I was sitting in Panera when I received a text message from a friend and colleague: “Roger Scruton has died.” I was with my family and a widow from our church, holding back tears until I could get in the car. A man that changed so many things about my world has now passed away. Sir Roger Scruton, British philosopher statesman, passed away Sunday morning after a battle with cancer.
I drove home with my kids in the back and Jason Isbell on the speakers. Ironically, his song with The 400 Unit “The Last of My Kind” was playing. While the song is about small-town folk and fears of the city, I couldn’t help but realize the man who just died may indeed be the last of his kind. He wrote on everything from political philosophy to aesthetics to current events, and he did so with a sharp wit, a careful eye, and brilliant prose. Even if you disagreed with him—as I often did—you nevertheless appreciated how he put his thoughts together.
I have read nearly everything Scruton has written. I wanted to write my dissertation on his thought, particularly his conservatism and aesthetics. He shaped my view of the world as much as anyone else alive, and his passing is a great loss. He was a giant intellect and the best embodiment of conservatism I know. In writing this tribute, I thought of four areas where Scruton’s influence shines brightest, though it was hard to choose only four.
My first taste of the broader tradition was through Scruton. In The Meaning of Conservatism, I came to know and understand that what I imbibed for so long was not conservatism, but a modern amalgamation of ideologies and “isms” that had forgotten their first love. Conservatism is an invitation to view politics from a broader lens than a mere legislative and political processes. Instead, it is a disposition, a posture one takes toward critical concepts that are often discussed but rarely defined. When it is disentangled from a clear ontology, it becomes ugly and vapid. Scruton was well-read and a perfect guide for providing accessibility to a wide audience. He was immersed in the tradition, thus able to synthesize and distinguish between rival conservatism(s) of the day. He saw the lay of the land and instructed me on where to walk, who else to trust, and what to reject. I saw conservatism is more than a political project. Indeed, that’s the least interesting part of it.
Conservatism offers solutions to discontents of culture. Whether it is an absolutizing of the market on the far-right or the distortion of proper sentiments by groups such as the alt-right, the conservative tradition holds the mantle of belief that conservatism is at first a disposition before it is a political or economic program. It conserves the best of what we’ve had and rejects notions of progress separated from the good, true, and beauty of the past. Scruton taught me a conservative was first and foremost a lover (as did Augustine), to see the good in even the worst of scenarios, and change requires taking the worst of the present and making the best of it.
More than any other topic, Scruton taught me to love and appreciate beauty. I first read Beauty as a grad student while taking a seminar in aesthetics. I grew up in a small, rural town and never really understood the aesthetic impulse or those that seemed to have it more than I did. And while I didn’t care much for the arts, when I read this book it opened my eyes to the world.
Rage and resentment may build movements, but they cannot sustain a people, much less secure necessary political goods. Scruton taught me patience speaks a better word.
“Beauty is vanishing from the world,” Scruton writes, “because we live as though it did not matter.” I finally realized just how much of my existence has been shaped by beauty—and the failure to appreciate it. I realized this desire for beauty is not circumstantial. It cannot be explained merely by the places you were nurtured or the things you like. It is not just “in the eye of the beholder.” Rather, it is embedded in you and in the cosmos. We were made to hear this song of the created order. It declares its presence in the voice of a beautiful chorus and whispers with vibrant colors that streak the sky at sunset. Beauty speaks.
Scruton showed me I cannot live without beauty. I am currently writing a book on beauty, and I’ve dedicated this work to him. I was hoping to send a copy to him in order to show my affection and that his lifelong work to help the world see and appreciate beauty has changed at least one life: mine. Few things in my Christian life have steadied my faith and quieted my doubts like beauty.
In an age of rage and change, The necessity of the latter requires that one considers how such change occurs and how fast. I learned from Scruton that the conservative understands that political change will occur, and it indeed it must. But in addition, those societal and political changes require stability. The conservative may champion progress, but such movement must be guided by prudence. Progress for the sake of progress, or progress that merely mirrors contemporary social norms is wrong. Progress requires patience. He writes in the beginning of How to Be a Conservative,
“Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of life which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.”
To do something and do it well requires the necessity of slowing down. Patient reflection and consideration of alternative views, concepts, and perspectives requires the recognition that time is not wasted, but rather you are being shaped by this slow process. In other words, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, we are investing in the millennium. We are planting sequoias.
There is no question that we live in what some might describe as an age of rage. Both culturally and politically, the impulse is toward expressing resentment first and searching for solutions only after the rage has subsided. If left to continue, there will be much said but little settled. Scruton taught me that a patient spirit speaks to the current climate by suggesting the way forward is to understand the past. Rage and resentment may build movements, but they cannot sustain a people, much less secure necessary political goods. Scruton taught me patience speaks a better word.
Scruton taught me a new word: oikophilia, or a love of home. Modern political philosophies, influenced as they are by autonomy and individuality, can often force a person to become essentially homeless. By “homeless” we do not mean a literal homelessness. Instead, it is describing an existential relationship between the individual and the broader social networks at play. Scruton showed me we are social beings from particular places and particular spaces. We have a membership and history. We love our homes because they are, in some sense, reflections of us and what we love. This is good and right and stimulates a sense of shared obligation and love of home. Scruton taught me that okiphilia attaches humanity to creation around them. We are embedded in the created order because, well, this is our home.
From this understanding, he showed me conservatives should and indeed must care for the environment around us. What we may term “creation care” is, in fact, a deeply conservative value. Instead of employing the apocalyptic zeitgeist today, how much more compelling would it be to say that conservatives care for nature because it is the spaces and places wherein we are situated in the broader created order? Or, to put a finer point on it, we care for the natural world because it is the shared space we all inhabit. Oikiophillia “tells us to love, and not to use, to respect and not to exploit. It invites us to look on things in our ‘homespace’ as we look on persons, not as means only, but as ends in themselves.” (253). Rather than somehow standing above nature in domination, it reorients us to see that it is ours to care for. We love our home because ours is a common world; it is our Father’s world.
I must admit it is hard to write words of appreciation for someone with whom you’ve never conversed. I had an opportunity to meet Scruton when he was in the United States a few years ago. I was unable to attend, hoping one day I would be able to meet him and express how deeply indebted I am to his writings. I’ll never get that chance. But his imprint on my life will stay forever.
The last thing Scruton wrote, right before Christmas 2019, was a reflection on the year that had passed. The final words he ever wrote in public were embodiments of his life and writing: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” My gratitude to him cannot be fully expressed in words. I’ve done my best here, but they pale in comparison to what he has done for me. My Christian faith is stronger because of him. I am a better human being because of Scruton.