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Remembering Roger Scruton, Defender of Reason in a World of Postmodern Jackals

I received the news that Sir Roger Scruton had died with a pang in my heart. I did not know him personally, although our paths crossed once. And I am not the sort of fan who says things like “I felt like I knew him,” for I am not a sentimentalist. But he was a thinker and writer I admired extravagantly, and he was a beacon of reason in an age that is dominated by irrationality. It does seem to me that a bright star in my personal firmament has been extinguished.

The path-crossing I mention took place in Ottawa in 2006. He was the keynote speaker at a symposium, sponsored by an outfit called the Centre for Cultural Renewal, which attracts an audience of citizens, many of them older, bewildered at the lightning social changes they are living through, and a little frightened, too, about where it is all going to end.

The topic was “Public morality? Community Standards and the Limits of Harm.” Scruton told his listeners what they wanted to hear—namely that they were quite right to be worried—although not because they wanted to hear it, but because he believed in what he was saying. He castigated liberals who he felt were corrupting legal concepts such as “equality” and “harm” in order to undermine the traditional family, which like all conservatives he understood to be the pillar of stable societies.

That makes him sound like an old-timey preacher, but he was the farthest thing from that in his presentation and sympathies. Scruton did not entertain petty prejudices, and had no wish to tell anyone how to live or who to love. However, he was not the kind of man to relinquish ideas about human nature and cultural institutions he felt were honest and true in order that people’s feelings should be spared.

It was this uncompromising conservatism that led to his estrangement from the predominantly liberal intellectual elite in Britain. He wasn’t an outcast exactly. He taught at Oxford and Cambridge, among other places, and at one stage wrote a column for the Times—but after publishing The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980, he realized that his political views meant he would never reach the top in academic philosophy. That impression was confirmed when his follow-up book, Thinkers of the New Left (1984), was widely panned and his publisher remaindered it at the request of its left-wing authors.

I first encountered Scruton’s work through an essay he’d written about fox hunting for National Review in 2005. Scruton was an avid hunter himself, for 35 years, finally hanging up his spurs last February. This activity is considered so retrograde by progressives, it alone put him beyond the pale as an elitist of the imperialist class, about whom nothing more need be said or known.

From that article, I learned the interesting fact that England’s Parliament had spent 18 hours on the decision to enter the war in Iraq; but, because of Labourites’ obsession with class, 225 hours debating fox hunting during the seven previous years. Well, that does tell you something, doesn’t it. Scruton wrote, “Labour members of Parliament, who condone every kind of excess and seem to rejoice in the breakdown of family values, become pale with horror at the thought that someone somewhere might be enjoying the ‘sport of kings.’”

He had by the time of that essay left England to take up a post at the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia. His views were generally too conservative for his peers, who were virtually all progressive and increasingly intolerant of those who disagreed with them, no matter how brilliantly they defended their corner, no matter how erudite or cultured or aesthetically gifted. He did his fox hunting in Virginia, in company with anyone in the neighborhood who enjoyed it. In classless America, as in class-bound England, his fellow hunters were a mix of the privileged and blue-collar locals. He even bought an 18th century plantation house called Montpellier near Sperryville. By this time, he had remarried, having met his second wife, Sophie Jeffreys, while out hunting in England.

Scruton’s breadth of knowledge was astonishing. None of his enemies could dispute that. He wrote whole books with complete authority on religion, architecture, opera, the environment, Islam, philosophy. But running through them all was a guilt-free love for, and fidelity to his—our—cultural inheritance. He loved his own home, England, and he would not repudiate it for its disfiguring historical warts, which seemed to preoccupy almost everyone else. It was Scruton who gave us the word “oikophobia”—hatred of one’s home—which is the hallmark of progressivism. He was out of sync with the hey-hey-ho-ho-western-civ-has-got-to-go zeitgeist. It didn’t help that he was the son of a lowly schoolmaster and had gone to the Royal Grammar School High Wycombe, a selective public high school.

Feeling isolated, like Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens before him, Scruton drifted “across the pond” to breathe the friendlier air of the last western redoubt where conservative thought finds a welcoming hearth. From 1992 to 1995, he taught a philosophy course at Boston University, and he spent a second stint in America from 2004 to 2009. But the pull of his beloved England proved too great, and he returned to settle in a 250-year-old farmhouse in Wiltshire which he named “Scrutopia.”

One of my favourites of his books is his intellectual memoir, Gentle Regrets (2005), an anthology of essays on political philosophy, urban dynamics, personal influences, opera, travels, pets and, of course, fox hunting. Scruton is more generally known for his expository writing, but here you find him in a more relaxed and discursive vein, even intimate. And playful, too.

One chapter, “Drinks in Helsinki,” is a series of diary entries recording Scruton’s impressions gleaned during an academic trip amongst the pathologically shy Finns. Some of his aperçus rival those of George Orwell in their wickedly precise social marksmanship. He describes, for example, a Finnish dance he attended after a day’s academic work as “a sad, speechless knot of people drift[ing] on the dance floor like a clot of rubbish on a pond. They do not dance, but smooch aimlessly about…occasionally burying their heads like hatchets in their partners’ necks.” Many a novelist in a Master of Fine Arts program would spend half a semester workshopping such savagely funny and evocative images. You just know it popped out of his head without effort. There’s a lot more of that sort of thing in this memoir.

Scruton did eventually get some recognition in his home country. He received a knighthood in 2016. But then in his last year, Scruton fell victim to the scourge of “cancel culture.” A few words, taken out of context in an interview, and then mendaciously twisted by the New Statesman, brought on a mobbing of the kind we are all too familiar with, with accusations flung at this gentleman of harbouring “white supremacist” views.

As the night follows day in this feckless new world, Scruton was stripped of a recent government appointment, and there were demands that he lose his knighthood, too, on account of his homophobia, Islamophobia and so on—all complete fabrications. But here is what our culture has come to: the best of us is sooner or later thrown into the tumbril and exposed to the jeering crowds. Apologies to Scruton were eventually forthcoming, but great damage was done—not just to Scruton, but to journalistic standards. It was an indecent performance, exposing everything that is wrong with our chattering classes and our culture in general.

And yet, as a diary of his final year affirms, Scruton believed he had so much to be grateful for. In July, he learned he had cancer. But there was joy in the time remaining, not least because of the support and encouragement he received from his admirers during his 2019 show trial. His last entry in December: “Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Among those who expressed their gratitude to Scruton in his final year were the governments of Poland and Hungary, who garlanded him with honors for the role he’d played in overthrowing the Communist regimes that had blighted their countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This recognition followed his receipt of the Czech Medal of Merit (First Class), presented to him by Vaclav Havel in 1998. At great risk to himself, Scruton had smuggled banned books across the Iron Curtain and helped dissidents organize an underground university, even arranging for degrees to be awarded by the Cambridge theology department. Among his other achievements, he was on the right side of history.

I cherish the memory of a brief conversation I had with Scruton after his Ottawa talk, in which he had expanded on the idea of decency, a concept of great interest and importance for me, especially in retrospect, for Scruton was himself a supremely decent man, although that did not save him from the postmodern jackals. I remember he said decency was easy to regulate in small towns, because you can’t be happy in a small town without a willingness to conform to standards. But these standards aren’t written down. There is no need. Everyone knows what they are. You know you’ve transgressed them when you receive disapproving glances or are cold-shouldered.

Compelled conformity—not legislated, God forbid, but enforced by social pressure—looks stifling to progressives, but in its own way it can be a great comfort, knowing the rules of what is and isn’t decent, and, through them, belonging. We all want to belong, but healthy belonging is sensitive to scale. We’re not made for globalization. We’re made for homes and homelands. If people don’t have homes to keep them rooted, feeling they belong in a good way, they will find fake homes that are tethered to ideas and theories, and then they often belong in a bad way. These are Scrutonesque musings.

Conformity and its effects, good and bad, absorbed Scruton. He once described the entire trajectory of his life as a constant movement toward “that impossible thing: an original path to conformity.” Like so many other of his gnomic utterances, it forces one to stop and think, really think, about what it means. And you know it means something worth thinking about because Roger Scruton never thought or spoke or wrote bullshit. He left that to his critics.

 

Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at @BarbaraRKay.

Featured Image: Roger Scruton at a conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil, July, 2019.

Comments

  1. A fitting eulogy for a great man. For me, his life reads as a testament to the notion that not all heroes are defined by great emotive speeches or deeds of daring on desolate battlefields- that some can accomplish feats of heroism with gentle dignity and the judicious application of wit, pointing to our myriad follies and collectivist tendency towards selective and institutional amnesia.

    By contrast, the sneering condescension of his cheating critics, vainglorious adversaries and intellectual inferiors sounds like the screeching cacophony of self-incriminated harpies. What bleak and empty lives they must live, to cast themselves in service to that plenipotential bitch- demanding all manner of betrayals of ordinary human decency, their thirty pieces of sliver… a better tomorrow, that never comes.

    Then again, the tyranny of small minds (for both themselves and for others), is that they can only ever win by disingenuously brutal and callous means. A Gotcha should be a mark of shame, forever separating the sons of Caine from their far worthier and wiser brothers.

  2. I missed in this obituary/eulogy his book Green Philosophy. His environmentalism from a non-left perspective, especially here in Quillette, where environmentalism so often (tho not by all) is seen as one more trick of those evil socialists. Compare also Ben Sixsmith’s adequate article on the matter: The Right needs to grow up on Environmentalism" (25/1/19, on this blog). Close to 300 comments, thus stirring the Q. minds.

  3. If you like non-Left approaches to climate change, then this guy should be right up your alley:

    Apparently he is a geologist by training, with 25 years as a science journalist…

  4. Potholer makes good videos but he isn’t conservative (and the concluding part of this particular video isn’t very good). “If mass storage systems don’t exist, invent them” he says. People have been trying for a long time. He grossly understates the task with facile comparisons to putting a man on the moon. Then pretends the 3 hours of battery storage provided in South Australia is some kind of solution when you need the ability to store energy generated in summer through the winter (something lithium ion batteries cannot do). And storage is only part of the problem with wind and solar.

  5. Thank you for this essay. I’ve been thinking of the great man all day. I’ve only read one of his books --Fools and Firebrands (which should be mandatory reading for all Phd candidates), but mean to read more. As the author here says, he peppers his writing with brilliant analogies, one after another, often humorous, always apt. It makes me curious to read one of his novels.

    RIP

  6. That was a wonderful article about a very sad event, the death of Roger Scruton. For me - although there were a number of points on which I’ve disagreed with him - he was a wonderful oasis of calm sanity in the aesthetic world. What really touched me in this article was the quote from his diary of his final year:

    Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.

    That the meaning of life is found in gratitude is, I think, especially important in a time dominated on all sides by Ressentiment (in Kierkegaard’s or Nietzsche’s sense). So I’m going to lift a glass to his memory, and be thankful for his having been.

  7. Deserving of more than an up-vote Geary. Well said.

  8. Roger Scruton is not as widely known here in the USA as in Britain but it is ironic that his good work became more well known because of the smear by Eaton, a “journalist”. Thankfully Scruton’s good name was restored before he went to meet his maker and I doff my hat to those who stood by him and defended him in this last year. He was a gentleman of the first order.

  9. I’d like to think nuclear is the surefire answer, but there are a few issues that I think will make this impossible. First and foremost, the ones we currently use need to be near a large water supply for cooling. This limits the available locations, and areas near large bodies of water tend to be very populated or state/national park areas near large populations. Public opposition to include decades-long lawsuits, voting in new officials vowing to stop the nukes, etc. make nuclear impossible to implement on the scale needed. Why? Presently the world’s consumption of electricity is 15 terrawatts - and it’s only going up as the developing world wants modern conveniences and lifestyles. The largest nuclear reactor is Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, one that produces about 8 gigawatts. This isn’t one reactor but seven. The largest single reactors I’ve found generate 1.35 GW. Those 15 terrawatts are 15,000 GW. That’s more than 11,100 reactors using our most current technology. And all it takes is a nuclear incident to further damage nuclear power in the public’s eye.

    The next problem is nuclear sites are difficult to re-use. Somehow you found 11,100+ sites worldwide and received permits to build and operate. Reactors are decommissioned after 40 - 60 years because of the reactor’s metal surfaces suffer embrittlement. You can’t take out the old reactor and install a new one. And the resources such as the rare metals used, hafnium, beryllium, zirconium, and niobium can’t be recycled because they’ve been irradiated. In the case of decommissioning by entombment, or at the site of an accident, the land may not be available for re-use at all.

    I think the future for nuclear is sodium-cooled, helium-cooled, and molten-salt reactors, but these are in the testing stages and many years away from approval, which will likely be contentious in democracies. The key is to have reactors located far from population centres and desirable real estate. Still, the numbers needed is daunting and the resources lost to normal irradiation is a concern.

    The public is convinced of the desirability and safety of power from sun, wind, and water, and unless public sentiment changes once it comes to understand all the mining requirements to achieve zero emissions, it appears this is the path of least resistance.

  10. The “public” is convinced of a myth. And public means not the majority of the population but rather the bien pensants. Attitudes will change when energy prices go up and when people start freezing to death.

  11. It is odd that you cited land limitations as a strike against nuclear when wind requires 360 times more land and solar requires 75 times more land. Also, there is no reason (other than psychological) to locate nuclear plants far away from population centers. Industrial wind and solar must be located away from population centers because of the land requirements and the nuisance they create (especially wind turbines).

  12. I can recommend The Green Reich by Drieu Godefridi as an antidote to that drivel.
    Ban everything we can, eco-tax the rest: this could be the motto of the environmentalists in politics. If human CO2 is the problem, then Man must be restrained, controlled, suppressed in every one of his CO2-emitting activities: that is to say, in the totality of his actions. Researching environmentalism from the root of its anti-humanist ethic to the staggering heights of its actual demands — banning cars, aircraft, meat, nuclear energy, rural life, the market economy, modern agriculture, in short, post-Industrial-Revolution modernity — Drieu Godefridi shows that environmentalism defines a more radical ideology in its liberticidal, anti-economic and ultimately humanicidal claims than any totalitarian ideology yet seen. "Dividing humanity by a factor of ten” is the environmentalist ideal. “Godefridi says we have good reason to be alarmed. Not by climate change, but by the endless, hazardous-to-humans measures that activists propose in response. We need to read Godefridi’s book. And re-read it. Before it’s too late.”—Donna Laframboise

  13. Worthy of a lol, at least- I won’t correct, so that others can share the humour…

  14. What makes life difficult Dave is that the old left thought environmentalism would save it from the failure of class struggle. What actually happened was that with the collapse of socialism, leftists moved en masse into the environment movement, infested the bureaucracies of social administration and declared a political minoritarian misere hand where minoritarian swill (they couldn’t organize a mass movement of chickens, let alone human beings) were trumps… which then comprehensively corrupted environmental agenda and produced the disastrous result that the largest problem ever to threaten our civilizational was being run by a bunch of ideological fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden who specialize in the politics of sexual and racial perversion…

    I mean, you just couldn’t make that one up as a device to make absolutely certain that environmental agenda would always be on the back foot…especially against another form of minoritarian sectional interest swill in the form of the incredibly wealthy and powerful mining lobby, whose capacity for spreading disinformation is as legendary as that of the tobacco industry.

    The poor wretches down at climatology inc who just wanna-do-science have been the victims of this unfortunate political imbroglio/comic opera. Their arcane and obscure world used to be one of professional and academic discourse on highly specialized subjects requiring years of training and working in multidisciplinary teams to produce research that only their peers could possibly understand. It was as controversial as porridge…until one day it wasn’t…and they had absolutely no idea how to deal with a public relations marketing assault on their science and professionality by a bunch of neocon free market lobbyists and their sponsors, who think that climatology is a left wing plot to destroy civilization-as-we-know-it…

    And they and their stupid acolytes make a very small knowledge go a long way…and puff it up as if they were ‘Reel Eggspurts’’…All the public relations and marketing people need is just enough expertise to sound plausible to people who have no idea which end of a climate model to feed and which end to wipe.

    This is nuts, Climatology is no different from any other branch of science, but here is the kicker. Industrial rent seekers aren’t the only unrepresentative swill in the anti science game of perverting its discourse for their miserable regime ends.

    Right now in Canada, physics departments are being forced to run an ethnic fantasy in their course structure called ‘indigenous physics’, wherebye Indian elders come in and lecture on their ‘science’.of physical causes and effects. ‘Scientistic’ pseudoscience is fashionable right across the political spectrum, such that it can convert men into women and Einstein into land spirits with the same alacrity that says global warming is a scam.

    It is all unconscionable bullshit. All of it.

    If we were having a normal conversation Dave, we might be saying something like, ‘What if there is (and let us stretch the friendship) a twenty percent chance that the climatologists are right about their predictions coming through numerous climate models that all say more or less the same thing?’ What would a prudent decision maker do? Would that decision maker play a twenty percent game of Russian roulette with their children and grandchildren until kingdom come? I don’t think so. They would behave with the conservative prudence you would expect of a responsible political agent, wouldn’t you? They would hedge against that possibility by mobilizing substantial resources to cover against it.

    Even if the predictions turned out to be wrong, prudence is never wasted. The Y2K flap turned out to be unfounded, but the industrial system probably would have been subjected to disastrous outcomes if it hadn’t been, which is why it invested the money. And as it turned out, when the planes hit the twin towers in New York the following year and brought them down, the data backup provisions that had been put in place against Y2K meant that the world banking system was up and running again in less than a week. Without it, there would have been a potential financial collapse…and months of absolute chaos…

    Prudence is never wasted. Try it some time.

  15. I don’t disagree entirely. The problem is environmentalism has been making the argument for 4 decades or so, and seeing how emotionally tied many are to it, that’s a very tough nut to crack. I expect the hysteria and hyperventilation to only increase because the left, which has been slapped hard in elections around the world in recent years, has found an issue that concerns more people than wealth redistribution, unions, etc. I reckon the left will use environmentalism to cloak traditional left issues, but climate change with be the tip of the spear.

    Again, I don’t disagree. It’s where these facilities are placed that is the issue. We can install solar and wind farms in deserts, marginally productive farmland, industrial brown sites, as well as out to sea using wind and tidal farms - wind speed and solar concentration determine optimal sites. And these parcels of space don’t have the very long process of decommissioning nuclear reactor, so you have site longevity. For example, Wisconsin’s Kewaunee Nuclear Power Plant in was shut down in 2013. The operator is using the safe storage (SAFSTOR) method of 50 years of containment plus 10 years of decontamination and estimates that work will not be complete until 2073. Given the limited number of suitable areas for current technology NPP, taking a site out of use for decades becomes a major problem when you have thousands of NPPs. Present large nuclear reactors’ need of huge amounts of water requires they be placed beside lakes, large reservoirs, and oceans, which tend to be where a lot of people are located also. Large rivers can cool small reactors. Many people don’t want live near a nuclear power plant chiefly due to safety concerns and knock-on effects such as property values.

    If nuclear power plants could be placed in the sparsely populated states and those with large deserts, say Montana and Nevada, this addresses the psychological issue you mentioned. For this to happen requires the next generation reactors that aren’t dependent on water that I mentioned in my first comment.

    I used data from Prof Derek Abbott’s 2015 article “Limits to growth: Can nuclear power supply the world’s needs?” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

    Currently, the total global power consumption is about 15 terawatts (EIA, 2011). If nuclear power can feasibly supply at least this much power, investments in improving and scaling up nuclear technology are justified. . . . Let’s assume that the conversion of nuclear thermal energy to electricity is 100 percent efficient. For the purpose of large-scale calculations, this generous assumption makes little difference to the conclusions. Now imagine a world where 15 terawatts is supplied by 15,000 1-gigawatt reactors.

    I used the largest generating reactors of 1.35GW (used presently in Japan, France, and S. Korea) to revise the number of sites (down) still using the assumption of 100% capacity factor, which I should have mentioned.

    Checking capacity factor rates, they’re all over the place. In 2015, Korea’s Uljin NPP was 89% and Canada’s Bruce NPP was 55%.

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