Like moths attracted to the flame, students from all continents came together to study and discuss everything from music and aesthetics to politics and metaphysics with Sir Roger, who seemed to be the incarnate flame of wisdom. He was our Virgil through hell and purgatory, and he left us at the top of the mountain, pointing to the light that lay beyond.
Sir Roger Scruton, the prolific British philosopher and writer, died on January 12, 2020, after a six-month battle with cancer. A renowned intellectual whose interests and commentary covered political philosophy, aesthetics, and religion, Sir Roger was more than just a man who covered many topics with penetrating insight and erudition; he was, to me, a friend and a teacher.
I consider myself fortunate having just completed my master’s in philosophy with guidance under Sir Roger in the last year of his teaching. He was, during my tenure as a student at the University of Buckingham—where he ran the graduate program in philosophy—still the man of wit and charm that he had always been, a feature that attracted a diverse group of students of backgrounds and beliefs. His smile, his insight, his love of wine and the fine discussions he led have been indelibly stamped into my memory, as have his his polite jabs at my own intellectual commitments. It goes without saying that he made all his students better humans during the time we studied with him.
Sir Roger had risen to some fame with the publication of The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980, a philosophical exposition of the political tradition free from the negativity and pejoratives of those who have often controlled the meaning and understanding of conservatism. In this work, Sir Roger decisively showed how conservatism is, properly, independent of the classical liberal economic dogmas that largely usurped the older, communitarian, traditional, and aesthetic spirit of conservatism, which Sir Roger saw deriving from the thought of Aristotle through that of Burke and Eliot. In his defense and exposition of conservatism, Sir Roger explained that conservatism was an organic outgrowth of unique inheritances including Common Law, property rights, and institutional justice, producing the liberty that conservatives enjoy and in which they are allied in preserving. In American parlance, Sir Roger’s conservatism is what we now call paleo-conservatism.
He achieved prominence—and scorn—with Thinkers of the New Left (republished and updated recently as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands) and Sexual Desire in the mid-1980s. Thinkers of the New Left effectively blacklisted him from the educational elite, who idolize the very postmodern and post-Marxist thinkers Sir Roger has deconstructed. Sexual Desire was moderately well-received by the same establishment that considered him persona non grata, and it established Sir Roger as a deep thinker on the human condition and aesthetics. From there he came into his own, becoming a popular writer on philosophy and aesthetics, which won him admiration on both sides of the Atlantic. Later in life he became the undisputed authority on Richard Wagner’s operas, and the great defender of traditional aesthetics and the importance of beauty in our world and in our lives.
During the 1980s he was also active in anti-communist underground circles in Eastern Europe. Unlike the closeted Stalinist academics ruling over the ivory towers or the anti-Stalinist intellectuals gathered around insignificant journals and newspapers in New York City or London, Sir Roger actually set foot in the battleground for the the future of the West and decisively sided with the forces of liberty and equality against authoritarianism and state-sponsored oppression. He had greater wisdom than the so-called intelligentsia, most of whom were implicitly pro-Stalinist, and greater courage than the anti-Stalinist liberals, who comfortably denounced the Soviet Union from their journals and newspaper columns while never setting foot in any communist country. He was recently honored in the past few months by Poland and Hungary for his services to liberty in those dark days.
I encountered Roger Scruton as an undergraduate in philosophy when the chains of my unconscious liberalism were cracking. As if by a miracle, the spirit led me to the erudition of Dr. Scruton which confirmed what my philosophy professor had previously told us in his class: what we mostly call “conservatism” is not conservatism but a largely mutant creature combining Randian libertarianism with an implicit materialistic economism inherited from classical liberalism. I subsequently devoured Dr. Scruton’s works and lectures. As I began my turn to aesthetics and rekindled my old love of literature, I also found a friend and teacher in Dr. Scruton’s works. After graduating from Yale I decided to apply at Buckingham to have the opportunity to study with this intellectual giant, and was graced to become what was to be the final crop of students he shepherded and to whom he imparted wisdom in the flesh rather than through mediation by pages and online lectures.
Contrary to the leftwing media’s portrait of him, the Roger Scruton that we all came to know was a gentle and humorous man, a man who wouldn’t harm a fly and who was open to all people. Like moths attracted to the flame, students from all continents came together to discuss everything from music and aesthetics to politics and metaphysics with Sir Roger, who seemed to be the incarnate flame of wisdom. His encyclopedic knowledge allowed him to help all in our respective pilgrimages. He was our Virgil through hell and purgatory, and he left us at the top of the mountain, pointing to the light that lay beyond. Befitting a man of such humility, he once revealed to us that instead of being remembered as the world-class philosopher he was, he wished to be remembered as the organist for the small Anglican parish of which he was a member.
Requiescat in pace, Sir Roger Scruton. You will be missed. But your wisdom and love carry on. May you now sing with the chorus of angels and behold the beauty you long sought.
This essay first appeared here in January 2020.
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The featured image is courtesy of our friends at the Future Symphony Institute, where Sir Roger served as Distinguished Senior Fellow until his death.