“And that is why I will miss Roger Scruton, enemy of my beliefs that he was.”
“To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long—that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate and to forget (a good example of this in modem times is Mirabeau, who had no memory for insults and vile actions done him and was unable to forgive simply because he—forgot). Such a man shakes off with a single shrug many vermin that eat deep into others; here alone genuine ‘love of one’s enemies’ is possible—supposing it to be possible at all on earth. How much reverence has a noble man for his enemies!—and such reverence is a bridge to love.—For he desires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction; he can endure no other enemy than one in whom there is nothing to despise and very much to honor!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
As a Bernie Sanders supporter who believes our society needs extensive changes, I naturally agreed with Roger Scruton on very little. My first encounter with his work was during my undergraduate degree when he had long been established as the most important conservative intellectual of the era. Getting a grip on his oeuvre was always a challenge since he wrote and published so voluminously on such a wide variety of topics, while also continuously offering lectures and interviews. Not all he said and did was good or even worthwhile. I read his comments about Islam and about LGBTQ individuals with reactions ranging from bemusement to disappointment. As I pointed out in a review of his book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Scruton had a frustrating way of looking past the myriad sins of conservative thinkers and actors, while fixating entirely on their achievements. The result was often a hagiographic account of conservatism which was inspiring to many on the political right but, at the same time, ignored its darker but often interesting historical corners. On occasion his tendency to be blunt in denouncing political opponents edged close to being shrill rather than just interesting, such as when he denounced honest counter theorists as fools and lunatics.
All of this said, I was saddened to hear of his death earlier this week at the age of 75. Scruton displayed many of the virtues that are difficult to find in today’s one-dimensional media environment, particularly as the influence of post-modern conservatism pushes out genuine thinkers in favor of partisans and conspiracy theorists. He displayed intense erudition, interdisciplinarity, and, above all else, a curiosity about the world. Scruton’s writing moved effortlessly among discussions of literature, philosophy, and politics with prose that was never less than witty—and that brimmed with character. Most importantly, he had a tremendous talent for simplifying complex ideas in a way that kept their nuance and richness intact. His eminently readable manuals like How to Be a Conservative are a case in point. To be able to simplify without loss, one needs to truly understand and admire one’s subject matter. And Scruton surely did whenever he was writing about his beloved topics, and his passion showed on every page.
Scruton could even be eminently generous to intellectual opponents he felt were worthy of respect…
More than anything, what I admired about Scruton was his willingness to take intellectual disagreement seriously. As mentioned, Scruton could occasionally have his overly partisan moments when discussing the political left, which were unworthy of a man of his intellectual talent. But he never showed a disinterest in taking the other side seriously, such as by writing books and articles running through where he felt Slavoj Žižek went wrong—and where socialist rationalists misunderstood human nature. Scruton could even be eminently generous to intellectual opponents he felt were worthy of respect, as in this telling paragraph discussing the work of Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty:
“Foucault’s approach reduces culture to a power-game, and scholarship to a kind of refereeing in the endless “struggle” between oppressed and oppressing groups. The shift of emphasis from the content of an utterance to the power that speaks through it leads to a new kind of scholarship, which bypasses entirely questions of truth and rationality, and can even reject those questions as themselves ideological. The pragmatism of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty is of similar effect. It expressly set itself against the idea of objective truth, giving a variety of arguments for thinking that truth is a negotiable thing, that what matters in the end is which side you are on. If a doctrine is useful in the struggle that liberates your group, then you are entitled to dismiss the alternatives. Whatever you think of Foucault and Rorty, there is no doubt that they were intelligent writers and genuine scholars with a distinctive vision of reality. They opened the way to fakes but were not fakes themselves.”
This is a far more nuanced take than the legions of empty takedowns on Foucaultian theory and post-modern Neo-Marxism one sees today. Contemporary political discourse on the Right would be far more interesting and useful if more commentators followed Scruton’s example and offered real analysis and arguments rather than snappy one liners and endless op-eds criticizing 20-year olds marching on college campuses to protest Halloween costumes.
And that is why I will miss Roger Scruton, enemy of my beliefs that he was. At his best Scruton elevated dialogue between political ideologies and made all of us progressives a little more intelligent and sharp in defending our positions. He also offered a clear vision of what conservatism is and should be for both proponents and critics, which will likely serve as a reference point for decades—if not generations—to come. Friedrich Nietzsche insists that the quality of a person can in part be determined by a willingness to show gratitude for his enemies. So let me say I am grateful to Scruton for years of interesting (though sometimes infuriating) reading. And I look forward to many more such years as I run through an immense back catalogue. No doubt Scruton would be pleased.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof