The ideas of the British philosopher Roger Scruton (1944-2020) formed the basis of Forum for Democracy’s agenda. In this ode to his mentor, Thierry Baudet recollects his fondest memories and summarizes Scruton’s central ideas.
The last time I spoke to Roger Scruton was a week or so before his death, in January 2020. I rang him up and he still sounded optimistic and full of hope. The metastatic cancer in his lungs seemed to have been successfully contained and he was eager to go for it, to make a splash and to infuriate his opponents. We made plans for me to see him and his wife Sophie again ‘at the frume’ – Scrutonspeak for his farm in Wiltshire. (He had such secret names for almost everything in his life, enchanting ordinary things and events, and the names filled them with a hidden, deeper meaning).
This farm - sometimes known as ‘Scrutopia’ - did not merely serve to give shelter: it was in fact a living experiment, an attempt to accomplish what he saw as the greatest challenge of modern times, namely to provide a home for the spiritually homeless. It was a place to practice ‘settling’: to live with the seasons, with horses and chicken and homegrown vegetables. It was a ‘somewhere’ as opposed to the ‘nowhere’ of anonymous metropolises and the consumerism of detached global citizenship.
I met Roger Scruton for the first time in 2006, when I had invited him to give a lecture to my student society in Amsterdam. To my great surprise and excitement he actually agreed to come. The student conference was a success and we started a correspondence in which he offered to co-supervise my PhD-dissertation on the significance of sovereignty in the modern age (2012). (Such co-supervision was possible at the time under Dutch academic statute). He brought me to Oxford and arranged for me to stay alternately with him in the countryside and with a spectacularly upstage don at New College. Dearest of all, he introduced me to his goddaughter indicating that (and it is as if I can still hear him utter these words) ‘It would be a very good thing’ if she and I ‘were to fall in love’ - an instruction given while he subtly gesticulated with his hands in a priestly way and which we both instantly and intensely heeded (although only for a short while).
In the years that followed, Roger Scruton and I were often in intense contact, at other times less so. He seemed to shy away from symmetry in personal relations, preferring to remain in the background as a discrete source of inspiration to a close friend. He felt more at ease amongst rigidly orthodox or conservative people (whom he resembled less, strictly speaking) than with those who, like himself, had also lived the modern life and who shared his private ambivalence about it. As much as this hurt me (because I did not understand why he always kept his distance and therefore felt rejected), his books and ideas nevertheless continued to shape me deeply. They formed the philosophical basis for my own books and for the Forum for Democracy, my political party and movement for change.
Scruton’s philosophy - indeed, his entire approach of life - always started with an experienced reality and not with a theoretical model. The most fundamental of such experiences, he felt, was the sense that we have lost our natural way of being at home in the world. He believed that the all-determining condition of modern times - brought about in a series of dramatic consecutive events, from the French Revolution, to industrialisation, secularisation and the invention of the internet - was an overall disconnectedness. His vision was that we ought to retrieve a sense of ‘embeddedness’, which then quite naturally fuelled his criticism of uncontrolled immigration, modern architecture and sexual promiscuity. It also naturally brought him to defend the traditional family, national sovereignty and pre-industrial practices and habits, such as hunting.
Much more than mere intellectual advocacy, however, his work really seems to have been an attempt to express the pain of farewell and loss. Everything he wrote can therefore be regarded as an elegy. It was meant to cradle what has been lost in such a way that it may shortly come back to us and briefly - albeit perhaps only in the mind of the reader - live once again. This dream of renaissance was the project of Roger Scruton’s life, and through all his incredible endeavours he sought to open the hearts of his readers and students to that possibility
That is also why he commenced one his works he was particularly fond of - his book on England, his England - with the Hegelian owl of Minerva spreading its wings only at the gathering of dusk. “Hegel's words ring true of every form of human life,” he writes in England: an elegy (2001). “It is only at the end of things that we begin to understand them. And understanding them, we know that they are lost. Which comes first - the understanding or the losing? Often it seems that we kill things by examining them; and then again, that understanding is a way to keep what we value, when all other means have vanished.”
Such a feeling of detachment and loss had accompanied Roger Scruton from his earliest childhood. He experienced little warmth in his parental home, and as a boy he left school before he had even finished his a-levels. As a stowaway, he boarded a ship and travelled around for a year. Due to exceptional exam results, he nevertheless got accepted at Cambridge to read philosophy. He specialised in aesthetics – the discipline of the beautiful and of balance: embeddedness. Present in Paris during the student riots of May 1968, he experienced such profound aversion towards the revolutionaries that he felt the urge to become politically active. Looking out over the Quartier Latin from his attic student room and witnessing the Foucault-induced protesters, he later recounted that he had sworn that, ‘Whatever they believed, I would believe the opposite.’
Thus he became an unwavering opponent of the leftist – or, as he preferred to call it, ‘oikophobic’ – vogue that would dominate the Western world for decades to come and which amounted, in his view, to a repudiation of the home, a rejection of one’s own culture and way of life, an embracing of precisely that detached state of being which Scruton thought was the fundamental problem of the modern age.
After first voicing these ideas and thoughts in his 1980 tome, The Meaning of Conservatism, he experienced how singular he actually was in these ideas. He became effectively ostracised from the academic world. Years of laborious freelance existence followed, in which short successes – an advisory role to Margeret Thatcher, a weekly column for The Times – descended into conflicts and libel suits. Meanwhile, he obsessively furthered his oeuvre, delivering book after book - on Spinoza, Kant, architecture, musical theory, Christianity and sexuality. His work ultimately comprised more than 50 non-fiction works, in addition to two operas and a handful of novels.
During those years, he became active in supporting dissident voices in communist Eastern Europe, had numerous girlfriends, flirted with conversion to Islam, taught himself ancient Greek, then learned Arabic, Czech, Polish and Turkish, until at last he accepted English rural life with his farm, his church and his family as the proper response to the modern, uprooted way of life. This was a life he had thoroughly lived and devoured yet which he came to reject, perhaps precisely because he was not insensitive to its temptations.
Towards the end of the 1990s, he finally started to receive proper recognition for his intellectual work. With his brilliant interpretation of the clash between the Islamic world and the Atlantic alliance, in the wake of September 11th, 2001 (The West and the Rest) he then broke through, once and for all, to a mainstream audience. In the years that followed, Scruton acquired little short of world fame. On several occasions in his presence I heard people referring to him as ‘the greatest mind of the West.’
This newfound status, however, did not merely provide pleasure. From the moment I first met Roger Scruton until our final phone call, a few weeks before his death, he always emphasized being ‘an outsider.’ In a way, he seems to have thrived on resistance and conflict and therefore he was suspicious when he was embraced (both literally and figuratively). Often, I have thought that he was at his best in short-lived, razorsharp columns and even more: in dinner table conversations. Utterly brilliant were the nights at his kitchen table, in the company of people from all walks of life: his extended family, grown up daughters from ex girlfriends in Eastern Europe, a befriended gay couple, and so on. Entangled in several dialogues simultaneously, Scruton would defend religious sentiment, attack modern architecture, tackle neoconservatism whilst explaining the finesses of Mozart and praising the heart of a cleaning lady. Of course, these brainy journeys would always be undertaken with a notepad by the side of his plate, not only because he was insistent one had to write 500 words a day (‘no matter how uninspired’), but also because the bottles we drank had to be reviewed for a wine magazine the next day
Restless Roger. He was my mentor, my PhD-supervisor and, for a brief little moment, my ‘father in law’. He was my friend, although I was never sure to what extent. Once, when he invited me over for a couple of weeks, he took me hunting with the Duke of Beaufort’s grounds. He bought us beef pie at Oxford’s covered market and taught me to listen to Wagner’s Parsifal while we drank the Sauternes Evelyn Waugh had described in Brideshead Revisited: Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Yet when I left the next morning to return home, I did not even get to shake his hand. He just said: ‘Well, I’ll see you when I see you,’ and waved somewhat clumsily before walking off. Perhaps he was thinking about the metaphysics of the free will. Or about second dynasty hieroglyphs. But perhaps he was also painfully avoiding his incapacity really to reach out and establish an intimate, personal bond.
Until the very last moments of his life, Scruton worked tirelessly on a book about this very opera we had listened to together, Parsifal, his favorite, his dearest, in which all elements of his life seemed to come together: the struggle to regain religion, of course, but also the ambivalence of sexual commitment, the struggle to resist modernisation in artistic style and maintain musical tonality, while still finding a voice to talk about life in the modern world - but an opera which most of all, really, is about the recovery of the lost home. By the bitter-sweetest twist of fate, he was unable to finish precisely this crucial book.