Roger Scruton (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)

Scrutonising Roger

How can we secure the legacy of Roger Scruton?

Artillery Row

The Scruton coat of arms bears the motto “Scrutari Semper”. The meaning is active, “to examine always”, even as the form is passive. If one has forgotten more Latin than he remembers ever learning, then the first translation of this deponent verb might be “to be examined always”. This calls to mind an interrogation room in Prague, or sitting in sub-fusc gobbetting one’s life away — not the Socratic life of self-examination that the motto, when correctly read, should indicate.

During his life Sir Roger Scruton sat on both sides of the examination table. He scrutinised himself and his world, and he was routinely brought in for scrutiny, both in good faith and (it sometimes seemed) for having the temerity to uphold unfashionable or old fashioned truths and to still consider himself a philosopher — not unlike Socrates himself.

Now, as Roger’s passing is settling into the history of the early events of the Covid Years, the intimacy of acquaintance is fading. What are we to do with “Roger” — the friend and teacher, the ever-active thinker and writer? The habit of first-naming everyone is uniquely unhelpful here, as it forces intimacy back when none is warranted anymore; it pretends to proximity. We who knew him speak about “Roger” and then what “Roger” thought, what “Roger” did, what “Roger” said, where “Roger” visited or lived. However, to hold the position of prominence in the culture and ongoing debates that he rightly deserves, “Roger” must become “Scruton”. This will mean selecting which of the “Rogers” is to become the Scruton for the ages. More straightforwardly, since ink and paper and cloud space are expensive, it will mean determining which of the books stay in print, remain on the curricula, or find their ways into the libraries and clouds of the next generation, and which do not.

There are so many Rogers to fit into only one Scruton

The Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures have been founded in Oxford to honour Roger’s life, and they are now also part of the curating of Scruton’s legacy. The Scruton Lectures are four freestanding events held in the Sheldonian Theatre during the first three weeks of each academic year. This year marked the third such cycle of lectures, which have become a feature of the first term at Oxford, heavily subscribed and much talked about. The majority of the lectures of the past three years filled the Sheldonian, with well over 700 attendees.

The format of the Scruton Lectures has always been a billed speaker, who is given around forty-five minutes, followed immediately by a conversation between him and one or two writers, thinkers, editors or politicians who join him onstage for the remainder of the 90-minute slot.

This year the lectures began on a very personal note, Monday, 16 October, with the event dedicated to “The life and legacy of Sir Roger Scruton”. Mr Douglas Murray delivered the lecture, after which Maurice Lord Glasman and myself joined him to discuss the matter. I found the discussion of Roger’s life to be easy and fruitful. The question of Scruton’s legacy was harder to articulate, multiple times circling back to the same questions. It was left under-answered. Would it be the academic work in aesthetics? The political philosophy? The practical work on building Britain better and beautiful? Should it be the essays and cultural criticism? It is not only that there is less certainty of where Scruton’s legacy fits into the changing and challenging circumstances; it is that there are so many Rogers to fit into only one Scruton.

There was also a question emerging of what the content of the lectures should be or become. Maybe they should soon no longer be memorial lectures but just “The Scruton Lectures”, especially as more persons take up Roger’s work who did not know him during his lifetime. Again, there is question-begging going on here. It would be hard to know just what should be done with a lecture series, including a renaming, if there were not already clarity about the proximate meaning and direction of Scruton’s legacy. We are dealing here with the unavoidable tension between private persons and public personas, and the need to be both prudent and charitable with each.

In this vein some would have seen the special guest at the first lecture as befitting Roger’s personal legacy of refusing to cancel someone unless or until he is proven guilty of serious crimes — and even then always allowing an opening for repentance and rehabilitation. Others might have been more comfortable with the second lecturer’s active engagement with Scrutonian themes in his literally monumental statues.

Economic causes of the culture wars cannot be settled in op-eds

The two veiled references are firstly to Mr Kevin Spacey, the American actor recently acquitted of a battery of sexual assault and related charges. He delivered an extra-ordinary homage to Sir Roger Scruton’s legacy following Douglas Murray’s speech: a monologue from Shakespeare’s now rarely played Timon of Athens. Secondly, to Mr Alexander Stoddart, His Majesty The King’s Sculptor in Ordinary, on “Why Statues Fall: the Primordiality of Iconoclasm” in conversation with Mr Paul Lay and Sir Simon Jenkins (delivered, Wednesday 18 October).

The organisers of the lectures, I have it on good authority, are wrestling with this very question, of where to situate Scruton’s legacy between those (and similar) poles, in order to set the tone of the lectures for the coming decade.

The other two lectures were delivered by Ms Lionel Shriver (Monday, October 23) on the topic of “When Cowed Creatives Capitulate: Conformity and Bad Art” in conversation with Ms Ruth Dudley Edwards; and Mr Peter Thiel (Wednesday, October 25) in conversation with Prof John Gray on the topic of “The Diversity Myth”. Ms Shriver, a seemingly fearless expatriate journalist and novelist, eloquently lamented the current state of a servile literary world lobotomised by groupthink. Mr Thiel’s expansive talk alerted us to many things, including that there are economic causes of the culture wars that cannot be settled merely in classrooms or op-eds. Some great questions are settled first in boardrooms. This reverses the order of causation at the forefront of the contemporary conservative mind.

The third instalment of the Scruton Lectures has brought to the fore the difficulties of tending the legacy of a great man who was also a great mind. To negotiate the space between the man and his corpus, a life of Roger should be written. Separately, turning to Scruton, a proper intellectual biography ought to be commissioned. Managing the tension between “Roger” and “Scruton” is the bittersweet obligation of those whom he called friends, one or more of whom might now be encouraged to take up their pens and lead the way.

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