The Corner

Culture

Sir Roger Scruton: A Life of Learning

People sometimes ask me how I came to be a conservative, growing up in Scotland. At first, I took this as an accusation and, instead of answering it, provided a comprehensive list of reasons why I wasn’t subscribed to more fashionable ideologies (e.g. feminism, socialism, or progressivism). But after years of reading Roger Scruton — Britain’s best-known conservative philosopher who died on Sunday at the age of 75 — my thinking slowly changed.

It was the director of music at the University of St. Andrews who first introduced me to Scruton. Addressing our choir, he said that Scruton, who was then a visiting professor, would be giving a lecture on the philosophy of music that we might like to attend. He made sure to add some snide remark that he “obviously” didn’t find his views on other subjects so worthwhile, which got a laugh. I asked my friend what he had meant by this. “Scruton’s, like, an arch-conservative,” she said. “And a homophobe” (which is nonsense).

I never did attend that lecture, but I looked him up. In one YouTube interview, Scruton explained that he had embraced conservatism while a student in France, at the age of 24, after witnessing the May 1968 protests. I wondered whether many conservatives first realize what they are not. After seeing this tawny-haired “arch-conservative” from the choir benches at several evensong services, I decided to see what he had to say. First, I read Aesthetics of Music. Then, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy; The Face of God; The Uses of Pessimism, and, with much trepidation, How to Be a Conservative. 

Immediately, I could tell that Scruton was not another bluffing and blustering pseudo-intellectual, but the real deal. Whether or not I agreed with him, he was evidently a learned man who had devoted his life to reading and thinking through other people’s ideas, not just espousing his own. He was not an ideologue; he was an anti-ideologue. In his book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Scruton described conservatism as being “about our whole way of being, as heirs to a great civilization a many-layered bequest of laws, institutions and high culture.” He also he explained what the alternatives are:

The term ‘liberal’ is now used in two conflicting ways, on the one hand to denote the politics and philosophy of individual liberty, as advocated by Locke and his followers, on the other hand to denote the ‘progressive’ ideas and policies that have emerged in the wake of modern socialism. In effect, the two ideas belong to two contrasting narratives of emancipation. Classical liberalism tells of the growth of the individual liberty against the power of the sovereign. Socialism tells of the steadily increasing equality brought about by the state at the expense of the entrenched hierarchies of social power.

In a 2018 interview for National Review, Sir Roger told me that classical liberalism and conservatism have become closely aligned in today’s culture wars, in part “because there are so many people who wish to control us, and in doing so to wipe away the image of the past.” But he noted an important distinction: “Conservatives believe in unchosen obligations (pieties), whereas classical liberals think that the only source of obligation is choice.”

The most attractive piety of conservatism is, at least to me, a humble pursuit of lifelong learning. And in that regard, Scruton lived by example. May he rest in peace.

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

The March for Life Is a March for Truth

Pro-lifers are marching today, as they do every year, to commemorate a great evil that was done in January 1973 and to express solidarity with its innocent victims. The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade eliminated legal protections for unborn children in all 50 states, and did so without any ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The March for Life Is a March for Truth

Pro-lifers are marching today, as they do every year, to commemorate a great evil that was done in January 1973 and to express solidarity with its innocent victims. The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade eliminated legal protections for unborn children in all 50 states, and did so without any ... Read More
White House

On the Bidens, Schiff Opened the Door

You opened the door. Trial lawyers live in fear of that phrase. When a trial starts, both sides know what the allegations are. Both have had enough discovery to know what the adversary will try to prove. Just as significantly, both know what their own vulnerabilities are. A litigator spends his pretrial ... Read More
White House

On the Bidens, Schiff Opened the Door

You opened the door. Trial lawyers live in fear of that phrase. When a trial starts, both sides know what the allegations are. Both have had enough discovery to know what the adversary will try to prove. Just as significantly, both know what their own vulnerabilities are. A litigator spends his pretrial ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Clarence Thomas Speaks

Those who know Justice Clarence Thomas say that any perception of him as dour or phlegmatic couldn't be more off-base. He's a charming, gracious, jovial man, full of bonhomie and easy with a laugh, or so I'm told by people who know him well. On summer breaks he likes to roam around the country in an RV and stay ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Clarence Thomas Speaks

Those who know Justice Clarence Thomas say that any perception of him as dour or phlegmatic couldn't be more off-base. He's a charming, gracious, jovial man, full of bonhomie and easy with a laugh, or so I'm told by people who know him well. On summer breaks he likes to roam around the country in an RV and stay ... Read More
U.S.

Nadler’s Folly

Jerry Nadler must have missed the day in law school where they teach you about persuasion. The House Democrat made a critical error early in the trial of President Trump. He didn’t just say that Republican senators, who voted to begin the proceedings without calling witnesses, were part of a cover-up. He said ... Read More
U.S.

Nadler’s Folly

Jerry Nadler must have missed the day in law school where they teach you about persuasion. The House Democrat made a critical error early in the trial of President Trump. He didn’t just say that Republican senators, who voted to begin the proceedings without calling witnesses, were part of a cover-up. He said ... Read More