Aside from meeting my wife, nothing has so profoundly changed my life as reading the recently deceased British philosopher Roger Scruton. “The birth of our son?” my wife might suggest, but there’s every chance he would not be among us if his father had not read Scruton.
I had come across a reference to Scruton in an ethics textbook. I knew myself as a “rationalist” then, and I was undertaking a proper education in moral philosophy at the dismayed prompting of a philosopher. I had begun to dimly perceive the limitations in my worldview.
I thought it part of my due diligence as an undaunted rationalist to appraise the work of this philosopher who was openly espousing conservatism, of all things. I borrowed a copy of “The Philosopher on Dover Beach,” an eclectic collection of Scruton’s essays, from the university library. I will catch him in some error, I thought; he will betray some eccentric prejudice.
What Roger Scruton Gave Me Instead
That book cast many lies out of my mind, among them that revelations are had only by characters in books. It did for me something only great art had come close to doing before: It showed me my own heart more clearly than I had ever seen it. It gave me, and in his other books Scruton continued to give me, a brilliant, blazing picture of moral intelligence.
And he gave me God. I was like someone who had spent his whole life staring at the ground, who was then told, gently but emphatically, “Look up,” and with astonishment discovered the sky. I was living with a desperately truncated intellect, hostage to the view that vanquishing superstition was the whole of wisdom.
Then Scruton happened to me. He showed me why reverence matters, why the failure to revere sacred things is a deformation of one’s soul and an assault upon the rest of the world.
Scientism should not survive him. No reasonable person could read “The Soul of the World” or “On Human Nature” and persist in the view that science is adequate to supply the meaning in our lives, or even to understand the most vital human activities, such as listening to music, or smiling and laughing. In “On Human Nature,” Scruton writes:
What we are trying to describe in describing personal relations is revealed only on the surface of personal interaction. The personal eludes biology in just the way that the face in the picture eludes the theory of pigments. The personal is not an addition to the biological: It emerges from it, in something like the way the face emerges from the coloured patches on a canvas.
How Roger Scruton Shaped My Philosophy
There is, at some imprecise stage in the composition of a painting, what Scruton calls, “the dawning of an aspect,” borrowing a phrase from Wittgenstein. We cannot fail then to see the face and to respond to its expression, to apprehend its fictive gaze.
Likewise, once “the aspect of free self-consciousness dawns” in an organism, “[i]t not only can but must be understood in a new way, through concepts that situate it in the web of personal accountability.” Here Scruton is developing a theme that emerged early in his oeuvre. In “The Philosopher on Dover Beach,” he named this idea “the priority of appearance,” and this has shaped my thinking more than any other concept in philosophy.
It is a concept that bears a tacit appeal to attend with the greatest care to style. If you want to know what it means to do that, look no further than Scruton’s cultural criticism. One needn’t read many of Scruton’s works for the unity of his thought to begin to come into focus. His aesthetics, his ethics, his philosophy of religion, his politics: All chime with one another in a compelling and beautiful melody.
Socialism should not survive him either. As he writes in “Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands”:
We should recognise the enormous onus of proof that lies with the person who condemns the market in labour, in favour of some intellectual alternative. Just who controls in this new situation, and how? Just what elicits labour from the person who would otherwise withhold it, and how is he reconciled to the absence of a private reward?
“But,” Scruton observes in that book’s final and most extraordinary chapter, “looking back across the bleak landscape [of leftist thought] that I have travelled in this book, I witness only negatives.” The only answer the left has to those who question its destruction of institutions is to demand the institutionalization of destruction.
The left has, to be sure, its favorite concepts for vaguely imagining a triumphant future — “emancipation,” “social justice” — but those concepts “are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law. It is as though the abstract ideal has been chosen precisely so that nothing actual could embody it.”
Scruton lived a life in passionate contact with the actual. He has left an indelible mark on my life, and I don’t doubt the lives of countless others. He has, with his life’s extraordinary achievements, bodied forth a concrete ideal, and although most of us are destined to fall short of it, we can look to it through all the challenges that lie ahead as proof of how beautiful and noble a life can be.