Conversations with Roger Scruton
by Roger Scruton and Mark Dooley.
Bloomsbury Continuum, 2016.
Hardcover, 213 pages, $28.
Roger Scruton’s (b. 1944) conservatism has scandalized the bulk of the British intellectual community since the 1970s. This thinker and writer’s prolific output ranges over topics that include music, architecture, beauty, politics, philosophy, sexual desire, and God. He has written works of fiction and composed music. His usually accessible style, conservatism, insight, and interesting topics have provided him with an enthusiastic and relatively large readership among those who reject what he calls “the culture of repudiation,” a culture that relentlessly criticizes and abjures Western civilization and traditions in toto.
Scruton credits reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s (1875–1926) Letters and Dante’s Comedy with exciting his interest in becoming a writer, while Colin Wilson’s (1931–2013) Outsider, (1956) convinced Scruton that art is the only truly serious field of study. This led Scruton to admire Hegel for being the first modern philosopher to take art as seriously as it deserves to be.
Scruton’s career has been one in which he has repeatedly been scapegoated and marginalized. Two key factors have contributed to this. One was that “[he] was a rebel against rebellion.” While in France in the 1960s, Scruton encountered American hippies “who had such a high opinion of themselves, the sole ground for which was that they were in a state of rebellion against their parents.… They were mostly spoiled brats … [who] thought this was a vindication of their existence and a proof of their creative genius.”
The lonely death of a delicate young woman from German measles that she contracted from her baby also had an impact. Scruton had tried to protect her from a crazed and paranoid bohemian who fathered her baby and then abandoned her, with no success.
The other factor is a question of interest and temperament. He writes, “my interests were primarily in those areas of philosophy that deal with culture; not just art, but also the places where the human world demands examination. That sort of thing does not have a recognized place in analytical philosophy.”
Thinkers of the New Left (1985), updated and republished as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands (2015), cemented his conservative reputation and subjected its author to vicious condemnatory attacks. The book is largely a criticism of leftist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), who refused to condemn Stalin’s murders, and an exposé of postmodern fakes and obscurantists who write incantatory and indecipherable rubbish. Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), a French psychoanalyst, gets special attention for inventing nonsensical “mathemes,” instances of mathematical nonsense, that mean nothing at all but seem difficult and, to some perhaps, intriguing. Scruton was surprised by the tenor of those who denounced the book because he goes out of his way to find redeeming features in the writers he criticizes and earns the right to his criticism by actually reading the entire corpus of writers whose works the less diligent might rather eat than read.
He admits that, like all of us, he is not immune to the image of himself that other people reflect back to him. “It was a disaster. I did actually feel somewhat suicidal after that because I put much more work into that book than people thought.… It is also respectful towards its targets.” His sense of self-worth was saved by the good opinion of a few thinkers whom he respected but whose names probably mean little to the rest of us.
A delightful and instructive aspect of Scruton’s writing is the centrality he gives beauty in human existence. One can get a sense of this in his freely available video “Why Beauty Matters.”
Scruton shares his father’s opinion that the profession calling itself architecture is a disease producing ugliness. “The true antibodies are the vernacular style, the craft tradition, the respect for scales and materials that had recommended themselves to ordinary builders in their collective attempt to settle in a home of their own.” “My father observed that most buildings, and most buildings that we truly love, are not the work of architects. The agreeable settledness of the old English town, he reasoned, was the work of local craftsmen …” We know and can see what is beautiful and yet we construct buildings of such ugliness the frequent reaction is to immediately hope for their destruction. Gropius and Le Corbusier contributed to this with the latter’s repulsive idea of buildings as machines for living. As Scruton says in the video, the useful is useless and vice versa. No one wants to live or work in an ugly building, so such buildings can end up abandoned and useless.
Scruton argues that buildings should be built with a vertical emphasis. Incorporating motifs from what were originally sacred buildings sanctifies and beautifies what would otherwise be profane, faceless, and godless. Such thinking is also reflected in his comment about literature, that “If a work of art merely evokes seedy and disgraceful things, and has no compensating vision of redemption, then it has no aesthetic merit either.” The Marquis de Sade’s writings furnish an example of aesthetic failure.
Faceless, godless, utilitarian buildings reflect the mindsets of many of their inhabitants. Such people would wonder, why study Greek and Latin? But Scruton writes, “All my subsequent thoughts about education have been an answer to that question.” Like buildings, he thinks the study of the useless is the only truly useful thing to study. Trying to create useful and “relevant” education, he claims, has given rise to various “studies” that are bereft of meaning and are purely ideologically driven.
Just as Scruton tries to find redeeming facets of the “thinkers of the new left,” Conversations with Roger Scruton does include praise for analytical philosophy. For instance, Scruton claims about having to write essays on topics like the word “if” when he studied analytical philosophy, “that discipline implanted in me a sense of the distinction between real thinking and fake thinking.” This seems to imply that this kind of philosophy strongly shapes all his thinking. Likewise he writes, “I suppose it is part of my analytical training that I don’t admire philosophers for their wisdom, or their ability to give inspirational thoughts. I admire them because of their arguments, especially if they strike me as valid. I treat them more as scientific figures than as literary figures. But when there is a philosopher who is transparently a literary figure as well—such as Sartre, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche—then I feel a tremendous surge of approval. I feel this is what redeems philosophy, that it can translate itself into real literature.”
Judging from his other books, it seems obvious that Scruton is intensely interested in wisdom—wisdom as the art of living well and not merely true propositions. He reveals as much when he writes of “British philosophers writing now, whose intellectual concerns are entirely remote from any recognizable human predicament. Their isolation from the surrounding culture is the price that British philosophers have paid for their obsession with valid argument—for validity is most easily achieved by saying nothing.” And “Analytical philosophy is clever. But it is also blind—blind to what matters in human experience, and blind to the realms of culture, art, and religion. Hence it is easy to learn and easy to apply.” One would think this would count as an instance of the fake thinking Scruton claims to reject.
Perhaps it is just the case that only philosophers with a strong literary aspect have much to offer in terms of wisdom. Plato would be a striking case in point, although Aristotle would seem to have much to offer too and because we only have access to lecture notes and not his original writings, Aristotle’s philosophy is mostly restricted to propositions and arguments.
Such oddities in his thinking, however, though remarkable, do not detract from the virtues of the book, which include an introduction to his thinking on a range of topics and autobiographical details that give an interesting picture of the man.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy at SUNY Oswego. He writes about ethics, metaphysics, consciousness, religion, politics, and culture.