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.