News From Somewhere: On Settling
by Roger Scruton.
Continuum (London and New York), 192
pp., $13.33 paper, 2006.

book cover imageRoger Scruton is one of those unique philosophers in that
he has abandoned the city in favor of more rural climes.
Philosophers, by contrast, have generally sought the city,
even in the face of politicians who have a nasty habit of
placing them in the gaol or hanging them from some hastily
constructed gibbet. The perils of philosophizing are well
known and we have but to consider the career development
of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn following the publication of One
Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
to understand that
there are certain dangers in seeking “the whole truth.”

The art of philosophizing in the postmodern world has, for
the most part, devolved into mere sophistry or the bloviated
mutterings of court lackeys seeking their fifteen minutes
of fame. However, there is a small cadre of thinkers who
have eschewed the obligations of modernity and make inquiries
armed with an accurate understanding of human nature, prudence,
and the “wisdom not to attempt that which is beyond
human power to achieve.” Roger Scruton has made a career
out of puncturing the sophistry of his erstwhile opponents,
in both polemical and scholarly works; here, he attempts
a defense of that most denigrated life (at least by the urban
elites), that of a farmer.

Scruton’s book is an important memoir in that it is
predicated, I think, on the most profound question submitted
before the Delphic Oracle whose famous response was gnothe
or “know thyself.” It is in the
act of “knowing” and “self” that
the author has established his household on the Wiltshire
claylands, adapted to its customs, and embraced its people
with the passion of a man seeking not only a humane existence
but wisdom as well. Written in an avuncular, mellifluous
style, given to great detail about the workings of country
folk, the intricacies of the land, the plethora of wild and
domesticated critters, his memoir conflates, in story, history,
philosophy, and theology, the depth and meaning of community
and place. But, this is no utopia; there lurks the power
of the centralized state, ever eager to muck up the lives
of people who on one hand would seek to divorce themselves
from the bureaucrat, and on the other are inevitably seduced
orforced by reduced circumstances into accepting his programs.
Thus, the travails of the countryman are needlessly exacerbated
by the state.

However, the farmer is uniquely situated to contest the
vagaries of nature and the intrusions of state through centuries
of attacks on the settlement. Some weather the storm and
pass on their hard-earned expertise to their progeny; others
are overrun in their stand. “It could be that this
experience,” Scruton writes, “of oneness with
protected animals is the true reason why people stay farming.
It is an experience that brings with it a deep sense of locality.
The is not merely living in a particular place, but dwelling
there, sovereign over the herd, and belonging where they
belong, who belong to him. That is why, when a livestock
farmer can no longer make ends meet, he does not sell up
and join the dole queuein the city. He nods goodbye to his
herd, then turns away and shoots himself.”

Scruton’s description of the nexus between farmer
and herd is similar to his explanation of the farmer’s
relationship to the soil. When these relationships are in
right order they represent the acceptance of the harmony
of being, of having an appropriate place in the order of
things. When compared to the life of the urban citizen, where
his primary motivation is the accumulation of wealth, or
merely surviving, a man who by definition has yielded to
the state, the casual philosopher might declare that while
the urbanite may find comfort, pleasure, and stock options,
he is not likely to know peace, harmony, or contentment.

Even when the author is describing his neighbors, all of
whom are truly interesting country folk, he retains a certain
profundity. There is Mick, the owner of Clitchbury Farm,
and his infamous bull; Roddy, the jack-of-all trades, hired
man, and assassin of crows and magpies; there is the unnamed
farmer, an anonymous Christian, who looks after Vince, the
troubled youth; there is Molly and Bill, who dwell in an
old farmhouse and hold the key to a special room. These are
but a sampling of a myriad of people, each stamped with unique
idiosyncrasies, whom the author has entered into his record
of place. They are people who have lived-perhaps dwelt would
be a better word-on their farms, raised their children, rang
their bells, and celebrated their lives and the lives of
kith and kin in song and dance. They have drunk deeply from
the well of life and have been the better for it.

One thing that differentiates the English countryman from
his American counterpart is the “hunt,” and Scruton’s
description of the hunt is one of the more interesting aspects
of his book. “The thrill of jumping,” he writes, “is
not—as many people imagine—merely an equestrian
experience. It is the thrill that comes from the dissolution
of a boundary, and the annihilation of all the artificial
claims of title that go with it. . . . This sense of common
ownership and common destiny is part of what turns the land
into a landscape. The fields that we see form our window
do not end at our boundary but stretch beyond it, to the
place where the hounds of the Vale of the White Horse hunt
must be called off from the territory of the Old Berkshire,
where ‘ours’ becomes ‘theirs,’ and
the riot of followers must turn at last for home.”

Needless to say, the hunt, where the elusive, wiley, and
chicken-stealing fox is remorselessly pursued is much too
much for the authorities. Everyone from the RSPCA to urbanites
who never leave their built environs have banded together
to silence a centuries-old tradition that unites peer, commoner,
tradesman, and farmer and provides the good service of culling
the ubiquitous fox.

The reader will find Scruton’s memoir both charming
and interesting. It is a layeredand nuanced apologetics,
brilliantly rendered, for a class of people who hover on
the verge of extinction. And, while he writes of the intimate
relationship among the farmer, his land, and stock his theme
concerns the philosophical question of how we should live. “Settlement,” he
writes, “is not a bond between the cells of an organism
but an association of free beings, who treat each other as
sovereign. It is the relation on which markets ultimately
depend, and it thrives in rural areas because people are
compelled to assume responsibility for their lives, in an
economy that places a premium on trust.”

Scruton then has committed the great sin of critiquing the
city utilizing his well-known acuity and facile pen. Were
he a lesser man, his career would be in ruins but he has
become one of them, a claylands farmer, a maker of muck piles,
and as such, he will make his stand there, among his own.
It is a comforting thought that there still exist such men.

Robert C. Cheeks writes from Lisbon, Ohio. His work has appeared
in the American Enterprise, Human
Events, The Washington Times, The Pittsburgh Tribune Review,
Southern Partisan
, and elsewhere.