Is the Christian tradition compatible with a conservatism skeptical of power and a constrained vision of human society?
In recent months, there have been many occasions in which people have asked me who I regard as Western Civilization’s most important intellectual defenders today. My response has always been the same: Joseph Ratzinger, John Finnis, Rémi Brague, and Sir Roger Scruton. That short list has now, alas, become even shorter.
It’s difficult to understate the late Roger Scruton’s importance in not just keeping alive the idea that there is something distinct called “the West,” but also for rigorously defending that idea against those who regard all talk of Western Civilization as reeking of patriarchy, neo-colonialism, and various words to which the suffix “phobic” is predictably attached. At a time when any positive reference to the West has become a career-killing move in many universities, Scruton could be relied upon to explain clearly, patiently and in detail why there is something called Western Civilization and why it should be studied and bolstered.
Man of Culture
One reason for Scruton’s ability to undertake this task was the depth of his knowledge of so many disciplines. Scruton was as comfortable discussing the finer points of post-Smithian economics as he was in explaining why Jung is superior to Freud or how Judaism’s idea of the Temple was so revolutionary in shaping the West’s idea of the Divine. That type of genuine polymath is rare in today’s academy.
Perhaps the best example of Scruton’s mastery of so many intellectual sources is his 2014 book, The Soul of the World. Based on the Stanton Lectures delivered by Scruton in the Divinity Faculty at the University of Cambridge in 2011, the book is not so much an argument for the coherence of the religious view against atheism, let alone advocacy for the doctrines of any particular confessional position. Scruton was more interested in illustrating how belief in the sacred ties together the West’s cultural achievements, whether it’s eighteenth-century classical music, Renaissance architecture, or specific ideas concerning the nature of rights.
Much of the West, Scruton argues, is founded on the Jewish and Christian drive to know and express that which is sacred. It follows, he suggests, that the absence, weakening or corruption of this quest means that we will end up living in a very different and, on balance, far less civilized world.
What’s truly remarkable, however, is the sheer ease with which Scruton moves in this book between reflecting on the meaning of specific words in the Hebrew Scriptures to exploring notions of forgiveness, outlining how we ended up with the brutalist monstrosities bequeathed by modern architecture, and the contradictions of evolutionary psychology—to name just a few of the topics he covers. The whole text is seamless, and part of Scruton’s argument is that we need to understand just how tightly threaded together are the West’s various achievements, and why unpicking one strand can easily lead to an unravelling of the rest.
Man of Courage
Needless to say, such views are not mainstream in most of today’s academy and a large swathe of contemporary intellectual opinion. The price that Scruton paid for being unwilling to compromise his opinions on these subjects—or be quiet about them—was substantial.
It wasn’t that Scruton was somehow instinctively anti-modern, let alone a wholesale rejecter of the various Enlightenments. He wasn’t a reactionary. In an essay published in a book coedited by myself and James R. Stoner Jr., for instance, Scruton wrote in admiring terms about how free market thinkers like Adam Smith, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and F.A. Hayek had shown 1) how the pursuit of self-interest righty understood contributed to overall economic well-being, and 2) the ways in which “socialism and Keynesian mumbo-jumbo” contributed to the destruction of this bottom-up path to prosperity for all.
There were two things, however, which enraged Scruton’s opponents, most of whom can be safely described as modern liberals and on the Left more generally. The first was his decidedly negative view of 1968 and the soixante–huitards who presumed that everything about the past was oppressive and thus to be overturned in the name of assorted liberations.
Scruton had personally witnessed the student uprisings in Paris in May of that year. He was disturbed by the sheer nihilism and taste for destruction characterizing the rioters and their professorial enablers. Scruton had no qualms about exposing the moral anarchism of these individuals, many of whom went on to high positions in politics, the civil service, newspapers and journals, and the universities. At every point of his subsequent life, some of these people and their followers made life extremely difficult for him.
That included his last year on earth. In April 2019, Scruton was dismissed from the unpaid chairmanship of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission by an ostensibly Conservative administration on the basis of what was later shown, thanks to Douglas Murray, to be a set-up designed to make Scruton appear racist and guilty of various “phobias.” The speed at which various Tory MPs had put distance between themselves and Scruton underscored just how many establishment conservatives in Britain had become beholden to the left’s masters of wokery. The minister who dismissed him had the grace to apologize and reappoint Scruton to the Commission.
The second reason for the animus against Scruton was that he was very much a man of order. By that, I don’t mean that Scruton was inclined to authoritarianism or totalitarianism. His dogged and very direct help for dissidents laboring under Communist tyranny in Eastern Europe is ample proof of his opposition to such systems. That said, Scruton was convinced that there was no liberty without order. Nor did he think all order was spontaneous. Sometimes it had to be chosen and backed up with authority.
As illustrated in perhaps his most political of books, The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Scruton regarded order and authority as central to the agenda of modern conservatism. That order included objective morality, a strong attachment to private property, a rich and independent civil society, tradition in the best sense of that word, broadly orthodox religion, the conviction that some choices are always good and others are always evil, and that the state and law do have some responsibilities in this area. It’s hard to imagine a better list of positions to which most of today’s left would strenuously object.
The same belief in order also lead Scruton to express reservations about an economics-first approach to conservative thinking and policy. He was always anti-socialist, anti-Keynesian and, maybe above all, anti-technocratic. In his later years, Scruton spoke eloquently about the importance of private enterprise. He maintained, however, that markets needed to exist within the cultural, moral and legal setting bequeathed and adapted from the past. This was one reason why Scruton admired the writings of the economist and social philosopher Wilhelm Röpke and the ways in which Röpke showed how the dynamism of markets could be reconciled with the type of institutions and habits typically favored by conservatives.
Man without Fear
Despite the petty and not-so-petty harassment that Scruton endured from the mid-1970s onwards, he never struck me as a pessimist. That’s partly because Scruton wasn’t interested in acceptance, let alone approval, from those who tried to grind him down. But I think it owed also something to his unworldly nature. While Scruton was a practical man, he also impressed me as someone without fear.
A few months after Scruton was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2016 Birthday Honors List for his “services to philosophy, teaching and public education,” I was fortunate enough to see him in London when he spoke at an Acton Institute conference. The night before that event, Scruton was present at a dinner at which the aforementioned Rémi Brague was also in attendance. After introducing Brague to the guests as perhaps continental Europe’s most important living lay Catholic intellectual, I then presented Scruton as the conservative thinker of our time. His recent knighthood, I added, was not only immensely deserved but long overdue.
When the evening came to a close, Scruton sidled up to me and said, “You know, Sam, it’s not about me. It’s never been about me. I’m not important. What really matters is our civilization. It’s the hope of humanity. I’d die for it.”
That’s how I will remember him: as a gentle Knight of the Realm, but above all a fearless Knight of the West. Sir Roger Scruton, requiescat in pace.