Remembering Roger Scruton

The maverick philosopher, who has died at 75, was a conservative outlier, respected but ignored by the Tory party

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Roger Scruton poses at his home on September 28, 2015 (©Andy Hall/Getty Images)

The largest puzzle about Roger Scruton is how there could be only one of him. He was philosopher, novelist, farmer and journalist-tormentor who liked, as he wrote, “to look people in the eye and say provocative things”. Claiming to “feel unclean” if he did not write 4,000 words a day, he published 51 books over 43 years, edited a conservative journal (1982-90), wrote scholarly articles on aesthetics and other philosophical topics while finding time to enrage liberal readers with regular newspaper columns.

Scruton wrote fluently and simply in once-common fields now closed to non-specialists. His range was daunting: morals, human nature, political thought, architecture, music, wine-drinking, sexual morality and the environment. His philosophical learning was wide, and his straightforward exposition of difficult thinkers (Kant, Spinoza) unsurpassed. His Dictionary of Political Thought (2007) is a masterwork of lucid compression, both open-minded in its selection and stringent in its judgments. He was trained at Cambridge in what used to be called analytical philosophy, a maddeningly careful dissection of meanings, propositions and their logical connections that, Scruton later wrote, he could “neither follow nor forget”.

‘His character and work were shot through with conflict, despite his outward show of certitude. He was an intellectual conservative in an unintellectual tradition’

The contradictory flavour of that quip tells much about his character and his work. Both were shot through with conflict, despite his outward show of certitude. He was an intellectual conservative in an unintellectual tradition. A temperamental maverick, he preached piety towards community and nation. His tone was fogeyish and provincial by adoption, but his intellectual scope was cosmopolitan. Although sought-after by universities, he frequently fell out with them or they with him. His on-off academic career freed him from departmental specialism. He could truly say, with Max Weber, that he was “not a donkey and did not have a field”.

Other consequences were less fortunate. Scruton left no tail of students to elaborate and defend Scrutonism. Lack of steady income encouraged an unphilosophical openness to corporate sponsorship. He made the news for things he said and for interests not declared (taking money from a tobacco company to deride anti-smoking campaigns). Bravely and less showily, he defended, at personal risk, Czech dissidents in Prague. Yet he was first of all a serious philosopher, who deserved to be remembered for his thinking. 

Faced by the volume of his work and the lack of an argued-through summa tying the rest together, it is tempting to echo Hazlitt’s backhander on Burke: “The only specimen of Burke is all that he wrote.” There was a shape to Scruton’s work, nevertheless. Besides accounts of other philosophers—not to forget several novels and two operas—his output fell into two sorts: journalism and philosophy. His unserious journalism appeared in The Times (mid-1980s) and later, at one remove, in frequent interviews where he said or was reported as saying silly things in order to provoke. His serious journalism was mostly in The Salisbury Review. It combined reasoned argument against current left-liberal causes—feminism, nuclear disarmament, defence of trade unions—with re-evaluations and revivals of forgotten conservative thinkers.

As a philosopher, Scruton had three interlocking concerns. One was a principled defence of conservatism, which doubled as a critique of liberalism, in both its free-market and social-minded variants. It drew on Burke and Oakeshott. A second was his aesthetics of architecture and music, which stressed the active power of the imagination to see features such as grace or harmony in a building or hear tunes in a sequence of sounds that, strictly speaking, were not there. The last concern was Scruton’s picture of human nature and morals. Drawing on Kant and Hegel, Scruton extended that aesthetic idea of “seeing as” to personal relations and the social world generally. Although embodied creatures, we saw each other primarily not as bodies but as persons. Personhood emerged, on Scruton’s story, in the imaginative act of mutual recognition. Society itself, with its norms and institutions, emerged similarly by, for example, seeing lumps of metal as money or hearing a string of words as a legal judgment.

Scruton knew the risks of philosophising so fast at such height. In On Human Nature (2017), he attempted to pull together his concerns in four short essays. What preoccupied him is what had preoccupied conservative thinkers since the beginning of the 19th century: a bewildering sense that modern society was becoming fragmented, uncontrollable and unintelligible. Down-to-earth conservatives had chiefly worried about how to keep order and protect property. Scruton saw the conservative’s task as tying politics, culture and human nature together again. His underlying complaint against liberalism was that it was happy to do without an overarching story. Like Hegel, Scruton was keen to synthesise. Without saying he succeeded, fellow philosophers acknowledged the boldness of Scruton’s attempt.

His Meaning of Conservatism came out in 1980 and is still in print. The context was telling. The liberal Left’s day was ending, the liberal Right’s beginning. On the liberal Right, Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek had offered contrasting libertarian and utilitarian justifications for the turn against post-1945 state-led reform. Nozick assumed that none of us owed society or each other anything we had not agreed to and went from there to validate at most a minimal, watchman state. Hayek attacked state intervention in markets, to prop up the economy or make it fairer, on the ground that, due to ignorance,  the upshot was reliably bad. Scruton offered a conservative third way.

Neither Nozick nor Hayek paid the least attention to what troubled Scruton: the poor ethical and cultural condition, as he saw it, of liberal-modern society. He in turn took little practical interest in economics, which preoccupied Nozick and Hayek. Scruton belonged in the tradition of critical dismay about “commercial society” that ran from Coleridge to Carlyle, Ruskin, Eliot and beyond.

Scruton’s starting point in politics was a certain picture of human nature. People, in his view, felt at a loss without stability, craved social order and wanted tomorrow to be like today. For that, they needed “established” institutions, by which Scruton meant institutions that might last and hold people’s “allegiance”. The political task was to uphold settled order. It had no larger aims such as social progress or greater distributive justice, a nod to Oakeshott’s proscription of “political rationalism”. 

“Establishment”, Scruton wrote, was “the great internal aim of politics.” Settled order required law, private property and personal liberties. It also needed a common faith. The faith need not be religious. It could be a shared ethic. The important thing was convergence to agreement on what, when it mattered, was good or bad for people in life. A common faith was compatible with personal liberties so long as those were balanced by duties to the social whole. Restoration of ethical and cultural health, urgent as it was, could not be imposed but had to come freely, from each of us. 

When set against the remorseless “creative destruction” of late capitalism, Scruton’s plea for ethical revival won a hearing in surprising places. The left-wing cultural critic, Peter Fuller, became a friend. So did the political philosopher, a self-described “Marxist by birth”, Jerry Cohen. Still, was liberal thought and culture most to blame for social ills?

Scruton’s charges against liberals over the years included mistaking society for a Lockean contract among “rationally calculating” citizens; treating politics as an endless lawsuit for non-compliance or a laboratory for social experiment; accepting biological reductivism about human nature, or denying it altogether; treating all obligations as arising by choice and all values as preferences (three complaints from On Human Nature); exaggerating people’s capacity for improvement while neglecting their sense of sacredness and guilt as well as their longing for home, belonging and stability. Not all liberals hold or need to hold such views.

Scruton might have followed his critical instincts that something had gone badly wrong in late-capitalist society and sought to know why. Despite his great learning, however, he was not much interested in economics or history. He had also the distraction of a cheap target in liberal groupthink, political correctness and left-intellectual fads that he attacked at length in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands.

His narrowness of diagnosis was evident in On Beauty (2007), a moving essay in which Scruton complained that beauty was dying because no longer cherished. Leave aside the selectivity of Scruton’s picture of the present-day arts and a nostalgic tendency to set today’s average against the best of the past. Cultural blight, though real enough, is due not only to indifference and bad taste. It is due also to profit-needy cultural industries, popular-right media, under-financed schools as well as management-think in universities and cultural bodies who cost humane values when their task is to defend them.

Where, in the end, did Scruton fit in the conservative tradition? Though courted by intellectual American conservatives, Scruton belonged in none of their tribes, neither the libertarians, neoconservatives, “paleo” traditionalists, nation-first Buchananites, Catholic neo-Thomists or right-wing Evangelicals. In native England, he was a conservative outlier, respected but ignored by a Tory party that wondered why, when it kept on winning elections, it needed—as Scruton pled when launching The Salisbury Review—“to think more”.

Scruton was a grand but isolated figure on the present-day Right. Not long before he fell ill, he made time to talk to me about conservatism. Who, I asked him, were his interlocutors? Oakeshott, Eliot, Bradley, he began. I broke in before he got to Hegel and said, “No, those living, fellow philosophers now.” Nobody came to mind. It was a handicap for Scruton—and for his work—to have nobody on the Right of his range and calibre to argue with. If conservative thought feels thin and underpowered at present, it is in part because there was only one Roger Scruton.