek to understand that, although power plays an important role in how society shapes, it is not the only thing that matters – indeed, love of land, of culture and of home are far more powerful and important motivating drivers for why people continue with their lives.

For his lifelong work of defending Western civilisation – the ideas, traditions and values of the West – Roger was presented with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Defender of Western Civilization award in 2019. In his acceptance speech, Scruton emphasised once again that civilisation is not a narrow bequest, as the critics would argue, but a much more universal inheritance that constantly changes to include new things.

“Our Western civilisation is not some peculiar, narrow, little obsession of people who happen to live in a certain geographical part of the world. It is an inheritance, constantly expanding, constantly including new things, something which has given us the knowledge of the human heart, which has enabled us to produce not just our wonderful economies and the wonderful ways of living in the world […] but also the great works of art, the religions, the systems of law and government, all the other things that make it actually possible for us to recognise that we live in this world, in as far as possible, successful”. He then put aside the notions of Western and Eastern and focused on the concept of civilisation, stressing the interconnected journey that human beings all over the world have made so far, making Western civilisation, like Eastern civilisation, simply the human civilisation, our common inheritance of diverse values, believes, histories and traditions which ought to be understood with an open mind and heart in order to get a little bit closer to that sacred flame that only truth can light up.

Much of the criticism from left-wing thinkers of the past century, and indeed in our present day, has been mostly fuelled by contempt, sometimes hatred of the self and of inherited national values and traditions, resentment and a lack of understanding of (or at least accepting) the complexity of human nature. Roger made his eloquent criticism clear in 1985 when he published in the Salisbury Review a collection of his own essays under the title of “Thinkers of the New Left”.

“The publisher was Longman, which was attacked for having published Scruton’s robust but never unfair attacks on such iconic figures as E. P. Thompson, Ronald Dworkin, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, György Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of the author of Being and Nothingness, it is worth recording that Scruton was always in a sense an admirer: Sartre’s ‘writing is charming, mephistophelean, enticing the reader with a kind of diabolical grace towards the altar of Nothingness … (his) intellectual power and literary gift have no match in recent left-wing writing, and (his) genius is not unfairly compared to that of Marx’.” – Antony O’Hear.

The 1985 book was reissued in 2015 under the title “Fools, Frauds and Firebrands”, which also includes new left-wing crusaders: Ralph Miliband, Eric Hobsbawm, Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek. Roger didn’t just simply said “you’ve got this wrong”, he provided real reasons for their nihilistic views and offered tangible ways to how to live one’s life, away from this pest of self-destruction, victimisation, cowardness and impractical criticism that only results in more decay that can be exploited by the prophets of the new religion: Marxism and its variants.

However, going against the “establishment”, the fashionable ideas, the agreed upon narratives and ethics of the time, has its price. As a consequence of his conservative philosophy, Scruton’s own freedom of speech was regularly compromised by the guardians of virtue who were for diversity of opinions as long as such views do not exist. This was visible throughout his career in the academia and after he began the work of what he called opinionated journalism.

“He was Britain’s greatest living intellectual – but because he was a conservative and because for so many people conservative intellectual is an oxymoron he didn’t get the recognition he deserved”, stressed Michael Gove.

A recent example of a dishonoured attempt at ruining Roger’s image and integrity was the New Statesman scandal in 2019 when Scruton was misquoted on purpose in order to portray him as a bigot. “MPs joined the Twitter ‘pile–on’, condemning Scruton and successfully calling for his dismissal from the chair of the UK Government’s commission on beauty and the built environment”, recalled Ian Christie. However, as the truth came to light, it was revealed what have happened and Roger was reinstated, the minister concerned apologised and the journalised was disciplined but not fired as Scruton insisted his interviewer not be sacked.

Despite the ongoing backlash, Scruton continued to produce a large body of important works spanning multiple themes and got involved in numerous projects concerning architecture, philosophy and the environment.

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Roger was primarily a philosopher of aesthetics, being concerned with the function of beauty in our lives. This can be seen from his early career days, with his Cambridge doctorate and “Art and the Imagination” which was published in 1974. Scruton places the aesthetic experience in between the realm of morality and the impersonal accounts derived from natural sciences, but necessarily connected to both. Following the thinking of Immanuel Kant, Roger wrote in “The Aesthetic Imagination”:

“In the light of a theory of the (aesthetic) imagination we can explain why the aesthetic judgement aims at objectivity, why it is connected to the sensuous experience of its object, and why it is an inescapable feature of the moral life.”

This perspective on aesthetics was applied to another topic that fascinated Scruton: music. In “The Aesthetics of Music”, he arguing that what we hear are not the notes and the patterns that they form but the ‘acousmatic’ realm in which the sounds have an inner meaning.

Roger was himself a musician and an expert of Wagner, stressing that music can indeed instil sentimentality, violence and other negative emotions but the meditative pieces have a transcendental quality, possessing a meaning beyond what we hear.

However, Scruton’s aesthetic thinking was not confined to philosophy and art. Architecture was another theme which was important to Roger’s work. See for example “The Aesthetics of Architecture” which was published in 1979.

“In it he took issue with many of the dogmas used to justify the modernist approach to architecture, including memorably a forcefully critical analysis of the work of Siegfried Giedion. Ornament was not crime, as Adolf Loos averred, nor was there something inherently immoral in working in old styles, as contemporary architectural dogma would have it.  Neither did form have to follow function, another architectural sacred cow, which on analysis proved to be almost meaningless, but whose spirit led to the building of so much that was both ugly and functionless.” – Anthony O’Hear

His interest in constructing buildings with beauty that make people want to live and work in them, to be in and around them, wasn’t only theoretical. From 2018, Roger charred the British Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This task force produced a report, which was released the same month as Scruton’s death – January 2020, called “Living with Beauty”. In it, the Commission offered three principles and eight practical policy proposals to enrich the communities by erecting beautiful buildings.

Scruton’s passion for architecture and beauty was closely linked to his love of home – not just the farm he was living in, but the country with its values and traditions. “Adamant that beauty is essential for everyone, he advocated that any architect of public buildings should consult the aesthetic wishes of their future inhabitants”, wrote Jane O’Grady.

Indeed, the concept of home became central to Roger’s thinking, especially in the later years of his life. He argued that human beings are foremost home seekers in what he referred to as a “vale of tears”. We all seek a person or persons, a place and a community to form the ground of one’s being, to build our identity and become who we are. To express this process, Scruton coined the term “oikophilia”, meaning love of home. Roger then expanded this concept to the land and country, partly inspired by his life as a farmer and countryman.

He was also an ardent defender of the environment and argued against the damage done by industrial agriculture, urbanisation of the countryside and plastic. Roger made his points clear in “Green Philosophy: How To Think Seriously About the Planer”, a treatise of immense importance to the conversation on environmental developments that the rapid progress which we pursue continues to bring with it.

In “Green Philosophy”, Roger further developed his concept of “oikophilia” stressing that one can love one’s home without fearing or hating the foreigner. However, he also explained the spiritual injuries caused by globalisation and mass migration where these processes destroy old identities and forms of belonging. These views, although not always political, were often taken to be political statements.

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It is clear from what I’ve written so far that Scruton’s works on politics echo Edmund Burke’s conservative philosophy. In his writings and talks, the English thinker often stressed that it is easier to destroy than to build, that change is not always necessary and that one should cherish traditions, although not uncritically, because these are valuable and insightful inheritance from past generations.

In “Town and Country” he wrote: “The past is not a book to be read, but a book to be written in. We learn from it, but only by discovering how to accommodate our action and lifestyles to its pages. It is valuable to us because it contains people, without whose striving and suffering we ourselves would not exist. These people produced the contours of our country; but they also produced its institutions and laws, and fought to preserve them…We do not merely study the past:  we inherit it, from people to whom we are bound by natural piety.  Inheritance brings with it not only the rights of   ownership, but the duties of trusteeship. Things fought for and died for should not be idly squandered. For they are the property of others, who are not yet born.”

Part of Roger’s political stance was also a scepticism to the benefits of “free markets”. An ardent defender of the individual’s uniqueness, Scruton pointed out the processes of sacrificing this uniqueness, which is shaped in part by national values and customs, for the sake of ever expanding markets through globalisation, which detaches people from the place that is theirs, creating spiritual vacuums which cannot be healed by money or things.

He was also critical of the growing invasion of individual life by the state. In a talk with Hoover Institute entitled after his book with the same title – “How to be a conservative” – Scruton explained:

“The expansion of the state to absorb more and more of civil society has happened everywhere, more outside the anglosphere than inside the anglosphere. Let’s face it, you still have private education available here if you want it and can afford it. You still have all the little platoons, as Burke called them. If you have a problem, you can get together with your neighbours to solve it. You probably belong to all sorts of clubs and discussion groups and so on. All that free association, which made the English speaking countries what they are, still exist. It’s just that there’s a tax on it. Roughly speaking, half of what you earn, which goes to maintain a shadow community of parasites whose only justification is that they pretend to be governing us. We belong in an organism which is accompanied by a cancerous version of itself. That’s the way it is. All you can do is every now and then diminish it. Cut off this or that bit of it. But it will always be there.” – a statement with which I can only agree with: the state, as long as it is not driven by values, morality and traditions is a socio-economic parasitical structure that feeds on the life and effort of each individual over which it governs.

There are other topics about which Roger wrote passionately, such as religion, morality, wine, and hunting. Take for example his 2010 book, “I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine”, in which Scruton argued that “whether or not good for the body, Scruton argues, wine, drunk in the right frame of mind, is definitely good for the soul”. That is true: wine, of all alcohols, has a mystical quality to it.

An admirer of Immanuel Kant and of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Scruton built on their influence throughout his thinking and writing. In a lecture given a few years before his passing away, Roger masterfully summarised Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”:

“In it, Kant sets the limits to rational inquiry. He argues that we, rational beings, have the ability to know the truth of our condition but are also tempted to reach beyond it and know the world as it is in itself […] Critique of Pure Reason is designed to undermined that illusion: we do have knowledge of the world but only from our perspective.”

As for Hegel’s influence on Roger’s views, you can listen to this beautiful lecture by Mark Dooley on “The Philosophy of Right”. However, Scruton once said that “what is true in Marx comes to him from Hegel”, giving as an example our common desire for home (Heimkehr).

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Scruton had a long and illustrious career, leaving his intellectual mark on many people in a wide range of fields. As a result of his work, he was made a fellow of the British Academy in 2008 and knighted in 2016.

In January 2020, due to cancer, Scruton passed away. His death is one of these events after which the world is less than it used to be: something important is missing. However, as another thinker that I admire and respect, Terence McKenna, said: nothing lasts but nothing is ever lost.

Sir Roger Scruton’s legacy is now preserved and carried on by the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation and his digital home. Scruton’s contributions to enriching our Western civilisation will always be evoked by those who cherish and respect it. He will be remembered primarily as a “philosopher of love” for the human heart, the uniqueness that makes each one of us individuals, the sturdiness of human courage to endure and prosper.

On Beauty and Architecture

How to be a Conservative

Contemporary Art

The True, the Good and the Beautiful

Oxford Union Address

In Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left

The Soul of the World

Green Philosophy

West and the Rest

2 replies »

  1. The beauty in ourselves is what matter in our life. We just have to find it out ♥A perfect article . Thank you Anton

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