The Magazine

Life Scrutonized

The hard-won faith of a modern philosopher.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Gentle Regrets

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.)