Roger Scruton  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Sir Roger Vernon Scruton (born 27 February 1944) is an English philosopher and writer who specialises in aesthetics and political philosophy, particularly in the furtherance of traditionalist conservative views.

Editor from 1982 to 2001 of The Salisbury Review, a conservative political journal, Scruton has written over 50 books on philosophy, art, music, politics, literature, culture, sexuality, and religion; he has also written novels and two operas. His most notable publications include The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Sexual Desire (1986), The Aesthetics of Music (1997) and How to Be a Conservative (2014). He has been a regular contributor to the popular media, including The Times, The Spectator and the New Statesman.

Scruton embraced conservatism after witnessing the May 1968 student protests in France. From 1971 to 1992 Scruton was a lecturer and professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, after which he held several part-time academic positions, including in the United States. He became known in the 1980s for helping to establish underground academic networks in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, for which he was awarded the Czech Republic's Medal of Merit (First Class) by President Václav Havel in 1998.

Scruton was knighted in the 2016 Birthday Honours for "services to philosophy, teaching and public education".

Contents

Philosophical and political views

Aesthetics

Scruton has specialised in aesthetics throughout his career. In 1972 he graduated Ph.D. in philosophy at Cambridge, with a thesis on aesthetics, which formed the basis of his first book, Art and Imagination, published in 1974, in which Scruton argued that "what demarcates aesthetic interest from other sorts is that it involves the appreciation of something for its own sake".

Since then, Scruton has published a number of books on the subject, including The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979), The Aesthetic Understanding (1983, new edition 1997), The Aesthetics of Music (1997), and Beauty (2010). From 1971 to 1992 Scruton was Lecturer, then subsequently Reader and Professor of Aesthetics, at the Department of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, London. In July 2008, a two-day conference was held at Durham University to explore and assess his impact in the field of aesthetics, and in 2012, a collection of essays was published, examining the significance of Scruton's aesthetics.

In 2009, Scruton wrote and presented the BBC2 documentary Why Beauty Matters, in which he argued that beauty should be restored to its traditional position in art, architecture and music. In an article for The American Spectator subsequent to the programme's broadcast, Scruton claimed he had received "more than 500 e-mails from viewers, all but one saying, 'Thank Heavens someone is saying what needs to be said'". In an Intelligence Squared debate in March 2009, held at the Royal Geographical Society, Scruton (seconding historian David Starkey) proposed the motion: "Britain has become indifferent to beauty" by holding an image of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus next to an image of the British supermodel Kate Moss, to demonstrate how British perceptions of beauty had declined to the "level of our crudest appetites and our basest needs".

Arguments for conservatism

Scruton first embraced conservatism during the student protests of May 1968 in France. Nicholas Wroe wrote in The Guardian that Scruton was in the Latin Quarter in Paris at the time, watching students overturning cars to erect barricades, and tearing up cobblestones to throw at the police. "I suddenly realized I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilization against these things. That's when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down."

Activist campaigns, which tend to be conducted in the name of the people as a whole, neither consult the people nor show much interest in noticing them—a point that was noticeable to Burke, in considering the insolence of the French revolutionaries. Such campaigns are affairs of elites who are seeking to triumph over real or imaginary adversaries, and who make an impact on politics because they share, in their hearts, the old socialist view that things must be changed from the top downwards, and that the people themselves are not to be trusted now, but only later, when the revolutionary vanguard has completed its task.

The Meaning of Conservatism (1980)—which he called "a somewhat Hegelian defence of Tory values in the face of their betrayal by the free marketeers" —was the book that he said blighted his academic career. He wrote in Gentle Regrets (2005) that he found several of Edmund Burke's arguments in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) persuasive. Although Burke was writing about revolution, not socialism, Scruton was persuaded that, as he put it, the utopian promises of socialism are accompanied by an abstract vision of the mind that bears little relation to the way most people think. Burke also convinced him that there is no direction to history, no moral or spiritual progress; that people think collectively toward a common goal only during a crisis such as war, and that trying to organize society this way requires a real or imagined enemy; hence, Scruton wrote, the strident tone of socialist literature. He further argued, following Burke, that society is held together by authority and the rule of law, in the sense of the right to obedience, not by the imagined rights of citizens. Obedience, he wrote, is "the prime virtue of political beings, the disposition that makes it possible to govern them, and without which societies crumble into 'the dust and powder of individuality.'" Real freedom, Scruton argued, does not stand in conflict with obedience, but is its other side. He was also persuaded by Burke's arguments about the social contract, including that most parties to the contract are either dead or not yet born. To forget this, he wrote—to throw away customs and institutions—is to "place the present members of society in a dictatorial dominance over those who went before, and those who came after them."

Armed with his Rousseauist doctrines of popular sovereignty, or his Marxist ideas of power and ideology, the revolutionary can de-legitimize any existing institution and find quite imperceivable the distinction between law aimed at justice and law aimed at power.

Scruton argued that beliefs that appear to be examples of prejudice may be useful and important: "our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable, from our own perspective, and the attempt to justify them will merely lead to their loss." A prejudice in favour of modesty in women and chivalry in men, for example, may aid the stability of sexual relationships and the raising of children, though these are not offered as reasons in support of the prejudice. It may therefore be easy to show the prejudice as irrational, but there will be a loss nonetheless if it is discarded.

In Arguments for Conservatism (2006), he marked out the areas in which philosophical thinking is required if conservatism is to be intellectually persuasive. He argued that human beings are creatures of limited and local affections. Territorial loyalty is at the root of all forms of government where law and liberty reign supreme; every expansion of jurisdiction beyond the frontiers of the nation state leads to a decline in accountability. He opposed elevating the "nation" above its people, which would threaten rather than facilitate citizenship and peace. He argued that "conservatism and conservation" are two aspects of a single policy, that of husbanding resources, including the social capital embodied in laws, customs, and institutions, and the material capital contained in the environment. He argued further that the law should not be used as a weapon to advance special interests; people impatient for reform—for example in the areas of euthanasia or abortion—are reluctant to accept what may be "glaringly obvious to others—that the law exists precisely to impede their ambitions."

He defined post-modernism as the claim that there are no grounds for truth, objectivity, and meaning, and therefore conflicts between views are nothing more than contests of power, and argued that, while the West is required to judge other cultures in their own terms, Western culture is adversely judged as ethnocentric and racist. He wrote: "The very reasoning which sets out to destroy the ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes political correctness as absolutely binding, and cultural relativism as objectively true."

Scruton has also been critical of the contemporary feminist movement, while reserving praise for suffragists such as Mary Wollstonecraft.

Religion and totalitarianism

Scruton contends, following Immanuel Kant, that human beings have a transcendental dimension, a sacred core exhibited in their capacity for self-reflection. He argues that we are in an era of secularization without precedent in the history of the world. He writes that writers and artists such as Rainer Maria Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Edward Hopper, and Arnold Schoenberg "devoted much energy to recuperating the experience of the sacred—but as a private rather than a public form of consciousness." Scruton argues that because these thinkers directed their art at the few, it has never appealed to the many. He defines totalitarianism as the absence of any constraint on central authority, with every aspect of life the concern of government. Advocates of totalitarianism feed on resentment, Scruton argues, and having seized power they proceed to abolish institutions—such as the law, property, and religion—that create authorities. Scruton writes, "To the resentful it is these institutions that are the cause of inequality, and therefore the cause of their humiliations and failures." He argues that revolutions are not conducted from below by the people, but from above, in the name of the people, by an aspiring elite.

Scruton suggests that the importance of Newspeak in totalitarian societies is that the power of language to describe reality is replaced by language whose purpose is to avoid encounters with realities. He agrees with Alain Besançon that the totalitarian society envisaged by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four can be only understood in theological terms, as a society founded on a transcendental negation. In accordance with T. S. Eliot, Scruton believes that true originality is only possible within a tradition, and that it is precisely in modern conditions—conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief—that the conservative project acquires its sense.

Scruton considers that religion plays a basic function in "endarkening" human minds. "Endarkenment" is Scruton's way of describing the process of socialization through which certain behaviours and choices are closed off and forbidden to the subject, which he considers to be necessary in order to curb socially damaging impulses and behaviours.

Sexual desire

Jonathan Dollimore writes that Scruton's Sexual Desire (1986) based a conservative sexual ethic on the Hegelian proposition that "the final end of every rational being is the building of the self", which involves recognizing the other as an end in itself. Scruton argues that the major feature of perversion is "sexual release that avoids or abolishes the other", which he sees as narcissistic and solipsistic. He wrote in an essay, "Sexual morality and the liberal consensus" (1989), that homosexuality is a perversion for that reason because the body of the homosexual's lover belongs to the same category as his own. Scruton's argument was that positive attitudes to homosexuality in society are socially deleterious because homosexuals have no children and consequently no interest in creating a socially stable future. This basic antisocial impulse that Scruton argued was the consequence of homosexuality meant that he considered society to be justified in continuing to "instil in our children feelings of revulsion" towards homosexuality.

In The Guardian in 2010, Scruton stated that he had changed his views on homosexuality and would no longer defend what he had argued in the past.

Selected works

Nonfiction

  • Art And Imagination: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind (1974)
  • The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979)
  • The Meaning of Conservatism (1980)
  • The Politics of Culture and Other Essays (1981)
  • A Short History of Modern Philosophy (1982)
  • A Dictionary of Political Thought (1982)
  • The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture (1983)
  • Kant (1982)
  • Untimely Tracts (1985)
  • Thinkers of the New Left (1985)
  • Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic (1986)
  • Spinoza (1987)
  • A Land Held Hostage: Lebanon and the West (1987)
  • Conservative Thinkers: Essays from The Salisbury Review (1988)
  • Conservative Thoughts: Essays from The Salisbury Review (1988)
  • The Philosopher on Dover Beach: Essays (1990)
  • Conservative Texts: An Anthology (ed.) (1992)
  • Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (1994)
  • The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism (1995)
  • An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (1996); republished as Philosophy: Principles and Problems (2005)
  • The Aesthetics of Music (1997)
  • On Hunting (1998)
  • An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (1998); republished as Modern Culture (2005)
  • Spinoza (1998)
  • England: An Elegy (2001)
  • The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat (2002)
  • Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • News From Somewhere: On Settling (2004)
  • The Need for Nations (2004)
  • Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (Continuum, 2005)
  • "Flesh from the Butcher" (2005), TLS
  • Animal Rights and Wrongs (2006)
  • A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006)
  • Immigration, Multiculturalism and the Need to Defend the Nation State (2006)
  • Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007)
  • Beauty (2009)
  • I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine (2009)
  • Understanding Music (2009)
  • The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope (2010)
  • Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2011); revised and republished as How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (2012)
  • The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures (2012)
  • Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012)
  • The Soul of the World (2014)
  • How to Be a Conservative (2014)
  • Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (2015)
  • The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung (2016)
  • Confessions of a Heretic: Selected Essays (2017)

Fiction

  • Fortnight's Anger: a novel (1981)
  • Francesca: a novel (1991)
  • A Dove Descending and Other Stories (1991)
  • Xanthippic Dialogues (1993)
  • Perictione in Colophon: Reflections of the Aesthetic Way of Life (2000)
  • Notes from Underground (2014)
  • The Disappeared (2015)

Opera

  • The Minister (1994).
  • Violet (2005)

Television




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Roger Scruton" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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