The Passing of a Giant
No one did more to defend the West as it has been and ought to be than Roger Scruton.
I met Sir Roger Scruton for the first and only time last year at a banquet in Washington, D.C., where he was receiving a prestigious award. (It was an ordinary weekend outing for Sir Roger.) I happened to run into him at the cash bar.
“Sir Roger,” I stammered, “I’m a huge admirer of your work.” He asked what I did; I told him I went to school in Australia, and now worked for a venerable old British rag (“maybe you’ve heard of it?”), which was then launching an American edition. He listened politely, nodded, and said: “And yet you are Canadian?”
I’d never been accused of being Canadian before. That my boyhood hero should have been the first to do so—well, I think I mine was the greater honor that night.
We’ve not yet begun to realize the influence Sir Roger will have on my generation of conservatives: older Gen-Xers, Millennials, and older Zoomers. We were born too late to have any living memory of Russell Kirk or William F. Buckley or any of those extraordinary men who won a generation to the cause of conservatism. There’s no one of that stature alive today, no one who could so possess the imagination or thrill the intellect of a young fogey, no one except Roger Scruton. And now he’s gone.
Because of Sir Roger, there was never any doubt that conservatism was something more than a mere confederacy of bigots and cranks, as the Left supposes. It’s something far greater than the raw profiteering of Beltway think-tankers—the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” that Edmund Burke warned against just two short centuries ago.
Scruton’s conservatism wasn’t a “temperament,” as the smart set like to call it; it certainly wasn’t an ideology. His conservatism was a complete way of being. It was posture of defiance against the arrogant, imperial hideousness of modern life.
He was an elitist, to be sure, in the sense that he believed there was a difference between civilization and barbarism, between taste and fashion, between true genius and mere pretentiousness. But he was also, in his way, a populist. Throughout his life, he was motivated by a righteous anger at the modern elites who pillaged Western man’s inheritance. The great conviction at the heart of his philosophy—the single belief that moves through all of his writing—is that everyone has a right to beauty.
That’s why he risked his life to help establish “underground universities” in communist Czechoslovakia. He knew that, once the Evil Empire fell, the peoples of Eastern Europe would want to reclaim their philosophical, literary, and artistic heritage. It’s why he devoted so much of his career to combatting Brutalist architecture: he wanted to spare the West the kind of cold utilitarianism that he’d seen behind the Iron Curtain. It’s why he became one of our great champions of conservationism: nothing is worth conserving if not nature.
Much will be said of his many books, all of which are worth reading over and over. My favorite is a slim volume he published called On Hunting. When I was an undergraduate at the George Washington University, some High Tory friends and I would mount up and roam the forests of northern Virginia, whose coverts Sir Roger was known to frequent, hoping to brush up against our master. (Scruton once confessed that his first hunting frock was given to him by no less than Enoch Powell.)
But I think his most indispensable work is a documentary he filmed for the BBC called Why Beauty Matters. In it, he confronts the charlatan Jeff Koons, whose pseudo-artwork Balloon Dog made him an icon of modern art. “When I first confronted Michelangelo’s Pieta,” Scruton says, “for me, it was a transporting experience. My life was changed by this. Do you think someone could have the same experience with Duchamp’s urinal, or perhaps your own Tree…?” Koons prevaricates about “captivating the imagination” and the “intellectually and morally corrupt” nature of representative art, until finally he declares that “Part of the artist’s function is to make one see something as beautiful something that nobody thought was beautiful until now.” Scruton rocks on his heels, giddy with anticipation. “Like a can of shit?” he asks, in what would become the definitive mic-drop moment of conservative philosophy.
This was our Sir Roger. He wasn’t the boy who told the Emperor his “new clothes” were, in fact, nothing more than his birthday suit. No: the Emperor knew he was naked, and he thought it was a radical new form of abstract expressionism. And here comes Scruton, with his wild mop of curly hair and worn-out Harris Tweed. “Nice try,” he says nonchalantly, “but you’re no David.” And so the inadequacy of the contemporary artist was placed on full display. Sir Roger gave us permission to laugh, because modern art is laughable.
One final note. When I was an Anglican, I read with great anticipation Scruton’s book Our Church, his homage to the Church of England. He took the same line as all of England’s great eulogists, from Samuel Johnson to Peter Hitchens: from the hymns of Thomas Tallis to the Book of Common Prayer, the CofE is the great spiritual redoubt of the English people.
I left the Church of England to join the Church of Rome because I couldn’t help but feel that the English church was rapidly succumbing to a trendy religious liberalism. I only mention this because I know Sir Roger was a faithful communicant of the CofE; indeed, he played the organ at his local parish. He was the great exponent of oikophilia, of love of home: he wanted nothing but to worship in the ancient custom of his ancestors.
I hope that, in his final hours, he was consoled by Our Blessed Lord. No man—of any race, sect, or creed—has done more to defend a vision of the West that placed Christ at its vital heart.
Above all else, he was a Christian, and few men of our age more embody that ideal of self-sacrifice. He risked torture in the Soviet Union, willingly embraced professional ruin in the academy, and suffered ignominy in public life with the stoic resignation of one who knows his cause is just.
He’s not ours anymore. Now he belongs to the ages.
Hail, Sir Roger, and farewell. May you rest in peace.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis Magazine. Read more at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.