LIKE so many readers and contributors to TCW, I feel a profound sadness at the loss of Roger Scruton. He has been my companion and guide, both as a conservative and would-be-philosopher, for 30 years – ever since as a student I stumbled by accident on his wonderfully lucid A Short History of Modern Philosophy, which was my introduction to the subject.
He writes of Heidegger’s attempt to reveal the riddle of existence, ‘the reader has the impression that never before have so many words been invented and tormented in the attempt to express the inexpressible’. And there is the essence of Heidegger summarised in a sentence.
Much later, I thought that when I started to write for the magazine that he founded, The Salisbury Review, I might get the chance to meet the great man, but somehow it never quite happened. Those of my fellow-contributors who had known him assured me, ‘It wouldn’t be very interesting – he never says anything’, indicating perhaps a certain lack of small talk.
I cornered his old friend Douglas Murray at a Spectator party a few years ago, and on hearing he was on his way to dine with the great man, thrust a copy of the magazine containing my review of Scruton’s latest book into his hand, hoping I suppose for a kindly word. But he must have had far more productive ways of spending his time than reading what I thought of his book.
When I replaced the late Christie Davies on the team of consulting editors, I was proud to find my name alongside Jane Kelly and Sir Roger Scruton on the inside front cover. But that was as close as I was to get. By then he had little to do with the magazine. He had done more than his bit – indeed, the Ray Honeyford episode (Scruton printed the soon-to-be-fired Yorkshire headmaster’s criticism of multiculturalism) cannot have helped his academic career – and long moved on.
But what a legacy of achievement Roger Scruton leaves behind. His philosophical books dazzle with their erudition and wisdom, but his more personal and elegiac works are often deeply touching. Scruton seemed to raise gentleness, humility and self-deprecation to an exquisite art form.
Among the philosophical works, my own favourite, for sheer brilliance, is his recently re-issued Thinkers of the New Left. Not only had he first-hand knowledge of all the works, including those of the Rive Gauche Parisian set, and was able to set about their systematic demolition; but he did so with savage satirical pleasure. No wonder he became the bête noire of the Left-liberal academic establishment.
Jűrgen Habermas, darling of the academic Left, received a particularly joyous beating. Scruton rounds off a characteristic passage of Habermas’s turgid ‘bureaucratic’ prose with the comment: ‘The rest is prodigious waffle, and indeed barely intelligible’. And he nails so much that is true of the privileged Left establishment everywhere when he says of its German representatives that their ideology is
… the ideology of an elite concerned to pour scorn upon the real world of modern industry and to uphold the dignity of its own position as a leisure class. As with every ideology, the principal task is to persuade the lower orders to accept it.
Moreover, while the neo-Marxists of academia were lining their nests and churning out fatuous utopian visions, Scruton was in Prague teaching philosophy to the real-life victims of Marxism. He even took the trouble to learn Czech, which those of us who have attempted it can testify is no mean achievement. Friends tell me he spoke it well – though, naturally, with a strong English accent.
He was later awarded the Czech medal of merit by Havel for his role in bringing Czechoslovakia, as it then was, to freedom. He loved the Czechs, and this must have brought him great pride.
Among the more personal works, my favourites are Gentle Regrets and Our Church, his affectionate tribute to the Church of England, and its place in the fabric of our nation. For Scruton, the Anglican Church embodies, or at least once embodied, the English spirit: Anglican doctrine ‘is softened through ceremony and buried in the folds of a ritual cloak so that only its outlines appear’; and ‘My kind of Anglicanism … is a quiet, gentle, unassuming faith that makes room beneath its mantle for every form of hesitation’.
I was touched to read that his favourite hymn was Come Down O Love Divine. When I was confirmed, a still hesitant adult believer, it was sung as the Introit, and I remember as I clutched a lighted candle being overwhelmed by the power, the mystery and beauty, of the words. The last verse might serve as a fitting epitaph, of which Sir Roger would surely have approved:
And so the yearning strong
With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
Till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.