Sir Roger Scruton – professor of philosophy, author, political thinker, composer, theorist of music, barrister, ecologist, wine connoisseur, publicist and gadfly at large—passed away this January 12. As the sad news broke, a global outpouring of tributes began, testifying to the magnitude of Scruton’s achievement and provoking questions about its meaning. Among the first, Timothy Garton Ash tweeted his sadness for the loss of a “provocative, sometimes outrageous Conservative thinker that a truly liberal society should be glad to have challenging it.”
Roger Scruton’s passing is of significance for this College, which hosted him on two memorable occasions. The first (in 2008) was a lecture on Hegel and property that made an instructive intervention in what is now the Origins of Political Economy core. His second visit in the context of the 2011 State of the World Week (the anticipation of our civic engagement program) was a talk on the idea of “civic environmentalism” laying at the heart of his Green Philosophy. A friend and supporter of our efforts, Scruton’s last gesture was a contribution to a volume coming out this summer on The Emergence of Illiberalism, edited by Boris Vormann and Michael Weinman.
Sir Roger’s death is also of great moment to me. Though never a student of his, I had the privilege of knowing him since 1994, when a chance encounter proved to be a turning point in my education.
I first met Scruton in Krakow at a conference on national stereotypes. At the time I was a student of psychology at the Jagiellonian University, gearing up to write a master’s thesis on the subject of how different nations perceive each other and why. Poland in those post-Cold War years was in the grip of a regime change and a far-reaching cultural transition. Though many aspects of that transition were as contested then as they are now, there seemed to be a broad consensus that, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, rejoining Europe or returning to the West where, as was said, Poland rightfully belonged, was the most important political and civilizational objective. And rejoining the West meant embracing liberalism: as a political creed, economic program, and self-critical spirit.
The conference, which took place in the newly renovated Theater Academy was imbued with this spirit. Paper after paper denounced cultural stereotypes and brought new examples, from the early Disney films to the latest political contests, to critique the pervasive presence of prejudice in Western culture. With the message so monotonous, it was difficult to stay attentive.
Then came Roger Scruton. His brilliant lecture on Edmund Burke’s defense of prejudice and its role as a kind of distillation of collective experience sought to explain why we should not be simply dismissive of a phenomenon that is in a sense constitutive of social life. Before we rush to repudiate prejudice, we had better examine its psychological origins and seek to understand its social function. Nor would repudiation help: if stereotypes are indeed necessary, it would simply replace old prejudices with new ones.
Decades later, I still recall the sensation of hearing Scruton’s talk and the shockwaves it sent through the room. Everyone seemed to be sitting on edge, riveted by incomprehension. If the conference was a current, Scruton swam against it, carried by the sheer force of his eloquent arguments, delivered with a generous dose of dry wit. Did he persuade? Not even me, thrilled though I was to hear intellectual controversy enter the conference room, and amazed by his courage and willingness to face disapproval. Besides the many points I did not understand (my English was rudimentary back then), I could not grasp how a philosopher could seek to vindicate prejudice, whether in the age of Enlightenment or our own. And this left me with two thinkers –Scruton and Burke –to reckon with. Actually three, for Socrates soon came along to lend an interpretive lens.
After the conference Professor Scruton and I stayed in touch in the only way practicable back then: by exchanging letters. A year later, after receiving a stack of philosophy books that I was not in a position to read, I got an invitation to visit him in England while working on the final chapters of my master’s thesis. Elated if little prepared for what to expect, I booked a ticket for a coach that took me across Europe to Calais, then on a ferry to Dover, and onwards to London. From London, Scruton and I continued by train to Kemble, a little town in Wiltshire, where a decrepit-looking car stocked with books (some, to my surprise, in Arabic) waited to take us on the last stretch to Sunday Hill Farm.
Roger’s home was a small stone-walled cottage surrounded by plots of green. Three or four horses chewed quietly in an enclosure; sheep like specks of light scattered in the distance. Little in the picture suggested which century we were in. The cottage itself, though visibly old, was no less discrete. Offering all the modern comforts, its rooms were furnished with objects reclaimed from the ages, each playing its part in a harmonious whole. Here was an alternative universe where time had come to a pause, and past and present gathered to commune and peacefully cohabit. The largest space in the two-story structure was a dusky room whose walls were lined up with books. One of these walls was nearly all green with small identical-looking volumes that, years later, I would recognize as the Loeb classical library. Two grand pianos balanced the space and sealed its image as a temple of the muses.
As soon as we arrived things fell into a calm, work-focused routine: from morning tea to lunch, often prefaced by a horse-ride in the adjacent fields, through the solitary afternoons, to dinner-time when guests showed up and long conversations took place over good wine and enchanted meals Roger himself cooked. It is at one of those dinners that I first met Sophie, Roger’s wife to be, and also Christina, a high-school student and the oldest daughter of a Rumanian immigrant family that Roger had practically adopted.
Though long and hardworking, the days at Sunday Hill Farm did not feel that way. This was because every hour had its special purpose. Roger would take time off writing to attend to a small garden, feed the horses, bake bread, or work on whatever it was he was composing. And my presence seemed to fit seamlessly into this schedule. “I have never felt so happy,” I told my mother on the phone in the one quick chat we had (international calls were expensive back then). She concluded I must be having an affair – and in a sense I was, though not of the kind she imagined.
A few days later Roger departed for London, leaving me alone on the farm. Having recently arrived in a country whose ways, like driving on the wrong side of the road, seemed eminently strange to me, I was less than eager to be left on my own. Yet this proved an opportunity to explore the vicinity, and venture to nearby Malmesbury – a small, medieval looking town, which (I would later discover) was the birthplace of Thomas Hobbes, and a bloody playground of the Civil War that scarred its historic Abbey.
Roaming the cottage in Roger’s absence, I was trying to peek into the mindset of this person who would invite a stranger from across the continent and bid her trusting welcome. It is only then that I could take a closer look at the small study that hosted Roger’s writing desk and another piano with hand-written scores piled up on it: his first opera. The shelves in the study were occupied mostly with the books – quite a few of them! – Roger himself had authored on such disparate subjects as aesthetics, music, architecture, politics and philosophy. There were also a few novels. It is at this moment that I came to realize I was in the presence of something extraordinary, a beautiful vista and human possibility I had hitherto no experience of: a life dedicated to books and music.
Well, and horses too.
In Plato’s Apology Socrates describes himself as a gadfly, and his mission as bearing witness to uncomfortable truths. His community, the polis, he likens to a large horse: strong and well-bred if a bit dull and sleepy, going mindlessly about its horsey ways. To prick the city and his fellow citizens, shake them from their moral slumber, to summon their intellects and awaken their conscience – this, according to Plato’s Socrates, is philosophy’s calling. This calling, however, requires that its votary put himself on the line: not hide behind technical subjects and a language only few could understand, nor zoom in on specialized minutia, but enter the fray and speak about the great questions of life in a manner that is clear and accessible – needless to add, prickly – to the community at large. It also requires the courage to face disagreement and, as in Socrates’ case, even death.
Scruton’s life and death were overshadowed by controversies of one kind or another: from his work as the founding editor of the Salisbury Review that, dissenting from the mainstream at home, supported dissidents in Eastern Europe; to his spirited defense of fox-hunting; to the Brexit debates and his involvement in a Tory government commission, whose work he did not live to see in print. In the decades that spanned our friendship, and across many embroilments, I came to understand Roger’s philosophical stance and rhetorical gestures as the work of a Socratic gadfly. Understanding, however, was not the same as acceptance. And I often questioned the need for these embroilments, even resenting them at times, because they seemed to muffle his message and weaken its intellectual and moral authority.
“Why seek to alienate people?” I’d ask. “Why disturb cherished views and call forth public anger? Is this not the lesson Plato drew from Socrates’ death: that philosophy and politics do not truly mesh because the one longs for truth and the other needs lies, more or less noble? Truth, if at all graspable, is convoluted and complex. Reduced to a plain message, injected into the public space, it becomes lopsided and polemical, an ideology more than wisdom.”
Roger would acknowledge my passionate opinions with a gentle nod. A philosophical modernist, he had made Platonic philosophy, and Socrates as its presumed spokesman, a fertile ground for theoretical disagreement – a disagreement perhaps nowhere more visible than in his recurrent wrestling with the question of love. 2 See, e.g.: Sexual Desire: A philosophical Investigation (Continuum, 2006 ); Xanthippic Dialogues (Bloomsbury 2012 ); Death-devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” (Oxford University Press, 2004). In practice, however, for Scruton as for Socrates, philosophy to be true to its mission demanded public engagement with all of its existential commitments and costs. The philosopher is not accidentally but essentially a gadfly, all the more so in a society that claims to be open and free. And this, as they both understood, was a quest fraught with perilous paradoxes.
In Plato’s account, Socrates was sentenced to death by the people of Athens on a triple accusation: of corrupting the youth, not believing in the gods of the city, and making the weaker argument the stronger. If the charges of corruption and heresy seem clear, the last bit is puzzling. To make the weaker argument the stronger is usually interpreted as devious sophistry: thanks to rhetorical skills and facility for crafting arguments, the sophist can make any claim prevail no matter its inherent credibility or strength. Like a modern-day debater, he aims at victory, not truth; and any argument that wins the jury’s favor has validity enough.
But there is another way to understand the indictment against Socrates that comes to light with the help of Aristotle’s ethics. For Aristotle, virtue is not the opposite to vice, but the mean between two vices. Courage, on that view, is not simply contrary to cowardice, but equally opposed to rashness and timidity. It is a kind of moderation or fine-tuning that balances the pull of two extremes. However, if virtue is a mean, it is rarely found in the middle for each of us has particular tendencies that propel us in one direction more than the other. And so, if one person is prone to temerity while another to fear, in each case courage would look a bit different, and lie closer to one or the other pole.
If we assume that each society or historical moment has its own tendencies and ruling passions that make certain opinions more acceptable than others, then to balance these one would need to champion the weaker view: weaker not in the sense of inherently less valid, but in the sense of less popular. And this because truth, like virtue, is never in the extreme, and justice too would require that we weigh all sides to the argument. These sides, Burke famously argued, include not only the presently living but also the dead and the yet to be born. On this reading, wherever the culture is going, the philosopher’s mission is to pull the other way and side with propositions that, whether forgotten on not fully realized, tend to be underestimated or ignored and, in that sense, weaker. 3 “If I were born in an aristocratic century,” writes Tocqueville, “amid a nation in which the hereditary wealth of some and the irremediable poverty of others held souls as if benumbed in the contemplation of another world, I would want it to be possible for me to stimulate the sentiment of needs … and try to excite the human mind in the pursuit of well-being. Legislators of democracies have other concerns… It is necessary that all those who are interested in the future of democratic societies unite, and that all in concert make continual efforts to spread within these societies the taste for the infinite, the sentiment for the grand, and the love for non-material pleasures.”
To be a gadfly, then, would mean to raise troubling questions, and to point out aspects of social life and our humanity – the need for prejudice, for instance – that risk being overlooked or trampled on by the ideological élan and political fervor for a particular opinion. It is to caution that not every change is for the better (consider climate); and what may seem like progress today – e.g., moving away from traditional forms of subjection – could yet prove to be an oppression much greater tomorrow (consider totalitarianism). It is to offer a reminder that in our enthusiasm for righting wrongs, by improving one thing we may spoil another; and that, in the great complexity of human affairs, unless fully understood and carefully administered, the cure often proves worse than the disease.
Truth so discerned is bound to offend because it resists our preferences and collective instincts: precisely our prejudice. At the same time this offense, if earnestly delivered and thoughtfully received, is what propels us to rethinking. It challenges us to consider aspects we are prone to disregard, and calls on us to account for what it is we believe in and why. Only by listening to those who question our certitudes, J. S. Mill argued in On Liberty, can ideology be countered and dead dogma quickened into vital truth. So much so that if liberal society did not have an earnest opponent and conscientious dissenter – its own Socrates – it had better invent him.
Mounting a well-argued opposition to just about every progressive creed – multiculturalism, individualism, atheism, globalism – Scruton was no less a gadfly to the conservatives with whom he otherwise identified. His vision of conservatism, centered on conservation and green politics, was as much a rebuke to Thatcherism as to the Blairite consensus that replaced it. Nor did he shy away from instructing American Republicans on the good of government. And his vision of the University scrutinized the anti-establishment zeal of the established professoriat as well as the technocratic Cameron reforms that merged the ministry of Education under Business. Whatever his audience, Scruton sought to stir thinking, not applause.
And yet another paradox lurks here. If philosophy’s role is to serve as counterweight for political and intellectuals fads, is the philosopher then necessarily a contrarian: one, whose mission is to dispute whatever most people happen to agree on, and so a creature of the crowd after all? A different way to pose the question: Is the thinker’s role to play the sceptic and critique the opinions that claim public favor; or should he also strive to put something fuller and more coherent in their place? If the former, he’d be forever a debunker, always against but never for anything (other than his own importance). And if the latter, is he not in danger, while contesting the dogmas of others, of becoming a dogmatist himself?
Well-aware of these tensions, Scruton deemed them unavoidable. While playfulness and irony, alongside many literary tropes, offered partial solutions, his main recourse was, once again, Socratic: to live his life as an example and seek to practice what he preached. This informed both his decision to leave academia and embrace country life and the autobiographical turn his books took in the late 1990s. If his chief philosophical purpose was to recover what he called the soul of the world, Scruton recognized that this can only be done in living out his beliefs and bearing witness with his own person to the propositions he put forward. It required that he become, in the original sense of the word, a martyr.
Among the more puzzling of Plato’s works is a short dialogue called Crito. Set on the eve of Socrates’ execution, it opens as the eponymous Crito, an elderly gentleman of means, comes in the dark before dawn to visit Socrates in prison. He has made all the preparations: bribed the guard, gathered resources, and arranged for a boat to steal his unjustly convicted friend away from his doom. The conversation that ensues is Socrates’ attempt to reason with his childhood friend and persuade him (and, possibly, himself as well) that submitting to the judgment of the Athenian people is the right course of action, and that dying as a citizen is preferable to living as an exile. In the course of the conversation, Socrates impersonates the Laws of Athens to deliver arguments that sound patriotic to the point of chauvinism. Invoking his young sons, his plea on behalf of the Laws recalls his own decision, made in advanced age, to become a husband and father.
Socrates’ declared allegiance to country and family stands in some tension with the project of philosophy, to which he pledged his life. No respecter of countries or borders, philosophy’s object is to interrogate all human laws and attachments—love itself—in light of a universal standard. Nor does Plato’s Socrates usually come across as a devoted father: more than his biological children, his conversational companions, indeed conversing itself, seem to be the focus of his affection. Is a philosophical life compatible with being a patriotic citizen or responsible paterfamilias, Crito prompts us to ask. How can one be committed to the universality of truth, or to probing every kind of social convention, and, at the same time, stay true to a particular community – with its flawed laws, questionable practices, and harmful judgments – even unto death?
After his talk at that fateful 1994 conference, I came up to Prof. Scruton and we exchanged a few words. “I want you to meet my student” he said and introduced me to Joanna, a Polish woman my age who grew up in the US, where her family was exiled in the aftermath of the 1981 military crackdown on the dissident Solidarity movement. One of Scruton’s best students at Boston University, where he taught at the time, Joanna had come along to the conference as a first opportunity to revisit her country of origin. Though at this point she had spent more than half her life in America, the journey to Poland was a homecoming: a charged and meaningful moment that Scruton took as seriously as she did, and which first announced what would become a recurrent theme of our interactions.
Over the years and decades that followed, Roger did everything he could to support my philosophical wanderings: from proofreading my first essays in English and writing letters of recommendation, to patiently enduring my own attempts at playing the gadfly, usually directed at him. Scattered across time and space, and whatever their occasion, our conversations would often end on the same note: the importance of home, and the duties of homecoming – a message that became all the more troubling as my English waxed and my native tongues waned. “You should go home,” he repeated whenever and wherever we met. “Remember to go home.” “What is home?” I’d reply, as it were, Socratically. “Is it a place, or a principle, or a figure of speech? Why can’t the world be our home?”
Surely for Scruton, too, this had been a question. And he was far from believing that one’s home is, in any simple sense, the place or circumstances of one’s birth. In his own wanderings, he had moved light years away from his lower middle-class origins and his father’s socialist convictions, as he later did from the urban pieties of the academic elite to which he belonged by learning and habit. He loved French culture, and was intellectually and musically at home in Germany. He taught for years in the US where he considered emigrating. He had a soft spot for the countries of Eastern Europe that haunted his novels, and whose decorated hero he had become; and a special bond to Lebanon whose civil war he had witnessed as a young man, and where he first learned Arabic. Like his Englishness, Scruton’s endorsement of rural ways was qualified by profound erudition and cosmopolitan tastes. Nor could any party claim him – nor wished to claim him – without reservation. If he had one strong identification, it was with being an outcast and heretic.
And yet, the first law of Scruton’s ethics was the imperative to settle: espouse an ethos, assume one’s station and honor one’s roots, despite the estrangement and ironic distance one might feel about the whole thing. Without such an embrace, and the acknowledgment that one’s view is necessarily a view “from somewhere,” one is a free-floating, ineffectual person and, in an intellectual sense, a dishonest man. At the same time, without the distance and estrangement that thinking stimulates, one’s home would not be a reasoned perspective or self-aware choice, but an unreflective product of accident or custom.
As for Plato’s Socrates, the philosophic quest as Scruton understood it was not to deconstruct one’s love for family and country but to give a full account of, and thereby deepen, that love. Indeed, the more difficult it is to define and maintain a notion of home in the modern world, the more important it becomes to insist upon it. This holding on – the will and courage to own up to one’s particular commitments, despite or perhaps because of all the reservations one feels about them – is what distinguished the philosopher from the rootless sophist, whose only standing commitment, as Thrasymachus in the Republic memorably shows, is to unbounded lust for power.
In Scruton’s diagnosis, most originally delivered as an homage to French viniculture and philosophy, our age is drunk on universalisms demanding that the same principles, analogous practices and mass-produced tastes apply equally everywhere with no regard to differences of place, history, social conditions and even species. If universalistic creeds are like strong distillates that – stripped of specificity or local flavor, and detached from communal rituals – aim for immediate inebriation, Scruton’s proposed remedy was not abstinence or anti-intellectualism, but thoughtful connoisseurship of drinks and ideas.
Such a connoisseurship must begin with the sober recognition that, if the desire for universality is humanity’s most heroic aspiration and philosophy’s raison d’être, it is also a dangerous temptation. While this desire may expand our intellectual horizons, ennoble the arts, and elevate civic sentiments, it is not and cannot be our home. For it demands that, in the name of disembodied abstractions, we abjure the attachment to particular persons, and repudiate everything we may consider our own: the ways and devotions that distinguish our form of life, and define who we are individually and collectively.
So the weaker argument Scruton made it his life-long mission to uphold was the importance of loving one’s home and protecting the environment, both natural and human, spiritual and physical, that sustains it. He shared with many on the left a poignant sense of the destruction wrought by globalized capitalism. Yet he challenged the self-serving mantra of globalized elites that the only effective response is the ever-greater outsourcing of agency and decision-making to supranational structures that lack mechanisms of accountability and an organized community of citizens to hold them to account.
Scruton’s counterpoint was to insist on the need to revive allegiance to local traditions and common practices that alone lend meaning to high-sounding words and abstract ideals. It is by coming together and drawing on shared modes of thinking and feeling that freedoms can be substantiated, the environment protected, and effective solidarities fostered. This insistence went together with a vision of England as a community bound by law and a sense of accountability– less a physical location than a spiritual landscape marked by virtues and distinctive beauty. It is to the task of articulating and protecting this beauty that his last efforts were dedicated.
“We should recognize,” states the posthumously published report of the government commission on Building Better, Building Beautiful, “that the pursuit of beauty is an attempt to work with our neighbours, not to impose our views on them. As Kant argued in his great Critique of Judgment, in the judgment of beauty we are ‘suitors for agreement’, and even if that judgment begins in subjective sentiment, it leads of its own accord to the search for consensus.”
Our last meeting this past October was a lesson in dying – a preparation for which, Plato’s Socrates claimed, was philosophy’s special task. Roger spoke about his mysterious illness and the pains that had become his constant companion; but much more about the gratitude he felt for his life and for all those who helped shape it.
“It is clear,” he mused serenely, as if speaking about some abstract matter, “that things cannot go on forever. I have said all I had to say, wrote all the books I wanted to write. I’m ready, I suppose.” As if casually, he added: “But life is so sweet…”
Like Socrates, he died at home.
Ewa Atanassow joined the College as a full time faculty in 2008. She teaches in the Core and the Ethics and Politics programs.