21 January 2020

Farewell to Roger Scruton – The Classic of Contemporary British Conservatism

In the last decade of his life Sir Roger Scruton embodied the tradition of British conservatism. Everyone knows: the Right Honourable Edmund Burke was the founding father of British conservatism, and Sir Roger Scruton its contemporary classic. Between them there was Michael Oakeshott. The three of them – Burke, Oakeshott, Scruton – together well represent the full history of British conservatism.

But what made Scruton achieve that stature was that at least since the death of Oakeshott he was identified with contemporary British conservatism and British conservatism with him. One can mention his books, his personal charisma, and finally, his decorum. Let us have a look at these three aspects of Scruton’s life achievement.

To write 50 books is quite a rare achievement. But it is not the sheer number of them; Scruton’s books are clever, well structured, well written and enjoyable pieces, which have got academic merits but above all an original, Scrutonesque style which is easy to recognise and hard to forget. Let us recall some of his favourite themes. Most important was among them, perhaps, at least in this context, his conservatism. Again and again he made a book length effort to define, or at least to circumscribe what conservatism is about – a task which is not only impossible to achieve, but also self-contradictory. After all, conservatism is the ideology which – be definition – can never be pinpointed. Not less importantly, he kept returning to the theory and even more importantly, to the secret of the pleasure of art. And by art he meant, among others, architecture, music, literature and – perhaps somewhat astonishingly – philosophy. He was not simply the last connoisseur, but also an original creative artist, himself publishing operas and novels. In this respect – unlike Eliot, a forerunner in the conservative tradition, who criticised them – he was a follower of the romantics. But he was a classicist as well, as illustrated in his admirable book of general aesthetics, entitled Beauty (by now also translated into Hungarian), arguing in favour of a return to the classics and the classical vernacular, especially in architecture, in the land of Palladianism. He had a genuine interest in the human personality, and was a succinct critic of ordinary human life, but in the same time led a somewhat Epicurean lifestyle. If you do not believe me see his books on human nature, on human sexuality, or on the culture of fox hunting and wine drinking. By the end of his life he became interested in religion, and in the philosophy and practice of communal religious belief. But perhaps most memorably, he was a devout lover of his country, England and her traditions. You cannot read his books England. An elegy and England and the Need for Nations without a sweet and painful nostalgia. In this devotion he was uncharacteristic for a conservative: he was much more attached to his home country than to the union. When I last saw him, listening to the National Hymns of Hungary and England, I could see on his face an elevation which suggested that the national feeling lay indeed deep in his heart.

For a philosopher to have charisma, however, it is not enough to write a number of good books. In fact, the example of Socrates shows that it is not even necessary to have it. And again, it is the example of Socrates that shows that what is required is a fully developed personality that distinguishes you and your philosophy. And let us be clear, Scruton was not a saint – neither was Socrates one. The elements in Scruton’s life which make it exemplary is his effort to achieve courage, justice and moderation. Though a relentless observer of the political phenomenon, he was not a politician, and therefore he did not need to have prudence. In his personal life he surely committed serious mistakes, but in his public life he became a role model. This is because he never hesitated to form his opinion of the most contentious issues, taking the responsibility for what he accentuated. In particular, he was a trustworthy supporter of the freedom of Central European societies, a rare phenomenon among Western intellectuals. Sometimes he was wrong but most often he was right in his political judgements, never getting tired to criticise even his own camp when he saw mistakes or guilt. But more importantly, he tried to look at the issues he tackled with the eye and mind of the philosopher, and not with that of the partisan or the warrior. And he made all efforts to apply his theoretical insights correctly on reality, while also learning from experience (including his own mistakes or mistaken views) in order to polish his theoretical insights. The good philosopher is ready to learn until his very last day, and Scruton was such a person, that made his personality charismatic.

Finally, a word about Scruton and decorum. Scruton was not born an aristocrat, his conservatism was not, therefore, aristocratic. Rather, it was an ordinary person’s kind of conservatism. And yet, his sense of judgement was exceptionally well developed and his manners polished. You might have found him a somewhat awkward person, when you first saw him, but if you started to talk to him you soon had to realise that he was cultured, and not only in the sense of being erudite, but also in the sense of tact and taste. If you saw the way he dealt with his son, Sam, you realised his ability to love and care. And generally speaking even when he accentuated his most ardent criticism of a person, thought or phenomenon, I never sensed aggression or militancy in his tone. He was aware of his own guilty character, but being a modest person, he tried to become better, and he was able to transform his own fallibility into a life narrative of “gentle regrets” which helps others to achieve their aims. This is something approaching decorum, I guess, in the sense the term was set forth by Cicero: “In an oration, as in life, nothing is harder than to determine what is appropriate. The Greeks call it prepon; let us call it decorum or ‘propriety’.” Sir Roger Scruton was a productive thinker, a charismatic political and art critic but most importantly, he was a man of decorum and propriety. May he rest in peace!

 




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