I DON’T remember precisely when I first came across Sir Roger Scruton. It’s likely that, as is often the case, I encountered him on YouTube. Perhaps, as with many others, it was his fantastic documentary Why Beauty Matters (which, as necessary viewing, can be found here).
What remains clear, however, is the deep effect the man had on me. I have, at various points, proselytised Scrutonian thought with the fervour of a religious zealot: I once lent a girl I was trying to impress my copy of Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism & the Danger of False Hope – not a widely practised seduction technique. I have sat people down and forced them to watch Why Beauty Matters. I shamelessly use his talking points and arguments in discussion.
The latter, I find, is difficult to avoid. Sir Roger Scruton’s thought was full of such timeless truth that listening him speak on any topic was bound to result in a cascade of Eureka! moments, as if someone had finally given voice to those things you knew deep down to be true, but were taught for so long to be false.
There were few topics on which the man did not venture to comment. Aesthetics, architecture, popular culture, politics, literature, sex, art, alcohol and more; he was one of those rare people who had something enlightening to say on so much. In a world filled with those whose lack of anything interesting to say is outmatched only by their wish to force you to listen to it, Sir Roger is sorely missed.
It is just over a year since his death at the age of 75. The loss of such a man was always going to be a severe blow to conservatives across the world. Yet, viewing the events of the months following his death, it is hard not to be saddened that we have not had the benefit of his insights into an increasingly dangerous time for the world.
At a period in which the relations between citizens are more fraught than ever before, Sir Roger’s repeated emphasis of the need to find a ‘we’ in society – an identity around which we can coalesce and exist harmoniously ‘I-to-I’ – is perhaps now more important than ever. He deplored the culture of name-calling, rightly seeing such tactics as merely an attempt to shut one’s opponent up: now an everyday feature of political discourse.
After a year of lockdown, we need voices such as his to remind us of the necessity of conserving what we have inherited. Through state fiat, we now run the very real risk of obliterating countless years of accumulated social and civic capital – and all under the guidance of a ‘conservative’ party. Sir Roger would no doubt be troubled at the prospect of society’s – in Burke’s phrase – ‘little platoons’ being devastated and the apparent society-wide forgetting that we do not own the world, but are its temporary custodians. As such, we should aim to leave it in a better condition than when we found it. Few can be confident that this will now be the case.
There is simply too much of Scruton’s thought to do justice to it here. Nor, frankly, am I the man to do it. We are lucky that he left such a vast number of books, and that he was so willing to speak publicly and to be interviewed so regularly. A true wealth of material awaits any budding Scrutonian, trying to make sense of a world that somehow champions mediocrity over excellence, ugliness over beauty, and hatred over love. Scruton shows us how the world ought to be, and how, in so many ways, we collectively fall short of our potential. He is the answer for those who know something is wrong, but are not quite sure what.
There is one of his phrases, however, which I think is of greatest relevance to us in our post-Scruton world. He often said of life that what was important was its depth, not its length. In a world that has become obsessed with the latter metric of life, we must reclaim the previously self-evident need to be able to lead lives imbued with meaning, beauty and depth, not merely viewing a successful life as one that is as risk-free and as long as possible.
I can’t think of a more fitting phrase to remind us of ourselves in these strange times: the important thing about life is its depth, not its length. It is a phrase that many would do well to heed.