In his latest book, Roger Scruton takes on the ultimate philosophical problem of death
A new book by Roger Scruton is always cause for a toast, even when — as in this case — the contents are not entirely new. Confessions of a Heretic (Notting Hill, £14.99) boasts a title saturated in theology. Yet “confessions” no longer imply the sacrament of penance, and “heretic” is nowadays a badge of pride, without a whiff of the bonfire. A penitent heretic would once have thrown himself on the mercy of God, but that is not for Scruton. Rather, he is proud to confess his heresies, and he is notably impenitent. His “confessions” are intended in the sense of a statement of belief, just as the Augsburg Confession summarises Lutheranism. This unpretentious little book, written at home in “Scrutopia”, is in fact the author’s personal creed.
And so one naturally turns to the essay on death: “Dying in Time”. What does this unrepentant heretic, who admits that he lacks the consolations of faith, have to say about the ultimate philosophical problem? One of Montaigne’s greatest essays vindicates the Ciceronian proposition: “To philosophise is to learn to die.” Scruton would surely not dissent, having lately passed the biblical span of threescore years and ten. Though he is not yet a “frail old geezer” who must be kept “precariously in being”, no doubt he has given mortality even more thought than usual.
Yet do philosophers really teach us how to die, even supposing that they know better than the rest of us? Scruton’s view, for which he acknowledges a debt to the late Bernard Williams, is that “my death can be known and thought about only in the future tense. Hence there is no way that I can so arrange things in my thinking as to see my death as timely. It occurs for me always in the future, the horizon of my decision-taking. But the judgment of timeliness can be made only from a point beyond that horizon — a point that I cannot reach.”
So Scruton equivocates on the great question of our day: euthanasia. He is clearly appalled at the prospect of dementia and he accepts, as do most people on both sides, the doctrine of “double effect” — that pain relief of the terminally ill may involve the shortening of life. But in the case of senility, he sees euthanasia as comparable to infanticide: “Piety requires us to respect life that was once the life of a person, just as we respect life that one day will become the life of a person.”
Yet Scruton comes back to the anxiety induced by the threat of Alzheimer’s and the impossibility of planning for a “timely” exit. He is sceptical of Heidegger’s “being–towards-death”, which “sounds grand and inspiring as an existential posture. But being-towards-senility has no comparable appeal.” Aristotle offers a better solution: virtue. Fortified by the cardinal virtue of courage, Scruton advocates “benign shabbiness”: drinking, smoking, risk-taking and defiance. He admires the “adorable recklessness” of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who lives under an Islamist death sentence. The main point is “to maintain a life of active risk and affection, while helping the body along the path of decay”. Scruton has at least the merit of practising what he preaches: he still rides to hounds (he recently broke a leg), drinks lots of good wine and is fond of a cigar. No intimations of immortality, no heresy and no confession here: just the ataraxia (freedom from anxiety) of the ancient Epicureans. Roger Scruton has found his philosophical anchorage at last.