Sunday, January 12, 2020
The Guardian reports that conservative philosopher 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 Life. Requiescat in pace.