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Remembering Sir Roger Scruton, Two Years On

“At the time, I would not have guessed my encounters with Roger through YouTube and a handful of books would lead me to studying with him just prior to his death.”

Sir Roger Scruton passed away on January 12, 2020. The world lost a great and important voice for the intellectual life with his death. While Roger is simultaneously remembered as a philosopher of conservatism and aesthetics, the Roger Scruton I knew was, and will remain, a philosopher of love. In fact, all of his writings emanate with his wrestling with love and its meaning and implications for human existence, the world we inhabit, and the world that may lay beyond where we have our feet firmly planted.

I encountered Roger as an undergraduate student in philosophy. I was also beginning to develop an interest in aesthetics and there was this rambunctious English philosopher who looked like a cross between Lord Byron’s messy dress and hair with deep intellectual insight and knowledge. I began listening to lectures and picking up his short introduction to beauty by Oxford University Press. I ended up buying more of Roger as the years went: The Face of God, The Soul of the World, Understanding Music, Death-Devoted Heart, The Ring of Truth. When not study-drinking or reading patristic writings and biblical source materials for my degree at Yale Divinity School, I was reading an English philosopher whom I was growing to love more and more. 

At the time, I would not have guessed my encounters with Roger through YouTube and a handful of books would lead me to studying with him just prior to his death. When I had an off-chance run-in with some former classmates at Yale at the National Gallery in London—I was preparing to give a tour through the mythological and religious paintings for a fellow student studying with Roger—one former classmate desired to know how studying with Roger was, given that she had read some of his works for her art and religion coursework at Yale. I filled her in, and she was, admittedly, jealous that I had such an opportunity.

Roger’s life and career spanned many decades and has many famous moments: his “becoming conservative” witnessing the Paris Riots of 1968; his working with the anti-communist intellectual underground behind the Iron Curtain during the final decade of the Cold War; his ostracization in the British academy for daring to critique the pantheon of New Left thinkers; to the indignity of a New Statesman’s editor hit job on him at the tail end of his life. There is little reason to go through this as it is all well-known.

Three major intellectual currents concerned Roger during his life: the nature of conservatism, aesthetics, and music (perhaps his greatest love).

On conservatism, there has been much ink spilled over what it is and what defines it. In Gentle Regrets, Roger identified conservatism not in systematic ideology, not in reaction to anything, not even predicated on rationalism and rationality. Rather, Roger argued that love was the basis for conservatism, “Conservatism is founded on love: love of what has been good to you, and forgiveness of what has not.”

That conservatism is rooted in love was also the focus of my thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke while studying in England. For conservatism to be grounded in love entails conservation of what one loves. If you love something, you do not destroy it. If you love something you want to be drawn closer to it. You subsequently take care of it and seek to preserve it as long as possible. This also makes conservatism malleable rather than static; it also transforms conservatism into a philosophy of the human heart rather than the mere acceptance of tradition. Perhaps tradition is good and beautiful, leading us to love aspects of tradition. Perhaps tradition is ugly, offering nothing to love, thus permitting us to relinquish it without much concern or sadness. Love as an active reality ensures a fluidity to conservatism rather than a static formalism as critics have charged and explains why conservatism constantly augments itself.

In fact, Roger’s witnessing of the May 68 Riots in Paris factored on the disposition of love. Roger has repeatedly stated in interviews and writings that he did not share the rage and resentment the rioters did. He loved some of the good and beautiful things that were being destroyed. In the recognition that that difference between him and the rioters was that he loved while they raged, he became a “conservative” because the conservative’s inclination is love, and love leads to preservation. Roger articulated, for me, an understanding of conservatism that I had yet encountered: a philosophy rooted in love rather than principles (such as limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense—blah, blah, blah—or the veneration of tradition for the sake of tradition).

If love was central to Roger’s understanding of conservatism, so too was love an essential component of his understanding of beauty. So much so that beauty and love are inseparable from each other. The encounter with beauty is an encounter and experience with love; the converse is also true, the experience of love an encounter with the beautiful. (So too, I argued concerning the political aesthetics of Burke.) 

Charting out the nature of beauty, Roger spent considerable time addressing Platonic eros and its relationship to beauty, the desire for beauty was the same passionate, strong, desire that Plato equated with eros: “Eros was identified by the Greeks as a cosmic force, like the love that, according to Dante, ‘moves the sun and the other stars.’ Plato’s account of beauty in the Phaedrus and the Symposium therefore begins from another platitude: Beauty, in a person, prompts desire.”

Beauty is not merely a thing that exists for a disinterested gaze. Beauty is a force of attraction, and, as a force of attraction, love is therefore integral to any understanding of beauty. The encounter with beauty is necessarily an encounter with love which compels us closer to beauty, to know beauty, to come into a relationship with beauty. Thus, the love that is so essential to beauty also has a transcendent dimension to it: “The love of beauty is really a signal to free ourselves from that sensory attachment, and to begin the ascent of the soul towards the world of ideas, there to participate in the divine version of reproduction, which is the understanding and the passing on of eternal truths.”

Love as an active force, or a governing spirit, is what makes the beautiful—well—beautiful. For the beautiful attracts. The beautiful awakens. The beautiful invites contemplation. The beautiful causes us to embark on a journey. The beautiful enlivens both body and soul, heart and mind. But what permits beauty to achieve these things is the love that is part of beauty. That beauty entails love is a mystery. But, as Roger forcefully argues, we implicitly know—or at least feel—that this is true.

From the love of beauty to the love of music, the Roger Scruton that most impressed me and loved the most was the Roger of music—especially musical aesthetics. 

Like his considerations on beauty and politics, love was also the core of Roger’s understanding and longstanding waltz with music: its beauty, its power, its élan vital. And while Roger scoured the scope of musical history, one composer attracted his attention more than any other: Richard Wagner. Why? Because Roger believed that what emanated from Wagner’s music genius and ecstasy was his wrestling with the power of love and its role in the cosmos and human existence. 

Roger wrote an unofficial trilogy on Wagner’s three greatest musical dramas, which he saw, implicitly, as interlinked together as the great composer charted out his idea of love over time: Tristan and Isolde, The Ring of the Nibelung, and Parsifal. In all three books—Death-Devoted Heart, The Ring of Truth, and Wagner’s Parsifal—Roger devotes much time to the philosophy of love and how it is incorporated in Wagner’s operatic masterpieces. And just as Wagner’s views on the role of love changed with age over the course of operas, so too does it seem that Roger’s views of the place of love in the hierarchy of musical value change.

In Death-Devoted Heart, Roger argues that what makes the opera powerful is the sanctifying eros that our protagonists exhibit despite the tragic ambiance and environment surrounding them. Erotic love, in Roger’s analysis of Wagner, is the highest manifestation possible for human freedom and sanctification. In erotic love, the totality of the human condition makes itself known: its hopes and failures, its compassion and vengeance. Erotic love stands on a precarious wire, a bow—much like Tristan and Isolde in the opera—and this leads, ultimately, to a consummating bond in marriage which “redeems” or fulfills the erotic passions of subject creatures. “[M]arriage is not a defiance of erotic love but rather its climax and fulfillment,” he writes.

As played out in Tristan and Isolde, it is the dual eros that Tristan and Isolde have for each other that brings two star-crossed lovers together in the promise of marriage. In the midst of political scheming and turbulence, their erotic longings lead to their commitment to one another. When that vow is broken, tragedy befalls our heroes. They die. But their death is not so much the tragic justice demanded of broken vows but, rather, the redemptive manifestation of their original erotic love—a testimony of their actual (and original) fidelity that was broken by a myriad of external circumstances without their perfect knowledge of. Because we know the circumstances that led to their deaths, their deaths as staying true to their original vow of erotic consummation is what manifests redemption and makes the spirit of love so palpable and powerful. We cannot help but simultaneously weep and cheer for Tristan and Isolde at the opera’s conclusion.

Erotic love is also the central concern in The Ring of the Nibelung. Roger’s treatment of The Ring cycle stands alongside other monumental treatments of Wagner’s greatest work, like Deryck Cooke’s I Saw The World End. (Even though both writers have dramatically different understandings of the work.)

Within The Ring cycle, Roger sees Wagner’s treatment of erotic love wrestling with, reiterating, and completing the composer’s treatment of eros in Tristan and Isolde. There is a Hegelian movement of eros from the sexual frustration of Alberich and Fafner and Fasolt which brings forth “the fall” of the world: both in the Rhine and in the heavens (turning Alberich into a tyrannical despot and Fafner slaying Fasolt as they wrestle over Freia and inheriting the original curse of Alberich). But this erotic frustration is transformed into erotic compassion in the second act of the play, seen in the encounter with Siegmund and Sieglinde. While brother and sister unknowingly engage in incestuous love, which dooms them in the juridical demands of the gods, Roger writes that the merciful compassion exhibited by Sieglinde to an exhausted Siegmund:

“Once the moral law is in place, therefore, love is supposedly confined within the bounds of marriage, maintained by Fricka’s vigilant eye. But real love cannot be so confined. For erotic love, at its highest, is neither sensual delight nor domestic harmony, even if both are in some way implied in it. At its heart lies sympathy, and the sense of the absolute value of the individual, to whose being the lover is attached and whose sufferings he suffers in turn. Such is love between mortals, the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and it is a higher and nobler thing than the love enjoyed by the gods or the conventional tyranny of the hearth, since it involves a gift of the self, and a readiness to sacrifice self for other. Moreover the capacity for this kind of love is the greatest gift of personality, and without it our journey into freedom will be incomplete.”

But erotic love consummating itself in the sexual act is still incomplete. We have moved from erotic frustration to erotic consummation (via sex) but the maturation of eros still has some ways to go: marriage.

The third act is, therefore, the continuation of the pilgrimage of eros, love, in Brünnhilde and Siegfried. Siegfried’s erotic desire for a companion resurrects Brünnhilde from her sleep (a punishment for her decision to defy the gods and throw her lot in with the humans when she encountered the love of Seigmund and Sieglinde). That erotic love resurrects our lives is what is communicated when Siegfried gazes upon Brünnhilde and kisses her. This erotic encounter leads to their pledge of love in marriage. But, as we know, further tragedy strikes.

The final act moves beyond mere marriage. Erotic love finds its ultimate completion in sacrifice: sacrifice for the beloved. Realizing the dark schemes that had befallen Siegfried in his betrayal of Brünnhilde, Brünnhilde brings forth the resolution of the drama and the highest manifestation of love. It is interesting, Roger notes, that Wagner—for all his faults, and he had many—places the highest reality of love’s manifestation in the agency of a woman and not a man. Brünnhilde returns the ring to the Rhinemaidens then immolates herself in fire as she cries out: Siegfried! Siegfried! Sieh! Selig grüßst dich dein Weib! “Siegfried, Siegfried! Look! Your wife comes to greet you in bliss.”

Even in death, Brünnhilde’s love for Siegfried is so strong that she would sacrifice herself to bring about the redemption of the world and be united with her beloved. Love’s highest realization goes even beyond marriage: It entails the sacrifice of the self on behalf of the beloved, which also restores the world. As Roger writes concerning the movement of love over the course of the operatic epic, “Throughout this cosmic coda the orchestra takes the various motifs associated with the end of the gods, with the Rhine, with Loge and Valhalla and resolves them first in the motif of Siegfried as hero, and then in the melody of Sieglinde’s blessing, recalling the holiest moment in the cycle, when a god sacrificed herself for a mortal, and the mortal understood. That, we now recognize, was the moment when all machinations were forgotten, when the feminine triumphed, and the world was turned towards its end.”

By the time we reach Parsifal, however, erotic love takes a backseat as love in the form of forgiveness, and kindness supersedes the intensity of erotic love. This is not to say erotic love is rejected. Far from it, erotic love leads us to the point of reconciliatory forgiveness. Sacrifice, then, the highest manifestation of eros as seen in Tristan and Isolde and The Ring cycle, is still present in Parsifal. But the sacrifices that one makes through eros give birth to something greater: agape. This may have been hinted at in the shadows of Wagner’s earlier works (for instance, in Siegmund and Sieglinde). But now the maturation of love into forgiveness is the transfiguration and redemption of love itself over the trials and tribulations of Parsifal who overcomes the selfish aspects of sexual eros in the play and turning the erotic temptation into a causeway for redemption and forgiving and healing kindness that restores life to the broken world. Nevertheless, the path to agape runs through eros and eros itself is transfigured through the birth of agape.

For Roger, the central theme, motif, or melody of music—when music is at its best and most powerful—is love. For in the majesty of music we find the force of love emanating from it and calling us to itself. We are no longer disinterested listeners, Roger argues, but become one “with” music and accept its invitation to “move with” it. Music invites us to a relationship of body and soul. We are not cut off from music. We are not disinterested listeners. We are participants with the love and beauty music embodies and extends to us. Music is relational because love is relational, and love is at the heart of music. The love that is so central to music is what makes it captivating, compelling, and beautiful.

Those who are unable to see Roger as a philosopher of love, perhaps the greatest philosopher of love in the modern era, reveal themselves as mere ideologues who lust to dominate their opponents and those with whom they disagree (namely, Roger himself). Everything Roger wrote and contemplated on was moved by the mystery of love and its place in the world and our lives. In the end, Roger was saying that we live in a cosmos of love that causes us to seek after the face-to-face relationships that love calls us to.

This love we seek is a giving love. We seek to give our love to something, someone. When giving love—whether in politics, architecture and art, music, or human relationships—manifests itself, the gentleness of the world and its majesty are manifested. In that love, we find a home. In that love, we find rest. In that love we find life. Without that love, we find rage, destruction, and death. But love, Roger assessed from examining the world in its totality, is stronger than death.

Paul Krause is the editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He can be found on Twitter @Paul_jKrause

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