Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, / Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, / Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, / Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; / Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; / Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; / For nothing now can ever come to any good.
On the morning of Sunday, January 12, after difficult months spent fighting cancer, Sir Roger Scruton died — and I can think of no better voice than that of his compatriot W. H. Auden to describe the dismay in which his friends and readers found themselves in the days that followed.
The death of a great thinker is first of all that of a person, and it causes as much pain to those around him as that of any other human being; but it also implies another dimension of sadness: that of seeing the disappearance of a spirit that had extended the limits of human thought and will now no longer produce. On the day of Scruton’s death, I lost both a friend and a mentor. And the world today really is a lesser place than it was before.
Scruton was not as well known in France as he was elsewhere, especially in the Anglosphere, even though for some years this French obliviousness had begun to be addressed. He left behind about 50 major books, touching on everything — aesthetics, politics, desire, Wagner, hunting, the sacred, ecology. He was a ‘conservative,’ a term still little understood in France, where it is often confused — wrongly — with ‘reactionary.’ What was close to his heart was the conservation and transmission of everything that made the world habitable for mankind. But Scruton was not only a great conservative philosopher; he was a great philosopher at heart, whose conceptual creativity competed with the power of erudition, and whose acts perfectly matched his thought, which is rare enough to be emphasized.
Scruton’s life was not a simple one, strewn with battles from beginning to end. He did not get along with his father, a convinced socialist, who did not approve of his own son’s academic success and distanced himself from him when his son was received at Cambridge. By the 1970s, having become a lecturer at the progressive Birkbeck College, University of London, he was very isolated. As he humorously put it, there were only two conservatives at that university, the woman who served meals in the faculty room and himself.
He was also increasingly under attack: as early as 1982, as editor of The Salisbury Review, he became persona non grata for the intelligentsia after publishing the text of a teacher who questioned the virtues of multiculturalism. Meanwhile, he was leading another battle, against communism: at his peril, he taught philosophy and passed books to freedom-hungry students on the other side of the Iron Curtain. A prolific author, he was also beginning to make a name for himself in his own country. In the early 1990s, he left his post at Birkbeck to become an independent intellectual.
‘Controversies’ were a constant feature of his career. There was certainly never anything very ‘politically correct’ in what he said. In April 2019, the magazine The New Statesman published an interview with him in which his comments had been truncated, so that he came across as nothing more and nothing less than an anti-Semite and a racist. The philosopher was fortunately vindicated that summer, after a benevolent hacker sent him the entire recording of his interview with the journalist, which Scruton then had published in The Spectator. The full context of his remarks immediately called into question the charges against him. But the damage was already done.
Paradoxically, Scruton never quite got the official recognition he deserved, at least in his own country. Although he was knighted in 2016, he was not made a lord, nor was he received into the Order of the British Empire or the Order of Merit, even though these prestigious honours have sometimes gone to actors or even David Cameron’s wife’s stylist. After the unfortunate interview with The New Statesman, the government abruptly dismissed the philosopher from a position he had held as a volunteer: the head of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Although he was reinstated after the truth was established, he was shaken by the episode. He was an ambiguous conservative, a defender of an establishment that had always distanced itself from him. Is it because the establishment has changed so much that conservatives are now the new rebels?
Yet Scruton never cultivated what might have seemed natural given the ordeals he faced: resentment. On the contrary, he devoted his life to fighting it, seeing it as a driving force of the left (especially the intellectual left). He readily pinpointed its source as post-modern relativism. “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t,” he wrote pertinently. The progressives’ exoneration of the crimes of communism or their detestation of patriotism was unjustifiable to him.
He also had a great deal of humour, a trait that is emblematic of English conservatism but which is sorely lacking on the French right. But deep down, what does official recognition matter? The recognition that matters is that of the readers. On the evening after the announcement of his death, tributes from anonymous people and personalities were received from all sides: conservatives but also liberals and progressives who readily acknowledged the importance of the philosopher. This is not insignificant. Even in France, where he was still little known five years ago, Scruton ended up reaching a certain readership, even in the political sphere. This belated recognition — from a country that Scruton adored but where “left-wing intellectual” is a pleonasm — made him feel at home.
Yet his French success was not a foregone conclusion. Very impressed by his writings, I proposed to Le Point to interview him in the fall of 2014 — his first interview in a French newspaper! I then looked for a publishing house to translate his 2014 book, How to Be a Conservative. Nobody seemed to want it. The big French houses may have translated the entire English-speaking left, but they had left out the greatest living conservative author. Fortunately, a small publisher — Le Toucan-L’Artilleur headed by Damien Sérieyx, who had also taken note of the author — decided to translate the book. Two other translations followed, arousing a growing interest among the French media. This is only a small stone in the building, but I am happy to have contributed to making Scruton known to my compatriots.
Today, what do I remember of him? The immensity of his work, of course. But beyond his books, which I will be able to reread at will, his brilliant thought lives on in the memory of our long discussions, which took place most often on his farm in Wiltshire, where he welcomed me generously on many occasions. We walked through his fields, we tended his horses, we talked with his wife about her small cheese business.
I remember him distinctly, as if it were yesterday, growing his vegetables in his garden, riding horses in his hunting outfit, or enjoying good wine — his favourite white wine was Burgundy. I remember my last visit to his farm just before Christmas: he was working on the proofs of his forthcoming Parsifal and thinking about writing an intellectual autobiography. “There are still a lot of battles to be fought,” he told me. “We have to get organised. How is France doing?” Then he turned his gaze to the fields. When I told him that it was a very restful landscape, he replied: “Above all, they are mine, they are my fields.”
This little estate, which he called ‘Scrutopia,’ was his home, which he had not inherited, as he would have liked, but acquired, and which he would pass on to his children. It was here that he had put down roots in a community, here that he wrote, here that he was going to die.
Then we shared a family lunch. We talked about “The Crown” and the monarchy, the movies he wanted to watch on Amazon, the juices his wife wanted to make for him, to heal him. The Scruton farm was as it had always been, rustling with the comforting sound of conversation. Only the dog seemed worried, not letting go of his master at all. (Had he guessed?) I left Scrutopia overcome by a feeling that now guides me: not of sadness but of immense gratitude.