“Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”
These are the last words Sir Roger Scruton (1944–2020) penned in public. They’re a fitting way to describe the life of a philosopher and gentlemen, to whom many, including myself, owe so much. Scruton died last Sunday morning, surrounded by family and friends. It’s difficult to try to describe the various ways he influenced individuals and movements. He wrote prolifically and on a wide variety of issues, ranging from political philosophy to aesthetics to architecture, even to hunting and wine. He devoted his life to a vision of the world that changed my life. What most will remember about Scruton was his ability to present difficult ideas in an accessible, clear, and compelling manner.
So why should Christians care about this English philosopher and statesman? Two things stand out.
Defender of Beauty
First, he opened my eyes and those of so many others to beauty. In his wonderful work, Beauty, he observes that beauty “is vanishing from the world because we live as though it did not matter.” The beauty of a painting, musical score, building, or book does not reveal its true self with simplistic bromides or quick analysis. Instead, like Scruton taught us, it requires careful study, reflection, and patience.
Scruton devoted his life to a vision of the world that changed my life.
In order to see and love the beauty before us, we must learn to wait for it to show itself, like a beautiful flower that blooms only at a specific time. The goods of creation, their beauty and splendor, will not reveal their glory unless you wait patiently for them. Scruton demonstrates beauty isn’t merely in the eye of the beholder, but an essential part of human existence we ignore to our detriment. I’m currently writing a book on beauty and have dedicated the work to Scruton.
Beauty is a fundamental good, and Scruton is our generation’s best defender of this ancient (and deeply Christian) conviction.
Additionally, I’m afraid the loss of Scruton means the erosion of a kinder, gentler conservatism than what is currently on offer. We’re increasingly susceptible to apocalyptic language and conclusions. While it may galvanize movements and embolden followers, it can’t sustain the kinds of goods necessary to secure and stabilize society. Scruton’s political philosophy—a recent manifestation of a longstanding tradition—understood conservatism to be, first and foremost, a particular posture toward the world around us. Conservatism isn’t primarily about policies, judicial appointments, or legislative achievements. Scruton showed us that conservatism is a settled conviction that we’re given certain goods like truth and beauty we ourselves didn’t acquire but are privileged to pass on. Society is, as Edmund Burke would say, a contract between the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born.
Scruton showed us clear conviction doesn’t necessitate anathematizing your opponent or framing every issue as a zero-sum game. If everything is a war, peacetime feels like compromise.
Christians can see that this disposition—even if you don’t share the political convictions that undergird it—is desperately needed. In an era of rage and resentment we often deploy concepts we don’t understand. We can—and should—do better. Scruton showed us clear conviction does not necessitate anathematizing your opponent or framing every issue as a zero-sum game. If everything is a war, peacetime feels like compromise. But Scruton’s conservatism engenders patience, humility, and compassion toward those with whom we disagree. He showed us there is no need to turn a good insight into something more than what it is. You don’t have to drop a hammer on your ideological “opponent” in order to do that.
Pick Up the Mantle
The posture toward politics and culture that Scruton embodied is, I fear, being forgotten and will one day die out. The task for those of us who loved him, who esteem him as an intellectual mentor, is to pass on this legacy. Scruton’s conservatism attests that the road less traveled, though longer and more difficult, is the better path. As he writes in How to Be a Conservative, “Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
Roger Scruton is gone from this world, but his legacy lives on in those of us who’ve donned the mantle he left for us in his writings and life. The Bible tells us to weep with those who weep, and I grieve to have lost a man I never met.