Very sad news from England this morning of the passing of Sir Roger Scruton at the age of 75 after a long battle with cancer over the last year.
Sir Roger deserves to be considered the greatest conservative thinker and writer of the last generation—full stop—certainly the most prolific and wide-ranging since G.K. Chesterton, having published more than 50 books and countless articles.
I’ve been trying for the longest time to write a long feature article about him, and failing for several reasons. Unlike Strauss, Hayek, or Voegelin, he never founded a distinct or doctrinal school of thought, and therefore does not have identified acolytes. America has Burkeans, Kirkeans, Straussians, Randians, Hayekians, Miseans, Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians, Buchananites (two kinds of those actually), Friedmanites, Reaganites, and (now) Bannonites I suppose, but if you told someone you are a “Scrutonian,” you’d most likely get a baffled look in response.
This owes in part to Scruton’s extraordinary range of interests and writing style, which made him hard to get your head around. Though known primarily as a philosopher, he ought to be regarded more as an old fashioned “man of letters.” His style extended from dense analysis of modern philosophy to fiction (three novels), personal memoirs, poetry, and musical composition; he even wrote a libretto for an opera. His topical interests range from the environment one day to Wagner on the next. He’s also written books about art, history, theology, aesthetics, architecture, wine (I Drink, Therefore I am), sex, and sports.
Although Scruton can throw down with the deepest and most complex of modern philosophers such as Wittgenstein, when it came to conservatism he was not a dense theorist or systematizer. To the contrary, he liked to say that conservatism should begin with love—the things we love, the places we love, and the institutions we ought to love, but often don’t, because of the imperfections in all things human. In the introduction to his book The Meaning of Conservatism, Scruton writes that “Conservatism may rarely announce itself in maxims, formulae, or aims. Its essence is inarticulate, and its expression, when compelled, skeptical.”
Why “inarticulate”? Because, as he explains elsewhere, the liberal has the easy job in the modern world. The liberal points at the imperfections and defects of existing institutions or the existing social order, strikes a pose of indignation, and huffs that surely something better is required, usually with the attitude that the something better is simply a matter of will. The conservative faces the tougher challenge of understanding and explaining the often subtle reasons why existing institutions, no matter how imperfect, work better than speculative alternatives.
I’ve written about Sir Roger and his work many times here in Power Line (the post on why “You’ll Never Be Sir Roger Scruton Cool” may be my favorite), including about his great book on modern “thinkers” on the left, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, but if asked where to start with Sir Roger’s body of work, I typically recommend his memoir . Having myself reached the galloping years of middle age, I can say that if your regrets are only gentle, you’re doing pretty well. But his chapter “How I Became a Conservative” is a good introduction to the four-way intersection of Roger’s philosophical, political, cultural, and aesthetic thought.
I could go on all day about Sir Roger, but for now at least I’ll sign off with perhaps my favorite short quote from him: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”
Good advice. Sir Roger leaves his wife Sophie (who once hosted me for a splendid dinner at home with Sir Roger), and children Sam and Lucy. And a body of work that will repay devoted study for decades to come, if not longer. RIP.