Book review: Conversations with Roger Scruton by Mark Dooley

Roger Scruton has written widely on philosophy, politics and modern culture generally – which makes comment difficult, since if something significant is missing from Conversations, it may have been addressed, if briefly, elsewhere. Nevertheless, since Scruton presumably tried, during the three-day interviews at Sunday Hill Farm, in Scrutopia, to cover what he regards as the most important themes he has addressed, we can reasonably treat the present volume as an authoritative account of his priorities.

Scruton – the nearest thing to a public intellectual this side of the Atlantic – in view of the emphasis he places on clear exposition would prefer to be known as a “man of letters”. Son of a violent father whose views on architecture he inherited, scourge of left-liberal bigots who corrupt the youth in our universities and prevent them thinking, of educationalists who have destroyed much of our educational inheritance and of mindless architects with no sense of beauty or historical context, he is also refreshingly straightforward about the anti-artistic dogma of mainstream Islam.

A largely self-taught farmer-philosopher, Scruton has been able to hang out with many of the more celebrated of the recent philosophical and literary fraternity in Britain and America, thus developing name-dropping into an art form.
A composer, organist, outspoken hater of modernity and postmodernity, theorist of green conservatism, Scruton observes how modern man has lost his sense of community: there are few intellectual and cultural targets outside his range. This is not to speak of his strong sense of the obligation, on those who can command a hearing, to protect freedom by deeds, not just words, from both liberals and the more obvious ideologists and totalitarians such as ran Eastern Europe until the fall of communism.

His attacks, like his innuendos, are often well-aimed, as on those “French frauds” Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou, yet can get out of control – as when he tells us that Elizabeth Anscombe, ardent student of Aristotle, Aquinas and Wittgenstein, probably never “read anything which she had not herself written”, or in his comments about the sexuality of a one-time Catholic chaplain of Cambridge University – speculations which I, from some slight acquaintance with the man and his circle, consider unjustified.

Even so, Mark Dooley’s somewhat hagiographical interviews with this Renaissance subject reveal Scruton’s sensitive temperament, extraordinary energy and unusually powerful and critical mind, coupled with his nostalgia for an older (even if mythical) England – symbolised by the hunting to which he is devoted and which he sees passing; or rather sees being demolished by intellectual and cultural philistines whose guiding principle is a patricidal desire to destroy the old English way of life in its every spiritual and material guise.

But one must ask: what kind of constructive philosophy lies behind the passion in Scruton’s critique of modernity and its triviality? He displays vehement philosophical loves and hates – even though the loves are often accompanied by a caveat. First among them is Kant, accompanied by a few interpreters – PF Strawson and Jonathan Bennett – followed by Hegel, Wagner, Husserl and a small number of contemporary thinkers, notably David Wiggins, who “treats me as an intellectual equal”, having encouraged him to have more time for Aristotle than did his Cambridge teachers.

Nevertheless, and for all his fierce criticism of the post-Cartesian world, Scruton, an essentially modern man in revolt against modernity, ignores the medieval thinkers entirely – with the exception of a few words on Averroes’s elitist attitude to religion – while of the ancients he alludes very briefly and vaguely to Aristotle – and more vaguely yet to Plato.

This book reveals that at an important stage in his life Scruton began to appeal to the “sacred”, and though it seems the Catholic Church would have been the place for him had he not been “shocked” by the philistine features he discerned in Vatican II, he has returned instead to a seemingly ancient and very “English” version of organ-playing Anglicanism: not its Rocky Horror liturgies and time-serving theology but its surviving aestheticism.

He reads as though, while religion is a kind of social glue – thus it protects marriage – the “sacred” has to do with the ability of the arts, especially music, to “transcend” our normal consciousness.

Not that his “transcendence” offers further “knowledge”, even though it somehow points us towards the Kingdom of Ends; for though Scruton emphasises the importance of the first-person stance, as a good Kantian he is dogmatic that all knowledge (which apparently is only propositional) is to be found within the limits imposed by the senses. Thus “transcendence” appears to be the end of certain personal feelings that are neither mere projections nor viewed as foreshadowings of divinity.

Why such feelings, even if “inspirational”, are of value – let alone give moral commands – is hard to fathom. One might suppose such “inspiration” could make Scruton a Platonist in the manner of Iris Murdoch, but Kant has precluded that option. Rather, the transcendent “sacred” seems to indicate some sense of higher satisfaction, as from good wine.

Scruton knows what he rejects, but as to why he rejects it, he offers little more than revulsion at the ugly and a philosophically “analytic” distaste for the irrational.

From the drug-fuelled vacuity, philistinism and inhumanity of an early “boho” existence in various modes and countries, Scruton recoiled. He tells us that he came to recognise himself as fundamentally bourgeois.

Now, as Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, he has risen from intellectual pariah to Anglophone guru. And it is a curious irony of fate that he has just this year joined the crusading new chivalry of Sir Michael Jagger, Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Elton John, receiving like them the transubstantiating touch: “Arise, Sir Roger”.

This article first appeared in the July 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.