Roger Scruton, Patron Saint Of Common Sense
By Marion Smith
January 14, 2020
We meet by chance
and find in chance necessity:
what seems an accident
in retrospect is fate.
These were the opening words of a poem that British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton wrote seven years ago to celebrate my marriage to Anna. We are among that fortunate group of people who knew the “Aged Professor” as a dear friend and mentor—his life’s true work, as he called it. It’s a life that sadly ended this Sunday at the age of 75.
Sir Roger was a warrior for Western culture. Culture was, for him, everything: “a vessel in which intrinsic values are captured and handed on to future generations.” He saw the slow and steady accumulation of traditions, teachings, and habits as the necessary ingredient for the good life and the just society, containing more truth and beauty than anything built by the most brilliant planners and intellectuals. Intellectuals of the left, he thought, were all too willing to discard the wisdom of the past for untried—or failed—ideologies, a risky endeavor because “good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
Sir Roger gladly held a worldview he traced back to the great 18th-century English statesman Edmund Burke and beyond. Burke made his name opposing the ideological terror of the French Revolution. For Scruton, it was a near-French revolution in Paris in 1968 that caused his younger self to reject the radicalism of 20th century socialists and communists. He recounted to us many times how he marveled from the window of his mansard room in Paris at the mayhem the ‘68-ers caused, and at the global slaughters and starvations perpetrated by their fellow ideologues in power, which they ignored.
The cultural and intellectual elite never forgave his principled stand. After he started his career as a university professor in the 1970s, his peers shunned him, even despised him. They sought to drive him from the academy and polite society. In one of his final speeches, given before the Polish Parliament last year, he described his fellow academics as “nice colleagues” who taught him “how nasty niceness can be.”
He hardly fared better from his erstwhile allies in politics. The Conservative Party had a love-hate relationship with the United Kingdom’s most famous conservative intellectual for the simple reason that he sought to conserve things.
He admired von Mises and Hayek and defended free markets (calling them “a necessary part of any stable community”) yet saw certain issues as beyond the market’s bounds, from city planning to sexual morality. When he thought the Conservative Party undermined his country’s culture, he said so. Whether as a professor or in politics, Scruton was proof of the biblical adage, “a prophet has no honor in his own country.”
His rejection at home led him abroad. The 1970s and ‘80s saw him frequently travel behind the Iron Curtain in support of those who sought to reclaim their countries and cultures from Soviet domination. He taught at underground universities and wrote for samizdat publications, even smuggling in printing materials at great personal risk.
Sir Roger hated communism because it rejected the inherited wisdoms of the people it enslaved. He later opposed the post-modernist direction of the European Union on similar grounds. Like communist internationalism before it, the EU’s progressive transnational project ran roughshod over distinct nations and cultures. He cheered the recent surge of national sentiment in Eastern Europe, while urging it to be grounded in something deeper and higher than mere national feeling. He supported a vibrant, sophisticated nationalism, instead of a reactionary, short-sighted one.
Whether it was politics, philosophy, or any other endeavor, Scruton excelled and elevated our minds by reminding us of our inheritance and celebrating the beauty of the natural world and the human capacity to create. He was the most brilliant and celebrated philosopher of aesthetics in modern times and authored dozens of books.
He wanted buildings that made us feel at home; art that inspired thinking of the sublime; and institutions that help all people flourish. His philosophical investigations and pursuit of the truth were always grounded in human experience. Sir Roger should be remembered as the patron saint of Common Sense.
Given his ideals, Scruton was often painted as a dark and dour man, wistfully mourning society’s slide away from the tried and true. Those who met him knew otherwise.
My wife, Anna, and I first met him as students more than a decade ago. He was to us the great encourager in an age of alienation. We and many others felt “at home” with him whether it was in a Schloss in Vienna, a country house in Virginia, a downtown café in Budapest, or the bright green fields of the Cotswolds.
Sir Roger’s generosity of spirit will reverberate on in the thousands of lives he personally touched and in our great civilization that he conveyed into a new century.
Originally published in The Federalist.