By Chip Prehn
Sir Roger Scruton, who died too young last January, came late to fox-hunting but made up for this by becoming one of England’s most avid sportsmen and lovers of the chase. About 2001, I picked up Scruton’s On Hunting (1998). Since it was one of the best books I had ever read, I wanted to know more about the author of whom until that time I knew nothing except that he was an exceptional writer. I learned that Roger Scruton was an eminent English philosopher who published forty-plus books. He was controversial in the eyes of both Labor loyalists and ardent Thatcherites. He was a member of the Church of England and played the organ for his parish church. He and his wife owned a farm where sustainable agriculture was practiced. He spoke half a dozen languages. He appreciated well-made wines and wrote about them contemplatively.
On Hunting will likely be a classic of sporting literature but I shall offer just one paragraph from the little book because it suggests one of Scruton’s most important philosophical concerns.
Those who have hunted know what a horse really is — namely, an inextricable part of the herd, whose intelligence, instinct, and desire are bound up with a collective life and movement. Those who have hunted know also what a dog is — namely, an inextricable part of the pack, whose needs and interests are determined by the common project. (Our pets are miserable and incomplete by comparison.) And those who have hunted know too what human beings are; not what they are on the surface, but what they are deep down, when the accretions of indolence are wiped away, and the hunter-gatherer is again revealed.
What does a fox-hunting philosopher like Scruton have to do with a journal dedicated to the catholic faith as received by the Anglican Communion? He never aspired to be a theologian and his expressed opinions on personal religion were few and far between. He was neither evangelical nor Roman Catholic. He once received instruction from an admired monsignor, but he could not cross the Tiber. He never made Christian doctrine or ecclesiastical politics a hobby. (Fox-hunting was his hobby.) He rarely missed services at his parish church but wasn’t known for coffee-hour appearances. Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012), an essay on the importance of establishment, the beauty of the 1662 Prayer Book, and the putative value of the old hymns and traditional parish life generally, is disappointing in some respects. The Face of God (2012), the Gifford Lectures for 2010, and The Soul of the World (2014) are much more satisfying. A member of no holy clubs, Scruton’s books nonetheless should speak powerfully to Church leaders, divines, and Christians because he spent most of his life studying the very conditions that make belief in our world so difficult.
Scruton came at philosophy as a dedicated husband, father, friend, teacher, musician, art historian, farmer, sportsman, and public intellectual. He approached every relationship with attentiveness, courtesy, and patience. He rarely raised his voice. He was obviously a polymath, but in his opinion he was only what he set out to be: a humble and unpretentious villager who believed, doubted, loved, hated, cogitated, disagreed, lived, and died like his friends. Scruton was without guile. He assumed that it is the simple person who can discern transcendent glory beneath the face of things. He became more and more convinced that there is much treasure to be dug up in the tillage each of us has inherited.
Scruton was well known for his “conservatism.” He did not resist the description but it is important for us to remember that he came by his views after painstaking reflection and a remarkable intuition shaped by a profound understanding of modern philosophy. Left-leaning at Cambridge, his idealism drove him to Paris in 1968 to witness the May Uprising. The experience disillusioned him. He was especially concerned when he watched young Paris leaders — privileged, self-absorbed, sophomoric, and bored — destroy the property of working-class people and the poor. He wondered why the protesters had so little respect for their fellow citizens and why they felt so little gratitude for those who gave them so much: their parents, teachers, and the French state. Some force was driving the protesters, but it was hard for Scruton to relate to them. A kind of misguided Platonism or abstract perfectionism was pushing them to destroy the very foundations of the culture that gave rise to their liberating agenda. There was plenty of liberation but not much fraternity and equality. The protesters were arrogant intellectuals.
Scruton wondered whether a single generation should just decide what is real and what is true. Wouldn’t something that was once taken for true be true still? That which was here before our generation surely remains valuable. What of our inheritance is perhaps permanently valuable and thus indispensable, even if the present generation overlooks or willfully neglects it? These are questions much like those asked by Edmund Burke (1729–1797) at the time of the French Revolution and which gave rise to Burke’s famous Reflections (1790). Burke’s discovery that no little portion of what we inherit from our ancestors — the Church, the Faith, the common law, customs, rituals, stories, traditions, &c. — remain a most valuable source of both our understanding of our current status and one source for the plans most likely to succeed in the future. Scruton constantly reminded his auditors and readers that Burke’s stroke of genius consisted in his realization that even our prejudices reveal an unrecognized corporate wisdom; indeed, our prejudices and biases hold a form of human reason in the way that ore rock holds gold and silver. It is there whether we notice it or not.
Scruton decided while in his twenties that it was an impiety to assume that the past is merely past. Scruton’s so-called conservative outlook was conditioned by his appreciation of Burke but also other paradigmatic Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Hume, and Hegel, of whom Scruton possessed a deep and uncommon knowledge. At the very least, Enlightenment thinkers were committed to the idea that the universe (physical and moral) is governed by laws; that these laws exist already (we don’t make them up); and that these laws are discoverable by human reason. This assumption struck Scruton as entirely rational, promising, and relevant for his own time.
Scruton was interested in the world as we find it. He welcomed healthy change, but he wanted to remember that this world provides a veritable cornucopia of goods — including wisdom — to those who will stop and consider what is being offered. He took from Kant the idea that human beings have a built-in appreciation for the transcendent realm concealed by the face of things in the here and now. We are living in “the time being” and this is our God-appointed lot. He believed that one can faithfully expect a future life without overlooking the importance of this one.
The reader may ask whether Scruton’s radical acceptance of the world as it is means we should resign ourselves to the “vale of tears” in which we live. Scruton would not assume this. In the face of evil, suffering, ignorance, and broken things, we are not called to sit on our hands. He just wanted us to not forget to look in the living past for some of our sensible solutions to problems and perplexities. Should we even look for happiness in this life? Scruton was as convinced as Mother Teresa of Calcutta or any saint that the real choice in life is between temporal happiness or salvation’s eternal beatitude. In a 2018 podcast, he gently rebuked the English journalist James Delingpole for thinking a philosophical conservative should ever be happy. “Critically reflective people are destined not to be happy. … Only people who imagine they can remake the world are happy.”
Scruton believed that the pathology evidenced by our kneejerk need to replace authority and our restless quest for change and novelty can be healed by neither. This English philosopher’s indefatigable criticism of the Left was that the Left practices an inordinate and foolish trust in instrumental rationality. The disrupting dynamic named “cultural Marxism” attracts well-funded, pampered intellectuals who have all the answers and no need for the wisdom of hard-working chaps or of dead sages. Taking a close look at the history of the West since the 17th century, Scruton saw how “the best thinking” leads often enough to utopian policies and wicked regimes of the best and the brightest. Scruton’s courageous response to the Left might be compared to a famous saying of St. Paul: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Though Sir Roger gained much from Enlightenment philosophers, he tilted ferociously against a central dogma of Enlightenment modernity: the notion of the autonomous individual. The Animals put the doctrine in a lyric in 1965: “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.” Scruton saw that autonomous individualism can decay into a form of willed ignorance. The world, given and received gratefully, narrows quickly when the light we see by is our own. In his last published book, Scruton insisted that “the human individual is an artefact brought into being by the customs and institutions of society. … [T]rue liberty arises only from a culture of obedience in which law and community are shared assets maintained for the common good” (Conservatism, 2017, 5). In a film about architecture, he drove home a point larger than architecture. “Architecture which is not respecting the past is not respecting the present, because it is not respecting people’s primary need from architecture, which is to build a long-standing home” (Why Beauty Matters, 2015).
Secularism, agnosticism, and atheism find plenty of room in the void carved out by the new, ephemeral values. If “the Church is the people, not just the steeple,” then we should expect that the void is not outside the Church but inside. Firm and fervent commitment to individual choice and personal freedom often suggests a lack of commitment to the commonweal and to the world as we find it.
We should not be surprised … if God is so rarely encountered now. The consumer culture is one without sacrifices; easy entertainment distracts us from our metaphysical loneliness. The rearranging of the world as an object of appetite obscures its meaning as gift. The defacing of eros and the loss of rites of passage eliminate the old conception of human life as an adventure within the community and an offering to others. It is inevitable that moments of sacred awe should be rare among us” (Face of God, 2012, 177).
Like Burke, Scruton discovered that radical autonomy rejects what the wider community and tradition bequeath to us, and this legacy is authoritative. He spoke and wrote often of the importance of “the first-person plural.” We can see reality better, just as we can best solve problems together. To him it was a matter of common sense that the institutions of the community developed over centuries are literally life-giving. He wrote in The Face of God that human beings “do not create but discover the meaning of our lives, and we can’t do it without the Other. … Forms of communion and community help to answer the Why? question” (Face, 45).
Scruton was not comfortable with all things conservative; far from it. He saw how free enterprise and the free market can create wealth, but he did not believe that the commitment to economic freedoms can dispense with moral imperatives. He saw clearly that capitalism in the early 21st century is broken: For reasons that can (he believed) be explained, Scruton noticed that, in the twinkling of an eye, far too many people were cut off from equal opportunity. Too many young people cannot even get to the ladder toward real financial security, much less begin to climb it. Without flinching, Scruton held globalization a major cause of the increasing gap between rich and poor. Perhaps it is the law of unintended consequences, but smart and elected legislators should be asking who, exactly, benefits from globalization. Someone is benefiting but the prosperity has not been general. Taking on a suspicion worthy of Foucault (whose historical scholarship he admired), Scruton wanted to know what offstage powers actually control the change-agents of the present economic situation? Elected government officials tend to get distracted by the eyewash of epiphenomena. Until government personnel can work together to get down deep to the underlying phenomena themselves, little progress or justice will happen.
But Scruton remained skeptical that big government bureaucracies can solve major problems, economic or otherwise. Well-funded, hyperactive agencies can often remove personal moral responsibility from the individual citizen. This threat to personal morality was a very big deal to Scruton. In How To Think About the Planet (2012), he makes his view plain.
There is a tendency among environmentalists to single out the big players in the market as the principal culprits: to pin environmental crime on those … that make their profits by exporting their costs to others (including the others who are not yet born). … But this is to mistake the effect for the cause. … It is the personal demand for cars, oil, cheap food, and expendable luxuries that is the real cause of the industries that provide these things (Planet, 16-17).
One does not have to be a socialist to believe that a good economy is not about the few but the many. If “free trade” eliminates local jobs or prevents women and men from entering the marketable trade or profession the family has pursued for generations, Scruton decried the myopia and favoritism of the policy-makers. He was all for freedom, but he knew that too much freedom from can leave a person or a society adrift. The needs of the citizenry, the rank and file, should not be a secondary consideration. Scruton understood that markets can rise and fall, evolve and change. Jobs get lost. Workers must find jobs in another sector. But he asked what social goods get lost or stolen when the few who reap the bulk of profits drive economic change? Scruton never wanted people to get devalued in such a situation.
The foregoing paragraphs point (if clumsily for so great a subject) to the term Scruton used in the latter part of his career to carry the freight of his philosophical vision. Oikophilia, “love of home,” is what people possess if they are in the habit of paying very close attention to other people, alive and dead; to the familiar; to the given in this world; and to the well-known and well-loved: These things are “home” and they actually give us our sustenance, our identity (sameness), our integrity (wholeness), and no little portion of our wisdom. What is true of the individual is true of the society in general. Oikophilia makes us comfortable, friendly, loyal, respectful, wholesome, traditional (in the healthiest sense of the word), and genuinely rational. Oikophilia assumes and engenders good relationships with the Other — God, family, the polis, the nation, the earth, the future, the past — anything not us yet what makes us who we are as creatures who give and receive generously. The Church, the British monarchy, the common law, and other historic institutions, traditions, and customs were key aspects of oikophilia for Scruton, but the same idea may be applied to a nation with a republican identity.
Speaking to students in Budapest in 2012, Scruton said, “Harmony can come about, not by politics, but by people who recognize the value of their own life and the value of the life of those around them.” Oikophilia has a way of putting one’s priorities in the proper order and giving one an understanding of how positive, healthy, organic change occurs. A culture or society takes great leaps forward when home is deeply loved. Scruton’s concept of the energy and creativity coming out of oikophilia reminds me very much of the thinking back of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) by T.S. Eliot. True innovation, Eliot argued, stems from what came before, from a particular tradition, and it grows naturally — if startlingly — out of that preexisting root. Don’t most of us experience poems, paintings, fiction, music, and other works of art as monsters when they are not rooted in a tradition? Eliot’s Waste Land (1922) is a good example of an entirely innovative work of art that is yet deeply rooted in a particular tradition.
Scruton was a philosopher. He never pretended to be a spiritual guide or a soul-friend to anyone. But his profound thoughts about the world — in terms of the way we actually live in it now and how we’ve lived in it for millennia — remain valuable to the orthodox religious believer. For him, truth is a large thing, not a small thing. This means that truth is apprehended or experienced in a great many ways, some of them rational and some of them not so rational at all. Scruton always had one toe in Hegel; thus he might say in this context that both ways to truth are ultimately rational if we understand reason correctly. If he gained from Kant the idea that human nature can apprehend the transcendental realm to some degree, he got from Hegel the notion that truth and reality are apprehended in the dialectic of natural and rational processes – above all serious conversation. A glorious reality lives just beyond the surface of things. Scruton’s Kantian assumption combined with the Hegelian expectation reminds me a lot of that famous saying of St. Thomas Aquinas: “The whole of life is a parable of God, who is constantly revealed and concealed in the parable.”
Oikophilia requires that we love and embrace the world yet never absolutize the world. We are just passing through. The world is and is not ours. We have a responsibility to pay attention to those who have come before us and to be thoughtful about those who will come after. Accepting the world for what it is has the effect of softening the blow and changing one’s psychology to that of the person who waits in faith for the dénouement, an outcome that ultimately has little to do with the present world.
Roger Scruton is inspiring, but, if we were to actually adopt his philosophical way of life; if we were to seriously value “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely and of good report” (Philippians 4.8); and if we were to have the courage of our convictions, we must like Sir Roger expect to suffer. If we were committed to oikophilia, we would be heckled at public lectures. At book signings, we would be denounced as dinosaurs, or dismissed as ignorant omniphobes. Scruton wrote in one of his most delightful, autobiographical, and wise books, “It is in the nature of truth to give offense” (I Drink Therefore I am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, 2009, 24). If Sir Roger gave sport with relish (but always calmly), we can only enjoy the spectacle.
Our latter-day experiences in the jungle of Anglophone religious, cultural, intellectual, and political life appears to confirm what Scruton observed: that the world has not changed much at all and human beings are very little improved morally. Perhaps there was some wisdom in the doctrine of original sin after all. Roger Scruton never denied it. But the main thing is the longing only deepened by the beauty all around us. Scruton often quoted St. Augustine’s famous line from the Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in Thee” (Pusey translation). It is a natural and deeply human thing to be restless for our ultimate satisfaction. But to be anxious — that is a sour soup without sweetness, and now we who seem to be stuck in modern and postmodern modes of thinking must stew in it. Scruton was one of those rare thinkers — Rowan Williams is another — who worked and struggled and asked lots of questions in order to understand and appreciate modern and postmodern thinkers and saints, thus leading us into the post-postmodern present. Great souls such as Sir Roger Scruton — thoughtful, quiet, generous, respectful, learned, and deep — make it hard to appreciate the arrogant, intolerant, superficial, and angry prophets of the glorious future that never seems to arrive. The anticlimax points to a reality we often overlook.
The painter Delacroix said that genius is a matter of being practical to a superior degree. Scruton was a genius of this type. His experience of the world led him to propose that oikophilia bears fruit, makes us smarter, and helps us to human flourishing, while what he called oikophobia degrades us. Scruton’s vision included the religious, the political, the social, the cultural, the moral, the aesthetic, and the economic. His ideas were few but his questions, many. “It is my trade to ask questions,” he told his audience in Why Beauty Matters (2015). To ask the best questions and not presume to have all the answers was for him a kind of duty; in any case, it was to his mind the very vocation of a philosopher. Pursuing the best questions is an adventure. It is thrilling because it is dangerous. It speeds up the heart, clears the mind, stiffens the backbone. Sir Roger Scruton’s determined and inspiring pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty reminds us of the enthusiastic, amazing work of a trusted foxhound who draws the scent, runs the line, and never gives up.
Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, a poet, and a director of The Living Church Foundation.