“Love is a relationship between dying things,” said Roger Scruton just months before he was to succumb to lung cancer. We hold on to the ones we love, and hold them ever closer, precisely because they are mortal and will pass away.
This could be a statement of the philosopher’s conservatism, as much as an explanation for the outpouring of love that has followed his death, two years ago last week. And the publication of a new collection of his old essays and columns, Against the Tide, along with the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation, could be seen as a part of a canonisation process.
But Scruton was no saint. And he was disarmingly frank about his failings as a human being. Yet persecuted in life, especially towards the end; dedicated to the cause, despite considerable personal cost; personally and visibly vulnerable; other-worldly even: when last we spoke, he even compared himself to Jesus — which I mention as an example of his rather compelling naivety, not his holiness.
“Forgive them for they know not what they do,” was his answer to those who had been seeking to get him sacked from his job as government advisor on architecture. I slightly bridled at the role he imagined for himself here. I am a priest after all. “Fully to understand the Easter story, it helps to be hounded by the mob” he wrote in The Telegraph in 2019, casting himself as the crucified. As responses to his own dark night of the soul, these felt clumsy, verging on the blasphemous, yet also extremely touching. There was no guile in him. He would have found life a lot easier if there had been.
Scruton was always looking for a new way of expressing his conservatism, refusing the idea that it was some sort of grand philosophical theory, and often unhappy with the way he had expressed it in the past. He called it a “temperament” and I suspect it had more to do with the love of dying things than with some generalised political philosophy. Critics of conservatism often only see in it some sort of dead-eyed reactionary obstruction of the new, or a selfish defence of established privilege — they don’t recognise it as an act of love. Cherishing things in the face of their passing away, their intrinsic mortality, is a kind of heroic loving resistance to the fragility of human life.
To hold on to someone, to hold onto forms of life, traditions, institutions — this is where love and conservatism meet. Hence Scruton’s love of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, for example. And because it is the love of dying things — and dying not because they are useless but because they are human — one might also say that conservatism is also something intrinsically tragic and woeful. It is surely not insignificant that Scruton himself had such a mournful demeanour. He wore his politics on his face. Conservatism is a temperament.
This is what I learnt from Roger Scruton. Conservatism is much more attuned to the spiritual and the emotional in human life than the socialism I spent most of my life subscribing to. As a socialist, I always wanted the world in general to be a better place, to improve. The future was always the place where the world would be better. I would happily ignore the past and the present, even jettison them, in the pursuit of this yet-to-be dream. It was a cold philosophy, despite its genuine desire for universal betterment. The not yet was always preferred to the present. And love in general was always preferred to love in particular. Scruton disabused me of these dangerous abstractions. Love is specific and tragic, a relationship between dying things.
“At the heart of every conservative endeavour is the effort to conserve a historically given community,” wrote Scruton in the Wall Street Journal, in 2002. “In any conflict, the conservative is the one who sides with ‘us’ against ‘them’ — not knowing but trusting. He is the one who looks for the good in the institutions, customs and habits that he has inherited. He is the one who seeks to defend and perpetuate an instinctive sense of loyalty, and who is, therefore, suspicious of experiments and innovations that put loyalty at risk.”
I am still new to recognising myself as a conservative. There are some things in this passage that really do not sit right with me. “Us” and “them” is unnecessarily binary and combative — a distinction that too easily slides into Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as the relationship between “friend” and “enemy”. I just won’t have that. And, though it pains me to say it, there are times when Scruton seemed to enable something that I do find pretty close to racism. The first issue of the Scruton-edited Salisbury Review contained an essay by John Casey on the politics of race. The presence of “West Indian communities … offends a sense of what English life should be like,” he wrote. What a terrible thing to say.
Scruton himself was much more intellectually considerate to other cultures than this. Be they Hungarian, French, Iranian, Levantine, American — he was far from a chauvinist. But he did think that love was the love of the specific, an “us”. And he celebrated the love of one specific place, England, its countryside, its churches and political traditions.
Looking for the good in things, even those things that have become broken, compromised, cancelled or forgotten, could be another description of the conservative temperament. His essay in The Times, from 1984, titled The Art of Motor-Cycle Maintenance, is a love letter to the repairer. “The person who repairs must love the broken object, and must love the process of repair.” Perhaps it is the Christian instinct in me, but that is how I want people to treat each other. Yes, I feel a sermon coming on. We are all broken, but not looking to be thrown away and replaced. But to be loved. So notwithstanding the fact that Scruton had some views I find unacceptable — on homosexuality, for instance — I still want to see the good in him.
I remain uncertain as to the nature of Scruton’s deeper religious commitments. He once played the organ for me in my church in Kennington. He loved the whole paraphernalia of the English church, its buildings, its music, its liturgy. For all of this, I could not say if he believed in God in the same way that I do exactly. I sensed the degree to which his thoroughgoing empiricism held him back. But he certainly believed in beauty, and that is where his God was to be found.
What this collection of columns demonstrates is the sensitive and emotional temper of his conservatism. He had no time for the kind of brash, money-chasing, me-first philistinism of much that sails under the conservative flag these days. The idea of holding him in the same thought as this trashy lot now in Government who claim the word conservative is an anathema. Scruton was was worth the whole damn bunch put together, as Nick says of Gatsby.
Perhaps he reminds me of a passing age, something slipping away into history, something in need of cherishing and repairing. His world view needs some brushing up and polishing. Some bits need replacing. But what is demonstrated here is a serviceable philosophy of life, intellectually generous, grounded in the specific and the real, and mournful of the destruction that modernity has wrought upon our culture. For all his faults, he was a great man. And we are much the poorer for his passing.