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In Memoriam: Sir Roger Scruton

June 10, 2020
By CBMW
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Editor’s Note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Eikon.

As the outpouring obituaries demonstrate, Roger Scruton was one of the most influential philosophers of the last fifty years. He made original and profound contributions to the way we understand beauty, conservatism, and human nature. In 2016, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed him with a knighthood for his services to education, especially to those behind the Iron Curtain.

Were Scruton’s sympathies resonant with those of today’s cultural elites, he would have occupied the place of National Treasure, the position philosopher Bertrand Russel occupied in the 20th century. For though Scruton’s blazingly sharp mind and shy temperament were of the caliber and timbre of his intellectual grandfather, Ludwig Wittgenstein,[1] his forays into public debate were Russellian in their profligacy. Nonetheless, he was an everyday fixture of British life through BBC Radio, The London Times, television, and popular books. In America he is most well-known within philosophical, conservative, and Christian, circles.

Upon his passing in January, Britain’s Prime Minister tweeted (in his inimitable idiom of punchy, Anglo-Saxon heavy English): “We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker — who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.”[2] The Prime Minister spoke for all — admirers and detractors alike — when he acknowledged the beauty that flowed from Scruton’s life and pen.

Beauty, like the ersterbend E-flat of Mahler’s last symphony, is the note that lingers over Scruton’s life. His life’s end began with slander concocted by a left-wing magazine for which he wrote weekly wine columns for many years. As a result, Scruton momentarily lost his commission overseeing the beautification of Britain’s buildings. Thanks to the untiring efforts of one journalist in particular, the truth soon came out. Scruton emerged with his reputation salvaged, but his health in tatters.

Scruton refused to harbor resentment toward his enemies. He forgave them.[3] Ten years before this injustice, Scruton had written:

Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that all the memorable works of our culture convey. The message has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but we can hear it once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices resentment and thereby renounces something that had been dear to his heart.[4]

Scruton knew the ordeal he underwent and the cancer that followed meant he was close to death. His last sentence composed to the world was: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”[5] Scruton died grateful for his life, its valleys as well as its mountaintops, on January 12, 2020, in his home in rural Wiltshire.

“In my end is my beginning.” In what sense was this line from Scruton’s favorite poem of T.S. Eliot’s true for Scruton himself? It is a difficult question to answer. Scruton did not believe in heaven: not in the sense of an afterlife in which the human soul continues for eternity; he did not believe his earthly end was his heavenly beginning. For Scruton, the source of meaning is earth and her beauty. He found redemption not in hoping beyond this world, but in being reconciled to it.

Scruton loved Wagner and Mahler for expressing this belief through music: “In Mahler’s vision redemption comes through beauty; but the awareness of beauty is not merely an aesthetic thing, existing in fleeting moments of delight. It is a stance of the whole person and informs the whole of life. It has its moral and political expression; and it is best explained, to those who do not know it, as the ability to bless, and to be blessed by, the things of this world.”[6] And yet, Scruton spoke of knowing the real presence of Christ in his life. What did he mean?

The summation of Scruton’s religious philosophy, The Face of God, accounts God’s presence as the effect of “reaching through the tissue of objects to the thing that they mean.”[7] Scruton suggests that the objects we “reach through” include the whole of nature, including our fellow human beings. In objects we find not just their physical reality but also “subjectivity enfolded” around us. The Malvern hills, in one sense, are mere objects; but when I walk through them they speak to me of longing, of glory, of permanence. Roger Scruton, in one sense, was a mere object: a dizzying collection of cells fueled by the digital information of his DNA; but when I looked into his eyes, I saw a subject: someone who could recognize me as a subject, too, and who could show understanding, empathy, and judgment. In other words, we know God through the face: the face of others and the face of the world. That is why de-facing nature, other human beings, and ourselves, is so serious. This quasi-religious account of morality is part of what made Scruton so intriguing to Christians.[8]

“In my end is my beginning.” What about in the sense of telos — the “end” for which human beings are made — did Scruton accept teleology? Again, it is difficult to answer this question. Scruton was not an Aristotelian or a Thomist, though he had sympathy with many of the conclusions reached by philosophers in those traditions. When I suggested I wished to use Thomistic methodology for my thesis, Scruton hesitated. He gave his blessing on the condition that I read Kant for three months first “so that you come away from this degree having learned something true.” In the end, Scruton was a deontologist. So then, was Scruton an atheist, albeit a sophisticated one at ease with religious terminology?

To say Scruton was a Kantian is to say that he accepted God as a condition for the reliability of ethics but did not think he could reliably affirm God’s existence. To understand this outlook, we must situate Scruton in his philosophical context. In doing so we take a page from Scruton himself when, explaining the philosophy of Kant, he emphasized the need for context to achieve clarity.[9] But there is an additional reason to compare Scruton and Kant: The two are bookends to a long history of philosophy.

When Kant came of age, doubt ate away at the Judeo-Christian culture into which he was born. Profound skepticism that our senses and our reason are reliable means to true knowledge pervaded philosophy. The new scientific method, Renaissance ressourcement of ancient Greek texts, and the breakup of Christian doctrine, all contributed to undermined confidence in God’s existence — or at least, his immanence. Without God to guarantee the reliability of the senses or reason, it became imperative for philosophers to prove the self-sufficiency of either.

Empiricists (emphasizing sense experience) and Rationalists (emphasizing reason) vainly went about this task, coming to a standstill in the attempt. Kant knew that, should epistemological uncertainty continue, the body politic would gradually die without a strong worldview to hold it together. He knew that confidence in Judeo-Christian ethics would erode, leaving society vulnerable. He viewed himself as the patient’s noble healer stepping in to stay the bleeding. The following was the surgeon’s method.

Kant divided human experience from reality. Whereas Aristotle, Aquinas, and other epistemological realists trusted the senses to communicate external reality to the human mind, Kant argued that the human mind imposes upon the external world a structure independent of the world. Baked into our minds, prior to experience, are concepts like space, numerals, and time. We do not discover them by experience; we do not discover them by reflecting upon and reasoning them through. Instead, they are prior to both experience and reason. Such “synthetic a priori” concepts are, Kant thought, the condition of having a mind.

Thus, Kant divided the world into two halves. The half we know is the Phenomenal world. It is reality as we experience it. On the other side, like the dark half of the Moon, is the Noumenal world — the real world as it actually is — independent of mind. We are doomed never to experience it. We can never reach it. Reality itself — the Noumenal world — might not have space, time, or anything that composes what reality is to us. Then again, it might.

Intellectual historians like Francis Schaeffer place Kant in a descending narrative from order to despair.[10] While this is the correct understanding of Kant from a Christian perspective, in his own time Kant acted as a philosophical conservative (albeit one who availed himself of dynamic methodology). Kant said that in order to make room for faith (and, most importantly, the attending ethics of the Judeo-Christian worldview), he found it necessary to deny knowledge. He meant that he had to deny the possibility of real knowledge not grounded first in the human self.

By describing Kant’s thought we sketch not only Scruton’s context but Scruton’s own philosophical framework. He accepted Kant’s fundamental dichotomy between reality and reality-as-we-experience-it. Following Kant’s successors, Hegel and Heidegger, he understood “our reality” as the Lebenswelt, or “life world,” in which the human person experiences not necessarily reality, but reality as known by human minds.

Like Kant, Scruton came of age as anxiety ate away at Western culture. Philosophers were actively deconstructing the Judeo-Christian worldview because Kant’s project had merely prolonged the West’s life, not prevented its dissipation. From an apartment window in Paris in 1968, Scruton witnessed this breakdown in philosophy spill out onto the streets. He saw university students, the soixante-huitards — despairing that true knowledge could ever be reached — fight against their governing power structures not with truth, but with raw power. In this moment, Scruton knew he belonged on the opposite side of the students.

Like Kant, Scruton the conservative set about stemming this crisis in culture and ethics by going to the philosophical source. He met two tributaries flowing downstream from Kant. The first sought to construct the Lebenswelt despite its divorce from ultimate reality; the other sought to deconstruct the life-world because of its divorce from reality. Scruton found the latter a cop-out: a cowardly or lazy reaction to the titanic role of philosophy. The former spurred his aspirations.

This created a paradox at the heart of Scruton’s thinking.[11] It is why conservatives and Christians find his writing worth taking seriously even though he worked outside of Christian metaphysics. Søren Kierkegaard, floating amidst the flotsam of the 18th century’s philosophical wreckage, knew that the inevitable outcome of Western society’s rejection of Christianity was the transference of religious faith from God to the world, and therefore the eventual renouncement of the individual — a move he saw as irremediably evil.[12] That is why Kierkegaard, accepting Kant’s division of reality, had no choice but to advocate a “leap of faith” to belief in God’s existence. This is a leap no man should take, and Scruton was too intelligent to make it.

Hegel understood the subjectivity of “I” as participation in the universal, obliterating the individual. Some philosophers post-Hegel thought irony — at best, romantic irony — was all we could now achieve without knowledge of our real selves and the real world. Nietzsche, fully realizing the crisis, brought the crisis to its logical conclusion, asserting that there are no moral facts, only different ways of representing the world. Existentialists in the 1950s and 60s likewise concluded that all that was left was the assertion of will — any will.

While Scruton joined Kant, Hegel, and the rest of the secular Enlightenment in transferring meaning from God to the world, he did so without renouncing the individual. Scruton saw the “I” as real. As one philosopher has noted, Scruton did better than his own philosophical presuppositions allowed.[13] He was a modern man (in his presuppositions) fighting against Modernity.

Looking back on Scruton’s life, we have a choice between reading Scruton flowing in the direction from order to chaos — from the direction of Christianity grounded in epistemic realism collapsing into the loss of faith dangling over epistemic scepticism. Or, we can historically situate Scruton as someone who attempted to stem the tide, not ride the wave crashing over civilization. This is the perspective of philosophers such as Mark Dooley and Bryan Baise.

And it is how Scruton saw himself. In his semi-autobiographical work Philosopher on Dover Beach, Scruton listened to the same, harrowing, sound as Matthew Arnold, whose poem provided the title of the work:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar[14]

It is in this way that Scruton is the bookend to Kant. Like Kant, Scruton wanted to preserve the Judeo-Christian inheritance, not destroy it. Like Kant, and unlike Christian philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Richard Swinburne, and Alvin Plantiga — for whom a revised metaphysics is the exit out of modern philosophy’s cul de sac — Scruton thought the only tools at his disposal were ones without reference to pre-modern metaphysics.

That is why Scruton wrote a book in 1985 called Thinkers of the New Left (later reissued as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands). Scruton did not have the faith of T.S. Eliot to know that his end was his beginning, but he certainly knew that publishing this book was the beginning of the end of his academic career. The hate which he received for the book nearly brought him to suicide.[15] In it, he deconstructs the deconstructors, those who deny the possibility of arriving at truth. Put in a pithy phrase: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t. Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.” [16] Anglo-American philosophers despised the book; it was cherished behind the Iron Curtain.

Perhaps Idealism — the catch-all term for post-Kantian philosophy — is the most efficient explanation of the universe without needing to reference a God of infinite complexity whose existence cannot be demonstrated by empirical methods of inquiry. Scruton thought so, though he constructed an elegant account of God in God’s place. Yet the persistent interest of Christians in Scruton’s philosophy points to something more. Perhaps Scruton is like the Fox in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, the Greek slave who instructs Orual in the ways of reason. He cannot bring her to God, but he paves the way.

Orual’s longing in Till We Have Faces is the same as Scruton’s: to find the place where beauty comes from — the place where we ought to have been born. One of Scruton’s most profound contributions is an account of our love for home. We yearn to feel belonging in our environment; we long to know ourselves in the network of our relations. After sojourning in Virginia for several years, Scruton returned with his family to the English countryside with its familiar land, culture, neighbors, and laws. This was a lived-out action of Scruton’s account of, as he called it, oikophilia: the love of home.

This yearning speaks to the transcendent. Scruton, with Kant, could only see the transcendent, not into it. But when we look into the transcendent — into the face of God — we see “well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”[17]

Scruton believed that we meet one another in language. For the Christian, this opens up fruitful discussion of the Word described in the first chapter of John’s gospel. “In the beginning was the logos.” It eventually leads us to say: “Lord . . . You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.[18]

Paul Shakeshaft is a scholar-in-residence at The Kilns, C. S. Lewis’s Oxford home; during his graduate studies he was supervised by Roger Scruton as a Rotary International scholar.


[1] Elizabeth Anscombe supervised Scruton’s doctoral thesis at Cambridge; she was supervised by Wittgenstein, who considered her his intellectual heir in the English-speaking world. Scruton would charmingly relate how Anscombe’s price of tuition was a cigar and bottle of claret, both of which she would consume during the course of the tutorial. Mercifully, Scruton exacted no such tribute from his students.

[2] Boris Johnson, Twitter Post (January 13, 2020, 5:52 AM) https://twitter.com/BorisJohnson/status/1216674269721219072

[3] Roger Scruton, “Diary – 17 April 2019” The Spectator, April 17, 2019, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/diary—17-april-2019

[4] Roger Scruton, “Forgiveness and Irony: What Makes the West Strong,” City Journal (Winter 2009), https://www.city-journal.org/html/forgiveness-and-irony-13144.html

[5] Roger Scruton: “My 2019: Despite everything, I have so much to be grateful for,” The Spectator, December 21, 2019, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/roger-scruton-my-2019.

[6] Roger Scruton, “David Matthews at 70,” Sir Roger Scruton, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.rogerscruton.com/articles/1-politics-and-society/186-offensive-jokes.html.

[7] Roger Scruton, The Face of God (London: Continuum, 2012) 156. Emphasis original.

[8] See, Albert Mohler, “What Does Philosophy Say to Our Times? A Conversation with Roger Scruton,” Thinking in Public, podcast audio, February 14, 2011, https://albertmohler.com/2011/02/14/thinking-in-public-2.

[9] Roger Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 16.

[10] Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 227.

[11] Cf. Nigel Warburton, “Roger Scruton on Human Nature,” Philosophy Bites, podcast audio, August 29, 2017,   https://philosophybites.com/2017/08/roger-scruton-on-human-nature-1.html

[12] Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1995), 186.

[13] John Rist, “A Modern Man in Revolt Against Modernity,” Catholic Herald, June 30, 2016, accessed May 8, 2020, https://catholicherald.co.uk/a-modern-man-in-revolt-against-modernity.

[14] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” Poetry Foundation, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach.

[15] Tim Adams, “Roger Scruton: ‘Funnily Enough, My Father Looked Like Jeremy Corbyn,” The Guardian, October 4, 2015, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/oct/04/roger-scruton-my-father-looked-like-jeremy-corbyn-fools-frauds-firebrands-interview.

[16] Roger Kimball, “Saving Appearances: Roger Scruton on Philosophy,” The New Criterion 12.10 (June 1994), accessed May 8, 2020, https://newcriterion.com/issues/1994/6/saving-the-appearances-roger-scruton-on-philosophy

[17] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (New York City: Harper Collins, 2017), 335.

[18] Ibid., 349.

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