The Hounds in Full Cry: Roger Scruton’s Conservatism
He was the most articulate spokesman for traditionalism since the passing of Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet.
No one in their right mind could accuse English philosopher Roger Scruton of having lived a timid or a quiet life. In addition to writing roughly 50 books of cultural criticism and serious philosophy, European communists expelled him from the Eastern Bloc in the mid-1980s after proclaiming him an “undesirable person,” the Pet Shop Boys once sued him for libel in the 1990s, and, in 2005, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama performed his full opera, “Violet.” Scruton passed away this past Sunday, January 12, after a six-month battle with cancer. He was age 75.
Scruton seems to have been excellent at everything he tried, gaining a massive following throughout the English-speaking world and post-1989 Eastern Europe. He was, by almost every measure, the most important, influential, and articulate spokesman for a humane and traditional conservatism since the passing Russell Kirk in 1994 and Robert Nisbet in 1996. As a man of letters, he was the most successful Englishman since G.K. Chesterton (C.S. Lewis being Northern Irish). Like Chesterton, he loved wine and tobacco. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Dawson, Etienne Gilson, and other prominent intellects, Scruton gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 2010, and Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 2016.
Though Scruton arrived consciously at conservatism during the French student uprising of 1968, he honed it in his journal, The Salisbury Review, which he founded in 1982, in the homes of Czech dissidents in the first half of the 1980s, and through his many books, columns, and debates. He never backed down from a good fight, and, with wit and wisdom, he relished all opposition. In 1991, Scruton even tried to rehabilitate the reputation of Senator Joseph McCarthy, noting that the anti-communist from Wisconsin might not have possessed tact, but he did know evil when it saw it. In this endeavor, at least, Scruton resoundingly failed. Commenting on his own experiences with the Evil Empire in the 1980s, Scruton wrote of himself, perhaps seeing something of McCarthy in there, “He refused to lie down in the coffin that the communists provided.” Communism, Scruton insisted until the end of his days, was a “dark force…a kind of negation of humanity.” Specifically, communism existed to crush the human soul and remove the spark of life and creativity from the world, mechanizing all things.
Still, whatever arguments he started and finished, Scruton loved the quiet life. He spent as much time as he could on his farm, Scrutopia: “Routinely I get up and go straight to my desk at about 7am, to write. Then the day simply unfolds from there,” he explained in 2012. “At least once a day, usually when I am fed up with writing, towards the end of the morning, I walk around the farm just to reassure myself that it really does exist and I really do own it.” At that point, Scruton had owned Scrutopia for 17 years, and he never failed “to congratulate myself on the state of the pond and the extent of the wildlife.”
Scruton, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upheld the conservatism of Lord Salisbury, noting that the long-serving English prime minister was hardly remembered. He did little to change things, and thus did little by which to be remembered. For Scruton, this was all to Salisbury’s great honor. “The ideal democratic government is one that goes from year to year without passing a single Act,” Scruton claimed.
Taking Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as his exemplars in thought, Scruton’s traditionalist conservatism always revolved around his love of place and the need for real and organic community, held together by habit, custom, and experience. All good in society, then, flows from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. In this, Scruton sounded very much like Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Hayek, offering a deep sympathy with the common law tradition, incremental growth and change, and spontaneous order. “Rights are not secured by declaring them. They are secured by the procedures that protect them,” he wrote, echoing Burke. “And these procedures must be rescued from the state, and from all who would ben them to their own oppressive purposes.” Common law, derived from the experiences of a people over time and in community, “recognizes that rights define the limits of power, and that these limits must be enforced by the citizen himself, through the procedures of justice, rather than by the state, through some all-comprehending and in the event all-authorising doctrine.”
Burke once noted that for us to love our country, our country must be lovely. Such loveliness never comes from mere intellectual or ideological abstractions, but from real experiences, honed over time: “It is our home that we fight for, and our freedom is the freedom of self-government in the place that is ours.” Unlike the Russians or the Germans, the English never made a fetish of nationalism. “We in the Anglosphere have a language with which to discuss nationality that is not tainted by the bellicose rhetoric of the nineteenth and twentieth century nationalists,” Scruton wrote. Contrary to much found in the modern world, nationality in England and in English-speaking countries means patriotism, a proper, just, and healthy “love of home.”
Burke, Scruton argued, understood the relationship of the particular (our community) with the eternal (all of humanity, across time and space). Properly understood and ordered, a nation protects its particular habits and customs while linking its many particulars to the universal elements of right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust. The grand 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman waged war against the weakening of humane ties and norms:
We are therefore in need of an inclusive identity that will hold us together as a people. The identities of earlier times—dynasty, faith, family, tribe—were already weakening when the Enlightenment consigned them to oblivion. And the substitute of modern times—the ideologies and ‘isms’ of the totalitarian states—have transparently failed to provide an alternative. We need an identity that leads to citizenship, which is the relationship between the state and the individual in which each is accountable to the other. That, for ordinary people, is what the nation provides.
For Burke, this meant that all of our loyalties begin in our “little platoons,” a term Scruton also loved:
We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.
Unless we love that which is tangible, we will never love that which is abstract. And if we do not love that which guides us, we will never love that which protects that which guides us. Once we love our neighbors, we might very well justly love our country (if our country is lovely), and from there we might very well love of all of creation. One, however, cannot start at the top; he must work his way up from the ground.
Not surprisingly, Scruton had no love for or faith in the European Union. In dismay, he wrote, “I doubt very much that the ordinary British subject in 1945, having lived through a war in which we had risked everything and suffered much, could have believed that, half a century later, most of our laws would be imposed on us by unelected bureaucrats in Belgium—the country that had done the least to defend itself against Hitler.”
As a critical side note, Scruton explained that conservatives hate the welfare state not because it helps the poor, but because it makes the poor dependent. And once dependent, the population is no longer free. And once no longer free, it cannot readily lead a humane life, governed by decency and habit. In a welfare-oriented society, “responsibilities are drowned by rights.”
One of the greatest dangers of the modern world—beginning with the Enlightenment and exploding with the French Revolution—was the imperialism of the political sphere. For nearly three centuries now, the West has seen the political sphere expand so rapidly that it has subsumed almost every aspect of our lives, and with globalization, uncontrollable forces of consumerism and selfishness have “broken free of the forces—religious, moral and national—which used to limit it,” while decimating “the old local pieties, the old customs, and the local attachments.”
Once we politicize everything, Scruton feared, there will be nothing left but power, the struggle for power, and, consequently, only the nihilism of the abyss. To his consternation, he saw nihilism, widespread by 2007, “as the addictive drumbeats and soundbytes that form the background of popular culture.” Corporations, owing nothing to loyalty and attempting only to satiate the appetites, would never defend the good, the true, or the beautiful. “Nobody in the corporatist society will wish to fight for his neighbor’s rights, to devote his life to a cause, or to lay down his life for his country,” he lamented. “Indeed, he is unlikely to know which country is his.”
The rise of Donald Trump in the United States especially worried Scruton, as he saw it as further proof of the decay of Western society. “Mr. Trump has at best only a distorted vision. He is the product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion,” Scruton argued in 2018.
For the conservative temperament, the future is the past. Hence, like the past, it is knowable and lovable. It follows that by studying the past of America—its traditions of enterprise, risk-taking, fortitude, piety, and responsible citizenship—you can derive the best case for its future: a future in which the national loyalty will endure, holding things together, providing all of us, liberals included, with sources of hope.
Now, however, America’s leader speaks only tweets and ignores all that matters to the mind.
As a Burkean and estate owner, Scruton also embraced a form of radical but decentralized environmentalism. Huge organizations that had turned the love of the environment into a blunt ideology had failed by politicizing that which should never have been politicized. It has also polarized the world’s population, and it failed to take into account that we must begin by cleaning up our own neighborhoods and making our habitats lovely.
In almost every way, Sir Roger Scruton, who carried with him a prayer card of St. Francis, was a thorn in the side of modernity and post-modernity. With Burke, he fought a “forlorn but dignified resistance to the tides of history.” He loved and studied, repeatedly, the Western canon, but he also admired and studied Confucianism and ancient Hinduism.
In 1993, a reporter asked Scruton how he would someday like to die. He answered: “Suddenly, over a jump, with hounds in full cry.” Though cancer ate away at Scruton for six months, the hounds are in full cry. And the reporter followed up with one last question: “How would you like to be remembered?” An easy one. “As myself,” he answered. To be sure, Sir Roger, to be sure.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.