Roger Scruton. Confessions of a Heretic. Kendal, UK: Notting Hill, 2021.
“Heretic might seem like a strong word to describe Roger Scruton,” writes Douglas Murray in his introduction to a new edition of Roger Scruton’s anthology of essays Confessions of a Heretic. In the wake of Roger’s death in 2020, the British public and cultural intelligentsia lost a figure who was one of a kind. As Murray notes, “After all, while other people might have been able to write one of his books, who else could have written them all?” As a former student of Roger’s, when asked what of the many voluminous works of the sage to read, where should I point them? His writings on Wagner? His writings on aesthetics and architecture? His writings on conservatism? What about wine? Perhaps this little volume now suffices.
If people know anything about Roger Scruton it is that he was something of a conservative philosopher. In a world dominated by pseudo-intellectuals, almost all of whom are liberal or lefties, Roger stood apart. Not merely because he was a self-declared conservative, but also because he wasn’t a “faker” in the intellectual life. It is, then, appropriate that this short volume of essays begins with a distinction between the liar and the fake; the liar is bad enough, the faker, worse—and Roger undresses the fake.
Roger’s academic life came to an end not because of he lacked intellectual substance—far from it, the fact that even after he embarked on a career outside of the academy and still wrote well-received works on Kant, Spinoza, and introductions for Oxford University Press speaks for his intellectual depth. It was because he dared challenge the public leftwing orthodoxy by skewering leftwing icons in 1986: Thinkers of the New Left, now republished as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. The fact that Roger wrote on politics, wine, music, art, beauty, philosophy, religion, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Wagner, and other individuals and subject matter is a testament to his erudition not amateurism as unread critics might charge (which was all too common in critiques of Roger; the great unlearned and unread, faking as if they were learned, assaulting a man who was unarguably learned and read). Per Murray, “After all, while other people might have been able to write one of his books, who else could have written them all?”
But perhaps Roger’s excommunication from the Ivory Tower was to his benefit. He enjoyed the freedom of life as a result of that excommunication. He still won the laurels and admiration of others despite not being a tenured professor at Oxbridge or the Ivies.
Confessions of a Heretic is Roger’s attempt to bring together the depth of his intellectual considerations. Art, music, politics, animals, conservationism, nationhood, the meaning of conservatism, are all sampled by the selection of essays offered in this pithy little volume originally published in 2016 but now given a brilliant short introduction by his late in life friend Douglas Murray whose short introduction sets the stage and context for Roger’s life and work.
I have written elsewhere that the Roger I knew, and that the Roger that everyone should know, is the Roger of love. If there is one theme that unites the seemingly disparate collection of essays ranging from how to love animals to music to politics to environment, it is love. Roger’s wrestling with love, its meaning, purpose, and our own bastardization of love in modernity—turning it either into a commodity of utilization or sentimental kitsch—is what is found spanning the anthology of essays.
For instance, in dealing with kitsch and faking artistic genius, Roger writes, “All sentimentality is like this: it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it.” In other words, rather than love objects for their own worth and value, we fake love of objects to make ourselves feel good. Kitsch is the ultimate form of narcissism. Though “Faking It” is an essay mostly on art, we can draw connections and conclusions to the tyranny of sentimental political activism so dominant in 2022 and beyond. “Kitsch tells you how nice you are.” How nice I must be to engage in the empty platitude of political marches while doing nothing to change my life to make an impact in what I’m marching for, I cannot help but thinking.
Roger was also a conservationist. While he hesitated to use the term environmentalism, he often went to great lengths defending conservatism and conservation of nature. To him, being conservative meant taking the natural order of the world seriously. His essay “Loving Animals” and “Conserving Nature” give the reader the green side of Roger’s personal and political thinking as it relates to the conservative’s relation to the world and not just the market. We see in these essays love as governing Roger’s heart in his relationship to animals and the British countryside.
If he is most famous as a conservative political thinker—though I think he was far more than that—his essays “Governing Rightly,” “The Need for Nations,” and “Defending the West” highlight Roger’s ruminations on the nature of conservatism in political philosophy and international political theory. Perhaps scandalously to American anti-government militants, Roger reminds us that conservatism—properly understood—isn’t about hostility to government but articulating the proper bounds of government which is necessary for us to live a social and, therefore, free and loving life. We are not free in the state of nature. Neither are we socialized, civilized, and loving. We learn to love in social organizations, mature our love in association, and find pride in our communities and nations precisely because we live in orderly countries with governments that honor our sociality and loving hearts rather than attempting to socially engineer sociality and impose a new morality of love upon us.
I have found the Roger of aesthetics, principally in architecture and music, to be the secret Roger that few people know about but whom we should all become acquainted with. While his trilogy on Wagner would be a great place to get a fuller treatment Roger’s musical tastes and philosophical erudition, and while his writing on beauty for Oxford University Press includes a fuller treatment of the importance of beauty regards to architecture and public space, the essays “Building to Last” and “Mourning our Losses” (a reflection on Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” and the musical tradition of elegy) expose the reader to another side, the aesthetic side, to Roger. Yet again, however, we find love as the underpinning element to those essays as well: love in ordered beauty and love in the form of mourning and elegy.
Given his recent death, the essay “Dying in Time” takes on greater poignancy than when first published. But in between the lines what gives Roger the impetus to reflect on death and dying is a life well-lived, in other words, a life that was loved and loving which causes one to be thankful for life rather than hostile and angry at it. Maybe those getting close to that stage can pick up and no longer be frightened. Those of us still far away from that stage can take the wisdom of a now deceased sage and be prepared for that inevitable encounter and do so with grace and love instead of fear and regret.
If there is primer, a short introduction, to Roger Scruton, Confessions of a Heretic is it. While only 11 essays, the relative brevity of this book doesn’t negate the penetrating depth of the considerations contained therein. As Douglas Murray reminds us at the conclusion of his introduction, “While the length of his own life is over, its depths remain here as in other volumes: ready for new generations of readers to discover and find deep fulfillment in.”
This review was originally published at VoegelinView, 27 February 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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