Jeffrey Folks

Roger Scruton was the author of over fifty books and of a great many articles and notes. He taught at Birkbeck College, London, from 1971 to 1992, and later part-time at other universities, and he was a prominent speaker at conferences and institutes, contributor to the popular press, and presenter on British television. For years he conducted the annual Scrutopia Summer School at Malmesbury in the Cotswolds. In 2016 he was knighted for “services to philosophy, teaching, and public education.” Above all, he was an independent and forceful thinker who was among the first to analyze what he called “the culture of repudiation” and to question the value of globalism, including Britain’s membership in the EU.

What Scruton wished for, instead of a featureless and undemocratic global governance, was culture on a human scale ruled not by ideology but by reason and by the vigorous influence of local ties. It was always the human scale and the dignity of man, a conservative sensibility he inherited from the writings of Burke, Hegel, Coleridge, Ruskin, Dostoevsky, and T. S. Eliot, that served as his basis for judgment; and by that measure, postmodern culture was sadly lacking. With his special interest in architecture, Scruton looked askance at the creations of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier and their successors. The glass-and-steel towers of the world’s great cities projected little of what Scruton considered human, and their influence on the minds and hearts of those who live and work in them was dangerously anesthetizing.

The effect of modern architecture was an almost total detachment from any sense of local connections, and without a sense of local place or even of national attachment societies turn to other forms of affiliation, including political extremism. In The West and the Rest, his book written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Scruton stresses that Mohammed Atta, leader of the World Trade Center attack, had been an architecture student at Hamburg, writing his thesis not on modern architecture but on the ancient ideal of the Moslem city of Aleppo. In his misguided and horrific way, Atta sought an alternative to the deadening force of the global city.

It is undeniable that a spiritual crisis exists among the population of the Middle East, but it is also fair to say that a crisis with roots in the same experience of modernity exists in the West, signaled most recently by a string of populist movements in the U.S., Britain, Spain, Italy, and other countries. As Scruton saw it, this crisis was marked by a dwindling sense of attachment to native soil, a connection traditionally entailing a patriotic sense of pride in one’s nation and local place. In an era when nationalism has come under severe scrutiny it is easy to dismiss the positive, and Scruton would say necessary, contributions of the nation to human well-being. It is impossible for human beings to live in isolation without a sense of connection with others, and such trivial ties as bowling clubs or folk dancing groups do not satisfy this human need. Lacking pride in the French or German nation, continental Europeans have turned to menacing forms of attachment, including a transnational legislature unelected and willing to persecute the populations of varied regions and nations on charges of “hate speech” or other forms of political incorrectness. The result is a society increasingly bent on the suppression of free speech and free association in ways that resemble the actions of twentieth-century totalitarian states. This tendency to suppress minority opinion is evident in the aggressive persecution of climate “deniers.”

It was for these reasons that Scruton supported the withdrawal of Britain from the EU and the restoration of a national culture in England. Certainly, England contains much of which one might be proud, including the heritage of a national church and a great number of local cultures. Sir Roger constantly praised the beauty of local cultures, including the beauty of the English landscape, traditional architecture, and local manners and speech. Few writers were as perceptive as he to the consequences of abandoning these national and local affiliations.

It is our connection to place that tempers the tendency toward intolerance and extremism. Allegiance of the detached mind to the State stripped of its national qualities or to the global idea of universalist dogma and belief is dangerous because it is unrestricted by local traditions of law, manners, or religious practice in what sorts of correctives it might attempt. It is more difficult to jail one’s neighbor as a “hater” or a “denier” within a settled local community in which one actually knows one’s neighbor and interacts on a personal basis with him daily. Within the megacities one only “knows” one’s fellow residents as a sort of rumor of beliefs that may differ greatly from one’s own, and there is a willingness, indeed a sort of pleasure, in dismissing the humanity of that unknown entity as one resorts to abstractions regarding gender, race, and class.

In the modern culture in which we increasingly live, one “texts” rather than speaks, and one passes others constantly without any recognition of humanity. It was this suppression of our most human instincts, including the need simply to be acknowledged, that Scruton found so disturbing. During the last decades of his life he lived at Sundey Hill Farm near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, a town with its population of 5,400 and with its central feature the twelfth-century Malmesbury Abbey. In recent years he conducted there an annual ten-day meeting which he called, not without some tongue-in-cheek humor, the Scrutopia Summer School. Malmesbury was, I suppose, a sort of utopia, but otherwise Scruton recognized the very dangerous consequences of the search for utopia and the production of such inhuman totalitarianisms as fascism and communism. With his depth of understanding Scruton easily diagnosed the “inhumanity” of communism: “In every place where [communists] had achieved power they had released what was lowest in human nature, rejoicing in destruction and despising every loyalty that was not motivated by cynical calculation.”

Partly as a result of the soulless space in which so many today live, there is on the part of many a growing sense of isolation and pointlessness. This form of anomie is especially a product of the nihilistic intellectual “culture of repudiation” in which intellectuals and academics have so overwhelmingly turned against the inherited civilization of the West, only to replace that bright legacy with pointless recitations of loyalty to such abstractions as equality and diversity. The repudiation of our cultural heritage is the central problem in the West today. As Scruton put it in The West and the Rest, “[y]oung people gain nothing from [the culture of repudiation] save bewilderment and the loss of any sense of identity.” Elsewhere he clarifies just how great a treasure is slipping away: a religious culture that would console and assure meaning, a political culture that would ensure stability and cooperation, an artistic culture that would bring beauty and a sense of human scale, and domestic arrangements that would allow the expression of fidelity and love. In place of that we are left with a nihilistic culture bent on destruction of all that is good and decent.

Nothing in the modern world can take the place of religious faith, national loyalty, family life, meaningful political participation, and stable family life. All of these forms of commitment have been undermined if not lost in the modern state with its repudiation of true national feeling, its suppression of religious expression in the public space, its assault on natural gender differences, and its requirement of universal correctness in place of genuine political discussion. As for the family, Scruton wrote at length in Gentle Regrets about his growing awareness of “the depth and seriousness of the opposition between the family and the State.” “The family has become a subversive institution” in the eyes of the modern State, and state-sponsored education and the media are doing everything possible to portray the family as “an ‘option’ rather than a norm.” Even a cursory look at recent television programming is enough to confirm the extent to which the single mom, same-sex family, and childless couple are treated as the norm within contemporary popular culture. Unfortunately, this sort of programming conveys a powerful and lasting message to young viewers.

Among the insights in Scruton’s books is the idea that the West is crippled not by its values, which remain sound because they are rooted in permanent attributes of human nature, but by those elements within Western culture that have repudiated their own civilization. If anything, those “antagonists,” as Scruton called them, are more numerous and powerful today than ever. They dominate the Democrat Party, the mainstream media, the universities, and the intellectual class, and their opposition to the West is now so deep-seated that, in the wake of Iranian attacks on American forces, they rush out to wave the Iranian flag at political rallies in the United States. Those on the left find it embarrassing if not criminal to speak publicly of Judeo-Christian values, and they dismiss the importance of the classical and Western literary traditions as well, seeing them as the work of “dead white males.” This dismissal often takes the form of abusive and threatening language or worse. As Scruton put it, “The gentle advocacy of inclusion masks the far-from-gentle desire to exclude the old excluder: in other words, to repudiate the cultural inheritance that defines us as something distinct from the rest.”

Just as he opposed the tyranny of ideological suppression on the Left, Scruton resisted the tendency to respond with any sort of narrow or programmatic conservatism. His thinking was fiercely independent but inevitably closely aligned with others of a caring and “conserving” temperament. Reading Scruton’s books, one gains a sense not just of his learning and intellectual power, which were indeed great, but of his wise and patient humanity. Scruton believed that it was impossible to enforce conformity of thought, even in those states in which freedom of thought is severely restricted, and this conviction applied to his own efforts to preserve life on a human scale. Only by way of respectful, open-minded discussion could one expect to secure any influence on the thinking of others. Scruton was, in the best sense, a teacher, a fact that is evident in his several “Intelligent Person’s Guides” to culture and philosophy. These books were intended to serve as useful starting points for the lay reader, about whom Scruton cared deeply. It was, after all, only through education of the general public that a democratic nation could hope to maintain its freedoms, and public education, as Scruton saw it, was doing little to provide this education.

Summing up his career since the Paris student uprising of 1968, when he first recognized that he was a conservative, Roger Scruton wrote: “I remain what I have been since May 1968—a conservative intellectual, who not only loves the high culture of Europe, but believes it to be a source of consolation and the repository of what we Europeans should know. It is, to put it bluntly, our best hope for the past.” Sir Roger’s defense of that past was unwavering and courageous, even in the face of innumerable attacks from media and academe and at considerable cost to his reputation and purse. His steadfastness and courage have been an inspiration to many who have likewise chosen to speak the truth rather than submit to the opinions of the mob. Sir Roger Scruton will long be remembered, and fondly so, by those who have followed his brave example, and his books will continue to be read for their timeless wisdom long after the fashions of postmodernism and identity politics have been forgotten.  

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination: Conservative Values in American Literature from Poe to O’Connor to Haruf (2011).