It was Paris, May 1968 (above), when Roger Scruton saw into the heart of darkness. He then began an intellectual odyssey that largely defined modern conservatism but came to an end with his passing on the 12 January, 2020.
It began as he witnessed the student rebellion erupting in “the narrow street below my window [where] the students were shouting and smashing” up the neighbourhood. The delirious destruction was reflected in the shop windows as the iconoclastic orgy unfolded. Then, suddenly, it appeared to the 24-year-old Scruton that “the plate glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second and then give up the ghost, [sliding] in jagged fragments to the ground.” Indeed, it seemed that reality itself had been affronted. Repulsed at the insanity of the mindless mob, it had recoiled and collapsed into countless pieces, never to be reconstituted.
Scruton recalls this striking reaction to the 1968 French student rebellion in his autobiography, Gentle Regrets (2005; all quotations are from this source unless otherwise stated). He had completed a BA in philosophy at Cambridge and was determined to be a writer, taking Jean-Paul Sartre as his role model. He did this because the French existentialist’s prose moved effortlessly “from the abstract to the concrete and from the general to the particular [and] wound philosophy and poetry together in a seamless web, which was also a web of seeming”, as Scruton later recalled on his web page. From Sartre he learned that intellectual life need not be confined to the academy but can flourish around the creative arts like literature, art, and music, “through which the world strives to become conscious of itself.” However, Scruton rebelled against the Frenchman’s conviction that such a life demanded a radical political commitment and Sartre’s mindless embrace of the chic anti-intellectual-intellectualism of Maoism alienated him completely as 1968 unfolded. He developed instead a conservative world-view and applied his very considerable gifts as an analytic philosopher to the central questions of the late 20th Century and the new millennium.
In the half-century after that May experience, Scruton established himself as Britain’s leading conservative public intellectual and columnist, and as an influential philosopher in a large number of fields. He published over 50 books, innumerable articles, several novels, two operas, and many other works. His most notable publications include The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Thinkers of the New Left (1985), Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic (1986), The Philosopher on Dover Beach (1990), The Aesthetics of Music (1997), The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat (2002), Liberty and Civilization: The Western Heritage (2010), Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2011); How to Be a Conservative (2014), and Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (2017)
Such success lay well in the future on that May Day 52 years ago. For a critical moment, anarchic leftism held sway and appeared to threaten President Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. Transfixed, Scruton watched the violent battle between students and police unfold and then, in the middle of this archetypal Sixties’ event, it appears that Scruton enjoyed an epiphany, a sudden intuitive insight into the nihilistic postmodernism that was about to engulf the West. The shuddering windows and disintegrating images served as a metaphor for the collapse of clarity, representation, objectivity, and truth that came to blight the past five decades. They vividly evoked the violence, fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief that Scruton later claimed in A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006) provided the context for the conservative philosophical response of which he proved to be the most articulate British proponent.
Earlier that May day, Scruton had been reading de Gaulle’s Memoires and he had been struck by the Gaullist insight that a nation is defined “by language, religion, and high culture [and that] in times of turmoil and conquest it is those spiritual things that must be protected and reaffirmed”, and now he saw this sacred dimension under threat by the profane Dionysian forces that had been unleashed below him, “throwing away … all customs, institutions and achievements, for the sake of a momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy”.
Later, Scruton was visited by a female friend who had spent the day on the barricades as the fists, batons, and cobble-stones flew. She was a devotee of Antonin Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’, a variety of late surrealism that assaulted the sensibilities of contemporary audiences and aimed to tear apart the false reality that Artaud insisted lay like a shroud over their perceptions. Predictably, the May events appealed to her as the high point of an anarchic assault on the absurdity of bourgeois life. Soon, she and her comrades were convinced, “the Old Fascist de Gaulle, and his regime would be begging for mercy” as the student insurrection escalated into a new French Revolution.
(In fact, she was deluding herself, as de Gaulle had no intention of begging. Instead, he had gone secretly to consult the leadership of the French military to confirm their loyalty if he decided violently to crush the protests. This was a task for which they were well equipped by their brutal experiences in the Algerian War, and if de Gaulle had taken that path he would have transformed the cultural and political history of France and the West. At the time however, the initiative and the momentum was allowed to remain with the students and for a few critical months it appeared that the bourgeois world they so despised was about to be overthrown.)
Scruton listened carefully to this radical critique of French society. He then asked his visitor what she proposed to put in its place: “What vision of France and its culture compels you?” To which “she replied with a book: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards [‘68-ers] the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat”. Michel Foucault’s virtually unreadable paean to madness had appeared in 1966 (English translation, 1970, as The Order of Things), and quickly become de rigueur amongst intellectuals and students desperate to appear aligned with the avant-garde of social theory. This was despite the fact that Foucault’s structuralist determinism reduced people to the status of mere elements in a gigantic system of power-relationships and was the antithesis of the libertarian anarcho-communism that the soixante-huitards professed. Invoked more often as a magic talisman than read, it was an impenetrable exercise in radical scholasticism that established Foucault’s reputation as a ‘master thinker’ of the left.
For Scruton, The Order of Things “is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the discourses of power” to be condemned as just further forms of oppression. A work not of philosophy but of rhetoric, “its goal was subversion, not truth”, and it perpetrated “the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies – that ‘truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class which profits from its propagation”. This was a core conception of the cultural relativism that is now a taken-for-granted premise of academic discourse, while Foucault’s “vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel”, as Scruton lamented.
Scruton doesn’t reveal what transpired that night after he confronted his guest with the philosophical implications of her antinomian politics, although he mentions that she eventually put the theatre of cruelty behind her and “is now a good bourgeois like the rest of them”. He notes also that “Foucault is dead from AIDS, contracted during well-funded tours as an intellectual celebrity”, but not before he passed on the disease in multiple sadomasochistic homosexual encounters, as James Miller describes in The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993).
Scruton’s insight came at a cost. With hindsight it seems that he was never in danger of succumbing to the siren call of the Sixties zeitgeist, as he had been inoculated by the writings of Burke, Kant, T.S. Eliot, Leavis and Wittgenstein, who had all rejected the ‘Jacobin’ lust to destroy the world that is, in a maniacal pursuit of a world that can never be. Nevertheless, he discovered himself to be a cultural anachronism, positioned perilously “on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew”. These otherwise intelligent folk had turned their backs on a time-honoured world that Scruton still revered and now “looked [instead] to Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong as their authorities, not just in politics, but in every area of human thought and action, art, literature, and music included”, embracing “nihilism, anger, and selfishness”, as Mark Dooley recounts in Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach (2009).
The title of Dooley’s study takes Scruton at his word in order to evoke the isolation in which the latter found himself. Dooley adopts the title of one of Scruton’s own books to present him as a philosopher whose unyielding conservatism left him isolated on a desolate shore as depicted in Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach”, with its “powerfully dark picture of our homelessness in a cold, indifferent world”, as Stefan Collini observes in Arnold (1988). Whereas “the Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full”, now can only be heard “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”, leaving in its wake “neither joy, nor love, nor light”, but only “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery”. For Dooley, Scruton’s work is “an attempt to restore some joy, love and light to a world” that Arnold believed was “lost in a morass of addictive pleasures”. In the face of this, Scruton offers redemption for those stranded on Arnold’s “darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”. It is the great value of Scruton’s work, Dooley believes, that he has “given us a way of philosophically affirming traditional institutions and forms of life, in a world dedicated to their extinction”.
This reference to ‘forms of life’ takes us to the heart of Scruton’s conservatism. It also reflects the importance in Scruton’s thinking of the later Wittgenstein, who originated the concept and linked it to similar notions including ‘language games’ and ‘world-view’, all of which emphasize the extent to which knowledge is contextual and localised, embedded in concrete activities and experiences, and constrained above all by language. This is related to another concept adopted by Scruton, that of ‘Lebenswelt’ or ‘life-world’, which he took from Edmund Husserl and phenomenology. This refers to the myriad inter-subjective realms of meaning constructed and maintained by communities of language-users for whom they serve as commonsense and taken-for-granted everyday worlds.
These related notions lie at the core of Scruton’s own philosophical world-view, as he believes that scientific and industrial society has devastated the traditional life-worlds and forms of life within which people have for millennia lived and made sense of their lives, producing a crisis of disorientation, dislocation, and alienation. Moreover, “this crisis is not only intellectual; it is also moral, indeed a crisis of civilization itself. For the Lebenswelt falls apart when not maintained by reflection. The result is a loss of meaning, a moral vacuum”, as Scruton observed in The Oxford History of Western Philosophy (Anthony Kenny (ed.), 1994).
Scruton’s conservatism made him very few friends in academia, as he discovered in 1971 after he had completed his PhD and accepted a lectureship at Birkbeck College, “the heart of the left establishment that governed British scholarship”. There, the likes of the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm held sway, “the lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools,” (and reigns supreme once again in the British Labour Party). Consequently, the library was well stocked with the works of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and every variety of socialist journals, but proudly bereft of Strauss, Voegelin, Hayek, Friedman and any conservative periodicals.
Finding himself treated as an “intellectual pariah” and unencumbered by any collegiality from the left, but with convenient teaching hours, Scruton took the opportunity to study law and “discovered … the answer to Foucault” in the common law of England, which he took as proof “that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct.” Seeking to broaden his understanding of this, he went in search of a viable conservative philosophy and found Edmund Burke, who was then regarded by the left establishment as irrelevant and of antiquarian interest only. Consequently, although students “were still permitted to read him”, this could only be in association with Thomas Paine as part of the intellectual history of the French Revolution, which many soixante-huitards saw as the model for the epoch-defining radical upheavals in which they fancied themselves to be currently engaged.
Once again in stark contrast to his generation, Scruton approached Burke not from this political direction but from their shared interest in aesthetics and how this field of philosophical inquiry illuminates the affirmation of home, soil, and settlement, which is the one theme that unites all of Scruton’s many inquiries, as Dooley emphasizes. And this is true whether these concern the elevated realms of aesthetics and religion, or the more concrete concerns of environmentalism, fox-hunting, and wine.
A sense of place was also vitally important. Recoiling at “the desecration of my childhood landscape” by modern architecture that had left him mentally homeless, Scruton came to see that “aesthetic judgement lays a claim upon the world, that it issues from a deep social imperative, and that it matters to us in just the way that other people matter to us, when we strive to live with them in a community”. “Like Burke … I was in search of a lost experience of home”, a physical and psychological sense of place that had been stripped away by the depredations of modernism, “with its denial of the past, its vandalization of the landscape and townscape, and its attempt to purge the world of history”. In A Political Philosophy Scruton spoke movingly of the attachment people feel for a place “that is theirs by right, [a] place where you and I belong and to which we return, if only in thought, at the end of all our wanderings”. Arrogantly ignoring the centrality for human beings of community, home, and settlement, a rampaging modernity leaves behind nothing but atomized individuals, “living like ants within their metallic and functional shells”.
This pervasive sense of homelessness can be overcome, Scruton believed. Indeed, the desire to overcome it is itself a powerful psychological force: “underlying that sense of loss is the permanent belief that what has been lost can also be recaptured”, albeit in a modified form, “to reward us for all the toil of separation through which we are condemned by our original transgression”. And he saw this redemptive faith as “the romantic core of conservatism, as you find it – very differently expressed – in Burke and Hegel, in Coleridge, Ruskin, Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot”. It was found also in F. R. Leavis, who insisted in The Great Tradition (1948) that superior literature displays “a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity”, and found these qualities present pre-eminently in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. For Leavis, Scruton explained in The Philosopher on Dover Beach (1990), “the task of culture was a sacred task [having] to express and to justify our participation in the human world. And the greatest products of culture … were to be studied as the supreme distillations of this justifying force”. They offer no abstract theoretical knowledge, “but life – life restored to its meaning, vindicated and made whole”.
As such passages reveal, Scruton valorised the particular and abhorred the modernist reduction of life to abstract categories. Instead, he insisted on the centrality of contextual and localised ‘social knowledge’ once embodied in the common law, political and social conventions, manners, customs, morality, and civility of the traditional English Lebenswelt, all of which arose as by an ‘invisible hand’ from the innumerable social transactions, age-old negotiations, and compromises perpetuated by custom to restrain and channel conflicting interests and passions. In this he found support in Burke, who celebrated the thriving variety and uniqueness of traditional life but also explored its political implications, persuading Scruton that “the utopian promises of socialism go with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind … that has only the vaguest relation to the thought and feelings by which real human lives are conducted”.
Burke persuaded him that “societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress”, while all attempts to pretend otherwise must decline into “militant irrationality” as the proponents of such visions struggle to impose their abstract template onto an intractable world. Faced with such resistance, the would-be revolutionaries seek to mobilize the masses around a shared hatred of a real or imagined foe: “Hence the strident and militant language of the socialist literature – the hate-filled, purpose-filled, bourgeois-baiting prose, one example of which had been offered to me in 1968”. Such clamorous discourse became “the basic diet of political studies in my university”, and when Scruton dared to question it, “I blighted what remained of my academic career”.
This marginalisation was accomplished above all by The Meaning of Conservatism (1979) which, as Scruton put it in a 2004 interview, gave his leftist colleagues someone new to hate, with Radical Philosophy dismissing it as “clearly too ghastly to be taken seriously”. It was a dense text that proposed a philosophical foundation for the Conservative Party as it was about to enter into its years of triumph under Margaret Thatcher. Scruton himself described it as “a somewhat Hegelian defence of Tory values in the face of their betrayal by the free marketeers”. This stance provoked the neoliberal Institute for Economic Affairs to recommend that Scruton “be avoided, as exhibiting dangerous tendencies towards extremism”, or alternatively be recognized as “part of a sophisticated KGB operation to split the Conservative Party”. Acknowledging his distance from the neo-conservatism of the time, Scruton agreed in the interview that the book revealed more of a kinship with American paleo-conservatism with its concern with tradition and religion, an expanded civil society and a limited state, the value of the Western heritage, loyalty towards home, and a strong sense of place and belonging.
Nevertheless, The Meaning of Conservatism duly became a classic and gave Scruton a prominent profile as an articulate champion of conservatism. He returned regularly to this topic and even as recently as 2017 he published Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, which is a very accessible text that traces the emergence of the British tradition of conservatism out of the work of the classical liberals, e.g., Hobbes, Harrington, Locke, and Montesquieu, the point of departure being the conservative insistence that liberty must be grounded in the customs, conventions, traditions, and institutions of a society if it is not to become an oppressive abstraction enforced by state power (as we are currently witnessing).
This sudden prominence led to Scruton’s appointment as editor of the Salisbury Review, a journal named after the conservative Prime Minister who, as Scruton observed, “kept everything so well in place that nothing now is known about him” (except perhaps his observation that good government consists of doing as little as possible). The Review took a strong stand on communism, the Moscow-inspired nuclear disarmament and peace movements, the treatment of dissidents in Eastern Europe and Christians in the Middle East, feminism, the various forms of postmodernism, political correctness, and government enforced egalitarianism. It also saw the first appearance of a series of critical articles by Scruton on Foucault, Sartre, Louis Althusser, R. D. Laing, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams, and others. These were later collected as Thinkers of the New Left (1986) and updated as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (2015), offering scathing polemics against intellectual fascism. Such attacks on the favoured authors of the Left further entrenched his academic alienation.
At the outset, as editor, Scruton found it difficult to find writers prepared to contribute to an explicitly conservative journal at a time when the radical hegemony over the intellectual life of Britain was virtually absolute. The dangers faced by contributors were exemplified by the Honeyford Affair, in which the Review published an article in 1984 on “Education and Race” by Ray Honeyford, the headmaster of a middle school in Bradford, where some 95 per cent of the pupils were Asian and Muslim. The article promoted integration, questioned multiculturalism, and argued that the home environment in immigrant families was a primary determinant of educational performance. Honeyford was duly accused of racism, disciplined, threatened, placed under police protection, sacked, reinstated after a court case, and then forced into early retirement, never to teach again. Other contributors were sacked for defending Honeyford and the Review was subjected to an academic show-trial and found guilty of scientific racism, while the school itself was eventually burned down in an arson attack. On the other hand, the controversy gave the Review a public profile and generated the 600 subscribers it needed to survive.
As for Scruton, the University of Glasgow officially boycotted a paper he was to deliver there, while at the same time conferring an honorary doctorate on Robert Mugabe. It also became “a matter of honour among English-speaking intellectuals to dissociate themselves from me”, to warn off prospective publishers of his books, give them bad reviews, and to obstruct his bids for promotion. Overall, as he recalled in a 2002 article, “My Life Beyond the Pale”, his eighteen-year editorship of the Review “cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour, a hideous character assassination in Private Eye, three lawsuits, two interrogations, one expulsion, the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere. And it was worth it”.
One thing that made it worthwhile was the impact the Review had in Eastern Europe. An underground, samizdat, edition began to appear in Prague in 1986, and Scruton recalls “their wafer-thin pages – the final carbon copies from sheaves of ten”, which he felt “had the spiritual quality of illuminated manuscripts” and testified to “a belief in the written word that had been tried and proved through real suffering” in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Scruton was involved with the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, which saw Western academics smuggle forbidden literature and provide classes in Prague and Brno as part of an underground education network leading to university degrees. This led to him being detained, expelled, and listed on the Czech Index of Undesirable Persons. Later, after the fall of communism, he was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit by President Václav Havel for his work.
Scruton learnt a great deal about totalitarianism by working with this underground network as it struggled to provide medicines, bibles, religious materials, books, education, and support for writers and artists black-listed by the communist regimes. As he recalled in a 2013 BBC feature on democracy, totalitarianism “endures not simply by getting rid of democratic elections and imposing a one-party state. It endures by abolishing the distinction between civil society and the state, and by allowing nothing significant to occur which is not controlled by the Party”. He realized that “political freedom depends upon a delicate network of institutions”, which the dissident network was desperately seeking to resuscitate. First among such institutions is an independent judicial system and respect for the rule of law. Also of vital importance are property rights, political pluralism, and the presence of an opposition able freely to criticise the government and contest power within a functional political system.
Freedom of speech and opinion are also essential, and here Scruton observed that a critical lesson is to be learnt from the experience of communism: too many people in the West take these freedoms for granted and assume that such liberalism is “the default position of mankind” to which we will all inevitably gravitate. On the contrary, Scruton insists, “orthodoxy, conformity and the hounding of the dissident define the default position of mankind, and there is no reason to think that democracies are any different in this respect from Islamic theocracies or one-party totalitarian states”.
The hounding of conservative dissidents has become increasingly prevalent in the West, as Scruton himself experienced only a year ago when he became the victim of a concerted attempt at character assassination carried out by the New Statesman. That journal’s deputy editor published and vigorously promoted a doctored account of an interview he had conducted with Scruton, successfully seeking his dismissal from an honorary government post. He then posted a picture of himself on Instagram drinking champagne, captioned “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.” Eventually the full transcript was released and an apology was forced out of the journal.
Despite such attacks, Scruton’s time at The Salisbury Review allowed him to develop a coherent conservative position, which he outlined in his editor’s Introduction to Conservative Thinkers: Essays from The Salisbury Review (1988). “Conservatism, like liberalism, sees the individual as uniquely valuable and his condition as the true test of political order”, however, unlike liberalism, conservatism emphasizes concrete happiness over abstract freedom, and sees individuality, freedom and happiness as “products of social order”, and dependent on the institutional structures of society that nurture them. Similarly, conservatism also places concrete duties above abstract rights, and in particular emphasizes the principle of reciprocity, whereby the availability of rights presupposes the acceptance of duties and responsibilities. Underpinning this is a social order based on “three principles: tradition, consensus, and the rule of law”, which Scruton elaborates to show their interconnectedness. Here the core idea is derived from Burke and entails recognition of the centrality of spontaneous order in society: “the traditional order is distinct from both planned order and random association. It contains its own inherent principles of development, and is composed of instincts, prejudices and values”, which represent the accumulated wisdom of all past generations. Consensus, which holds the social order together, flows from this, as does justice which requires a rule of law that is rooted in tradition and consensus.
In Scruton’s view, conservatives should strongly resist the intrusion of the state into the many areas where it lacks competence or there is no political or philosophical rationale consistent with the position outlined above. “In particular, they oppose state interference in the market”, except for the provision of public goods, while “some argue (with Hayek) that the attempt to control the market is inherently irrational [and] is destructive of the state’s legitimacy”, individual responsibility and social cohesion. It is also vital that the separation of state and civil society is maintained. Consequently, conservatives strongly resist those revolutionary doctrines (e.g., Marxism-Leninism and fascism) that threaten this balance, on the basis that the “total invasion of [civil] society by political decision-making … is the mark of totalitarian power”.
Scruton insists that religion plays a vital social role, and acknowledges that some conservatives, like Eric Voegelin, even argue that political conservatism actually originates in a religious attitude, and “identify the rejection of conservative political order with the heresies and transgressions which undermine that attitude, and which destroy man’s humility before the divine”. At the very least, conservatives recognize “the indispensability, in sound political judgement, of religious ideas – in particular, ideas of original sin, corporate guilt and suffering – and of the ever-present fear of death and retribution”. Such recognition highlights the extent to which conservatives “place politics, culture and morality before economic order and the distribution of power”, as Marxists and other radicals would have it. “They see politics not as the pursuit of some ultimate goal – whether national supremacy, social justice, or economic growth – but as the attempt to reconcile conflicting interests, and to establish law, order and peace throughout society”.
Over the past two decades Scruton has been able to refine and apply this conservative paradigm to an astonishing array of areas, including aesthetics, the history of philosophy, politics, religion, sexual desire, terrorism, environmental philosophy, farming, fox-hunting, and the enjoyment of wine, demonstrating conservatism’s relevance to a wide range of political, cultural, and social issues. On the topic of wine, for example, he published I Drink Therefore I Am (2009). This moved one reviewer to paint an enticing picture: Scruton’s “dinner parties sound a real gas: ‘A good wine should always be accompanied by a good topic’; he prescribes, for example, ‘whether the Tristan chord is a half-diminished seventh or whether there could be a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture’. Everybody back to Rog’s, then…”
A more highly relevant example is Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (2011, new edition 2012), which attempts to develop an alternative approach to environmental problems that avoids the potentially catastrophic statist solutions advocated by the left and the Greens (including various forms of world government), and draws instead on the ‘oikophilia’, or love of home and place, traditionally demonstrated by local communities (the Greek term oikos means home or settlement), augmented by various technological innovations and adaptations. Above all, Scruton stresses the relevance for conservation of the fundamental conservative insight that each generation holds the present world in trust, from the past into the future.
Most recently, Scruton turned his attention to religion, publishing Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012), which focused very much on those aspects of the Anglican Communion with which Scruton most clearly identifies, especially its centuries-old institutional role as a bearer of English culture and traditions, but also its music, architecture, art, and the English language, exemplified by the profound influence of the King James Bible. A further example is The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures (2012), which attempts to “reconcile the God of the philosophers with the God who is worshipped and prayed to by the ordinary believer”. Typically for Scruton, he tried to avoid abstract philosophical argumentation and insisted instead that God’s presence in the world is revealed through attention to the intimate inter-subjectivity of true human communion, or, as he put it: “God is understood not through metaphysical speculations concerning the ground of being, but through communion with our fellow humans”. The intimacy of this is captured through the image of ‘the Face’ – of the other person and of God, with both of whom we should be profoundly engaged if we are to realize our fullest humanity. It is the rootlessness, alienation and depersonalization of modern life that prevents us from recognizing this imperative and makes it so easy to deny God.
Modern atheism therefore involves not just the rejection of some metaphysical claims; it involves a flight from a genuine encounter with the human and divine and the responsibility and judgment that this entails. The price paid is metaphysical aloneness: “God is … avoidable only by creating a void. This void opens before us when we destroy the face—not the human face only, but also the face of the world. The godless void is what confronts us”. Scruton believes ours is a culture “in full flight from the sacred”, in which we rage against our self-inflicted fate but refuse to confront our own responsibility for our predicament. Consequently, “desecration becomes a kind of moral necessity—something that must be constantly performed, and performed collectively, in order to destroy the things that stand in judgment over us”.
Scruton further pursued the sacred in The Soul of the World (2014), and attempted to defend it from the faddish fascination with philosophical atheism that characterizes Britain, Australia, and some other Western countries (although it lacks traction in the Third World, where Christianity and Islam are booming). Once again drawing on insights offered by his conservatism he inquired into the nature of intimacy, relatedness, inter-subjectivity, moral intuitions, and the capacity for aesthetic appreciation, and their implications for the sacred and transcendent in a society besotted by an arrogant scientism unprepared to accept its own profound limitations. One reviewer saw it as “a genuine ‘turning for home’ on the part of a learned and deeply thoughtful man, who offers us hard-won insights as he fixes his gaze on our final end”.
Indeed, such inquiries into ultimate questions concerning the sacred and the transcendent seem to be the most appropriate terminus of Scruton’s philosophical investigations. They complete an odyssey through the de-sacralized wastelands of postmodernism, bestowed upon the world by the generation of the cosseted soixante-huitards whose antics Scruton witnessed, reflected momentarily in the disintegrating shopfront window in a Paris street 52-years ago.
At the outset of his career, Scruton witnessed the profanation and disenchantment of a revered world, the subsequent disfigurement and destruction of the sacred, and the eclipse of a traditional order of things in which he had been at home and whose value, for him, was beyond price. Left metaphysically homeless he energetically explored the implications of this desecration and sought a way back home to the profound truth it obscured. And now he has found his way back, bequeathing to us the priceless results of his lifelong quest.