I usually jest that my life divides into two parts: ‘Before Scruton’ and ‘After Scruton.’ My first five books were devoted to Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Derrida, ethics, and postmodern theology. Since then, I have published three books directly on Sir Roger Scruton, and two others that owe much to his influence. However, the disconnect between these two phases of my life is not as sharp as it ostensibly seems. As Scruton once remarked to me: “You have helped me see Derrida in a way I never thought possible.” Up to that point, the only thing Scruton believed he had in common with the founder of deconstruction was that they were both imprisoned by the Czech secret police during the Soviet era. His critiques of Derrida and deconstruction were as devastating as they were erudite. However, Scruton’s respect for Derrida’s anti-Communism was something that grew over time. It persuaded him that Derrida was a vastly more complex figure than his popular caricature suggested. Indeed, as a close friend of both men, I can testify that Scruton and Derrida were bound by much more than their anti-totalitarian instincts.
When I said this in Roger’s kitchen one night, it was in the presence of the redoubtable Oxford metaphysician David Wiggins. “I would never have made that connection,” he said with barely concealed astonishment. Scruton, who was busy cooking in the background, urged me to expand. He knew where I was coming from but was interested to see how I would explain it to an arch-Aristotelian like Wiggins. This is what I said:
Roger writes beautifully, and Derrida is often indecipherable. But dig beneath the opaque language and you will find that Derrida is, like Scruton, a philosopher of memory and home. It is true that Derrida emphasises what defies memory and recollection, whereas Scruton points to what must be remembered and conserved if society is to survive. However, the central theme of Derrida’s work is mourning — mourning for what time and history has snatched away, for a past whose ghosts still linger amid the living. Like Scruton, Derrida seeks to preserve our common home and heritage, despite his belief that we can never fully recapture what has been claimed by the embers of time. As such, both are Hegelian thinkers in mourning for what Edmund Burke called ‘absent generations.’
Professor Wiggins listened attentively and slowly nodded his head as though he had just stumbled upon a decisive discovery. Scruton reaffirmed that my ‘take’ on Derrida had persuaded him to ‘think again’ about a man he once regarded as a charlatan. But there was something deeper that seemed to convince Scruton that Derrida was different from his popular persona. Scruton’s defence of anti-Communist dissidents in Eastern Europe is well documented in his memoir Gentle Regrets (Continuum, 2005), his novel Notes from Underground (Beaufort Books, 2014), and in our book Conversations with Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury, 2016).
If most public intellectuals are armchair warriors, Scruton was different in that he walked the talk. He practiced everything he preached, and his extraordinary life gave rich witness to how the conservative vision can become a living reality. Nowhere was this more obvious than when he ventured into the dark corners of Eastern Europe to shine a beacon of hope for those who had none. For his trouble, he was eventually beaten, arrested, and expelled.
As Scruton risked life and limb for the cause of truth and liberty, many headline-grabbing Western intellectuals were penning eulogies to the Soviet empire. Firebrand Marxism was the order of the day, and Mao’s Little Red Book was required reading for disciples of leftist luminaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Louis Althusser. These were the high priests of what Scruton famously dubbed the “culture of repudiation,” for theirs was an ideology that rejected home, heritage, civilisation, and belonging. Their objective was to intellectually undermine the very civilisation that created them for one in which freedom was afforded only to the privileged few, and death was distributed equally to the many. They longed to tear down borders, put their common home to the flame and begin again in the manner of Pol Pot. It was what American philosopher Bernard Yack once described as “the longing for total revolution.”
Virtually unique among left-wing intellectuals, Derrida repudiated this lust for demolition and desecration that was rife in the French academy. That is why both he and Scruton belonged to the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, an organisation set up in 1980 to run underground educational seminars in Czechoslovakia. Both would end up on the ‘Index of Undesirable Persons,’ Derrida being subject to a strip search, humiliating photographs and a prison uniform. It would take the intervention of then French president François Mitterrand to secure his release. This experience confirmed for Derrida that the West is a ‘paradise of liberty,’ one that we undermine at our peril. In this, the father of deconstruction would share a common cause with Roger Scruton — a man whose entire life and work were dedicated to love.
As I have often written, Scruton was, above all else, a philosopher of love — love of home, of existing things, and of what cries out to be salvaged from the heart of a dying culture. This, he believed, was natural to the human condition, which was why he took aim at those who encouraged rejection at the expense of love. He called it the ‘Devil’s work,’ because it sought to strip all that was beautiful, sanctified, and sacred from the surface of the world. The French seemed to excel at this type of diabolical labour, but I believe that, in the end, Scruton no longer considered Derrida in this category of radical thinker. The fact that he was not included in Scruton’s anti-leftist manifesto Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands (Bloomsbury, 2015) suggests as much.
Indeed, for years, I had pushed him to write a second edition of his classic Thinkers of the New Left (Longman, 1985), a compilation of devastating critiques of, among others, Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Jürgen Habermas, and Sartre. He consistently hesitated, believing it would bring him unnecessary trouble. Eventually, however, he relented and, after a wonderful dinner in London with our editor Robin Baird-Smith, we hit upon the tantalising title: Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands. But, even then, Roger wavered. “You must realise that not all of them are fools,” he remarked, “some are even geniuses.” I already knew that he believed Derrida was a genius because, one evening, while sipping whiskey in my home in Dublin, he said: “You know, the big difference between Heidegger and Derrida is that one wasn’t very bright but wrote profoundly, whereas the other was a genius but wrote gobbledegook.” That was my cue to roar laughing — and I duly obliged.
However, the leftist ‘genius’ he most admired was Sartre. Scruton often spoke to me of Sartre’s brilliance as a writer, his capacity to fluidly move between genres to convey a message that was both magnificent yet menacing. Scruton was the great defender of the first-person plural—the ‘we’ of community, the nation and local settlement. Sartre believed that such an ideal was a stunning example of inauthenticity and bad faith. Scruton believed that in the other person I am granted an intimation of infinity. Sartre thought that “hell is other people.” And yet, despite standing for everything that Scruton opposed, it was Sartre that he looked to as an example of how the public intellectual should be regarded.
It may strike you as strange that I write this tribute to my dear friend Roger Scruton in the context of modern European philosophy. However, after publishing a trilogy of books, as well as countless articles on his life and work, I have come to see him as much more than a British conservative philosopher. In fact, I think we do him a great disservice to define him in such narrow terms, and it was not a description with which he was entirely comfortable. He longed to be considered, like Sartre, not as a philosopher stricto sensu, but as a writer in the European tradition, one whose work transcended the boundaries between literature, philosophy, theology, and politics. The fact that he was the only English philosopher of his generation to seriously engage with the great thinkers of Continental tradition of European philosophy is proof of this fact. Even his early work bears witness to this. His idea that philosophy is not the handmaiden of the sciences but the seamstress of the lived world (Lebenswelt), is drawn directly from Wilhelm Dilthey and Edmund Husserl. He was deeply passionate about the writings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, not because he agreed with them, but because they were the first thinkers to reveal how language can be put at the service of great ideas. If, for personal and political reasons, his heart belonged to the Czech lands, Scruton’s soul belonged to old Europe and to France in particular. He was the quintessential European man of letters.
The reason I could convince him, notwithstanding everything he had written to the contrary, that Derrida was more friend than foe, was because they shared a common intellectual ancestry. That ancestry, as suggested earlier, was rooted in German idealism, especially in the philosophy of Hegel. It is true that Scruton was trained in the British analytic tradition, but this, he believed, was a vision of philosophy which ultimately failed to touch the deep questions surrounding the human predicament. He highly esteemed its method and discipline, its clarity and logical precision. But the issues with which analytic philosophy is preoccupied were not those of ultimate concern. Human beings, he believed, belong to the surface of the world — that place where we make our home and where we discover meaning, truth and love. That is why the way we build, design, and decorate our habitat should not be of tangential interest to the philosopher. If anything, it must occupy a central place in his concerns, for the aesthetic is as much a source of meaning as the good or the true.
Edmund Burke, with whom Scruton is rightly identified, also wrote about the sublime and the beautiful. However, Burke’s work on this topic was not the source of Scruton’s abiding preoccupation with the aesthetic. His inspiration derived from Kant and Hegel whom, he believed, put the aesthetic at the centre of philosophical reflection. Again, however, it was not Kant but Hegel who exerted most influence. This was because, in Hegel, we have a philosopher whose grand vision incorporated all facets of human inquiry. To understand our place in the world, we must take the broadest view of humanity, one that encompasses all spheres of experience. This explains why both Hegel and Scruton believed that human life is incomplete without art, religion, and philosophy.
If there was anything that troubled me in the work of Roger Scruton, it was his reliance on Kant to underpin his theory of the sacred, the transcendental, and, latterly, his conception of cognitive dualism. It lies beyond the scope of this article to unpack each of these ideas but suffice to say that Scruton’s Kantianism did not sit easily with his Hegelianism. Kant, the universalist, proponent of reason and abstract moral law, was not, like Hegel, a philosopher of home, belonging, settlement, and concrete identity. But, apart from his theoretical reliance on Kant, Scruton was preoccupied with nothing but home, identity and belonging. Hegel’s notion that we come to know the world through practical engagement with it, and that, in order to acquire identity, we shape the world in our own image and likeness, to the point where it smiles back at us with a human face, is pure Scruton.
I once described Roger as ‘Hegel on horseback’ because his life offered such a vivid example of how Hegel saw our relationship to reality. Farming, hunting, music, wine, church, writing, and family, are all ways of binding ourselves to the earth — to this place we call ‘home.’ Such things permit us to overcome our natural estrangement from the world. They constitute the pathway to enduring identity and freedom from alienation. We see our habitat, not as an alien object, but as a source of affirmation for who we are. It affirms us and, in so doing, we cease to be strangers to ourselves.
The beauty of Roger Scruton’s life was revealed in how he lived it. That is why he called his home ‘Scrutopia.’ In the rustic charm of Sunday Hill Farm set in the Wiltshire dales, one found the perfect realisation of what Hegel had in mind when he spoke of the “union of subject and object.” Roger’s ‘home’ is an expression of who Roger was. It speaks to us of a man rooted to the earth, to culture, and to the people whose character is reflected in the local landscape. It offers a vision of somewhere at a time when the forces of desecration are on the march to nowhere. There is nothing empty, abstract, or universalist about it. It is a concrete settlement that tells the story of one man’s love for those things without which we are less than human.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Derrida, and Scruton are all heirs of Hegel. The big difference is, however, that Scruton was a dutiful son and not a recalcitrant teenager. He neither caricatured Hegel, nor did he infect Hegel’s insights with the virus of Marxism. He kept faith with the idea that we can never counter alienation except through the artistic, cultural, religious, and philosophical patrimony which is ours. And his lifelong defence of those things proved to him that it is entirely possible to be redeemed from the moment, and to live in a world sanctified and transfigured by love. That is why, as we gaze back at the life of this extraordinary man, I believe we should see him for what he was, and for what he always yearned to be: a powerful and beautiful writer who showed that the world has a soul which is revealed in and through us. To define Sir Roger Scruton as such is not to detract from his status as the greatest post-War philosopher in the tradition of Edmund Burke. It is, however, to situate him where he rightly belongs — in that great European lineage that includes Kant, Hegel, Wagner, Kierkegaard, Husserl, and Sartre. It is to acknowledge him as something he graciously believed of others but never of himself: a genius.