Thoughts From a Life
by Roger Scruton
Continuum, 248 pp., $28.95
CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL AND MORAL IDEAS do not descend, by deduction, from abstract principles. They arise, bottom-up, from attempts to understand one's allegiances and debts of gratitude.
Roger Scruton's Gentle Regrets--essays on books, friends, opera, politics, pets, family--is a varied and graceful collection of such attempts. Though personal, and often passionate, they are "not a record of [his] education sentimentale, but an attempt to explain a particular conservative outlook"--one he characterizes as "love of what has been good to you, and forgiveness of what has not." Indeed, the topic that unifies these occasional pieces is love.
Scruton, much better known in England than in the United States, is a learned, witty, wide-ranging, prolific, and often dazzling writer, who has published serious books on aesthetics (especially architecture and music), sex (philosophy, not how-to), Wagner (combining the preceding interests), ethics, culture, and politics, as well as justly praised introductions to philosophy and its history, two novels, large quantities of the higher journalism, and a chamber opera.
He is also an "intellectual pariah" (The Independent) and "an object of fear and loathing among members of the British liberal establishment" (The New Statesman). That status provides material for self-deprecating comic turns. Scruton says, for example, that the Salisbury Review, of which he was the first editor, "helped a new generation of conservative writers to emerge" by giving them cover: "At last, it was possible to be a conservative and also to the left of something, to say, 'Of course, the Salisbury Review is beyond the pale . . . '"
A stab at practical politics ended farcically when his application to join the Conservative party's list of candidates attracted the scrutiny of a titled blue-haired lady: "I mentioned that I had founded the Conservative Philosophy Group. She made it clear that the conjunction of the two words 'conservative' and 'philosophy' was so absurd that she could only doubt the existence of such an organization." She then administered the coup de grâce by musing, "I suppose he could apply for this new European Parliament thing, could he?"
Pariahdom also leaves scars, which Scruton displays: Invited to give a paper to the Philosophy Society at the University of Glasgow, he learns on arriving that the philosophy department has called for a boycott of his talk. An external reviewer of academic promotions writes that he would have had no difficulty recommending Scruton's promotion based simply on his scholarly work--but the conservative opinion pieces Scruton had published in The Times made such a recommendation out of the question. Readers of this journal will be bemused, or aghast, to learn that Scruton finds American intellectual life, even in the universities, much more open to conservative ideas than British.
He might have turned into his father, a man consumed by disappointment and rage. Jack Scruton is introduced as a man who resented his son's having greater opportunities than himself, and his scattered appearances cast a shadow over the entire book. He resurfaces 70-odd pages later, when an essay titled "Growing Up With Sam" opens with unsettling black humor: Scruton's timid and downtrodden mother (whose first name is found only in the index) tells her children that she has exciting news. But "[i]t couldn't be that she had murdered Dad at last, since we'd seen him only an hour before." The news was a mongrel dog, soon to be named Sam. Because Jack--"seething," "an angry silence in the front room," with "a curse on his face"--intimidated the rest of the Scruton family into frightened solitudes, Sam became "the only body I hugged . . . with true and conscious emotion."
That emotion does not escape critical attention. Love for a pet is "questionable in an adult, unless confined to some quiet domestic corner where it threatens nothing in the web of human society." It can be an evasion, a substitute for the risks and responsibilities, the moral opportunities and moral perils, of human love. Scruton nonetheless becomes attached, in middle age, to a horse. It is providentially named Sam, and providentially leads him, at a fox hunt, to his second wife. (Fox hunting is one of the indictments against Scruton.)
With the birth of their son, inevitably named Sam, Scruton finally became part of a family. Sam's difficult birth filled him, too late, with compassion for his own mother, who had died of cancer more than 30 years before: "What I had reproached in my mother as timidity I remembered now as gentleness; what I had deplored as Puritanism I recalled as moral sense; what I had feared as anxiety I knew to be love--love baffled by my selfishness." A chance to reconcile with his father also came too late. Scruton admired Jack's fight to prevent planners and developers from despoiling his town, and came to see that the energy and ability whose thwarting had made him angry and bitter and dangerous now enabled him to fight this good fight.
The book's other extended story is of another partial reconciliation, Scruton's return to a "much amended" Anglicanism. "Stealing from Churches" begins with the melancholy comedy of tourists strolling the aisles of a church, their aesthetic (or anthropological) pleasures parasitic on the commitments of the handful of worshippers in the pews. Scruton argues briefly here, and at length elsewhere, that common culture, which defines and fulfills the basic human need for membership in a community, is at its core religious; and that, when religion declines, our only resources for meeting that need are the institutions of high culture, "part of the attempt--always necessary, and never successful--to make us at home in the world and to affirm our moral right to it."
The final essay, "Regaining my Religion," completes that thought. The great Victorian doubters, living in a society with still-vital religious institutions, could steal from churches, "patch[ing] up the social world, while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it." That is no longer an option. But needing religion doesn't make it true. In An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton put this as a brutal paradox--that "the falsehoods of religious faith reveal the truths that matter"--and endorsed the Confucian wisdom that offers not a metaphysics or a creed but the injunction "to live as if it matters eternally what we do."
Since writing those words, Scruton has groped toward religious belief, a journey he does not characterize in terms of religious doctrine or any other truth claims:
The fact that the mass of mankind may be unable to live without religion . . . is no proof that the loss we have suffered is for each of us either unbearable or final, or that the loss is not offset by gains. In recent years I have constantly asked myself what I have lost. And by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion.
I suspect that a great deal of his religion is captured in a single sentence: "Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace."
Faith, Scruton says, is not a matter of assenting to certain propositions but "a transforming state of mind, a stance toward the world"--in particular, toward loss, the basso ostinato of human life. A Christian is enjoined not to cultivate a philosophical indifference to loss, but to transcend it. (Scruton's view of transcending loss by giving it the sacred character of sacrifice owes less, I'd say, to Christian orthodoxy than to his study of Wagner.) So Gentle Regrets--often touching, often charming, and often funny, serious but far from somber--appropriately concludes with the words of the 100th Psalm, the Jubilate Deo.
O, be joyful in the Lord . . .
For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth
endureth from generation to generation.
The radical impulse is oppositional: What is should not be. A conservative recognizes that civilized life depends on pietas, on givens that retain their benign power only so long as they are, precisely, given. He can criticize them "from the inside" in order to renew them and stave off their decay. Manning the barricades against assaults on pietas may be a duty but can't be a joy.
Scruton offers a parable in the story of his name. He was christened "Roger Vernon" and called Vernon (which Jack thought sissified)--until he farcically vanquished a schoolyard bully with an accidental blow and decided that Roger suited the new identity that victory conferred. He has, he says, spent much of his life pursuing Vernon's ends--books, music, art, the conservative impulse to affirm--by Roger's means. Many readers will wish them both well.
David Guaspari, a mathematician and computer scientist, lives in Ithaca, N.Y.