Two Biographies of Roger Scruton
Conversations with Roger Scruton and Gentle Regrets
For no particular reason, bored of not being able to communicate with my Polish co-workers beyond a smattering of broken Dutch, I downloaded two biographies of Roger Scruton from Library Genesis to read on my lunch-breaks.
They were good picks. Conversations with Roger Scruton is an easy read, taking the form of questions put by Mark Dooley to Roger Scruton, who then discusses and expands upon them. Some of the questions are about Scruton’s life, others about his philosophy. It’s a slightly ugly, didactic format, but functions as a good introduction to Scruton’s thinking.
Gentle Regrets, on the other hand, was a more uneven read. It is ostensibly a biography, but an untidy one, with no unifying progression. Some chapters are diary entries, some are reflections on growing up, others are stand-alone essays. The writing can be a bit rambly, and has a literary sheen that I often found distracting—even while acknowledging that the inseparability of literature, art, and life is central to Scruton’s philosophical project.
Scruton’s love of books came early, thanks to a chance encounter at age 13. His family had moved into a new house. The old owners were heading overseas. They were a retired couple. They lived with their nearly 40 year old son Ivor:
He was a bachelor of 40 years, still living with his parents. His face was pale and thin, with grey eyes that seemed to fade away when you looked at them. His alabaster hands with their long white fingers; his quiet voice; his spare and careful words; his trousers, rubbed shiny at the knees; and his Adam’s apple shifting up and down like a ping-pong ball in a fountain – all these seemed totally out of place in our suburb and conferred on him an air of suffering fragility that must surely have some literary cause. (GR 7)
Ivor had to leave his books behind and Scruton inherited an impressive collection which included Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Decline of the West, and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.
From Nietszche, Scruton got his aesthetic-philosophical view, a way of rendering life intelligible by viewing it as a kind of judgement of beauty. He was also taken by Nietszche’s arguments against pity, though later changed his mind after witnessing a disabled bookkeeper struggling to carry a box of books from his car. Scruton felt not only pity, but admiration—the feeling was, to him, a sufficient refutation of Nietszche.
From Spengler, he obtained a sense that cultural life is precarious and at risk of being lost:
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be – though possibly a coloured canvas and a sheet of notes may remain – because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will be gone.
Spengler argued that history was cyclical, that civilisations rise and fall, and that this process repeats. That this was a truth that could not be established on scientific terms was, for Scruton, exhilarating, “a proof that the real truths, those we understand and accept in the life-process itself, are inaccessible to scientific method.” (GR 37)
I was surprised to learn that Scruton’s early interests were mostly in maths and science. It was not until he got to Cambridge that Scruton decided on philosophy—which was then called “moral sciences”, and included a large component of what we now call psychology. He made this decision largely because he had already studied the first year of the science curriculum and didn’t want to repeat it!
For the crime of getting accepted at Cambridge, his father Jack Scruton kicked his class traitor son out of home. The family was of rough, working-class origins, materially impoverished but spiritually stalwart. Jack Scruton was fiercely proud of his roots. He wanted an English socialism in his socialist England:
His socialism was not the forward-looking, theory-driven machine that purred in our universities, waiting the countdown to zero. It was a homegrown local product, which had home-growing and local production as its aims. Its roots were in the Anglo-Saxon moots and witenagemots, in scutage and gavelkind, in the Peasants’ Revolt and the Statute of Labourers, in Piers Plowman, Tyndale’s Bible, and Everyman. My father’s goal was not the classless society of the Marxists, but the tranquil order of the English country town, the order described by Thomas Hardy. (GR 257)
Jack was a domineering man, prone to brooding in silence for days on end like a “ball of electricity” before sudden bursts of anger. Everyone in the home developed a protective wall around themselves to avoid his wrath. But in doing this, they also made themselves emotionally remote and inaccessible to each other. Hence Roger fell out with his mother too. Going to Cambridge was an opportunity for Roger to escape this unhappy arrangement.
Cambridge had been the home of philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein who lead the “linguistic turn” in British philosophy away from the Idealism of the 19th century. They envisaged philosophy as being primarily about linguistic analysis and conceptual clarity, a kind of hunter-killer pairing with science.
Given Scruton’s early enthusiasm for the sciences and his philosophical training at Cambridge, one might have expected him to follow in their footsteps. Yet he saw science as giving an incomplete picture of reality. Remembering his early readings of Nietszche and Spengler, he longed for the kind of writing that blended philosophy and art.
Mark Dooley quotes an interesting passage in Philosophy: Principles and Problems in which Scruton challenges the view which holds science as the supreme knowledge-giver:
[Science] leads us from the observed event to the laws which govern it, and onwards to higher and more general laws. But where does the process end? If each new answer prompts another question then scientific explanations are either incomplete or endless... But in that case science leaves at least one question unanswered. We still don’t know why the series of causes exists.... Even if we conclude that the universe began at a certain time from nothing, there is something else that needs to be explained, namely, the ‘initial conditions’ which then obtained. Something was true of the universe at time zero, namely that this great event was about to erupt into being, and to generate effects in accordance with laws that were already, at this initial instant, sovereign. And what is the why of that? A positivist would dismiss such a question as meaningless. So too would many scientists. But if the only grounds for doing so is that science cannot answer it, then the response is self-serving. Of course the question has no scientific answer: it is the question beyond science, the question left over when all of science has been written down. It is a philosophical question. (CWRS 23)
Clearly science could not—was never meant to—explain all the great mysteries of the human condition. On questions of morality, religion, beauty, and consolation, it can only look away. And for Scruton, these are the most most—perhaps the only—important questions.
With his renewed sense of life and philosophy as aesthetic matters, Scruton set out from England to be a writer. It may be hard to imagine an arch-conservative as a starving bohemian artist, but that’s what he was. He hitchhiked to Greece, spent a few weeks convalescing in Egypt, and stayed in Rome and Paris for extended periods of time, during which he boarded with other writers, thinkers, and intellectuals in the counter-culture.
In Paris he fell in with a crowd that included Armand Gatti, a practitioner of Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”. The Theatre of Cruelty was a surrealist style that sought to liberate man’s primitive subconscious, which had long slumbered under the capitalist mode of existence. It achieved this through performances that contained spontaneous acts of violence, destruction, and confrontation (cruelty), which were to form the basis of a new theatrical “language” that was halfway between speech and action.
Gatti’s followers took part in the May ‘68 uprising, helping to riot and occupy parts of Paris. The whole country was brought to a standstill. President Charles de Gaulle even escaped to Germany in secret, making plans in case a civil war should break out.
From his window, Roger Scruton watched the events unfold:
In the narrow street below my window the students were shouting and smashing. The plate-glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second, and then give up the ghost, as the reflections suddenly left them and they slid in jagged fragments to the ground... The air was filled with triumphant shouts, as one by one lamp-posts and bollards were uprooted and piled on the tarmac, to form a barricade against the next van-load of policeman. (GR 48)
As he watched the rioters overturning and burning cars and clashing with police, Scruton felt a surge of anger:
What, I asked, do you propose to put in place of this ‘bourgeoisie’ whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barricades? What vision of France and its culture compels you? And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them? (GR 50).
Thus, the two strands of his philosophical work—aesthetic and political—were woven together on the burning streets of Paris. In that moment, Roger Scruton knew he was a conservative. Instead of violently overturning that which was bad about society, he wanted to protect and preserve those things which were good and beautiful about it.
On his return to England, Scruton took up a professorship at Birkbeck. This was a pretty unlikely place to develop an intellectual basis for conservatism: “Birkbeck was traditionally a left-wing place, haunted by the fear that somewhere, somehow, a conservative might have infiltrated its corridors.” (CWRS 44). Academic life was dominated by a group of Marxist historians and philosophers, including Eric Hobsbawm, who was later appointed President of Birkbeck in 2002. As far as Scruton could tell, the only person who shared his conservative instincts was Nunzia, the old Neapolitan lady in the kitchen who liked to plaster her workstation with kitschy photos of John Paul II.
At this time, Scruton’s hometown of High Wycombe was undergoing many changes. A quaint old market town, its Georgian terraces, medieval alleyways, Victorian pubs, and worskhops were being demolished to give way for concrete apartment blocks and glass office buildings. In speaking against these changes, Scruton found an unlikely ally: his father. While never fully reconciling their differences, Jack Scruton, a skilled and passionate local organiser, formed a temporary alliance with his son to protect the England he loved:
Jack Scruton was awakened from the paralysed gloom in which he had been plunged by my mother’s death. He looked out from his solitude at what was happening beyond the window of the living room (which had been her dying room) and declared uncompromising war on it. (GR 258)
Based on this experience, Roger wrote a philosophical treatment of architecture in 1979, The Aesthetics of Architecture. Key to Scruton’s architectural philosophy is the idea of a “vernacular architecture”. Architecture is not just a matter of personal taste or private opulence, but the public manifestation of a shared life. A vernacular architecture encourages the use of certain ornaments, decorations, and materials on buildings so, through recurring motifs and patterns, the buildings in a town may harmonise with each other.
Modernist architecture, in pursuing the ideal that “form follows function”, saw no reason for decorative pieces on buildings. It de-emphasised their use, as well as the use of patterns, in favour of exalting the individual architect for realising his personal artistic genius in the raw material of glass and concrete and brick.
Modernist architecture was followe din turn by postmodern architecture, which emphasised horizontally sprawling, unbounded shapes that refused any limits or attempts to harmonise with their surroundings. The pinnacle of postmodern architecture, Scruton reckons, was the Millennium Dome:
My father, had he lived to see it, would have viewed it as the final triumph of capitalist consumerism. He believed that cities are built, and civilizations sustained, from the human need for permanence. The postmodernist project is an attempt to deny that need... (275).
A year later, in 1980, Scruton completed his first book on political philosophy, The Meaning of Conservatism. It was written as part of a series on various political positions for Penguin Books by Ted Honderich. Because of this book, Scruton’s fellow lecturer Jerry (G. A.) Cohen, an avowed Marxist, refused to teach a seminar alongside him—though they later made up, bonding over a shared love of architecture and hunting.
In 1982, Scruton founded the Salisbury Review to be the home of conservative intellectuals (and intellectual conservatives) in Britain. It caused a backlash, especially after the publication of an article by Ray Honeyford, a school principal who argued that multicultural teaching practices were undermining the integration of students with foreign backgrounds into Britain.
Scruton also created a stir with his book Thinkers of the New Left. It was an excoriating takedown of the intellectual godfathers of both the ‘68 Paris protest and his Marxist peers at Birkbeck. All of this, coming during the height of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror, made Scruton a lightning rod for criticism. Reception to his work was extremely hostile. The negative attention effectively ended his academic career in Britain and left him feeling suicidal.
But his most important work was taking place elsewhere in Europe. During the 1980s, Scruton became involved with several underground academic networks on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He helped set up the Jan Hus Educational Foundation and the Jaigellonian Trust, helping to smuggle, copy, and distribute samzidat (contraband writings) throughout Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania, as well as to deliver education, lectures, and exams to dissidents there.
An atmosphere of suspense and paranoia gripped these places. “In the streets the people seemed to notice nothing to smile at no one.” (GR 162). Strangers would hurry away from each other, lest they be caught up in something that might get them in trouble with the regime: “people turned towards you faces of a kind you never see in your life here: faces full of suffering, longing to trust but never sure that they can.” (CWRS 71). While walking alone at night, Scruton would occasionally hear another pair of footsteps out of time with his own—those of a spook following him at a distance.
He got an opportunity to see the battered remnants of Prague’s unlikely intelligentsia up-close for himself, on the occasion of a lecture on Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Standing before him were old professors, long-haired poets, beleaguered priests, and dissident students. All of them were now forced to work as boiler-stokers under the communist regime. “One thought dominated all others: here, for the first time, I was lecturing to a working-class audience, an audience of workers united by their chains.” (GR 168).
Roger also met and fell in love with a Polish dissident called Lenka. They discussed marrying, but Lenka was persuaded by a fellow dissident that marrying Roger and escaping to the West would be tantamount to abandoning her country. “That was the kind of consideration that weighed with Lenka, for whom public spirit and civil obligation have been the most important motives in her life, motives that can even be weighed against love. And of course, the person who gave her this advice married her.” (CWRS 79).
The authorities were on to Scruton, though, and he was finally arrested and forced to leave Czechoslovakia. He was with Jiří Müller at the time, a dissident in the Czech Underground, who later became the first head of the Moravian Secret Police after the collapse of Communism. Müller convinced the police to let Scruton pick up his things before leaving. They followed the pair back to Müller’s house and surrounded it on all sides. Inside, Miller led Scruton into the windowless bathroom, where he began swallowing all of the messages and other incriminating slips of paper!
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scruton spent the next few years in Central Europe with his charity groups, before teaching at Boston University for three years. His interests at this time gravitated towards music. He taught a graduate course and wrote a book on the aesthetics of music. He also wrote an opera, The Minister, about a politician who sacrifices love for career. While it was basically ignored in England, it got an enthusiastic reception in Czechoslovakia, where the Ministry of Culture paid for several runs of it.
Upon his return from the United States, Scruton wanted to escape the academic world, focus on his writing, and try to help preserve the rural England that he felt was disappearing. He purchased a farm near Malmesbury in Wiltshire and got involved in the local dairy economy. He met his second wife Sophie while out on a hunt.
Scruton’s works from this time are often about the natural world or have environmental themes, such as On Hunting and Green Philosophy. Because the emergence of agriculture led to an irreversible shift in the relationship between man and his environment, it required a new ideal of stewardship:
The hunter-gatherer is supported by the environment; the farmer supports it. We have re-made the relation between man and nature as one of mutual dependence. So if farming is to be done properly, it must also be a nurturing and a tending of the land, a kind of stewardship. (CWRS 130)
This desire to steward the land grows out of the love of home—oikophilia, as Scruton calls it. It is the starting point of his green philosophy, which maintains that a personal link with the environment is essential to aligning our interests with the preservation and renewal of the natural world around us.
Scruton appeared to be finding peace at last. He had a tranquil farm, a place to call home, and, finally, a child of his own: Sam. Childbirth not only brought the joys of fatherhood, but gave Scruton a sense of psychological closure regarding his mother that he had denied himself his entire life:
What I had reproached in my mother as timidity I remembered now as gentleness; what I had deplored as puritanism I recalled as moral sense; what I had feared as anxiety I knew to be love – love baffled by my selfishness, love that would not intrude since it cherished my freedom and wanted only what was best for me. The sun of womanly feeling that had shone on me from Sophie had shone, though with a pallid light, from her. And the tears that I shed for Sophie were also tears for the mother whom I was learning now to mourn. (GR 148)
Scruton also got involved in several architectural projects around this time. A Syrian architect, Marwa al-Sabouni, emailed Scruton about her PhD project. She was interested in how the architecture of her home city, Homs, had encouraged the disintegration of its ethnic and religious groups, and how war-torn Syria might be rebuilt according to new principles that honoured diversity through unity.
Scruton also took up a volunteer position in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, an effort by the May government to improve home design. The appointment was marred by controversy. After an interview was published by George Eaton of the New Statesman, in which Scruton appeared to make racist comments against Chinese and Jewish people, he was sacked from the role.
He was later vindicated by Douglas Murray, who obtained recordings of the interview in its entirety. The full recordings make clear that Eaton had selectively quoted Scruton to give a misleading impression of what he was saying. For example, Eaton quoted Scruton as saying “Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one” without the preceding statement: “They’re creating robots out of their own people.” The missing words and the context of Eaton’s question make it clear that Scruton was talking about how the Chinese government is attempting to mould the Chinese people.
Despite this unhappy scandal, Scruton’s extraordinary life was acknowledged by the governments of Poland and Hungary, who awarded him the Grand Cross and the Commander’s Cross in 2019, less than a year before his death. It was Scruton’s fourth honour, after the Medal of Merit granted by the Czech Republic in 1998, and a knighting by the Queen of England in 2016.
Though his life was plagued by controversy, this controversy tended to overshadow Scruton’s numerous and impressive writings on architecture, aesthetics, beauty, conservatism, and environmentalism. As these outrages grow old and lose their freshness in our minds, the man will have only the words he wrote to hold up his reputation. At that point, I think it’s likely that there will be a broader appraisal of Scruton, one which acknowledges his genuine philosophical contributions.