Roger Scruton (1944-2020), RIP

It’s considered disrespectful to speak ill of the just-deceased, so I hope this post will be read in a spirit of candor rather than ill-will. But the truth is, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Roger Scruton, who’s just passed away. On the one hand, it was impossible not to admire the sheer breadth of his interests and learning, and impossible not to be awed or intimidated by his sheer output. He seemed in so many ways to embody the ideal of The Public Philosopher: clear, erudite, iconoclastic, occasionally brilliant, capable of technical sophistication, but also capable of writing for a wide audience. That said, I hated his politics and a lot of his cultural grandstanding, and often found myself wondering how a man as intelligent as Scruton could come up with views as dumb as the ones he sometimes put into print.

I never read enough of Scruton to know which of the two dimensions was the dominant one in his work, and whether the more problematic stuff could successfully be disentangled from the less. On the positive side, I found his book Sexual Desire both illuminating and infuriating, found The West and the Rest irritating but usefully challenging, and found The Aesthetics of Music intriguing but weirdly opaque. I taught his little book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction several times in an undergraduate class on aesthetics; I enjoyed it a great deal, as (to my surprise) did my students. (I blogged about it here and here). About eight years ago, Scruton graciously accepted my invitation to write a longish review of Dmitry Tymoczko’s A Geometry of Music for Reason Papers; we corresponded pleasantly for awhile about the book and about (classical) music generally. I’m sure I learned more from the exchange than he did. Some of the material from the Reason Papers review ended up in his 2018 book, Music as an Art, which I have yet to read.

On the negative side, I found some of Scruton’s more polemical stuff ill-written and sometimes contemptible. To take just two examples that come to mind: his incessant polemics on contemporary music struck me as tone-deaf, and his apologetics for Donald Trump seemed callow and uninformed. I picked up Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, his book-length attack on the “New Left,” just for fun, but had to put it down after a few chapters: it hadn’t occurred to me that Scruton could write such lame stuff, but I guess he could (the critique of Edward Said in that book is eye-rollingly bad). Though I admired his philosophical paeans to Western culture, I couldn’t help detecting a condescending air of mission civilisatrice, however subtly concealed, in much of what he wrote about the non-West. But I make that criticism with some reluctance because frankly, I admired his subtlety: if anyone could make ethnocentrism seem respectable, it was Scruton.

In any case, it’s a tribute to Roger Scruton that he’s given us more reading to do than any of us could possibly do: his collected works could take up a couple of library shelves, and will some day, no doubt, become an academic specialty of their own (if they aren’t already). It makes sense that a conservative would write as prodigiously as Scruton did: I suppose he felt, with justification, that there was much in the Western tradition that was being lost, and much that had to be conserved. At his best, Scruton re-fashioned the Western tradition in the act of conserving and reproducing it. Whatever his faults, we can be grateful that he did.

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