After the demise of great men and women, their reputations often dip. Fulsome obituaries are usually followed by a fall-off in interest. It takes time for the new generation to discover the greats afresh and for their reputations to regenerate. But I doubt this rule would ever have applied to Roger Scruton.
The philosopher’s standing was at its height when he died last year at the age of 75. The second of his three great books on Wagner had recently come out; his advice was sought by the British Government; conservative intellectuals and politicians across Europe were eager to seek his approval. His life ended just as his reputation reached the stage it ought to have been at for decades: though by the time he died he had become Sir Roger Scruton, he had spent many years in a type of intellectual isolation, if not wilderness.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
In 1980, Scruton had become effectively unemployable in British academia, with the publication of his book, The Meaning of Conservatism. His column in The Times, that same decade, brought him to the attention of the wider public — but it also marked him out. A few of his pieces became notorious. Among a certain type of Leftist, he was identified as Right-wing bogeyman.
On the page Scruton could often come across as harder-edged than he was in person, but his learning and wisdom made him unlike any polemicist. And this was part of his problem. The Left did not just dislike him, they feared him, because he always knew more than they did. Indeed, he always seemed to know more than everybody. Perhaps that’s why, throughout his career, he was subjected to so many extraordinarily personal attacks. These included one libel so severe that, when the Left-wing paper responsible finally paid out damages, it allowed him to make a down-payment on his first home.
But Scruton’s reputation as an outcast was, in some ways, the making of him. In the years before his death, he was discovered by a new generation of young people eager to find an alternative vision of life to that being offered by mainstream academia, the media and popular culture. They came to him and he encouraged them. He even ran informal seminars for people he referred to as refugees from the modern academy.
These were reminiscent of the far more dangerous seminars that Scruton and others led in the countries of Eastern Europe while they languished under communism — a movement known as the underground university. His brave work should have been better appreciated — especially after his death. Scruton offered a vision which was rare enough in his day and rarer still in ours.
But there are many hopeful signs that he is, posthumously, getting the recognition he deserved: this week sees the reissue of one of Scruton’s later books, titled Confessions of a Heretic. The work first came out in 2016, published by the excellent Notting Hill Editions, and I have had the pleasure of writing a new introduction for it. The title — which was Roger’s own — needs a certain amount of explaining.
When people think of the word “heretic”, they may imagine many things, but not perhaps a tweed-wearing conservative philosopher. And yet when Scruton was writing, it was indeed a heretical thing to be a conservative — or at least to be a conservative intellectual. There is no small amount of irony in this fact. The Conservative Party was in power throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, and yet these were the years when Scruton was most intellectually isolated.
Of course, to be a conservative philosopher was already to be an uncomfortable hybrid. The conservative is by nature suspicious of grand ideas, but such ideas are seen as the very currency of philosophy. Scruton wrestled with this conundrum throughout his career, finding ways to justify the sensible instincts of sensible people, against intelligent lies told by brilliant fools.
Scruton was scrupulous in performing the necessary task of slicing and dicing the fools and frauds of the age. His book, Thinkers of the New Left, was first published in 1985; in preparation, Scruton carefully read all the works of the people he criticised: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre and others. He understood them — and helped his readers see through them in turn. He deconstructed the deconstructionists. He realised the danger of these thinkers ahead of time, but he was hardly thanked for it.
In fact, he was excoriated for his heresy in attacking the most celebrated philosophers of his day and Thinkers of the New Left did not sell. Great piles of copies sat at his house, causing him considerable feelings of failure. But the work found its day: in 2015 it was republished in an extended edition as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. By then people had caught on to what Scruton had been talking about 30 years earlier. They had seen what he had been trying to warn them about and began to take better notice of him.
Confessions of a Heretic is a selection of otherwise uncollected essays which deal with some subjects of Scruton’s ire. They also tackle the timeless issues to which he dedicated a lifetime of energy. Although Scruton is generally referred to as a “conservative philosopher,” he ought simply to be referred to as a “philosopher”. The deepest works in this book — his “Effing the Ineffable” and his “Reflection on Strauss’s Metamorphosen,” for example — go far deeper than mere politics.
Re-reading the essays this year, there was one which stood out — one I read in a very different light. “Dying in Time” is a profound meditation on death. It is easy to approach this essay with a fear that the author — who of course had no idea at the time he wrote it that he had only a few years left to live — might not have fulfilled the task he set himself. Scruton more than did so. In part this is because his meditation on dying is also a meditation on living — and comes as close as Scruton ever came in his writing to putting down a personal manifesto. “The main point,” he writes, “it seems to me, is to maintain an active life of risk and affection, remembering always that the value of life does not consist in its length but in its depth.”
There were others of his generation who saw some of the same political threats, though few who explained them with such clarity. Fewer still managed to maintain the position of heretic — and even outcast — while defending the importance of instinct and tradition.
My own suspicion is that Scruton’s reputation will only grow, as the problems he warned of grow in their dimensions, and the need to find ways out from them become more compelling still. He may have written most movingly of dying in time, but anyone interested in living in time should reach for his work.