“He seemed bigger than the age.”
Roger Scruton, rest in peace. There are so many tributes and memorials being shared to this man who embodied so much of England and possessed so many of the best instincts of the West. I had the chance to see him speak at Penn in 2017, and will remember that for a very long time. His thinking and his way of living have provided me with a great deal of surety about our culture and confidence in daily life.
Who was Roger Scruton? Why Beauty Matters helps answer this, as does Of Beauty and Consolation, as does How to Be a Conservative, as does this performance of his Lorca songs, set from the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered in the Spanish Civil War. And there’s his writing itself.
I’ll share a few excerpts of his and a few tributes that have been circulating. First, on the imperative to conserve:
“Conservatism … is the instinct we all ultimately share, at least if we’re happy in this world; it’s the instinct to hold on to what we love.”
And: “The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten…”
And: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
What makes Scruton’s conservative instincts remarkable is they did not arise from a lived experience; that is, that he was not born into the privileged place of a life already worth conserving, but the opposite. He speaks to this in his “Of Beauty and Consolation” appearance:
“I was very fortunate in having an unhappy childhood, so that my desire from the very beginning was to escape from it. My childhood home was one of violence and quarrels and discord. Perhaps, of course, this has given me an underlying sense of something missing and that I must recreate it.”
Second, from his book The Face of God on beauty and the transcendence that lies beneath beauty:
“The sense of beauty puts a brake upon destruction, by representing its object as irreplaceable. When the world looks back at me with my eyes, as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way. Something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it … What is revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being—the truth that being is a gift, and receiving it is a task.”
Third, a reflection on incarnation and death, and the otherworldliness we intuit when we encounter the body of the dead. Those are moments where we can acknowledge the sacred nature of that moment or desecrate what we encounter:
Death too presents us with the mystery of our incarnation, though it does so in another way. In death we confront the body voided of the soul, an object without a subject, limp, ungoverned and inert. The awe that we feel in the face of death is a response to the unfathomable spectacle of human flesh without the self. In fact, the dead body is not so much an object as a void in the world of objects—something that ought not to be there, since it ought not to be there as a thing. The sight is uncanny, unheimlich, and demands to be rearranged—though rearranged metaphysically, as it were, so as to heal the void. Hence in all societies the dead are treated with reverence: they become untouchable, precisely in the moment when the self retreats from them. Somehow this body still belongs to the person who has vanished: I imagine him as exerting his claim over it, but from spectral regions where he cannot be touched. In encountering death, therefore, our imagination reaches spontaneously towards the supernatural. The dead body, by becoming sacred, exposes itself also to desecration—a fact upon which the drama of Antigone turns. Just as sex and death provide us with two of our primary experiences of the sacred, therefore, they also present us with a primary threat of desecration.
Here is Chad Pecknold’s tribute: “Sir Roger Scruton has died after a long battle with cancer. A champion of conservative ideas, eloquent defender of the civilizing effect of procreative realism, who made an argument for God from a life of meditating upon beauty. Requiscat in pace.”
And here is Scruton: “The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology.”
He concluded his public life with this: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”