Roger Scruton has had a long and paradoxical career as a kind of intellectual outlaw—a sage of the badlands that hem in the p.c. pale.  Aesthete, philosopher, author, journalist, lecturer, broadcaster, farmer, fox hunter, even musician—he has been all of these things, an often solitary small-c conservative voice in milieux dominated by the forces of institutionalized ignorance.  When all others are nodding in ovine agreement over some postmodern cliché, Scruton’s quietly insistent voice can often be heard in the deafening silence—a Theseus at large in the Moral Maze.

Scruton writes in his Preface, “My life has enabled me to find comfort in uncomfortable truths.”  It is these unwelcome messages, rather than any personal or intellectual shortcomings, that have for so long caused him simultaneously to be marginalized and grudgingly respected.  He has long had a “sense of being an outsider, obscurely redeemed by the crime that condemned me.”  In his maturity (he is 62), he has finally emerged as an insider’s outsider—the house “fascist” or “Tory” whom the politically correct love to hate but cannot ignore, the unspeakable articulator of what they would prefer to have left unsaid—an enemy they nevertheless need, not least so that they can define themselves.

In this largely autobiographical collection of essays (mixed in with some less easily categorizable material), Professor Scruton recounts a history of early rebellion: reading Bunyan, Rilke, and Kafka while still in his early teens; being expelled from grammar school for staging a Samuel Beckett “happening” in the school hall, which involved setting a piano on fire and reading from Beckett while a partly clad girl put out the flames.  This later became a “rebellion against rebellion”—a conversion completed by witnessing the activities of the soixante-huitards as they rampaged Apache-like across Paris, on their long march to becoming academic deconstructionists and Red-Green members of the European Parliament.  Scruton’s character formation was not so much a rite of passage as a right-of-passage.  He is a man born in the wrong era, as he jocularly admits on his website:

Why is he?—His own diligent researches have produced no definitive answer to this question.  Some kind of mistake was made, however, over the timing of his birth.  The question is, whose?

The youthful Scruton “devoted to shoring up ruins the same passionate conviction that my contemporaries employed in creating them,” in a search for “an original path to conformity.”  He had become “obsessed with the idea of a knowledge beyond science, beyond calculation, beyond our attempts to gain mastery over the future.”  He recalls how “A sadness grew in me, a sense that something was wrong in the world . . . sadness looked out at me from art and literature, like the pitying face of a painted saint.”  He deplored that “Science, progress and money had prevented people from observing this.”  He was drawn to Spengler and other prophets of cataclysm and became a “barbarian let loose in a library.”  With a friend, he traveled to Greece to wander the shattered classic landscapes, asking rhetorically of the storied silence, “Schöne Welt, wo bist du?”  He had “spectacles on his nose, and autumn in his heart.”  Scruton had developed an acute Weltschmerz and was well on his way to the highly self-conscious and unusually articulate conservatism that has become his stock-in-trade.  He has since come to hold a less enthusiastic view of Spengler’s work (although he still admires the German’s attempt to synthesize philosophy, history, and art), but trace elements of this fundamental despair mark all his writings.

Scruton is in love with loss for loss’s sake—for instance, he is captivated by the idea (born of discovering his grandfather’s real surname) that he may be partly of German-Jewish ancestry and a descendant thereby of a lost cerebral culture.  This Gothic sensibility is one that will be instinctively familiar to many readers of Chronicles; it is at once conservatism’s most appealing characteristic and its chief weakness—for how many will follow a repining trumpet any more than an uncertain one?

Another formative influence was Four Quartets, a “rebuke to our boyishness,” which “engaged a shaping influence on my thinking that has been matched only by Wittgenstein, Kant and Wagner.”  In his treatment of T.S. Eliot’s work, Scruton gives vent to a rare burst of optimism.  “Four Quartets told me that our culture contains the seeds of its own renewal, that it is a source of meaning and value and that, even at the eleventh hour, it can be received and passed on.”  Scruton’s latest foray into personal reminiscence has probably been motivated by the feeling expressed in “Burnt Norton” that “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.”  By probing the roots of his name and nature, Scruton is trying to peer into a gloomed and crepuscular future.

The tone of the book is summed up by its title.  While Scruton has lost none of his cold fire, this is an accepting book, its faint wistfulness tinged with a certain justifiable complacency.  His life is portrayed as a series of mostly creditable, sepia-tinted vignettes, although, of course, all recollections contain hints of unlived adventures, à la Eliot: “Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden.”

Through reading Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Scruton realized the connections between aesthetics, philosophy, and politics: “[A]esthetic judgement lays a claim upon the world . . . it issues from a deep social imperative.”  He also understood suddenly, with an unpleasant shock, why left-wing ideologies tend to be so aggressive:

People reason collectively towards a common goal only in times of emergency . . . any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve . . . the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy.

Through such innumerable influences, Scruton grew to despise modernity, with its “denial of community, home and settlement,” which has made of the Western world a kind of existential desert.  He saw that Westerners had become atomized individuals, divorced from their own natures, from their families, their cities or villages, their countries, and their whole crumbling civilization.

Despite being profoundly out of sympathy with his times, and against often bitter opposition, Scruton has had a distinguished academic career.  He studied at Jesus College in Cambridge, receiving a B.A. in moral sciences in 1965, his M.A. in 1967, and his D.Phil. in philosophy, with a thesis on aesthetics, in 1972.  He was called to the bar in 1978.  From 1969 to 1971, he was a research fellow at Peterhouse.  From 1971 to 1992, he was successively lecturer, reader, and professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College in London.  From 1992 to 1995, he was a professor of philosophy at Boston University.  (Scruton is presently a visiting professor at the Institute of Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia.)

Impressive though these achievements may be, Scruton’s writings and his political activism are what distinguish him within the hostile ambience of modern Britain.  He has written around 30 books, on subjects ranging from The Aesthetics Of Architecture (1979) and Spinoza (1987) to Animal Rights and Wrongs (1996) and The Meaning Of Conservatism (1980), plus five works of fiction and two operas.  Several of these are already regarded as classics, and it seems likely that time will cement their reputation.

In 1974, in an attempt to inject ideas into an intellectually comatose party, he cofounded the Conservative Philosophy Group with Hugh Fraser, then a Conservative MP and husband of Lady Antonia Fraser (who is now, ironically, Mrs. Harold Pinter).  The CPG carried on for some 20 years, attracting speakers of the caliber of Friedrich Hayek, but Scruton has to admit that “we had little influence on the high command of the Party, and none whatsoever on the academic world.”  He recounts a remarkable speech by Harold Macmillan in 1983, which petered out: “To remember . . . to remember . . . I have forgotten what I wanted to say”—which last words, Scruton says, not unkindly, “capture the essence of Conservative (with a capital C) philosophy.”

He is much more famous (or notorious) for having been the founding editor of the Salisbury Review, which he edited from 1982 to 2001.  (He is still on the magazine’s advisory board.)  The Review was named after Lord Salisbury (1830-1903), thrice prime minister and staunch Tory, whose “great merit as a Prime Minister,” as he told me in a 1995 Right Now! interview, “is that you don’t know who he is—that the country was maintained in equilibrium for 20 years by his saving presence without anyone preserving the slightest memory of it.”  With such an example, he was initially attracted to Margaret Thatcher, but the relationship between the Salisbury Group and the Iron Lady was always rather ambiguous.  Early on, Scruton could see that free-market ideals did not necessarily sit easily with the more visceral, romantic, nationalistic Toryism he favored, and he disliked the compromises that politicians always feel they have to make.

The Review swiftly gained notoriety, with articles calling for the repatriation of immigrants and supporting Ray Honey-ford, the gentle Bradford schoolmaster who advocated that Muslim pupils should integrate with their non-Muslim schoolfellows.  In 1985, the British Association for the Advancement of Science branded the Review guilty of “scientific racism,” which inverse accolade secured the Review’s reputation.  His 1986 book, Thinkers of the New Left, so outraged the crusaders for “liberalism” and “tolerance” that they successfully pressured his publisher at that time not to publish more of his works.  As a result, Scruton founded the eclectic Claridge Press, to ensure that those who could not have their books published by larger publishing firms might always have an outlet.  (In 2004, Claridge was sold to Continuum, the publisher of the present book.)

It was not just British dissidents who read the Review.  Arguably, its greatest impact was in Eastern Europe, in the days before the Iron Curtain finally rusted away.  For years, Scruton and a small band of collaborators visited isolated intellectuals in Prague and elsewhere and smuggled forbidden publications and classic texts to dissident circles, at considerable risk to themselves.  Scruton has mixed feelings about the results of the opening up of Eastern Europe: He looks back longingly at the heady days of dangerous dissent among the musty remains of the old Europe, which, in some ways, paradoxically survived longer in the isolated East than in the free West.  “That world has vanished.  Communism preserved it as a dream; capitalism processed and packaged its remaining fragments.”  That balanced pronouncement encapsulates Scruton’s intellectual and emotional distance from the economic reductionists of left and right who have now captured (temporarily, one hopes) the major political parties in all Western countries.

Much of Gentle Regrets is taken up with its author’s gradually growing religiosity.  Like many thoughtful people, Scruton spent years “roaming in search of beauty,” which led him ineluctably into churches.  Driven by his compulsion to find meaning in everything and the knowledge that societies (especially those, such as England, which have a “national church”) simply cannot function without an irrational spiritual foundation, his aesthetic tourism morphed into an ever-closer engagement with Christianity.  He is now a regular attendee (and keyboardist) at High Anglican services.  But there is something essentially paradoxical about this newfound (or rediscovered) allegiance.  Scruton’s awareness of the intellectual challenges of science condemns him to view religion mostly from outside, as if he were an anthropologist looking down from an empyrean height on some quaint cultish practice, or an entomologist admiring a beetle pinned to a board.  Like Eliot, he is “a believer in belief” rather than a true believer.  Like other clever conservatives, Scruton has arrived at his religious views progressively and rationally rather than emotionally, as a combined recognition of religion’s social utility and a weakness for resonant prose and music.  His view is diametrically opposed to that of Sir Thomas Browne’s famous “Methinks there be not enough mysteries in religion for an active faith.”

There is one area of politics that the author has always somewhat overlooked, much to our detriment.  Despite the accusations of “racism” instanced above, it is often said that Scruton has never ascribed sufficient importance to race as a factor in human affairs, and certainly, for many years, such concerns went almost unaddressed in the Salisbury Review (although that is no longer the case).  Nor has he ever treated this subject at book-length.  Yet his delicate antennae are always twitching, sniffing the winds, acknowledging a changing world:  He devoted a whole book, The West and the Rest (2002), to the challenge of Islamic terrorism.  In Gentle Regrets, he looks directly, if glancingly, into the hate-flecked brown eyes of the Muslims, in the chapter on “Regaining My Religion”:

The Muslims come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet and his hands full of strange gods . . . They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred.

In the September 2006 issue of the New Criterion, in an article on Enoch Powell, he returned to the theme:

The fact is that the people of Europe are losing their homelands, and therefore losing their place in the world.  I don’t envisage the Tiber one day foaming with much blood, nor do I see it blushing as the voice of the muezzin sounds from the former cathedral of St. Peter.  But the city through which the Tiber flows will one day cease to be Italian, and all the expectations of its former residents, whether political, social, cultural, or personal, will suffer a violent upheaval, with results every bit as interesting as those that Powell prophesied.

In Four Quartets, Eliot reflected ruefully that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”  Scruton is one of the exceptions to this rule; he is a one-man intellectual army, an antidote to (almost all of) our present discontents.


[Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life, by Roger Scruton (London: Continuum) 248 pp., $19.95]