A philosopher of deeds

Roger Scruton was a doer as well as a thinker


To the conservative mind, laughter is never very far from being the answer to philosophical questions. What other response is likely on hearing a German journalist ask a French president questions about Hegel (“who you read during your university studies, [and who] once described Napoleon Bonaparte as ‘the Weltgeist on horseback’”)? Seriousness, pretension, profundity, the prospect of humourlessness, or even worse, the possibility of a joke not being understood — little triggers the right-wing Anglophone more.

Yet what was Roger Scruton other than the Kantian amongst us? The philosopher conservatives had about the place, so they could point to him and say, “Oh sure, we have one of those too”? But what was really the point of him, and if there was one, will conservatives live up to it?

First, nothing is new. “I was brought up,” Scruton wrote, “at a time [when] almost all English intellectuals regarded the term ‘conservative’ as a term of abuse.” The intellectuals have never been on the conservative side. Is the case then for Scruton and his successors little more than their rarity value? Well no, because this is to see them as other philosophers and intellectuals do, and that viewpoint is adequately set out elsewhere. The world is surely more interesting when also seen from the standpoint of a Scruton.

Sir Roger was rare not because he was a conservative intellectual but because he was an intellectual who was a doer as well as a thinker. And that needed courage. We should not forget the physical and mental bravery that was required to fight Cold War moral equivalence. 

What he thought is not convenient for some who have adopted him in death

Nor should we ignore the narcissistic pathology behind the “equivalence” — for while Western intellectuals affected not to judge the East, Soviet “thinkers” did not repay the compliment. When in his lifetime truth was most at issue, Scruton disregarded the pieties of his own caste, knew what he was talking about and acted. He dissented, refuted and showed that he meant what he thought.

What he thought is not convenient for some who have adopted him in death. Scruton (writing of Burke) knew that “there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress”. Current “conservative” thought (such as it is) does not wholeheartedly embrace this insight.

But then Scruton was hardly a man well rewarded in his own country by conservatism’s principal vehicle, the Conservative Party. His disgraceful treatment last year still stains the reputations of the politicians responsible. An abortive bid to become an approved Tory candidate notwithstanding, this was because Scruton was not a politician. Neither academic nor party careerism came easily to him. This failing spoke well of him as a man. However, it explains why politicians could neglect him: he didn’t matter to them. Should he matter to the rest of us?

“The Tory party,” Scruton ruefully observed, “treats philosophy as ‘ideology’ … That means there is no such career in England as that of an intellectual Conservative.” We should of course be profoundly grateful for this because few professions could be more degrading than that of licensed party hack. The world Scruton was forced out into was all the better for him taking part in it, safe from the temptations and distractions the party would have placed in his way.

Anthony O’Hear’s essay in this issue  sets out the cognitive dualism required of conservative thinkers like Scruton. Sir Roger, in his attitude to the Tory party, knew that for it, “conservative beliefs . . . should be inherited and ignored, not acquired and defended. And never should they take the form of convictions.” And it was precisely in this uniquely anti-intellectual atmosphere that Scruton’s thought blossomed to such effect. There was no line to take, there was only ever his to see and to say.

That Scruton saw so much, from sex to architecture, wine to hunting, and the mind to God, is tribute to his expansive character, intelligent reflection and honest struggle. He was in the world — founding the Conservative Philosophy Group showed, in the days of an Oakeshott or a Kedourie, what could be done by a meeting of minds. He got his message across, appreciating as he did “that most creative and under-acknowledged segment of our intellectual heritage: the hard core of drunken right-wing journalists”. 

The 1980s exemplified the struggles central to Scruton’s life. Writing in the Listener in 1985 on the critic Peter Fuller, Scruton concluded:

Mrs Thatcher is not unlike Fuller: another decent soul attempting to stem the tide of self-indulgence. To ascribe the collapse of British culture to something called “Thatcherism” is, at best, to confuse cause and effect, at worst to write for effect, and to affect a cause.

Roger Scruton never wrote for effect nor affected a cause. Those who would follow him would do well to do the same, wherever they write.

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