Policy Exchange pays tribute to Sir Roger Scruton

Jan 13, 2020

Policy Exchange extends its condolences to Lady Scruton and the family and friends of Sir Roger Scruton, whose death was announced on 12th January. Sir Roger was the greatest conservative philosopher and cultural thinker of our time.

In Policy Exchange terms, he was recently the co-author of Building More, Building Beautiful with Jack Airey, our Head of Housing. The report’s findings, which showed that there was broad support for traditional architecture among all social classes in Britain, especially socio-economic groups D and E, changed the national conversation around the importance of beauty in the built environment and led to the Government appointing Sir Roger to chair the official Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which will report later this year. Sir Roger also delivered the inaugural Colin Amery Memorial Lecture on “The Fabric of the City” here at Policy Exchange in 2018.

At a belated celebration of his 75th birthday, Professor Robert Grant, formerly of the University of Glasgow – one of Sir Roger’s closest academic and intellectual partners – delivered the following tribute, which we are delighted to publish here with his permission.

Robert Grant on Sir Roger Scruton – a 75th birthday tribute to the greatest polymath of our age

Few individuals have produced 50 books, among them high-level discourses on philosophy, politics, art, architecture, law, Eastern Europe, music, hunting, Islam, and theology. Still less have they written powerful fiction, learnt Turkish, Greek and Czech, or composed at least two operas. Yet Roger is widely recognised as a serious professional authority or practitioner in all these areas, not just one or two. If he is not the greatest polymath of our age, I do not know who is.

More of that later. But first, here is how I came 40 years ago to know him. We had crossed paths very briefly in the early ’70s when I was a Research Fellow of one Cambridge College, Trinity Hall, and he of another, Peterhouse. I was just leaving a friend’s rooms in Peterhouse, and Roger was just arriving, so our exchange was only fleeting. He was polite, I thought, but also shy, reserved and slightly chilly. I recall only that he said something about Wagner. And that was our first encounter, which could well have proved final.

But later, after I had moved to Glasgow University, I was put in charge of our English Department’s visiting speakers’ programme. I had long tired of the direction which lit. crit. had been taking. Traditional criticism, in which I had been brought up, allowed the work to speak for itself. It required not only knowledge and intelligence, but also taste, a sensitivity to nuance, a willingness to listen, and a reluctance to jump to conclusions. This mannerly hesitation had gradually been superseded by the dictatorial imperatives of Marxism, and more recently still by structuralism and post-structuralism. These, the latest Paris fashions, were expounded to me at dinner in 1972 by one of their leading promoters, Jonathan Culler, with sufficient clarity to persuade me, contrary to his intention, that they must be nonsense. Many years later I spent months mugging them up, to prepare for a seminar paper Roger had asked me to give at Boston University, where he now taught. This only confirmed my previous opinion. The work was hell, but the money was good.

A collection by the post-structuralist Jacques Lacan appeared in 1977, and Roger reviewed it in the TLS so irreverently that I laughed out loud. (There were not many laughs in post-structuralism itself.) So I wrote asking him to come and speak to us at Glasgow. He was at Princeton at the time, but on his return he duly came and gave a very successful seminar called ‘What is a Humanity?’, a theme which has preoccupied him ever since. That was the beginning of our relationship. What first drew me to him was that he articulated, and justified, so many of the misgivings, political and other, which had been building up in my mind since, and indeed before, the events of May 1968. Those events, as we know, were a watershed for him too.

Roger visited us at Aldeburgh for a few days in the summer of 1979. Our rented holiday flat was not, in fact, without seating. But I remember him standing incongruously at the sideboard, propping himself up with one hand and holding Plotinus in the other, vainly trying to read this lofty stuff, while our children, then aged seven and five, swarmed clamorously all over him demanding that he play with them. I can hear him now pleading, ‘Oh, Bob, can’t you keep those children quiet?’ 

In subsequent years we saw quite a lot of each other, despite living 400 miles apart. He had struck us, the Grant family, as almost comically other-worldly. When it came to everyday things he seemed endearingly ignorant. He referred in his first novel to Kirby grips as ‘curvy grips’. Well, they are not curved but straight, and secondly, when we were children any normal person visiting a chemist or sweetshop would have seen them displayed on a glossy white card labelled in florid copperplate ‘The “Kirby” Grip’. He asked a friend of ours what a ‘dacoist’ was. Was it perhaps some kind of philosopher? He had evidently not grown up with the likes of Bulldog Drummond and Fu Manchu, together with their full supporting cast of villainous dacoits (i.e. Indian bandits), and, by unconsciously inserting an ‘s’, had obviously taken the word to signify something intellectual.

We thought there was a certain shyness and loneliness about him. He had a vulnerability somewhere, but one unaccompanied by weakness. He seemed guarded, but quite without hostility. He seemed to want to belong, a need on which so much of his social thinking has come to be centred. He told me in the early 1980s that he had never been happy. He has subsequently and poignantly told the world why – that being for family reasons among others – and that he now is happy, thanks to his marriage to Sophie, their children, and the discipline and camaraderie of the hunting field and much else. But he never allowed himself to be dominated by these negative feelings, and was completely free of neediness or self-pity. Few modern writers have so eloquently testified to the importance of nations, institutions, and social co-operation generally in rescuing us from spiritual homelessness.

Roger is a seriously private person. It takes a long time to get to know him. He neither invites nor volunteers confidences. His belated autobiographical turn may well have been a kind of self-exorcism. He appears to have made an almost deliberate effort to shun introspection. He has turned his personality outwards, towards the good, ennobling things of this world, to its sophisticated but harmless enjoyments, to the well-being of others, and neither to the world’s vulgarity, nor inwards to self-absorption, be it exquisitely narcissistic or grimly puritanical.

He has shown extraordinary public spirit. He worries terribly about the world, perhaps to excess, and does what he can to relieve its miseries, but not in the manner of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’ Mrs Jellyby, who neglects her children while sending consignments of knickers to Africa to preserve the natives’ modesty. Nor does he suffer from what Tolstoy’s children called their father’s Weltverbesserungswahn, the delusion that humanity can be transformed wholesale. (It can’t, as both Lenin and his admirer Mussolini discovered.) Roger has done whatever could be done practically and locally, as witness his work with unemployed youth in Swindon, his ventures in war-torn Lebanon and in Eastern Europe during the dark days of Communism, endeavours recognised subsequently in his many honorary degrees, official medals, and similar awards.

All these larger projects have required huge efforts in fund-raising, setting up trusts, and ground-level organisation, for which few people would have had the patience, energy or stomach. His competence at such things is remarkable, especially for an intellectual clueless about Kirby grips. It has always amazed me, for example, both how good, and (to my risk-averse mind) how reckless, he is with money. When he needs it, he gets it, usually by discovering how best to do so and then doing it. The same is true of all his achievements: they proceed from intelligence, resolution, undaunted enterprise, enormous industry, and persistence.

Though an excellent host, even with a large gathering, he is not naturally convivial. He once told me he didn’t like pubs. But he likes drinking decent stuff à deux (or even seul). And we all know he is a first-rate teacher. He never imposes his ideas, just sets them out, or proceeds Socratically to elicit them from the pupil, so that they seem to derive, not from him, Roger, but just from the way things are. In conversation or argument he is modest and concessive, always open to correction or dissent, and never dogmatic.

He has made enemies, of course. A novice monk burned down the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. When arrested, he told the police that ‘its beauty made me feel inferior’. We saw only the other day, and not for the first time, how liars hate and pervert the truth, and for once, how it backfires on them and on those in authority too contemptibly cowardly to support it. Roger has promoted the good, the beautiful and the true, at huge personal cost. These things require sacrifices, but also justify exasperation with, even a certain ferocity towards, those who denigrate them.

Well, ferocity is my response, but not Roger’s. He has a quite unmerited reputation as something of a bruiser. (Truth hurts.) I do not think he can have been present when once, boisterous after dinner, we jovially asked his elder sister Liz what he was like as a child. This is what she said: ‘He was the sweetest, kindest, quietest little boy you can possibly imagine.’

You could have heard a pin drop. These are not the qualities which go to make a Napoleon, or indeed a Sartre, whom Roger admires; but a properly constituted Napoleon, like the affectingly noble-minded Admiral Collingwood in Alfred de Vigny’s military tales, could well have devoted himself to their defence. As for the many-talented but odious Sartre, Roger seems superior to him not only morally, but intellectually too, and to be almost up there with Goethe, though without those ‘hints of egotism’ which Santayana detected. Despite the concerted, decades-long slander and vilification to which Roger is still being subjected, it has seemed of late that this prophet is finally, and officially, being honoured in his own country, as he has long been in others. His work, and his reputation, will endure.

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