Sir Roger Scruton, 1944-2020
Very, very sad to get the news that Sir Roger Scruton has died of cancer. Details yet to come, but I want to ask your prayers for him and for those who loved him.
This past summer, my friend Laura and I visited him at his farmhouse in Wiltshire. I interviewed him for my forthcoming book about what the experience of resisting Soviet-bloc communism has to teach us about resisting the soft totalitarianism emerging today. Sir Roger was strongly supportive of this book, telling me it was urgently important. I feel so humbled by his friendship and encouragement.
Sir Roger himself took great risks in the 1980s to help the resistance in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Last year, in this piece for the Daily Mail, Sir Roger recalled his role in setting up underground seminars to keep real knowledge and scholarship alive, despite the dictatorship. Excerpts:
Continuing to live in London, I now started travelling to Czechoslovakia for a few days at a time to help manage the network. We imitated Jiri’s methods as best we could, and the result was, I think, a creditable attempt at an underground university, with samizdat (or underground) publications, book smuggling, structured courses on important subjects, and even examinations leading to a degree conferred by the Divinity School of the University of Cambridge.
For cover, we depended on one or two ‘high-profile’ seminars, run by people brave enough and well-enough known to operate under the nose of the secret police.
From time to time, these seminars would be raided and sometimes our visitors, too, would be arrested and even detained for a night or two. But the fuss these seminars created enabled us to establish genuinely secret courses in Prague, Brno and Bratislava. Our goal was the one that Jiri had taught us: to pass on the knowledge and the culture that the official universities had suppressed.
We furnished the students with books and materials and briefed our visitors to take up each topic at the point where it had been left. We offered courses in philosophy, Hebrew, history, musicology, classical architecture, fine art, theatre and anything else asked for. We supported a circle of composers in Brno as well as artists and sculptors who had lost the right to exhibit their work. Everywhere we were met by grateful people prepared to take the risk of meeting us purely for the sake of knowledge.
At first, as a marginalised conservative, I was surprised by the support we had from colleagues in Britain and France. Not only were they prepared to risk arrest, deportation or worse, all political differences were set aside in the desire to co-operate in the pursuit of knowledge. Whether Left, Right or Centre, our colleagues wished only to teach what they knew to people eager to learn from them.
I had known I’d be arrested from the look given to me by the girl at the embassy when I applied for my visa in London and so, on what would prove to be my final mission, I took a devious route into Czechoslovakia, via Vienna.
It bought me enough time to meet Jiri. And one summer’s day in 1985, as we stood in the park in Brno staring at one of those listening trees, the tree changed into the slick young secret policeman concealed behind it.
He was arrested and deported. More:
At any rate, it caused me to think long and hard about Europe and its destiny, about Communism and about the human soul, which seems to live on in secret, even when its very existence has been denied as it was denied by Communism. In the Czech lands, I sensed the presence all around me of a dark, impersonal force, a controlling and all-observing eye whose goal was to plant suspicion and fear in the heart of every human relationship.
You could trace this force to no specific person, to no office or authority. It was just there, an invisible wall between all who sought to escape.
I had no name for this dark force, other than ‘It’ – a kind of negation of humanity. From behind the first stirrings of friendship or love, It lay in wait to reduce the flame to ashes. Always, when I stepped on the plane home, I felt I was escaping the grip of this alien force, and returning to a place where fear, suspicion and denunciation had no power over ordinary human decency.
Sir Roger had already given his interview to me by the time he wrote this. But you can see that we were very much on parallel tracks:
The witch-hunting hysteria has returned with a vengeance, not in Eastern Europe but here, where open enquiry and the presumption of innocence have been, until this moment, the foundation of moral order and the guarantee of civil peace.
Even the Divinity School at Cambridge, which once bravely helped us in offering degrees to our students, has joined in the witch-hunt, revoking a fellowship offered to the conservative thinker Jordan Peterson in response to a petition littered with the signatures of ignorant snowflakes.
And when, just a few months ago, I was summarily removed as the (unpaid) head of a Government quango – Building Better, Building Beautiful – for things I had neither thought nor said, my Czech colleagues said: ‘Yes, it is starting again.’ And by ‘it’ they really did mean It.
Now in Britain, as then in Czechoslovakia, the true intellectual is a dissident, and if our national memory is to survive, it will be because we have succeeded in building here, as once we built there, an underground university devoted to knowledge.
Read it all. When I visited Sir Roger, he had just received word that the Polish government was going to honor him. He was so excited by it. Having been brutalized by the disgraceful scandal in which a sour little shit of a progressive journalist at New Statesman sandbagged him (the magazine was later forced to apologize), Sir Roger was thrilled by the support he was receiving from friends at home and abroad.
As we left, I told Laura that Sir Roger did not look well. He seemed tired, and struggled to focus. He found out in the next month that he had advanced cancer. And now he is gone, that dear man, who suffered much and served so well. Here is the last thing he wrote for The Spectator, published just before Christmas, looking back on his 2019. Excerpt:
During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health. But much more was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defence, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.
I strongly urge you to visit Sir Roger’s Amazon page and acquaint yourself with his work. He was quite prolific. Probably the best place to start is with his How To Be A Conservative, but note well that he wrote a fair bit in aesthetics, including a fun book about a philosophical approach to wine, which he loved. [UPDATE: A reader suggests Gentle Regrets, a collection of personal essays; this was the first Scruton book I ever read, and I agree with the reader, it’s the best introduction to him.] Most recently I read the novel he wrote about life in 1980s Czechoslovakia, Notes From Underground (only $4.99 on Kindle today). Here is a lovely passage from the novel, in which its young protagonist is being instructed by a Czech priest:
The purpose of these paradoxes was not to tie me in intellectual knots, but to persuade me to see the world in another way, or rather to see through to its other side, on which the light of eternity was shining. I had to practice what he called “a gymnastics of attention,” always detaching things from their circumstances so as to overcome their randomness. The tree, the bowl, the desk; the car, the book, the window—all ask, he said, to be rescued, to be pried free from the flow of mere events and raised to the dignity of being. He confided in me that this was his spiritual exercise, and that by means of it he had driven from his soul all resentment at what they had done—not to him only, but to our country, to those woods and fields that smile in the music of Dvořák, to those garlands of wildflowers woven into words by Erben, to the old legends of what we are, which are not legends at all but ideals to live up to. “Purity,” he once said, “is the power to contemplate defilement. Our world must be redeemed from its circumstances piece by piece, place by place, time by time. It is up to us to lift things from the muck, and to polish off the taint of their misuse.”
I was so moved by this that I wrote to him on June 18, a couple of days after our meeting:
We are on the road to Cambridge, but I wanted to send you a short note to say that your portrait of Fr Pavel makes me long for a short book by you of spiritual and aesthetic exercises through which we might recover ourselves. I’m serious. Please consider it.
Thank you for the suggestion: I am sure you are right, that it is time for me to address the general reader with some advice — I will consider it. Very good to see you here the other day, and hope that work on the book goes as you wish. It is a very important project.
All the best,