There have already been a number of heartfelt and some prosaic obituaries for Sir Roger Scruton, who died last Sunday after a short battle with cancer, so my faint contribution feels a bit like a ripple in an ocean of remembrance. Many have already noted the numerous awards with which he was bestowed, the countless books he had written, and the host of thinkers he influenced. In all of these requisite biographical retellings of a man’s life, we too often lose the person, the one we hope to remember well.
I, like many of my generation, first encountered Scruton on YouTube, watching the documentary he wrote for the BBC, “Why Beauty Matters.” In it, I discovered a new vocabulary. No longer were art, music, or architecture, things left to a pedantic class of intellectuals, but instead I learned that they are human experiences to which we can all have access, if only we know where to look in our world of ugliness. Scruton finally showed me that there is a way to speak about things that matter.
From that point on, I devoured anything I could find from him on the internet. I checked out every book of his in the library and bought several of his books with what little money I had in my bank account, hoping to divine some of his wisdom. I told my friends and family about him. I thought the thought of every budding intellectual—“this is it, this is the philosopher to whom I can relate.”
For the rest of my undergraduate career, I devoted myself to the study of philosophy, politics, and music—eventually attempting in my own way to replicate the lessons I learned from Scruton by writing my thesis on Mozart and philosophy, hoping one day to meet the man who helped shape me intellectually and who gave me so much hope.
Not long after I graduated, I was given that opportunity. Through a mutual friend, I was told about a two-week seminar Scruton was holding over the summer near his home in England. We would be the first class of students attending “Scrutopia” (as Scruton named it). When I arrived I was shocked at how “normal” everyone was. In my youthful naïveté, I had thought that everyone attending would be graduate students, professors, and fellow philosophers, instead of school teachers, businessmen, consultants, and accountants.
For two weeks, we attended “class” for six hours each day (which was more a conversation between Scruton and the students about various elements of his thought and philosophy in general). There were also excursions to Roman ruins around the Cotswolds and two visits to Scruton’s humble farmhouse estate.
On the second visit to Scruton’s we were treated to a tour of the grounds, the stables, and a dinner prepared by the philosopher’s wife, Sophie, using vegetables from their garden and sausage procured earlier that day from the pig next door. After dinner, a concert was given by Scruton and friends, with the esteemed philosopher heading the trio at his piano.
Only now, almost three years later, reflecting on the beauty that comes from good wine mixed with the English countryside, and after the passing of a dear mentor, do I finally realize what Scruton wanted to teach us.
Earlier that day, all of the students were given time to have a one-on-one conversation with Scruton. I had spent the whole night preparing questions to ask this eminent mind. I asked him where I could go to learn: “St. John’s College, Baylor, or Princeton, but only if you study with Robbie George.” I asked what books and he kept coming back to: “Joyce’s Ulysses, or anything by Kant or Wittgenstein.” I asked what was one question he still didn’t have an answer to: “What exactly kitsch is and why is it bad?” I asked what conservatives should not do: “Become embittered.” I asked him which two books he wrote best explained who he was: “Notes From Underground and On Hunting” (the former being his fictional novel of the Prague underground university scene in the 1980s).
Finally, I asked him what one has to do to become a philosopher like him. As is the case with most stupid questions, great minds, like great potters, are able to sculpt something beautiful from the rough clay they are given, and thereby turn the questioner toward wisdom.
“Well, I am not a philosopher,” he replied. “I am just a man who got lucky enough to spend his life getting paid to think.”
All these years later and this was what he wanted to teach us. To properly do philosophy, one does not need to spend eight years getting a Ph.D., figure out exactly what Plato or Aristotle thought, or win a debate. Scruton knew this truth intimately, having been expelled from the academy some years ago. He understood that at its heart, philosophy is an act of love. He told us early on at Scrutopia that one of the foundational moments of his becoming a conservative was falling in love with the England portrayed by T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets. He rebuilt that England in his own tiny corner of the world and graciously shared it with us.
Roger Scruton was no stranger to criticism from modern academics and pundits for his defense of Western Civilization, but just like the England with which he fell in love, he knew that our civilization was a communal exercise of generations passing down the things they love, and that the job of the teacher is to inspire his students to love the permanent things.
It feels fitting then that having given so much to others, one of the last things he wrote in The Spectator was that “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” At the end of his life, I am left with my own feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the time that he shared with all of us “normal folk” instilling in us a love for the permanent things.