Medicine for the soul: reading Roger Scruton
So why take a look here at two books by a philosopher and polymath, neither of which may appeal to a broad audience?
First, I took a tumble, wrestled with a chair, and fractured three ribs. Confinement to quarters restricted me to the resources of my own library.
Next, I needed a break from the online rage, hysteria, and madness I encounter daily on the sites I visit. More and more, the America I love appears to have become a looney bin but without the requisite counselors or psychiatrists. Rational thinking has flown the coop, and the inmates truly are in charge of the asylum.
Finally, some major political actors on the world stage — and they’re not all Russians — casually bandy about the idea of nuclear war. When you have enough grandchildren to fill both the offensive and defensive units of a football team, as do I, and you hear that some leaders are considering dropping the big one, you start looking anywhere you can for a voice of sanity and reason.
And as readers know, we can often tell a great deal about a person simply from the tone of their voice.
Listen to a speech by Adolph Hitler on YouTube, and we hear belligerence, aggression, and rage, even when we have no idea what he is saying. Listen to Winston Churchill, and we find a voice rock-solid with the strength and assurance necessary to rally his beleaguered people.
Which brings me to Roger Scruton.
Several months ago, after reading Scruton’s “Culture Counts: Faith & Feeling in a World Besieged” (Encounter Books, 2007, 2021, 218 pages), I opened my laptop and listened for about 15 minutes to a YouTube discussion between Scruton and Douglas Murray. Though I’d previously heard Scruton online — I highly recommend his documentary “Why Beauty Matters” — I wanted to hear his voice again once I’d finished his book. Afterwards, I returned to “Culture Counts” and read bits and pieces from both the “Preface” and the last chapter, “Rays of Hope.” Embedded in the print was that wonderful voice: calm, rational, thoughtful, and always searching for clarity and explanations.
In this book, Scruton defines culture as “a relationship of belonging,” a source of “emotional knowledge, knowing what to do and what to feel.” He offers telling comments on our key institutions, reminding us, for example, that “the goal of education is to preserve our communal store of knowledge” and that “we pass on culture, therefore, as we pass on science and skill: not to benefit the individual, but to benefit our kind, by conserving a form of knowledge that would otherwise vanish from the world.” In “Rays of Hope,” Scruton concludes by writing that these rays “suggest a growing movement of revulsion against the prevailing nihilism — both the nihilism of the university, and the nihilism of the marketplace.” He admits that “this movement may not succeed in placing culture once again where it belongs,” but then adds that “it succeeds in showing us why culture matters, and why the battle to conserve it should be properly fought.”
Unfortunately, much has changed, and not for the better, in the 15 years since “Culture Counts” saw the light of day.
With that thought in mind, and wanting to revisit that voice of calm inquiry, I rummaged through my books and found Scruton’s “Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries and Criticisms” (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2022, 256 pages).
Because “Against the Tide” consists mainly of columns in various publications, the book is more approachable than some of Scruton’s other works, like “Culture Counts.” The tone remains thoughtful, but is more conversational, as we might expect from a piece in a magazine or newspaper. Many of the subjects addressed in “Culture Counts” — music, modern architecture, education, communism, particularly in Eastern Europe, and more — appear here as well, but in shorter and more easily-digestible chapters.
By the time I finished reading “Against the Tide,” I had dogeared several pages, marked a dozen others with bits of paper, and bracketed certain passages in pencil. There are too many of these passages and pages to reference here, but I can offer a sampler of two pieces:
“… there is more to life than politics, and even those who lack the deep restfulness that comes from true religion may still find themselves surprised by joy. For consider what has not been destroyed: music, poetry and art; the sacred texts and the secular knowledge that derives from them; the impulse to love and to learn ….”
A good number of Americans, I suspect, have forgotten that politics, politicians, and ideology are not only false gods, but are not, like love and beauty, the most vital things in life.
Here is a second item most of us, including me, forget to our detriment:
“The public square is full of moralizing language about hunting, smoking, drinking, and other forms of enjoyment. But when asked for whose sake this or that is demanded, the answer is always: yourself.”
To closely paraphrase Scruton’s conclusion to that observation: we seem unable to imagine what it would be to do something for any other sake than our own.
So, did reading “Against the Tide” help me in any way? I would say so. Much like the fentanyl patch prescribed by the ER doctor for my busted ribs, Scruton’s voice on the page relieved some of my pain. The source of that pain — the craziness of the world, the looming possibility of war — remained, but Scruton at least reminded me of what it sounds like to be civilized.
Roger Scruton, who died this year, was a conservative and an old-fashioned liberal, depending on how you read him. He was also one of the last of a breed, a gentleman of the old school.
He will be missed.