In a lengthy tribute to Roger Scruton that I published in the March 2020 issue of The New Criterion, I called him a partisan of “the soul and civilization,” and I meant that as the highest compliment. Roger understood as well as anyone the essential nobility of civilization and fully appreciated that the alternative to it was nothing less than barbarism. He was at once a lucid and learned defender of our Western inheritance, an advocate of the rule of law in the civic realm and the moral law in the ethical realm, a thoughtful elucidator of the mysterious interpenetration of “time and the timeless” that he called “the sacred,” and a philosophical student of aesthetics who adamantly rejected the view that beauty was “nothing more than a subjective preference or a source of transient pleasure.” He was that rare contemporary philosopher who believed that “reason and value penetrate our lives” and that “for a free being, there is right feeling, right experience, and right enjoyment just as much as right action,” as he eloquently put it in the concluding paragraph of his indispensable little book, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009).
Rather than reflecting on the English philosopher’s intellectual itinerary as so many have done so well since his death from cancer on January 12, 2020, I would like to give an account of some revealing and illuminating passages from Scruton’s most profound and satisfying collection of essays, 1990’s Philosopher on Dover Beach (presently available in paperback from St. Augustine’s Press). If I were to recommend one book by Scruton it would be this one, supplemented by the Conversations with Roger Scruton that were so thoughtfully initiated and conducted by Mark Dooley and published by Bloomsbury in 2016. Together, these works illuminate the breadth and depth of the Scrutonian account of the “life-world,” his defense, at once philosophical and civic, of personhood, moral agency, and those experiences of freedom and accountability that point toward the reality of the sacred beyond all considerations of utility and evolutionary dogmatism. In these writings, a conservative and philosophical appreciation of the multiple grounds for gratitude co-exist with a thoughtful and spirited resistance to every form of reductive materialism and scientism, as well as a fierce yet profound opposition to the totalitarian negation of liberty and human dignity.
Let us concentrate on two of Scruton’s essays that will surely endure. The first, the title essay “The Philosopher on Dover Beach,” is an obligatory starting point for reflection on all things Scrutonian. There, Scruton sympathetically recounts Kant’s efforts to provide a “moral basis for religious doctrine,” or at least a self-confident affirmation of the moral law that respects the religious impulse.
There is little doubt that Scruton’s own efforts to limn a theology that can speak convincingly to modern men and women, owes a great deal to Kant’s elementary insight “that morality is the ground rather than the consequent of religion.” While Kant largely transformed religious reverence toward God into esteem for the moral law as “the supreme instrument of Reason,” Scruton ultimately saw in the face of man an intimation of the face of God, “the soul of the world” as he later called it in a 2014 book by that name.
Even before his (qualified) return to the Christian faith, Scruton resisted naturalistic and genealogical accounts of religion and moral phenomena, whether the Nietzschean account of biblical religion as a form of resentful self-abasement, or the utterly misplaced Marxist effort to increase “the power of the powerless” by destroying religion, thus taking “away from the powerless the little power they have.” Neither the Nietzschean cause of limitless self-affirmation nor the Marxist cause of Utopian justice rooted in a groundless belief in historical inevitability can sustain a human order marked by civic freedom and moral accountability.
As Scruton never tired of pointing out, much 20th century thought — such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s indefatigable support for revolutionary extremism — incoherently combined “absolute lawlessness and [the] unanswerability of the existentialist anti-hero,” bereft of enduring moral principles, with the “selfless” if nihilistic “pursuit of revolutionary justice.” As Raymond Aron once wrote, “the two extremes” — absolute lawlessness and revolutionary justice — meet in a nihilistic voluntarism at the service of fanatical politics.
Scruton brilliantly saw that the search for redemption through the revolutionary politics of the atheistic Right and the atheistic Left always culminated in self-enslavement and the destruction of civilization and the soul. The “new morality of Marx and Lenin” led only to “the Gulag and the self-expanding system of enslavement” which is co-extensive with ideological despotism and mendacity. The “old transcendental faith,” as Scruton called it in this essay, can account for the evils that necessarily flow when the “precious ideas of freedom and responsibility” are driven underground and “have no public recognition, and no place in the administrative process.” Even before Scruton returned to a more explicit Christian affirmation, no matter how personal and idiosyncratic, he recognized that “impersonal (and therefore ungovernable) evil is the true legacy of the naturalistic view of man.”
Vigorously opposing political atheism, Scruton turned to those intimations of transcendence at “the edge of things” precisely because, as a philosopher and human being, he could not reasonably deny “the divine spark in man.” Scruton came to see that while revolutionary consciousness of a Marxist-Leninist sort “clothe[d] itself in Utopian ambitions,” its willful negation of the moral law gave fanatical and nihilistic revolutionaries “total license to kill.” Theirs was the language of the Antichrist, putting “man in God’s place” and mutilating the human soul in the process.
Scruton saw in ideological revolution and despotism, “an incurable nihilism” at work, negating the moral law and the “qualified and partial liberties” in our imperfect but decent societies, “which come through the work of compromise.” These revolutions inevitably give rise to the tyranny of ideological clichés, of murderous euphemisms, where “enemies are demonized in readiness for their liquidation.”
Jacobinism, the revolutionary terror that ravaged France between 1792 and 1794, with its own langue de bois and murderous rituals, paved the way for the more consistent totalitarianism of the Communist movement in the 20th century. The tribunals of the French Revolution, in its most radical period, provided the imitable model for revolutionary justice in the 20th century in the Soviet bloc, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and many half-ideological states in the Middle East and much of modern Africa.
In his splendid 1989 essay “Man’s Second Disobedience,” written on the occasion of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Scruton succinctly sums up the perversities inherent in revolutionary justice:
Under revolutionary justice you are tried, in the end, not from what you do but for what you are: émigré or kulak, Jew or anti-socialist, enemy of the people or running dog of capitalism—in each case crime is not an action, but a state of being.
In all this Scruton saw “a supreme act of Christian disobedience” where human beings ceased to worship the transcendental God and thus transformed the genuinely sacred into a project of revolutionary negation. The worship of the revolutionary idol annulled the moral law and became a “worship of nothing” but a “potent nothingness, which threatens everything real.”
Goethe’s Mephistopheles — “the spirit who forever negates” — readily comes to mind. To resist this totalitarian negation, Scruton worked courageously on behalf of the intellectual underground in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary in the years before 1989. His spiritually luminous novel Notes from Underground (Beaufort Books, 2014) splendidly captures the atmosphere of those years far better than any account written by political scientists, historians, and journalists. They, in contrast to Scruton, were singularly unprepared to write about the ideological lie and the reassertion of the human spirit by those who decided, against all odds, to “live in truth.”
To resist this perverse assault on the prerogatives of God, Scruton turned his attention to the imago dei, the incarnate person, who is indeed an animal, a part of the natural order, but in “whom the light of reason shines, and who looks at us from eyes that tell of freedom.” To recover the face of man is to encounter the sacred space which grounds “all respect, and all affection.” As Scruton put it with great clarity in his essay, “The Philosopher on Dover Beach”: “the experience of the sacred is the sudden encounter with freedom; it is the recognition of personality and purposefulness in that which contains no human will.” We have thus left Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin far behind, and have moved several dramatic steps beyond Kant’s moralized replacement for traditional theology.
As a philosopher, Scruton paves the way for the return to religion which is, in his view, “inseparable, in the end, from our sense of holiness,” which we discern from the freedom calling out to us from the eyes of another human person. Science, Scruton famously argues, has no power to “forbid the experience of the sacred.” When it does so, it moves far beyond its competence and imposes on free men and women a stifling materialist ideology that has no room for human persons or moral and civic agency. As Mark Dooley has rightly noted, at the end of this emblematic essay (“The Philosopher on Dover Beach”), Scruton provides an eloquent credo which perfectly brings together all his theoretical and practical concerns:
[W]ithout the sacred, man lives in a depersonalized world: a world where all is permitted, and where nothing has absolute value. That, I believe, is the principal lesson of modern history, and if we tremble before it, it is because it contains a judgment on us. The hubris which leads us to believe that science has the answer to all our questions, that we are nothing but dying animals and that the meaning of life is mere self-affirmation, or at best the pursuit of some collective, all-embracing and all-too-human goal — this reckless superstition contains already the punishment of those who succumb to it.
This is Scruton’s most precise, wise, penetrating, and challenging articulation of the best anti-totalitarian philosophical and political wisdom of our time. By recovering the person, the animal with freedom and moral responsibility calling out from his eyes, Roger Scruton made a signal contribution to a philosophical, political and even theological defense and articulation of the sacred and the soul.
In his last interview, conducted with the new Hungarian literary-cultural review Országút and republished in English in the May 2020 issue of the Hungarian Review, Scruton explained (in part) why he had returned to the Anglican Church in the later decades of his life: he found, he said, joy and solace in its hymns and Bible stories, “and the experience of Holy Communion force[d] me to be humble and to recognize my faults.” To love our inheritance, including our Christian inheritance with all its glories and imperfections, is to recognize the cleansing hope that is repentance and the possibility of a redemption that cannot be complete or final in this world.
Instead of inexpiable conflict and murderous hate — the dead-end offered by loveless and ungrateful ideologues — one begins to discern the path of forgiveness. Earlier in the same interview, however, he asked why leftists, hard and soft, “find forgiveness so difficult?” As we see all around us, they succumb ever so quickly to the temptation to annul, cancel, or eliminate their real and imagined enemies. This, Scruton suggests, surely is “the great question of 20th century politics.”
As a new cultural revolution strikes at the very heart of our cultural, political, and civilizational inheritance, that prescient and challenging question serves as one more reminder of the philosophical and human greatness of our dear, departed friend. May we take inspiration from his wisdom, and his thoughtful and vigorous defense of civilization, the sacred, and the soul. ◼︎