Roger Scruton Contra Mundum: Who’s the Greatest?

[Note: This lengthy post is mainly intended for our academic readers and connoisseurs of conservative intellectual history, and if this is not your cup of tea—like Paul’s soccer posts—you’ll want to move on right away to another item and spare us your TL;DR complaints. . .]

I had a notion that when I said in my observance of the passing of Sir Roger Scruton that he was “the greatest conservative thinker of the last generation” (a judgment that has a lot of company) it might raise hackles with devotees of other thinkers with valid claims to this superlative. I had one particular person in mind—Harry Jaffa—whose champions—”one of whom I am which,” to borrow the fractured syntax I once heard a House member use on C-SPAN—I thought might rush to the battlements, and while it took a little longer than I expected, the hackling commenced over on Facebook.

Most long time Power Line readers are familiar with Prof. Jaffa, but if you’re a newbie here, or have been nodding off at the back the classroom, there is a certain fine book I can recommend as an introduction to Jaffa’s thought and why it is so important to America’s future. In the meantime, Glenn Ellmers, a longtime friend and classmate who is working on his own book about Jaffa, decided to take up the matter, and agreed to let me post his Facebook note here, after which I offer my pro-Scruton rebuttal. (Lots of other people piled quickly into the comment thread, but I’m omitting all of that.) And stay tuned, we may well go into overtime!

Glenn opens:

Contra Scruton. I’m not sure I agree with some of my close friends that he was the greatest conservative thinker of the last generation. Jaffa never wrote much about him, but he did object once, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, to something Scruton wrote about Princess Diana and democracy (note the nice last line, with an allusion to Shakespeare):

Roger Scruton, “British philosopher,” writing on your Sept. 2 editorial page, declares that Princess Diana was “A Victim of Democracy.” How democracy can be responsible for someone riding in a car with a drunk driver at an estimated 80 or 90 mph in a 30 mph zone, and without a seat belt, is something he never explains. He writes that “It is one of the many false assumptions of democratic culture that people’s desires and tastes ought to be satisfied if they do no obvious harm.” Where in Jefferson or Lincoln does he find such an assumption?

To blame the form of government celebrated in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address for the base elements in our popular culture is like blaming the Sermon on the Mount for the burning of heretics.

Mr. Scruton complains that “media induced catastrophes . . . have all but destroyed . . . the very idea of monarchical government.” Someone should inform Mr. Scruton that the idea of monarchical government was discredited by John Locke and effectively ended in England by the Glorious Revolution of 1689. For more than a century the king or queen of England has had no role in government at all. The Queen’s speech from the throne is written by the prime minister. In fact, the queen and the royal family are the only ones in the United Kingdom who have no right to freedom of speech. They may not express themselves on political questions. They are however a reminder of a long history, in which an evolving monarchy played a vital role in the emancipation not only of the British people but of mankind. In the wise telling of that history, which culminates in the celebration of the virtues of popular government, the monarchy may still have a vital role to play.

Harry V. Jaffa
Distinguished Fellow
The Claremont Institute
Claremont, Calif.

My reply:

Okay, against my better judgment, and against the lesson of experience that these kind of arguments never change anyone’s position, I’ll defend my proposition that Scruton was “the greatest conservative thinker of the last generation.”

The first standard of judgment I apply is purely empirical (so yes, I know I’ve lost half the audience already.) Whose books among conservative writers have been translated and published in more foreign languages? I’ll wager on Roger. Certainly he has one of the largest, if not the largest, international audiences. I was struck some years ago meeting the leaders of the Swedish and Norwegian conservative parties, who both said Scruton was their favorite conservative writer. I’ll come to a direct comparison to Jaffa in a moment, but how useful do you think Crisis of the House Divided would be to a Swedish conservative? I found similar devotion to Roger in some of my visits to eastern Europe, where he is well known, and where his work assisting the “underground university” in the 1980s was nothing short of heroic. (By the way, Roger—and eastern European conservatives—have a very different view of George Soros than we do. I could say a lot about that, having once met with Soros and his foundation board of directors, who are a rogue’s gallery of the worst leftists on our shores. It didn’t go well.)

The point is, Scruton reached a broader audience on a broader range of subjects and issues than just about any other conservative thinker or writer you can name.

That of course is not decisive on the question of the quality or importance of his body of work, which brings me, second, to the qualitative and comparative dimension. There is a bit of an apples and oranges problem here. I did not say that Scruton was the greatest political philosopher of our time, and he wouldn’t accept that label if you had tried it on him. I do think that Jaffa is the more profound thinker on the most crucial matters about America, and, as America is the most important nation in the world, ergo. . . (Though this is crucial: the point is that Jaffa was more profound on a narrower field of vision. I’ll come back to this.)

To be sure Roger had several blind spots about America, which I tried with limited success to point out to him. That was not his only defect. I did once have a long but typically friendly, delightful, and hugely interesting argument with him about Leo Strauss, who to my knowledge he only mentions once in his writing (aside from a mere name check here and there), a snarky and dismissive throwaway comment in his book on wine (I Drink—Therefore I Am, in the appendix). He was not at all hostile to Strauss as are some conservatives. He celebrated enthusiastically Strauss’s attack on nihilism and social science. His main point of disagreement was with the methodology of esoteric reading, which he thought unnecessary and arguably perverse in the case of the metaphysics of many modern thinkers like Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He thought Strauss and his school overly politicized many philosophers (though that is our job description) and rendered much of their thinking too one-dimensional. As Roger was much more of a metaphysician than a directly political thinker, I’m not sure the distance between him and Jaffa would be that large if you sat them down together to talk straight metaphysics. And, to be sure, Scruton wasn’t much interested in Machiavelli or Locke. (Hobbes is a different matter, but for another time.) I never did ask him much about Locke, but I suspect he may have shared some of Burke’s disdain for the Second Treatise.

This is one reason why Jaffa’s letter about Scruton is a rare misfire, because Jaffa renders “democracy” in service of constructing a straw man. Scruton clearly didn’t mean democratic institutions and first principles as such, but the mass culture that is co-terminous with modern democracy, which culture Jaffa could and did deplore just as often. In fact it wouldn’t be difficult for me to find parts of Scruton’s work that would be entirely congruent with Jaffa’s attack on Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty. And while I have no use whatsoever for the British monarchy and would see it abolished if it was up to me for just the reasons Jaffa mentions, are we entirely sure that, in the condition Britain is in right now, there would be no ill-effects of such a change? Is not the monarchy, for all its appalling mediocrity, one of those “evils that are sufferable” in the understanding of the Declaration that counsels prudence above all? (I think Jaffa implicitly concedes this point at the end of this letter, after which an untutored reader might wonder, “Just what are they arguing about?”) That would likely be Scruton’s rejoinder, if one had taken place, and it seems valid to me. In any case, it’s not our country we’re messing with, and while there’s nothing wrong with America that the Windsors can fix (as we may well learn first-hand before long if Megxit settles in LA!), there may not be anything wrong with Britain that the Lincoln-Douglas debates can fix either. [Note to readers: Jaffa loved quoting the boxer Joe Louis: “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with this country that Hitler can fix!”]

After all, Scruton never said anywhere that America would be or should be better off if it was even just a Commonwealth nation. More so than Burke, Scruton held the American Revolution in high regard. That’s why this passage in Jaffa’s letter is simply a grotesque distortion:

[Scruton] writes that “It is one of the many false assumptions of democratic culture that people’s desires and tastes ought to be satisfied if they do no obvious harm.” Where in Jefferson or Lincoln does he find such an assumption? To blame the form of government celebrated in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address for the base elements in our popular culture is like blaming the Sermon on the Mount for the burning of heretics.

Scruton didn’t get his opinion of democratic culture (Jaffa conveniently omits this term) from the Declaration, or Lincoln, of the Gettysburg Address, and I’m not aware that Scruton ever wrote anything critical of the Declaration in the vein of Russell Kirk for example. It wouldn’t take much heavy lifting in Roger’s work to see that he has in mind the contemporary progressive/nihilist understandings of “democracy” that Jaffa decried in equal measure. In other words, Scruton has exactly the same opinion on the necessity of virtue as expressed in, for example, Jaffa’s use of George Washington’s Farewell Address and other Founding texts.  At some point I may well undertake to assemble side-by-side the nearly identical aphorisms both men produced (they had roughly equal skill at crafting the cutting and witty aphorism) and have a contest to see who can sort them out correctly—the inverse of the old Al Gore-Unabomber quiz!

So to me this does appear to be a case of Jaffa looking for a fight with someone who is potentially a powerful ally.

Finally, Roger’s complete body of work, ranging as widely as it did, simply doesn’t find a parallel with anyone. I have to say that before getting to know him (and I was deeply skeptical going in), I thought maybe he was putting us on. It turned out he really does have a truly impressive grasp of subjects and texts, and like Jaffa he seemed to have a near photographic memory. I do think that if Jaffa had applied his talents and brilliance as widely as Scruton did, he would not only be better known, but might be an international figure of the same stature and influence. As it is Jaffa is largely unknown outside America. (This, by the way, is a major failing of we Claremonsters, but this will need to wait for another occasion.)

When I cast my eye back to what I call the “middle period” Jaffa of the 1960s and 1970s, when he was producing those brilliant essays on Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, etc, not to mention his occasional sportswriting of the highest quality, one wishes we had at least ten more books from him. Michael Anton tells me his off-the-cuff remarks on Melville were extraordinary; we should have taped him a lot more than anyone did, as was done with Strauss. I wish we had a complete book from him on Plato and Aristotle, and perhaps Cicero. I’d have loved to hear him give an extended critique of Seth Bernadete. And he used to assign Hans Jonas in some classes way back when (before my time); I’d love to have had him commit some thoughts to paper about Jonas. Also Hannah Arendt. (I talked long with Scruton about Arendt once too, to my great profit.) I have no doubt whatever he came up with would be the best thing written about all of these figures.

Jaffa’s single-mindedness and devotion to the narrow but crucial cause of America is inextricable with his genius and it summoned all of his profundity. But there was more to be had from him, whereas I used to kid Scruton, “Stop with all the books—I can’t keep up!,” which was literally true. Perhaps to have demanded more from Harry would have been to receive less in a certain way. Conversely, if Scruton had attempted an extended formal treatise on political philosophy along the lines of Strauss, his reach might have exceeded his grasp. That’s a paradox Scruton would have been entirely comfortable with, though I can imagine how Jaffa might react!

Overtime! As promised! Glenn responds:

Hi Steve,

You raise many good points, and fair-minded people can certainly disagree about the question of “the greatest conservative thinker of the last generation.” (I set aside the exchange about the British monarchy as a quibble.) I’m not deeply familiar with Sir Roger’s work, though I’m glad to know about his points of agreement, and disagreement, with Strauss, which actually confirm what I am about to say. This will sound almost insanely presumptuous, but here goes…

What Leo Strauss achieved in the latter half of the 20th century represented a shift in the human comprehension of, and the possibilities for, politics and philosophy—something not achieved in 400 years—which, before Strauss came along, seemed impossible. To the degree that Jaffa built on this achievement, gave it a concrete political cast and applied it to America (though in a way not confined to America) I will claim this: No matter what Roger Scruton or anyone else wrote or did, it is metaphysically impossible for any writer, scholar, or thinker to have done anything more essential, more radical, or more liberating for human thought and human excellence than what Leo Strauss, with Jaffa’s key elaborations, accomplished.

What exactly I mean by that bizarre and enigmatic statement… well, you have to wait for the book.

Glenn Ellmers

My final word: If the contest came down to Strauss versus Scruton, pretty sure I’d agree or mostly agree with this. But I place Strauss in a generation before Jaffa or Roger. In any case, I’ll look forward to the book!

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