It might seem inappropriate, even offensive, to say this, but I’ve enjoyed spending time with Roger Scruton today. I know he would understand. I’ve been looking at e-mails from him, and listening to a podcast or two we did together. It’s hard to think of better company.
The great thinker and writer has died today — Sunday, January 12 — at age 75. His books and essays will go on and on.
“His books come at you fast and furious and glorious,” I once said in introducing him. He had recently published three. There are more than 50 all told. Scruton’s books are on philosophy, art, sex, music. It was a pleasure to talk with him about anything and everything — and to learn from him about anything and everything.
Sometimes, the topic of conversation was the latest annoyance or indignity, usually involving politics. In 2016, I sent him a piece about “identity politics” and art, which sprang from an incident at the University of Bristol (in Scruton’s native England). A production of Aida — the musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, not the opera by Verdi, not that it matters — was canceled, owing to upset about race.
He wrote me,
It may interest you to know that the kids at Bristol disinvited me a couple of weeks ago, after I had been invited by the Vice Chancellor to give a Richmond Lecture, on the grounds of things written a quarter of a century ago about homosexuality which do not conform to today’s orthodoxy.
There you go.
You know the phrase “a beautiful mind”? That was the title of a movie in 2001, about the mathematician John Nash. Roger Scruton was — is (what tense to use?) — a beautiful mind. Indeed, I used the phrase for the title of a podcast in 2017.
We talked, early in that podcast, about this “post-truth” age of ours. Roger had just written about it. Here is a paragraph from his article:
The concept of truth has been the victim of massive cyber-attacks in recent decades, and it has not yet recovered. The most recent attack has come from social media, which have turned the Internet into one great seething cauldron of opinions, most of them anonymous, in which every kind of malice and fantasy swamps the still small voice of humanity and truth.
In our podcast, he spoke of truth as a lodestar, and a thing to cling to — a weapon as well. It was truth, he said, that saw us through our struggle with Soviet Communism. One thinks of Solzhenitsyn: “Live not by lies!”
It is a story of Czechoslovakia in the last years of Communism. Roger participated in the underground, to the extent a foreigner could. His book is a political story — it tells you a lot about living in a police state — but it is primarily a love story, I think. And a knockout of a love story.
Incidentally, 1984 is too little credited with being a love story, in addition to all the other things it is.
Obnoxious as it may be to quote one’s own blurb, let me do so in the case of Notes from Underground: “Roger Scruton knows many things, including communism, the human heart, and the English language. He was perfectly positioned to write this extraordinary, haunting novel.”
Yes, indeed. And as I remarked to Roger, it’s one thing to write an elegant novel. Lots of people write elegantly. It’s another thing to have insights worth writing down, elegantly or not.
How does Roger know all that he puts in this book, and his other books? These intricacies of the human heart and so on? Whatever the case, he does, and the elegant writing is almost incidental. Roger Scruton is a seer, which can be unnerving.
In our 2017 podcast, I brought up Kenneth Minogue, and, specifically, something Roger had written about him. Ken was an Australian-born political scientist who died in 2013. I quoted Roger in a piece of my own about Ken. This is what I quoted:
In many ways he was a model of the conservative activist. He was not in the business of destroying things or angering people. He was in the business of defending old-fashioned civility against ideological rage, and he believed this was the real meaning of the freedom that the English-speaking peoples have created and enjoyed.
Scruton further wrote, “For Ken Minogue, decency was not just a way of doing things, but also the point of doing them.”
In my own piece, I wrote, “That is an unusual, striking sentence, worth pondering.” In the podcast I’ve mentioned, I asked Roger to elaborate on it, which he did, eloquently. I will quote just a bit of him: “The idea of decency is an extremely important one, and is fundamental to the sort of worldview that you and I share. We don’t construct our worldview out of ideological nostrums.”
And Scruton’s words about Minogue — they apply to him as well, right?
Okay, a different subject: smartphones. Roger didn’t have one. The rest of us do. He worried about humanity’s attachment to these devices (a literal attachment, certainly in my case). His “main fear” about the smartphone, he said, was that “it is leading people to outsource their entire mental capacities.” He continued, “Their memory is in that little instrument.” And we can hardly find our way to the bathroom without a GPS.
All right, what about music? He was an authority on it and a powerful writer on it, yes. (He had a special relationship with Wagner.) But he was also a practitioner — a composer himself.
When I talked with him in that 2017 podcast, he had been listening to Othmar Schoeck: a Swiss composer whose dates are 1886 to 1957. I had never heard Schoeck or even of him. Roger said, “Look him up.” And then he had a piece of praise for technology: “One of the great things about YouTube is that you can rectify your ignorance straightaway.”
We talked for a bit about the glories of YouTube. But Roger noted a downside: “Whenever you give a lecture, people now will film it, and put it up on YouTube. . . . And there you are, immortalized, with all your mistakes and bad grammar and your rudeness, and you can’t get away with it.”
I had just spoken with Teodor Currentzis, the Greek conductor. One of our topics was YouTube. “It’s like a knife,” he said. “You can cut your bread with it or you can kill someone with it. It all depends on how you use it.”
Of how many different technologies is that true?
Norman Podhoretz told me that he judged Anna Karenina the best novel — ever. I mentioned this to Roger — who agreed. “There are competitors,” he said, including Middlemarch. “But there are weaknesses in the Eliot, and there are no weaknesses in the Tolstoy. Every character is absolutely real, and engaged from the depth of his being in the story. All the details are absolutely right.”
He also named The Brothers Karamazov, Emma, Madame Bovary, and Ulysses. “Those are all books that I read again and again.”
Coincidentally, he had just read — or re-read — War and Peace. It is “wonderful,” he said, but not perfect, like Anna Karenina. The problem is, “it’s got a kind of thesis that impedes the forward movement of the drama,” and “a thesis is an artificial thing that the novelist is imposing on the world, not a thing that grows from the world.”
More than once, naturally — how could we not? — Scruton and I talked about conservatism. He said in 2017, “My life’s work, in a way, has been an attempt to define the word ‘conservatism’ and to rescue it from being a term of abuse.” He wanted it instead to describe “a coherent political philosophy and social outlook.”
Another conversation — a 2015 podcast. I said that I refused to act as “a commissar of conservatism,” a role that many — and many ignorant people — are all too happy to assume. I said that, “if I appointed anyone as commissar, it would be you.” He answered, “I would be very lax in my duties. My view is that the most important thing for conservatives is to be in alliance with each other, not to have witch hunts over small points of doctrine, not to identify heresies and persecute them and so on.”
Does that contradict the 2017 statement I have quoted? I doubt it. Scruton was latitudinarian, as Bill Buckley would say. He was big, broad, capacious. He could bring down the hammer — he had principles — but he was no dogmatist. What genuine conservative is?
Toward the close of our podcast in 2017, I said to Roger, “You strike me as basically content, and not someone who fears for the future. Like any thinking person, you have concerns, but you strike me as someone who is not panicked about the world.”
“Well, it would be nice if that were true,” he replied. “I do have moments of panic, but I also think that we can’t rectify everything. The world is outside our control. All we can ever do is create around ourselves communities of mutual affection and mutual understanding. And to attempt constantly to rectify things is to risk making them worse. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our utmost to rescue people from error and delusion. But . . .”
But we should not knock ourselves out trying to remake the world. Leave that to the Communists (and oppose them without let-up).
At the very end of that podcast, I said, “You mean a lot to a lot of us, and I’m grateful for you. As we said in America in the 1970s, keep on keeping on.” He said, “I will do just that.”
What a useful life — a questing life and a teaching life — from a beautiful mind, and a beautiful person. Wow.
These are just a few notes, and there are a thousand more things to say. Others will say them, and I may say a few more myself. For example, Roger was brave, outstandingly brave — he had nerve. But I’ve said enough, for now. So grateful for this marvelous, brainy, benevolent fellow. A knight — “Sir Roger” — and not just literally.