Remembering Sir Roger

Social media alerts me to the fact that today would be Sir Roger Scruton’s 80th birthday. Sadly, Sir Roger passed away from cancer in 2020. I got to know Sir Roger fairly well in his last decade, and had several splendid exhilarating dinners with him and his lovely wife Sophie over very expensive bottles of fine Bordeaux (among his 50-plus superb books was, after all, I Drink, Therefore I Am—highly recommended), conversing and sometimes having extensive but very friendly arguments. Roger didn’t like Leo Strauss, for example, and I cross-examined him closely on this subject one leisurely evening. Wish I had run a tape. Anyway, nearby is the last time I got to see Roger in person.

As it happened, I had been working on a long essay “The Greatest Living Conservative” at the time of his death. I lost heart after the premise became obsolete, and I shall someday try to revise and complete it. But here are a couple excerpts from the draft:

In the introduction to 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, has 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.

This kind of conservatism is criticized, sometimes with good reason, as being stand-patism.

I’m reminded of what might be called Hallmark Greeting Card conservatism, though it traces back to Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know.” The more modern version was offered by Wittgenstein: “There are things that can be known, but not said.”

Or, as Roger put it more succinctly elsewhere in his reflections on the profundity of the common law: “English law, I discovered, is the answer to Foucault.”

From that one sentence entire dissertations could follow.

Postscript—another fragment from my unfinished essay:

Roger Scruton has written more books than I have read, including, beyond philosophy, books on food and wine, art, beauty, sport, architecture, music, and sex; environmentalism, theology, a novel, and a memoir, and, very recently, even a self-help book, How to Be a Conservative. Although I’m tempted to say that if I haven’t figured out how to be a conservative by now, it’s probably too late for a book to help me. To paraphrase an old Woody Allen joke, if Roger was American instead of British, I fear he might have written The Seven Habits of a Highly Effective Conservative. (The original joke: Kant: The Categorical Imperative, and Six Ways to Make It Work for You!)  (Though I did notice on Amazon that you can get a Roger Scruton iPhone case.)

Though if asked where to start with Roger’s body of work, I typically recommend his memoir Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. 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.

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