‘The value of life does not consist in its length but its depth’ – Roger Scruton, Confessions of a Heretic
IT WAS an honour and a privilege to know Roger Scruton for many years. He was an outstandingly brilliant and cultured philosopher and his death in January struck my heart. I have recently been wondering what he would have made of the Covid obsession that has swept over us, trampling what should be our most cherished values.
I think I know. This is not presumptuous speculation: there is enough in his writings to tell us. Throughout his working life Scruton addressed himself to the human condition, opposing, among other things, philistinism in all its forms, pseudo-scientific reductionism and corruption of the feelings.
As an intellectual freedom fighter, he would have despised this dictatorial government, its mendacious and power-mad advisers with fingers in their ears to opposing evidence, the complicity of the MSM, and the unthinking pusillanimity of so many gullible citizens.
For a start, like the literary critic F R Leavis, his concerns about integrity of the feelings in art and in life generally led him to show what is morally wrong with sentimentality. Sentimental emotion amounts to, in his words, ‘look how noble is this feeling and how noble I am for feeling it’; it is essentially self-regarding and hostile to the truth that threatens its continuance.
He would therefore surely have been appalled to witness the nauseating spectacle of the weekly clapathon for the NHS, a ritual which ignored the neglect of non-Covid illnesses and turned a blind eye to the fortitude of other ‘essential workers’. For him, this noisy equivalent of taking the knee would have been a form of idolatry like dancing round the golden calf. This sham caring, which looked like people clapping themselves clapping, involved implied (or in some cases actual) hostility to those who didn’t join in.
As for what he would have thought about enforced masking, see his wonderful book The Face of God.
He wrote heretically against the culture engendered by the medical establishment, enclosing us in ‘the amniotic bath of welfare culture’ in which the obsessional desire to eliminate all physical risk inculcates cowardice. To prioritise physical safety above all else ignores, in his view, what makes life worth living in the first place.
Living and having a lifeare not the same. The first is merely a biological conception, which can apply to animals. Having a life, as we understand it, is a moral conception which is not equivalent to animate existence – not simply ‘the process whereby the human endures from birth to death’. As we experience it, it is what he calls a continuing and developing drama whose meaning resides in the whole – a whole that is ‘completed’ by death, and is amenable to moral judgement.
He was wary of the changes wrought by modern medicine as they affect our attitude to death. He detected a potentially messianic compulsion to consider that, in principle, given advanced techniques, death could be eliminated altogether, converting life to endless duration. So the tender feelings and virtuous dispositions which depend upon our sense of ontological fragility would gradually disappear (including love, benevolence and compassion).
Although he has not yet announced his intention to give us the immortality of the gods, we can already see the stirrings of the messianic impulse in Matt Hancock’s recent aspiration to impose mass testing in cases of flu or even the common cold. Perhaps we could enjoy eternal life in solitary confinement. Certainly the prospect of confinement seems to be eternal!
Scruton would have deplored the life of enforced cowardice, which destroys the virtues of courage and stoicism. He reaches back to Aristotle’s view that the happy life is a life of virtue, and the life of the coward is not a life worth living. With his characteristically delightful contrarianism, Scruton recommends a life of ‘benign shabbiness and wilful neglect’ to see us off before we lose our faculties in old age, which is also prone to terrible diseases. He might well have considered a quick fatal dose of Covid in one’s dotage – which attacks chiefly the elderly anyway (of whom I am one) – would be better than going gaga or being racked with pain and confined to a wheelchair.
Controversial perhaps, but, contrary to those who see physical health as an end in itself, he considered moral health to be more important. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person – losing the soul is far worse. Moral health requires, in his view, a virtuous life of courage, ‘of risky enjoyments and bold adventures’, but not only in the physical sense. It includes ‘the forthright expression of opinion, so as to win grateful friends and implacable enemies’. These are not sterile theoretical maxims: they describe the way Roger lived his life.
He criticised ‘doctors and health fascists’ who recommend the opposite. He correctly observed that if you disobey, ‘the thought-police will track you down and your lifestyle will be held up to ridicule and contempt’.
Well, look what’s happening now! Even Roger could not have predicted the spectacle of being wrestled to the ground by police or given an astronomic fine for trying to live a normal life in defiance of a government that seems to have no concept of what human life should be.