The philosopher’s mind at its end
Sir Roger Scuton’s biographer on the last days of a giant
It was just before Christmas last year when I travelled to Sunday Hill Farm in Wiltshire, the fabled home of my dear friend Sir Roger Scruton. I was there to chat about his health and some future collaborations that we had planned. When he was diagnosed with cancer at the end of last summer, he had written asking me to visit so that we could, as he put it, ‘chat about the future’.
As I entered the farmhouse – what he liked to call ‘Scrutopia’ – Roger sat alone in the evening gloom tapping away on his laptop. Even in his weakened state, he felt compelled to write. Back in 2015, when we recorded the discussions for my book Conversations with Roger Scruton, he told me that, ‘I wrote from the moment I had the calling to be a writer, which I got when I was sixteen. I didn’t know how to do it, but I wrote every day and I always have done’. This was a truth I discovered first-hand whenever I visited him at home, or when he came to Ireland, or even when we were at conferences elsewhere. The first thing he did each morning was go to his desk and write. For him, it was a daily vocation that simply had to answered. That day was no different. ‘What are you writing?’ I asked. ‘The Scrutopia newsletter,’ he replied without taking his eyes off the screen. He then proceeded to tell me how he had just finished a condensed summary of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report. The furore surrounding his sacking and subsequent reinstatement as chair of that body, had done nothing to diminish his passion for it. ‘I wrote a synopsis of the full report in 500 words. But they are good words,’ he added with pride.
Roger could barely walk and was in great discomfort, and yet, as his beloved wife Sophie told me, ‘He hasn’t spent a single day in bed’. When not writing, he was reading, amongst others, a book on Irish poet Seamus Heaney. ‘For whatever reason, I always ignored him. But now I see that he was a truly great poet.’
Years ago, as we sat dining in the Travellers Club, Scruton remarked that his one and only asset was his mind. Now, only weeks before death, his body was dramatically diminishing, but his formidable mind showed no sign of disintegration. He spoke with that eloquent authority which was his hallmark. His words, so carefully chosen, were crafted into sublime sentences that flowed with grace and charm. It was clear he was in agony, but this did nothing to hinder his thoughts, ideas or, indeed, his humour.
To say that Roger Scruton was extremely funny is a significant understatement. Without doubt, he was one of the most amusing people I have ever known. He excelled at clever satire, and with one dry remark could plunge an audience of po-faced academics into hysterical laughter. ‘The thing about you Irish,’ he casually said to me as we sat chatting, ‘is that you have always behaved as though the entire world is focussed exclusively on your affairs’. And then, as I roared at this he feigned surprise that I found it so funny. ‘You know it’s true,’ he said with a wry smile. The fact, of course, that it is entirely true is what made the remark so hilarious. But only someone as skilful as Scruton could have made such a devastating observation sound so perfectly innocent.
Years ago, as we sat dining in the Travellers Club, Scruton remarked that his one and only asset was his mind
Scrutopia looked the same as it always had: a quaint oasis in the heart of Wiltshire that gives food for thought and much thought to food. It is a genuine settlement that roots you to the past, to culture and to the land. On my previous visits, Roger invariably cooked, blending purchased produce with that grown on the farm. In everything, he practiced what he preached. Hence, he lived as a farmer, yet wrote like an angel. And, in his mind, the two were perfectly compatible. For through writing, he could richly convey a sense of what it meant to belong somewhere rather than nowhere.
In his mind, we each yearn to belong to that little patch of earth which we call ‘home’. A true home is one that binds us to the soil as much as to the soul, for in this is to be found our lasting identity as human beings. In Wagner and wine, in Hegel and hunting, we discover redemption from loneliness, alienation, and that tragic sense of life which has become the default mode of modern existence.
As we spoke that weekend, neither Roger nor I had any sense that he was so close to death. Indeed, he was convinced that he was edging closer to remission, and that we ought to plan books and interviews for his YouTube channel. And yet, I was struck by how he repeatedly insisted that his life’s work had been a spiritual endeavour. In all the time I had known him, he had rarely used that word. Was he saying that his copious writings were somehow quasi-religious, or that they offered a mystical vision of the world? In hindsight, I think he was using it synonymously with another term he regularly employed: the sacred. In my books on Scruton, I consistently emphasised this theme of the sacred which has featured, either directly or implicitly, since his earliest works on aesthetics and architecture. But what does he mean by it? The best insight is offered in an essay from 1986, entitled ‘The Philosopher on Dover Beach’: ‘[T]he free being is incarnate, and to see human life as a vehicle for freedom – to see a face where the scientist sees flesh and bone – is to recognise that this, at least, is sacred, that this small piece of earthly matter is not to be treated as a means to our purposes, but as an end in itself’.
When we lovingly behold another person, or when we contemplate an artwork, listen to music or marvel at a beautiful building, we experience something that transcends its material constraints. That ‘something’ is not separable from the material or biological order which contains it. But every time we gaze into the eyes of a loved one, or whenever we savour our favourite symphony or pray at a beautiful shrine, we encounter ‘personality and freedom’ shining forth from what is ‘contingent, dependent and commonplace’. We see the fabric of the world perforated by light from another sphere. In this point of intersection of the timeless with time, we catch glimpses of the transcendental and receive intimations of the infinite.
Scruton spent his life denouncing attempts in philosophy, politics and culture, to ‘desacralize’ or ‘depersonalize’ the world. If you really wish to understand his trenchant opposition to left-wing politics, or radical philosophy, or modernist art, you must see it as a prophetic call to oppose those who would ‘dismiss the sacred from our view of things’, and put in its place ‘a presumptuous ignorance fortified by science’. In everything he wrote, his principal aim was to show that through love and art, religion, music, hunting and wine, we see and experience something which science can’t explain, but which is no less real for all of that. Think, for example, of a smiling child. Science explains the smile in a purely mechanical sense, whereas we understand it as something quite different. It is a revelation of innocence, beauty and love – a revelation of the free person that is mingled with her flesh. In short, when you look at people as mere objects, you see that Darwin was right. But when ‘you look on them as free beings, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory’.
Scruton’s idea of the sacred, or the transcendental, did not amount to a religious philosophy. But it did suggest that there is a deep mystery at the core of human experience. We love the person that is revealed through the flesh, but which cannot be reduced to it. We kneel before the statue the Pieta, recognising that it is only stone, but still seeing in it a sublime response to a pivotal feature of the human predicament. Likewise, our homes, temples and institutions, and even the physical environment itself, are, from the scientific perspective, nothing more than the materials of which they are comprised. And yet, from the perspective of those living on the surface of the world, they are endowed with ‘freedom, translucency and moral presence’. They offer security, consolation and reassurance. They invoke feelings of awe, respect and, on occasion, even worship. That is because ‘the meaning we find in the human person exists also, in heightened and more awesome form, outside us, in places times and artefacts, in a shrine, gathering, a place of pilgrimage or prayer’.
Scruton was universally identified as a conservative, but I liked to think of him more as a conservationist. I say this because he was a robust critic of unrestricted capitalism, wherein everything can be bought and sold at a price. There are things such as human sexuality, art and sacred objects which demand to be treated as ends in themselves, and not a means to my personal fulfilment or satisfaction. Similarly, local communities that rely on the land, ought to be protected from the ravages of multinational corporations that would destroy somewhere in favour of nowhere. Hence the importance Roger placed on architecture, for, as he wrote, ‘the idea of community will be in the minds of those who build…The place chosen will be a sacred place. Even if it has not yet been favoured by the gods, it will become so through the very fact that we have chosen it. In the natural conditions of hardship, the gods travel with us as our protectors, and endorse those ties of membership that enable us to survive amid our foes. The primary focus of architecture will therefore be sacred: the forms of the temples where the gods survive’.
This is what it means to be a conservationist in the spirit of Scruton’s hero Edmund Burke. Both men saw society as a contract, not exclusively between the living, but between the living, the dead and the unborn. As such, we are but temporary trustees of the social, moral, political, cultural and religious patrimony. It is a sacred bequest that we have a duty to conserve for what Burke referred to as ‘absent generations.’ Scruton believed that the classical orders of architecture and music ought to be upheld because they contain vital knowledge upon which human happiness depends. They bring us to the threshold of the transcendental, and, at their best, permit us to glimpse what lies on the other side. And, just as Burke anticipated the terrible consequences of the ‘armed doctrine’ of the French revolution, Scruton consistently warned us against political radicals whose burning objective is for a ‘society without obedience’. In the place of the transcendental and the sacred, ‘which is there in the humble forms of human life’, the egalitarian proposes an ‘idealised freedom’ which ‘destroys human relations, by measuring men by a standard which they cannot obtain’.
In all my writings on Roger Scruton, I consistently identified him as a philosopher of love
It was precisely this ‘unity in disobedience’ which most exercised Roger as we talked away the hours that night. The General Election was looming and the polls, incorrectly as it turned out, were predicting a tight race between the Tories and Labour. I asked him why he thought Labour had fallen prey to someone like Jeremy Corbyn and his menacing Momentum supporters. ‘It’s unbelievable really,’ he said, before adding: ‘It is even worse than the 1980s when Michael Foot led the party to disaster. Still, they were more reasonable than the current crowd’. ‘A lot of them were also quite well educated,’ I suggested, to which Scruton sardonically replied, ‘Yes, but only up to a point. What you must understand is that, for them, education is useful only to the extent that it endorses their prejudices. Beyond that, they refuse to go’. Not even his awful agony could diminish his razor-sharp wit.
Roger Scruton went to his death having seen his beloved country saved from the dystopian future that, he believed, Corbyn’s Labour had planned for it. England, he once wrote, is an ‘imagined community’, by which he meant that it derives its personality from its customs, institutions, literature, music and religion. It, too, has a personality and character that invites love, respect and loyalty. But, as with all persons, it is no less susceptible to desecration. Love, morality, culture and sacred values are all fragile things that take many generations to build up, but only a day to tear down. If our common home consists of such things, it is because it is also a thing of intrinsic value. For Scruton, England was less a place than a matrix of meaning from which people could ‘stand, as it were, at the window of our empirical world and gaze out towards the transcendental’. Radicals of all stripes attempt to smash that window, but, in the way that he lives and loves, the conservationist shows that we human beings ‘have an innate need to conceptualise our world in terms of the transcendental’, and, in so doing, ‘to live out the distinction between the sacred and the profane’.
In all my writings on Roger Scruton, I consistently identified him as a philosopher of love. His detractors often denounced him as a bigot or a fascist, thus proving that they have never truly read him. It is true that he could be controversial and that he was sometimes purposely provocative. But this was not because he wanted to be gratuitously offensive, but simply because he believed it is in the very nature of public debate to defend ‘uncomfortable truths’ from those who would deny them. Against those who, in the name of ‘progress’, wish to ‘liberate’ us from our past, our traditions and cultural heritage, Scruton showed us why it is important to love and cherish such things. We love them because they reveal to us who we are and where we came from. In them, we discover the roots of our common home and the story of how we came to settle there. To denounce them as ‘oppressive’, ‘patriarchal’ or ‘exclusionary’, is to deny absent generations a say in how we live now. It is to silence our dead and to disenfranchise future generations from the inherited wisdom which is rightfully theirs. Restoring the love of existing things – of ‘community, home and settlement’ – is the central theme of Roger Scruton’s social, cultural and political outlook. As such, his is a philosophy of consolation for people tired of repudiation and rejection, of nihilism and naysaying.
I left Sunday Hill Farm, not with a sense of foreboding, but grateful for having had the chance to spend more time with a truly great man. In Conversations with Roger Scruton, I suggested that he was best defined as a ‘man of letters.’ He loved that description, for it best summed up the extraordinary life that he lived. In my career as a philosopher and journalist, I have met and known some remarkable minds. None, however, could hold a flame to Roger Scruton. He was a genius of the first rank, someone who could master any subject and make it his own. He was not born to privilege, but to a modest home with socialist values and an aversion to culture. And yet, through sheer hard work, he rose to become the most articulate defender of high culture in the contemporary era. In Wagner and Wittgenstein, in Kant and Kierkegaard, he saw an answer to postmodern nihilism. Like Hegel, he believed that human fulfilment requires art, religion and philosophy. For only in these things can be found the meaning of who we are as subjects. And that is because they offer redemption from time by giving us a vision of what lies beyond it.
I cannot say that Scruton was a deeply religious man, in the sense that he was devoutly observant. As he once said to me, however, it is in the religious experience that ‘the opposition between the aesthetic and the ethical is transcended and reconciled, since that is what the encounter with the sacred ultimately is – a fusing of the experience of beauty with the moral order’. We have lost touch with beauty, just as we no longer affirm the moral sense. As such, the modern world is more profane than sacred. If we need Roger Scruton, it is because he shows us a way to reconcile beauty with the moral order. He shows why our deepest longings will remain unsatisfied once we deny truth, goodness and the beautiful. And, in so doing, he rescues the sacred from the decline of religion.
I was celebrating my fiftieth birthday when I received the news that Roger Scruton had died. During our last weekend together, I watched in silent grief as he began to rise ‘above the wind of contingency that blows through the natural world’. In a way, he had already passed through the window of our empirical world to that ‘other sphere’ about which he had so often wrote so beautifully and persuasively. He was dying, yet he was also rising to assume the transcendental standpoint which, he believed, was the answer and the solution to every form of pseudoscience. Whether it was aiding dissidents in Communist Czechoslovakia or abandoning the academy for a life of farming and writing, Scruton had always given concrete expression to his ideals. In his own life, he had always given witness to what he believed in and resolutely fought for. And now, as he approached the end, he was showing us how to transcend suffering by finding meaning in it. ‘I not only learned things about the world, but I absorbed them to the point where they became part of who I am,’ he said. One of those things was the deep mystery at the heart of each person – the fact that we are in the world but not of it. The fact that we can somehow stand back from our natural condition and question it from a perspective seemingly beyond time and space. Could we say, therefore, that his whole life was a rehearsal for death – a rehearsal for that moment ‘when death shines a light back across life’ and ennobles the love that led up to it’?
In a poignant essay from 2005, entitled ‘Dying Quietly’, Scruton wrote that ‘My death is not simply, for me, the death of RS, the event about which you might read in an obituary. It is a vast crisis, standing athwart my life and commanding me to prepare for it…Every death prompts the search for meaning – especially the death of someone loved. But my death challenges me in another way; its inevitability is like a command – namely, live your life so that this will be part of it and not just an end to it. St. Paul reminds us that “in the midst of life we are in death” meaning that our normal ways of living forbid us to plan either the time or the manner of our extinction. Yet we need to live in such a way that death, when it comes, is not a catastrophe but (if possible) a culmination – a conclusion to our actions that can be read back into all that preceded it and show it to be worthwhile’.
In the quiet and dignified way in which he died Roger Scruton testified to the truth of his own words. For many people, his death was, indeed, a catastrophe – the loss of someone who had given them hope in dark times. And yet, as I glanced at him for the last time, I saw a smiling man whose end was the conclusion he had always hoped for and richly deserved. It was a fitting conclusion that rendered his brave and beautiful life profoundly worthwhile.
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