One of Britain’s greatest modern conservative thinkers, Sir Roger Scruton, sadly passed away last month at the age of 75.
Scruton died after learning in July 2019 that he had lung cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatment in the half year that followed. Incredibly widely read, Scruton was active in the fields of aesthetics, art, music, political philosophy and architecture, both inside and outside the academic world, he dedicated himself, perhaps above all, to nurturing beauty, “re-enchanting the world” and giving intellectual rigour to conservatism. He put is faith in the natural, the evolved, the organic.
He used the term ‘England’ to “conjure a charmed Shakespearean past” free of top-down control. Scruton painted a picture of an energized British future independent of EU membership, even while praising the EU’s environmental policies.
It is said that when asked about the role of a conservative thinker in the modern world, he answered that “the role of a conservative thinker is to reassure the people that their prejudices are true”. By this he meant prejudging new events on the basis of past experience. He understood that life would be impossible if we approached each new situation from first principles, ignoring what Edmund Burke had called “the wisdom of our ancestors”.
When addressing the roots of conservatism, he stated that “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.”
The day following his passing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: “We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker — who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.”
Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan called him “the greatest conservative of our age”, adding: “The country has lost a towering intellect. I have lost a wonderful friend.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid referred to Scruton’s work behind the Iron Curtain: “From his support for freedom fighters in Eastern Europe to his immense intellectual contribution to conservatism in the West, he made a unique contribution to public life.”
If only these so-called ‘conservatives’ had actually conserved what was left of Britain, as Scruton would have wanted. Their lamentations seem to be but idle and empty gestures. The modern Conservative government has failed to conserve anything for decades. The two major parties in British politics are indistinguishable on major policies – their strings pulled by moneyed globalist ambitions at the nation’s expense. Today’s Conservatives are doing nothing to overturn Marxist-globalist victories on the nation state, the law, education and the family.
Scruton was born in 1944 in Buslingthorpe, Lincolnshire, he studied philosophy at Cambridge University.
A turning point in his life came at the age of 24, when he witnessed the French protest events of 1968 from a first-floor window in Paris, but, unlike his friends, was disgusted by the protesting students’ self-indulgent iconoclasm. “I suddenly realized I was on the other side … wanted to conserve things, rather than pull them down.” He began to read Edmund Burke, who “summarized … all my hesitations about progress”, and defended authority and obedience. As students ripped up cobblestones from the street he found himself turned off by their destructive impulses and talk of Marx.
He and his second wife, Sophie Jeffreys, and their children, Sam and Lucy, eventually settled down in what he sometimes dubbed ‘Scrutopia’, near Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, where he resided until his death.
He was an ardent Green and countryside supporter – as well as a keen huntsman – declaring that, while environmentalism has all the hallmarks of a leftwing cause, it is in fact about conservation, equilibrium and “oikophilia” (love of home), therefore “quintessentially conservative”. On the UK and the economic model of perpetual growth, he argued that “We have too much prosperity. It’s one reason why we are consuming the world in such a rapid way. And we shouldn’t be wanting always to be more prosperous and wanting to grow.”
In his life he published scores of books on a dizzying number of topics, ranging through politics, art, music, the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, religion, and fox hunting.
He spearheaded video documentaries such as “Why Beauty Matters” (2009), that challenged modernist-utilitarian architecture, and called for a rediscovery of the importance and transcendental nature of beauty.
His early written works included Art And Imagination: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind (1974), The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979), The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), and The Politics of Culture and Other Essays (1981).
Other works include, but are not limited to, The Aesthetics of Music (1999), Beauty (2009), How to Be a Conservative (2014), and Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (2015).
He also wrote fiction, including the novels Notes from Underground and The Disappeared and the collection Souls in the Twilight. He composed an opera (The Minister) and a handful of songs.
On Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung)
He described Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung (1874) as “one of the greatest works of art created in modern times”, expounding on how Wagner’s fascination with the old Norse gods and ‘The Twilight of the Gods’, also known as ‘Ragnarök‘, illustrated how “In absence of gods to maintain the moral order, the burden of it falls entirely on our shoulders. ‘The Ring’ shows how gods come into existence, conjured by our need for them.”
Wagner’s work can be paralleled to the similarly titled fantasy epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, which took some inspiration from the ancient Norse myths Wagner retold.
The Icelandic eddas tell of the Viking gods, who’s king Odin builds the fortress of Valhöll (from Old Norse meaning “hall of the slain”) in order to fend off the day of Ragnarök – when the gods will be destroyed in their final battle; such a time’s advent will be inevitable. Yet Odin struggles unceasingly to evade it. He therefore wonders on the face of the earth, seeking knowledge that might boost his bid for immortality.
In Wagner’s musical work, the plot follows that power is meaningless until constrained by law, and that a world governed by law makes possible all that we most intimately value – personality, freedom, respect, and domestic affection. However, the rule of law is not self-sustaining, and Wotan must pay the price of his sovereignty, and only one character in ‘The Ring’ can supply that price, namely Alberich, the great industrial producer – who’s enslaved workforce has created a hoard of treasure, sufficient to pay for the castle of Valhalla to fend of the mortality of the gods.
By a trick, Wotan obtains the treasure, ring included. But the dwarf Alberich curses the ring with so powerful a curse, that all love and law thereafter, become precarious. This curse will be lifted, only when the ring is returned to the Rhine – by the free being who has no interest in using it. The ingenious plot in the cycle consists in the search for that ‘free being’, who will release the gods from their chains.
The gods come about because we idealize our passions, and it is by accepting the need for sacrifice on behalf of another that our lives acquire a meaning. Seeing things that way, we recognize that we are not condemned to mortality, but consecrated to it. Yes, the gods must die, and we ourselves must assume their burdens, but we inherit their aspirations too. Freedom, personality, love, and law. There is no way we can achieve those great goods through politics, which if we put too much faith in it – will inevitably degenerate into the kind of totalitarian power enjoyed by the dwarf Alberich.
“I have loved The Ring and learned from it for over 50 years and for me, it is quite simply the truth about our world – but the truth expressed by means of music of unquestionable authority and supreme melodic and harmonic power”.
He often praised, discussed, and shared classical works of artistry in their many forms. He had also listened to “quite a bit of heavy metal” which led him to conclude that Metallica were “genuinely talented.” He also confessed to finding Elvis “irresistible” even though “it is all below the belt with Elvis.”
He criticized the “mass production of sound” as responsible for devaluing musical taste, and lowering the bar for entry to musicianship. He saw modern music valued as only a perpetual background sound, saying that “it is not so much listened to as overheard”, describing “mechanical rhythms, (and) the stock harmonies recycled in song after song.”
Throughout his life, Scruton voiced his eloquent opposition to feminism, liberalism, egalitarianism, homosexuality and anti-racism – although he toned down certain elements of his beliefs to avoid total alienation, as the ‘cancel culture’ climate became increasingly hostile to conservative speakers in his latter years.
Sir Roger particularly honed in against Islamic culture’s many incompatibilities with the West, and said that the question of identity was one high on the agenda of ordinary people throughout Europe.
Scruton suggested that representative government was being jeopardized “not only by the global economy” (corporatism), but also by “unprecedented levels of migration of people with other languages and other customs, other traditions and other loyalties.”
He said: “Our political class today has fallen under the goal of globalism” in which the “old idea of self-contained nations with borders was seen as some kind of anachronism.”
His position on the largely Jewish role in globalism was never fully developed; at least it wasn’t clear in the public sphere. He said of Jewish billionaire George Soros that “anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts.” Soon after, Scruton dismissed claims that his use of phrases such as the “Soros empire” were a coded attack on alleged Jewish power. Besides this, his indirect (but perhaps intentional) references to Jewish influence are few.
He said of China and its government that “They’re creating robots of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing”.
Religiously, Scruton aligned with Anglicanism, even if not entirely, which he described as “my tribal religion – the religion of the English who don’t believe a word of it”, but it is a moot point whether or not he was an atheist (as most of his secular friends insisted) or whether, for him, God was part of what he called “the web of seeming”, the “life-world” (Husserl’s Lebenswelt). He described the Anglican Church as the forlorn trustee of an architectural and artistic inheritance that remains one of the treasures of European civilization. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are the sources from which much of our national identity derives. He wrote a book on the subject, Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012).
On education, he liked to quote Thomas Masaryk, the Czech statesman, on the dangers of “half-education”. The upper echelons of government, he believed, were awash with people who had received just enough schooling to fill their heads with faddish ideologies, but not enough to give them wisdom. These sentiments, of course, made him a Eurosceptic Long Marcher – one of the few conservatives to criticize the EEC before Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech in 1988.
Scruton relegated knowledge of behind-the-scenes reality to science, and declared that the most important task for philosophy now is to “re-enchant the world”. Because it attempts “to explore the ‘depth’ of human beings”, science “threatens to destroy our response to the surface”.
And for that, if but a brief and sweeping summary of his life’s work, he ought to be remembered, celebrated, and taught for generations to come.