Roger Scruton’s Life Against the Tide
Scruton's life was animated by love—for people, for culture, for civilization.
Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries, and Criticism, by Roger Scruton, edited by Mark Dooley (Bloomsbury, 2022), 242 pages.
“Society depends on the saints and heroes who can once again place [music, poetry and art] before us and show us their worth.” Roger Scruton did precisely that throughout his life. And because he defended the truth and beauty of the arts, religion, and social life from the onslaught of modernity, he was ostracized from the academy, which has turned its back on the goods of existence and promoted hatred and resentment in its place. Even so, his tenacity in the defense of the important things in life—those eternal things the heavens hold—merited begrudging admiration and respect from his philistine enemies.
Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries, and Criticism reveals Roger through the decades of his public intellectual life. We are treated to Scruton the man, Scruton the stalwart defender of “conservatism,” Scruton the critic of the fashionable pieties of the left, Scruton the defender of the sacred and transcendent, and more. Over 40 years of Scruton’s columns and commentaries, published and unpublished, as well as diary entries are gifted to us in this remarkably concise but substantive volume.
Most of the included pieces are short columns from Scruton’s stint writing for the Times and freelancing with other British newspapers. Other short essays come from his time as editor of the Salisbury Review, the history of which we are treated to in the introductory essay published in the Spectator. Speaking of that venerable redoubt of intellectual culture and criticism, many of the longer-form critical essays included in this volume are from Scruton’s time writing for that journal. We are therefore graced with a mix of short opinion pieces from newspapers far and wide in America and England, longer critical essays in premier cultural journals, and personal diary entries that give us a window into the heart, mind, and anguish of this bardic soul.
Is there a theme that unites this seemingly disparate collection of writings? One might be inclined to say the intellect—after all, Scruton was a leading public intellectual for most of his life and certainly the entirety of his public career. While there is truth to this, I would submit another theme: love. Love, as those who have studied Scruton extensively or had the opportunity to study under him personally know, is the great theme that preoccupied his soul.
Writing of his work in the anti-communist underground in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, Scruton described the dissident students and intellectuals yearning to claim the hearts of their national cultures that were suppressed by the Stalinist authorities in Moscow and their lackeys in the satellite capitals of the Warsaw Pact (threatened today by the soft Bolsheviks of Brussels). Young men and women, Scruton tells us, hungered for something that was theirs—something that they could affix their hearts to and gravitate towards and triumphantly and passionately shout “Mine!” while simultaneously sharing that culture, identity, and tradition with their neighbors. Love of neighbor, love of country and heritage, love of culture, all served as the conduits of the superior love that the Leninist superstate of the Soviet Union and their puppets were trying to snuff out. (Between the lines, we are treated to a serious reflection on the state of our own countries and cultures.)
What the left-wing philistines who attempted to tarnish Scruton throughout his life never understood, or didn’t want to understand, is that humans are social creatures of intense affectivity. Of course, this kind of social creature with passionate loyalties to family, community, and country antagonistically stands athwart the phantasmagoria of Karl Marx, who declared all such allegiances “bourgeois,” the walls of bias and prejudice preventing utopian benevolence. Love of family, common culture, and free association—all things the hardened hearts of left-wing abolitionists can never understand—motivate the common person.
Against the Tide is an apt title. The defense of family, culture, identity, and freedom does stand against the current of militant socialism and communism rooted in the abolitionist fantasy of that pedantic third-rate thinker from Germany who has so poisoned the so-called intellectual class that dominates the bastions of Western culture and education. When Scruton writes that “We live in troubling times” and “The West is adrift without leadership,” the reader may be surprised to learn that these prophetic words were from 1994 and not 2014.
While it is somewhat easy to see the love that pulsated through Scruton’s heart and mind as he defended unfashionable common sense, the magnanimity of his heart and mind is seen in the concluding section of this book. This section reflects on the final year of Scruton’s life, which was embroiled in a character-assassination attempt by a hacktivist journalist and the common cowardice of nominally “conservative” politicians who cut ties with anyone (even slanderously) labeled a “racist.” Scruton was, however, vindicated. The embarrassed Tory government reinstated him to his unpaid advisory position on the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. Such turmoil would cause any lesser soul to seek righteous vengeance. Not Scruton.
“My 2019” is undoubtedly the highlight of this magnificent work. In the midst of the turbulence of a deceitful hit-job, Scruton takes us through the meaning of Easter, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” and the importance of loving forgiveness in a world of cruelty and ego. Easter, so poignantly manifested in the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral that year (which I watched live on television while studying under Roger in England), “reaffirm[s] the creative principle, and of the love that brought about Christ’s death. The darkness that came over the world on that first Easter Saturday could be dispelled only be a renewal of this love, and this renewal comes through us.”
In a touching and poignant reflection on the tribulation that befell him after 50 years of public intellectual service that has so moved people from across the world, when his pseudo-friends in the cowardly Conservative Party that had sung his accolades had abandoned him, his friends indeed—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and atheist alike—came to his defense. He was reborn in that outpouring of love in his dark moment, his own hell. Scruton embodied that love of renewal in many ways.
Roger Scruton certainly was an imperfect and flawed hero, prophet, and hopeful saint, but an imperfect and flawed hero, prophet, and hopeful saint moved by love. Whether it was the effort to renew culture out of love, renew our commitments as citizens to each other out of love, or a defense of the importance of education—true education—out of love for others and love for learning, love was the great theme that moved his being and compelled him to share that love with others. The love he shared exists beyond the grave and will illuminate and touch the lives of many for centuries to come.
Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView and author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).