Sir Roger Scruton (1944–2020) was a most uncharacteristic intellectual: a philosopher who spent much of his long career at war with the academy; a prolific author who eschewed the city for life on a farm, who hunted to hounds and wrote movingly on wine as that which comes to us wrapped in a “halo of significance”; a conservative who rejected liberal internationalism, but whose outlook was genuinely cosmopolitan; a courageous activist expelled from Communist Czechoslovakia for daring to speak of hope at a time when none existed; a thinker schooled in the Anglophone tradition of philosophy, yet one who was quintessentially European; someone who “served a full apprenticeship in atheism,” but who, having pondered his loss of faith against the backdrop of advancing secularism, “steadily regained it.” Scruton was a public intellectual who took risks for freedom and who never sought popularity when truth was at stake. Indeed, he spent a lifetime, as he put it, seeking “comfort in uncomfortable truths.”
Those truths were enunciated and defended in a corpus comprising sixty books (including four novels and a book of poetry), hundreds of scholarly articles and scores of newspaper columns on topics as diverse as beauty, architecture, music, sex, politics, animal rights, wine, hunting, farming, religion, and the environment. Unifying all these works is, however, one underlying conviction, which is that we all long for the consolation of home or of membership. We all desire to surmount “natural alienation,” to belong somewhere that we recognize as ours. In a world where nihilism and estrangement are the norm, Scruton, as I have written elsewhere, “shines a light on our failures, not in order to condemn them, but in order to lead us from despair, loneliness, and desecration back home to beauty and its sacred source.” That is why I consider him something of a latter-day Hegel, someone who incorporates the full range of human experience into his thinking, and for whom art, religion, and philosophy serve as “a living endorsement of the human community.”
Scruton was often correctly acclaimed as the greatest conservative philosopher of his generation. However, he said to me in our book Conversations with Roger Scruton: “All that conservatism ultimately means, in my view, is the disposition to hold on to what you know and love.” Politically, therefore, he was a thinker in the mold of Edmund Burke, one for whom the defense of ancestral institutions was vital to the health of a nation. However, when Scruton writes in defense of conservatism, he does so from a philosophical and not merely a political perspective. That is because Scruton’s politics emerge from his deeply held philosophical convictions about the human person and the repeated attempts by science and pseudo-science to undermine it. Communism is one such form of pseudo-science, and one that he spent his life opposing; but so too are naturalism, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, or, indeed, any of those academic disciplines when they go beyond the bounds of their subject and push an ideological agenda while masquerading as a “science.” To a lesser or greater extent, these tear aside all those “features of the world which constitute its personal face—rights and duties, laws and values, institutions of membership and religion.” This leads, as he wrote in Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, to a “peculiar society, devoid of counsel, in which decisions have the impersonality of a machine.”
Scruton’s anti-communist stance, his aesthetic theory, his belief in the sacred and the transcendental, his defense of nationhood and home, his writings on sex, music, wine, architecture, hunting, the environment, culture, and animal rights, are all attempts to reenchant what he called the Lebenswelt, or the lived human world. That is why he considers philosophy not, as he put it in Philosopher on Dover Beach, the “handmaiden of the sciences,” but the “seamstress of the Lebenswelt.” As such, the primary task of philosophy is not to undermine appearance for the sake of reality, but rather to “repair the rents made by science in the veil of Maya, through which the wind of nihilism now blows coldly over us.”
Scruton begins his defense of philosophy as the “seamstress of the Lebenswelt” by drawing the familiar Kantian distinction between the subject or the person and the object. Kant sought to reconcile the world of Newtonian physics with the realm of reason and faith, and he did so by arguing that, like all creatures, we are objects in nature determined, no less than the animals, by its laws. However, we are also subjects that can exercise freedom in defiance of our natural impulses. The subject who says “I” demonstrates that he or she is a unique individual, the bearer of rights, responsibilities, duties, and claims. The “I” is the defining feature of the human being. As a locus of liberty, it permits us to stand back from our immediate condition so as to exercise self-control, self-sacrifice, and love.
To say that the human being is both a subject and an object is not to suggest that it is composed of two things, but that it can be described or understood in two distinct ways. The example used most often by Scruton to explain this theory is that of a painting. From the perspective of science, the painting is nothing but the materials of which it is composed. That is certainly true, inasmuch as the figure depicted in the painting cannot be separated from the materials that constitute it. There are not two things here but one. And yet the scientific understanding of the painting is not the only one, and certainly not the most important. There is also intentional understanding, which looks beyond the canvas and pigments for the meaning in the painting and is open to being transformed by it. It insists that there are two ways of understanding this same thing, one of which transcends the material composition in the direction of the transcendental.
The radical and revolutionary mindset seeks to depersonalize or deface the world. That is why the experience of Communism is that of alienation and despair. When the Lebenswelt is torn away, we “see the world under one aspect alone, as a world of objects.” We are told the subject is a fiction and that “beyond death there is nothing.” We all know, however, that when we gaze at a painting, a landscape, or the community in which we are at home, we cannot help but encounter the subjectivity of the world. That is, we encounter the very same type of thing we experience when beholding another person. It is as though the world smiles back at us from a place beyond time. Kant called this experience of the subject “the transcendental,” a term Scruton also uses synonymously with “the sacred.”
We catch sight of the subject in a painting, or a landscape, in a sonata, a glass of wine, or even in a building that we love. It is as though all these things shine with a personality of their own and smile back at us with a human face. “In the sentiment of beauty,” Scruton says, “we feel the purposiveness and intelligibility of everything that surrounds us.” Human beauty, he tells us in his widely acclaimed book Beauty, “places the transcendental subject before our eyes and within our grasp.”
That is why, as Scruton provocatively put it, the Devil consistently wages war against art and culture. He does so because the culture of a nation—expressed in its literature, music, artworks, political institutions, and religious rites—is the fabric of our common home. Through them, we connect, not only with the living, but with the dead and the unborn. They root us to place, time, history, and to that homeland of the soul that we all crave as a remedy to our existential isolation. They speak of somewhere rather than nowhere, of settlement and belonging rather than estrangement and alienation. They reflect how we see the world, something that is obvious to anyone who observes the character or personality of any nation in old Europe.
In attaching us to our common home, in giving it a face that can be known and loved, culture is a source of what Scruton called oikophilia, or love of home. This he contrasted with oikophobia or hatred of home, something that goes hand in hand with a repudiation of subjectivity, transcendence, the sacred, first-person freedom, and the “we” of membership. This culture of repudiation is equivalent in many ways to what Burke meant when he spoke of “Jacobinism by establishment,” something Western society as a whole is now experiencing. In denying students access to their history; in dumbing down art, music, literature, and even the sacred liturgy; in redesigning the social space so that it no longer has a face; in promoting a form of sexual liberty that makes no room for the human person as that which animates the body; and in celebrating obscenity over beauty, you detach people from their past, their home, and the transcendental dimension of the human experience. You make them strangers to themselves, to the soul, and the soil.
Such, alas, is our present predicament. Scruton writes despairingly in Philosophy: Principles and Problems of “a culture of widespread desecration, in which human relations are voided of the old religious virtues—innocence, sacrifice, and eternal vows—and in which little or no public acknowledgement is afforded to the ideas of the sacred, the holy and the forbidden.” The result is a rejection of the “human form divine” for “an entirely novel product, from which the idea of human distinction, of the sacred nature of our form and the consecration of our loves has been driven away.” This is not just a matter of casting aside our traditional beliefs. In losing religion and in repudiating culture, we profoundly alter appearances to the point where we experience the human body, not “as something removed from nature,” but as “an animal, rooted in the natural world and obedient to its dark imperatives.”
So, what is to be done? Roger Scruton offers an answer in Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. He believed that there is a “growing movement of revulsion against the prevailing nihilism—both the nihilism of the university and of the marketplace.” It is a movement that recognizes that ours is a culture war in which nothing less than the survival of the sacred is at stake. Prompted by the enduring religious needs of our species, a need to “live out the distinction between the sacred and profane,” this movement is fired by the conviction that we can,
at any moment, turn away from desecration and ask ourselves instead what inspires us and what we should revere. . . . We can turn our attention to the things we love—the woods and streams of our native country, friends and family, the “starry heavens above”—and ask ourselves what they tell us about our lives on earth, and how that life should be lived. And then we can look on the world of art, poetry and music and know that there is a real difference between the sacrilegious, with which we are alone and troubled, and the beautiful, with which we are in company and at home.
There is, in other words, a way back to the homestead of the heart—a way back to that sacred place in which freedom, love, and duty come to us as an intimation of the eternal, for to know them “is to know God.” The enduring relevance of Roger Scruton is that, in this “labour of piety,” it is he who points the way towards what he called “unfashionable resistance.” Such resistance may not succeed in placing culture and philosophy where Scruton believed they belong—at the heart of our cultural, academic, and political institutions. However, it does succeed in showing us why culture and philosophy count, and why the battle for their preservation must be a priority. Taking part in that battle is not an act of violence, but, as Scruton so often insisted, one of love for the things that matter most.