So so sad to hear that Sir Roger Scruton has died.
As readers here know, I have been working for an MA in Philosophy on Sir Roger’s programme at the University of Buckingham. He had his cancer diagnosis soon after our 2018/19 formal seminar series concluded last summer. I’d heard in late November from a close friend of Roger that he’d been responding really well to the treatment. Alas the disease raced and prevailed.
What to say that has not already been said in the many glowing tributes to his life and ideas? This at National Review is good, the more so for including this magnificent passage on Roger’s personal realisation that he despised radical Leftism:
… Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the “discourses” of power.
The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue — by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies — that “truth” requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the “episteme,” imposed by the class which profits from its propagation.
And the Guardian:
In The Aesthetics of Music (1997), he brilliantly described the sense we have of a musical space in which tones are higher and lower, and the “virtual causality” that makes it seem inevitable for each particular sound in a musical composition to follow the previous one.
Permeated by “spatial metaphor”, our experience of music would be impossible without it. “If someone said that, for him, there is no up and down in music, no movement, no soaring, rising, falling, no running or walking from place to place”, would we count what he is hearing as music?
And the Oldie:
“The reason people on the left can’t be friends with people on the right is because they think we are evil, whereas I am perfectly able to be friends with them because I think they’re simply mistaken.”
This Roger said to me the first time we met in person. He echoed that sentiment in writing and lectures throughout his life. In this atmosphere of political polarization and mistrust of others’ motives, we all, left, right or centre, would do well to remember that simple message of good faith and goodwill.
First and foremost, Roger Scruton produced a startling body of thoughtful and challenging work. Look at his Amazon list of books, let alone his vast bloc of academic pieces too. If you want to extend a cautious toe into the dark pools of philosophy, Roger’s Short History of Modern Philosophy is a fine place to start. Then move on as the mood takes into his wider astute thoughts on sex, fox-hunting, Brexit, wine, music, environmental issues, wine, politics, buildings, religion, beauty, wine and so on. Not just something for everyone. A sprawling banquet. With wine!
And there’s another magnificent legacy collection over at YouTube. Try this short clip on Beauty:
Or this on the deep issue of whether Bach’s music is better than the sounds emitted by Lady Gaga:
Roger took ‘conservative’ thinking seriously. That’s why he was so feted in central Europe for his active and lifelong principled stand against brutish Marxism and for measured tradition and democratic institutions. But this meant that he was a constant target for ‘controversial’ views. Here Roger points out how the curse of identity politics works:
The crimes for which we are judged are existential crimes: through speaking in the wrong way you display one of the phobias or isms that show you to be beyond acceptable humanity. You are a homophobe, an Islamophobe, a white supremacist or a racist, and no argument can refute these accusations once they have been made.
You might, in your private life, have worked for the integration and acceptance of your local Muslim community, or for a wider understanding of the roots of Islamic philosophy. This will be irrelevant when it comes to rebutting a charge of Islamophobia, just as your record in promoting minorities in the workplace will do nothing to clear you of the charge of racism, once the crucial words are out.
For your accusers are not interested in your deeds; they are interested in you, and in the crucial fact about you, which is whether or not you are “one of us”. Your faults cannot be overcome by voluntary action, since they adhere to the kind of thing that you are. And you reveal what you are in the words that define you.
Thus the wretched indignity Roger suffered last year from a moral plankton, George Eaton of the New Statesman, who brazenly abused his journalist’s privilege to hoot deliberate distortions of Roger’s words. Even more grotesque was the fact that within hours(!) of these distortions hitting the social media platforms, the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government dismissed Roger from his position as Chair of a prominent Commission promoting beautiful architecture. It took shameful weeks for the government to grasp and accept that it had made an appalling error of judgement and restore Roger to that position. For no reason that I can discern, the then Minister responsible for this fiasco was not ignominiously ejected by enraged voters at the recent General Election.
This episode shows us just what ‘conservatism’ means, and why it is under such furious assault from today’s busy army of sneaky collectivists. Perhaps above all it requires a certain generosity of spirit, allied to a sceptical look at one’s own noisy moral supposed certainties and a corresponding steely determination not to leap to judgement.
My mind boggles at what must have happened in the office of the then Communities Minister James Brokenshire as his media office started getting questions about Roger Scruton’s self-proclaimed ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘racism’. Imagine the nervous excitement of his Special Advisers believing everything they read on Twitter, and scrambling to find how the Minister might powerfully ‘virtue signal’ his profound rejection of such odious views.
That this shameful rubbish should be happening under a Conservative Party government makes all the more powerful Roger’s own deeper wisdom about life, and how we might best run our fleetings affairs:
… the spirit of the mob has entered not only the language of public debate but also the sources of information and the institutions of decision making.
Censorship begins in the media themselves, with the silicon valley elite introducing “machine learning fairness” designed to eliminate “hate speech”, and programmed to recognise as “hate” all those expressions of opinion that violate some norm of political correctness. What Orwell so vividly foresaw — the manipulation of language so as to make heresy inexpressible — is now routine practice.
The result, however, is not a culture of gentle conformity, in which “niceness” is the norm. On the contrary, the clamour for recognition involves a constant assault on those who are assumed to be preventing it. These purveyors of “hate” are given no leeway on social media, and the practice of mass denunciation on grounds of race, tribe, class or social milieu is now an accepted weapon in the identity wars …
Can we re-learn the habits of polite disagreement, and address each other as rational beings, capable of forming real communities in which differences are respected and decencies honoured? I want to answer yes to those questions. But as someone who has suffered more than most from the prevailing madness I have my doubts.
As for Roger’s mastery of philosophy as such, I have the consolation of my iPad notes from his marvellous seminars last year. Beauty, Hegel, Love, Husserl and Wittgenstein, Kant and so on.
Here’s my notes from Roger’s opening salvo on Logic. Sense and reference. What do colours stand for? The meanings of the word is. Can language remove ambiguity?
How to sum up?
Roger struck me as the philosopher version of Roger Federer playing tennis: exquisite timing and technique, an almost effortless grasp of what was at stake on any of these vast mysterious issues, seeing the big picture and subtle points of detail at the same time, and deftly explaining how the key ideas have ebbed and flowed down the ages.
And, just when you think you’re getting somewhere, an impudent dinked shot over the net leaving you looking foolish. Thus Roger’s cheery words of encouragement to the group as we pondered our MA papers:
95% of philosophical writing is crap. And yours will be no exception!
Thank you, Roger Scruton, for giving us all so much. My own sincerest condolences to your family.