I received the news that Sir Roger Scruton had died with a pang in my heart. I did not know him personally, although our paths crossed once. And I am not the sort of fan who says things like “I felt like I knew him,” for I am not a sentimentalist. But he was a thinker and writer I admired extravagantly, and he was a beacon of reason in an age that is dominated by irrationality. It does seem to me that a bright star in my personal firmament has been extinguished.
The path-crossing I mention took place in Ottawa in 2006. He was the keynote speaker at a symposium, sponsored by an outfit called the Centre for Cultural Renewal, which attracts an audience of citizens, many of them older, bewildered at the lightning social changes they are living through, and a little frightened, too, about where it is all going to end.
The topic was “Public morality? Community Standards and the Limits of Harm.” Scruton told his listeners what they wanted to hear—namely that they were quite right to be worried—although not because they wanted to hear it, but because he believed in what he was saying. He castigated liberals who he felt were corrupting legal concepts such as “equality” and “harm” in order to undermine the traditional family, which like all conservatives he understood to be the pillar of stable societies.
That makes him sound like an old-timey preacher, but he was the farthest thing from that in his presentation and sympathies. Scruton did not entertain petty prejudices, and had no wish to tell anyone how to live or who to love. However, he was not the kind of man to relinquish ideas about human nature and cultural institutions he felt were honest and true in order that people’s feelings should be spared.
It was this uncompromising conservatism that led to his estrangement from the predominantly liberal intellectual elite in Britain. He wasn’t an outcast exactly. He taught at Oxford and Cambridge, among other places, and at one stage wrote a column for the Times—but after publishing The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980, he realized that his political views meant he would never reach the top in academic philosophy. That impression was confirmed when his follow-up book, Thinkers of the New Left (1984), was widely panned and his publisher remaindered it at the request of its left-wing authors.
I first encountered Scruton’s work through an essay he’d written about fox hunting for National Review in 2005. Scruton was an avid hunter himself, for 35 years, finally hanging up his spurs last February. This activity is considered so retrograde by progressives, it alone put him beyond the pale as an elitist of the imperialist class, about whom nothing more need be said or known.
From that article, I learned the interesting fact that England’s Parliament had spent 18 hours on the decision to enter the war in Iraq; but, because of Labourites’ obsession with class, 225 hours debating fox hunting during the seven previous years. Well, that does tell you something, doesn’t it. Scruton wrote, “Labour members of Parliament, who condone every kind of excess and seem to rejoice in the breakdown of family values, become pale with horror at the thought that someone somewhere might be enjoying the ‘sport of kings.’”
He had by the time of that essay left England to take up a post at the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia. His views were generally too conservative for his peers, who were virtually all progressive and increasingly intolerant of those who disagreed with them, no matter how brilliantly they defended their corner, no matter how erudite or cultured or aesthetically gifted. He did his fox hunting in Virginia, in company with anyone in the neighborhood who enjoyed it. In classless America, as in class-bound England, his fellow hunters were a mix of the privileged and blue-collar locals. He even bought an 18th century plantation house called Montpellier near Sperryville. By this time, he had remarried, having met his second wife, Sophie Jeffreys, while out hunting in England.
Scruton’s breadth of knowledge was astonishing. None of his enemies could dispute that. He wrote whole books with complete authority on religion, architecture, opera, the environment, Islam, philosophy. But running through them all was a guilt-free love for, and fidelity to his—our—cultural inheritance. He loved his own home, England, and he would not repudiate it for its disfiguring historical warts, which seemed to preoccupy almost everyone else. It was Scruton who gave us the word “oikophobia”—hatred of one’s home—which is the hallmark of progressivism. He was out of sync with the hey-hey-ho-ho-western-civ-has-got-to-go zeitgeist. It didn’t help that he was the son of a lowly schoolmaster and had gone to the Royal Grammar School High Wycombe, a selective public high school.
Feeling isolated, like Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens before him, Scruton drifted “across the pond” to breathe the friendlier air of the last western redoubt where conservative thought finds a welcoming hearth. From 1992 to 1995, he taught a philosophy course at Boston University, and he spent a second stint in America from 2004 to 2009. But the pull of his beloved England proved too great, and he returned to settle in a 250-year-old farmhouse in Wiltshire which he named “Scrutopia.”
One of my favourites of his books is his intellectual memoir, Gentle Regrets (2005), an anthology of essays on political philosophy, urban dynamics, personal influences, opera, travels, pets and, of course, fox hunting. Scruton is more generally known for his expository writing, but here you find him in a more relaxed and discursive vein, even intimate. And playful, too.
Barbara Kay is a well-known Canadian journalist. This article was originally published at Quillette and is republished with permission.