Sunday, January 12, 2020

Scruton’s virtues


The Guardian reports that conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has died.  I vividly recall the first time I became aware of Scruton.  I was an undergraduate philosophy major in the late 1980s, and a professor had posted on the bulletin board near his office an article about Scruton, on which he’d scrawled the words: “Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite philosopher.”  It was not intended as a compliment.  But since I was a conservative as well as an aspiring philosopher, it attracted rather than repelled me.  During the many hours I spent in bookstores in those days, seeing Scruton’s name on the spine of a book became a reason instantly to pull it off the shelf and take a look.  And actually reading Scruton soon gave reason to seek out everything else he’d written.  Which, as every Scruton admirer knows, could become a full time job.

Scruton rose to prominence despite having views that couldn’t be more out of step with the times or with the orthodoxies peddled by his fellow academics.  The reasons why, everyone knows.  He was much smarter and better read than most of them, had a considerably greater range of interests and competence, and wrote more clearly and beautifully.  He also had greater courage, as reflected in what he was willing to say and what he was willing to suffer.  Sometimes superior ability and virtue win out, despite the odds.   Scruton could not help but become a heroic figure to younger conservative intellectuals.

Scruton’s thought is so deep and wide-ranging that it cannot possibly be summarized in a few lines.  But there are three aspects of his conservatism that stand out especially – the first having to do with its content, the second with its intellectual quality, the third with its moral quality. 

As to its content, what is most distinctive about Scruton’s conservatism is its emphasis on the unique nature and dignity of the person.  Now, there is a lot of woolly and mediocre thinking of a “personalist” nature.  But not from Scruton.  His own articulation and applications of this idea – from his account of the phenomenology of sexual desire, to his emphasis on the personal nature of social institutions (traditionally known as the idea of the corporate person or moral person) – are of the first rank, and will stand as an important contribution to conservative theory.

As to the intellectual quality of Scruton’s thinking, in addition to the virtues I’ve already mentioned is its nuance.  All conservative thought is wary of the ideologue, who insists on wedging the complexity of human moral and social life into the procrustean bed of a simplistic abstract model.  But as Oakeshott warned, a conservative thinker must be cautious lest his opposition to this sort of thing transform him into a counter-ideologue.  Scruton never fell into this trap.  To take one example, this was evident in his treatment of capitalism, a subject about which too many other conservatives show little nuance.  Some, rightly repelled by socialism and the pathologies of the welfare state, will listen to no criticism of capitalism.  Others, rightly put off by this libertarian extremism, go to the opposite extreme of refusing to see any merit in capitalism.  Scruton rightly saw that capitalism is an enormously complex phenomenon that has both salutary and pernicious elements which, unfortunately, are difficult to disentangle.  His treatment of environmentalism is similarly subtle.

As to the moral character of Scruton’s work, what stood out most starkly was the admirable piety and gratitude that motivated it.  Modern intellectuals tend to be spoiled and ungracious creatures, whose inclination to bitch and moan seems only to increase the better things get, and who seem to occupy themselves concocting ever more recherché reasons for badmouthing their society and their forebears.  Scruton, by contrast, was a man who manifestly deeply loved and appreciated our Western cultural inheritance, for all its faults, and stood up for it the way a loyal son would stand up for his mother and father.  As his moving piece in the Spectator last month showed, this sense of gratitude was left undiminished by the sufferings of the last year of Scruton’s life. 

Since Scruton was a true philosopher, he would not mind my appending a critical note.  In my opinion, the main weakness in his work was in metaphysics – in particular, a tendency to concede too much to philosophical naturalism, and to overestimate the strength of the arguments in its favor.  However, there are already lots of other thinkers offering powerful criticisms of naturalism.  But there is no one else doing quite what Scruton did, or as well as he did it.  Especially in his work on aesthetics, where perhaps he has left his most lasting mark on philosophy – and writing on specific topics from architecture to music to the visual arts to pop culture – Scruton has long been, and will doubtless long remain, the “go to” man for those seeking understanding.

It is regrettable that it sometimes takes a thinker’s death to prod people finally to read his work.  But better late than never.  For those interested in getting a sense of the depth of Scruton’s thinking in as painless and reader-friendly a way as possible, I would recommend the following.  For his political philosophy and ethics, the best place to start is in my view his anthology Philosopher on Dover Beach.  For aesthetics and culture, you cannot do better than Scruton’s little gem of a book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture.  For a lucid, witty, and endlessly insightful treatment of general topics in philosophy, check out the mammoth and magisterial Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey.  For moving autobiography, see Scruton’s Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a LifeRequiescat in pace.

17 comments:

  1. Requiescat in pace, Sir Scruton

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    1. Sorry to be a grammar Nazi, but never 'Sir + surname'. You can write (or say) 'Sir Roger Scruton' or 'Sir Roger', not 'Sir Scruton'.

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  2. Oh he was an intellectual father for me (although I never knew him personally). He said in one of his appearances on video that he believed in God (not always clear as one sees with Jordan Peterson). He made conservatism sensible and honorable (not feeling a bad consciousness) again. Rest in peace and be with God. Sir Roger Scruton. And to his loved ones I mourn with you.

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    1. "He said in one of his appearances on video that he believed in God"

      If I recall correctly, Scruton was practicing anglican.

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  3. I very much enjoyed his books Beauty: A Very Short Introduction and Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation.
    Also, our host is exhibiting humility here. Scruton wrote a superb essay on Hayek in a volume edited by Edward Feser.

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  4. RIP. It boggles my mind how many of his books I still need to get. I think he wrote faster than I can read. I was hooked when I first encountered him, in Modern Philosophy, which is IMO the best single volume on the subject.

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  5. He was also a great wit, in a dry and very British way, a point that I think is often missed out when people talk about him. It's especially present in "Gentle Regrets".
    There was, for example, a moment at Cambridge when a woman's clothes were found inside his room when such female interactions were banned. Rather than coming clean, he claimed that the clothes were his and that he was a transvestite. His description of the incident and its aftermath is hilarious.
    Rest in peace, and thank you for everything.

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  6. RIP Sir Roger. I also recommend The Uses of Pessimism, On Human Nature, Conservatism: Ideas in Profile.

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  7. It probably is of less interest to many Americans, but I think his England: An Elegy to be one of his first works. It's part personal recollections, part wistful insights into modern Britain, and part trenchant social philosophy.

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  8. So saddened to hear of the death of Sir Roger Scruton. Much maligned by the mainstream in the UK, he was never cowed or resentful. I strongly concur with the recommendation of The Uses of Pessimism & the Danger of False Hope, and I would also strongly recommend A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservativism, and How To be a Conservative, as accessible yet profound expositions of Scruton's Burkean Conservativism. His acute, eloquent yet gentle words will be sorely missed but, for many of us, not forgotten. Rest in Peace Sir Roger Scruton.

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  9. Did Edward Feser even meet Sir Roger Scruton?

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  10. It was despicable the way he was treated after that nasty little journalist in The New Statesman distorted quotes to get Scruton fired. RIP Roger.

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  11. http://www.aiobjectives.com/2019/12/03/world-of-post-humanism-and-artificial-intelligence/


    Posthumanism is a philosophical perspective of how change is enacted in the world.
    As a conceptualization and historicization of both agency and the “human,”
    it is different from those conceived through humanism.
    and what is the futuer of research in humanisim, and we explain different tools and
    applications, and we are comparision of different appliocations,

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    1. Please excuse the long quotation but it is apt and I'm sure some readers will enjoy its typical elegance:

      'In the world that we are now entering there is a striking new source of false hope, in the “trans-humanism” of people like Ray Kurzweil, Max More and their followers. The transhumanists believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the grave in some medieval Last Judgement.

      The transhumanists don’t worry about Huxley’s Brave New World: they don’t believe that the old-fashioned virtues and emotions lamented by Huxley have much of a future in any case. The important thing, they tell us, is the promise of increasing power, increasing scope, increasing ability to vanquish the long-term enemies of mankind, such as disease, ageing, incapacity and death.

      But to whom are they addressing their argument? If it is addressed to you and me, why should we consider it? Why should we be working for a future in which creatures like us won’t exist, and in which human happiness as we know it will no longer be obtainable? And are those things that spilled from Pandora’s box really our enemies – greater enemies, that is, than the false hope that wars with them? We rational beings depend for our fulfilment upon love and friendship. Our happiness is of a piece with our freedom, and cannot be separated from the constraints that make freedom possible – real, concrete freedom, as opposed to the abstract freedom of the utopians. Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is. We are led by love, friendship and desire; by tenderness for young life and reverence for old. We live, or ought to live, by the rule of forgiveness, in a world where hurts are acknowledged and faults confessed to. All our reasoning is predicated upon those basic conditions, and one of the most important uses of pessimism is to warn us against destroying them. The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.'

      https://newhumanist.org.uk/2283/gloom-merchant

      I wept when I learnt of Sir Roger Scruton's passing. I am sure I was not alone. RIP Sir Roger Scruton

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    2. Excellent quote. As one who's long been roughly aware of Scruton, but not yet read him, this - along with Feser's comments, - puts me over the edge. I'm ordering some of his work tonight.

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  12. May he rest in peace with The Lord.

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  13. Well put, Ed. I agree with your point re his concessions to metaphysical naturalism: it is rather evident in his Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation.

    I would also recommend I Drink, Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine

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