Books & Culture

Rest in Peace, Dearest Roger

Roger Scruton experienced what it means to be generous and what can be gained when civilization makes a concerted effort to celebrate and practice virtue.

I have been, like most true-blue conservatives, in tears and mourning for over a week reflecting on the passing of our friend and mentor, Roger Scruton.

Last year he was finally and duly elevated in a country that never appreciated him sufficiently, to the Order of the British Empire, which made him rightfully a “Sir.”

Sir Roger was proud of the title and what it connoted. A firm believer in tradition and community, aside from beauty and truth, he was, in essence, a reverential man. He was truly a man for all seasons. And he was also profoundly modest. His humility endeared him to his audience because he honestly stated when he did not know an answer or had not thought through a problem. But reading his more than 50 books, across the widest panoply of subject matter, gives any objective person reason to question Roger’s strong virtue. He had no equals.

Roger was in fact, a giant, the likes of which we are unlikely to see any time soon or ever again. He was the thinking conservative of the century, surely in Britain and Europe. But it is his multidimensional perspective that most impresses. He was not a siloed man of tunnel vision or just one puffed up sub-specialization. Roger knew the whole fabric of reality and appreciated the need to tie it together, to weave a whole cloth. He was truly learned. This made him rare and unique.

I thought I would recount for posterity four episodes that show Roger’s real and sincere qualities, one’s which I hope others can model and benefit from. We should all be so fortunate.

I met Roger many decades ago when he was still at Birkbeck College teaching philosophy having been made persona non grata in wider academia. He was ousted because he did not sit well with the established Leftist, and increasingly Marxist, post-modern orthodoxy. Roger spoke his mind and wrote in convincing ways that proved the arguments of the Left were vapid and empty. But what really irked them was that he was not some armchair, ivory tower Don. He acted dutifully with integrity and followed through on his manifest ideas; he entered the arena. During the entire Cold War, Roger was intimately involved in assisting, and even smuggling literature, notes from the underground so to speak, to and from all the countries in the former Soviet bloc and at great danger to himself and fellow travelers. I was one of them, including Bibles.

Fast forward and I recall with deep pleasure my interactions with Roger over two books I personally authored about a decade ago. The first was Spiritual Enterprise, which was later republished as Virtuous Business, and made into a popular PBS documentary.

Roger helped me hone my pregnant ideas and framework into a seamless whole. I was for sure a better economist and knew the business literature and case experiences far more than Roger, and yet he was intently interested in how we could make capitalism better, “moral,” in the original sense intended by Adam Smith himself.

Three years ago, we had Roger invited to Said Business School at Oxford to address the MBA class and he honored me by thanking me publicly for having shaped his opinions about the topic and the market. It is particularly gracious when a teacher acknowledges a student, at any level, and we were peers.

All of us were students of Roger’s: on aesthetics, musicology, architecture, and philosophy. He was, indeed, a master teacher.

Another book I wrote, under the auspices of the Templeton Foundation, was titled Being Generous. Jack Templeton, M.D. wrote the moving preface as a tribute to his famous philanthropist father. What is untold is that Roger was the editor. He worked with me for over a year as I thought deeply about the virtue of generosity and the contours of gratefulness and how it was the root of the good and meaningful life.

“Above all,” Scruton concluded, “loyalty is a commitment to one’s duty which may include family, friendship, career, religion or country.” These were the things that mattered most to him: first principles.

He liked that I rooted the book in the Hebrew scriptures and also considered all the world’s other great religions in this universal finding. Roger and I sat for hours on end in the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., at Montpelier Farm in Virginia, and in his office on Beaumont Street, in Oxford, discussing the nature of “gift.” We concluded that it is the Christian tradition that has shaped our Western culture and its understanding of the concept of charity as “the love to which we are commanded,” to use Kant’s striking words.

These are frankly some of my best memories of Roger and the spirit of dialogue he represented and lived.

Roger confessed to me that his autobiography, Gentle Regrets, was incomplete and that conversations about the transcendental brought him to reevaluate his own relationship with God and His Church. His later books and lectures reflected this. Clearly, Roger sits today in Heaven at the right hand of the Father, with all the saints, looking down on us. Doubtless, on arrival he was roundly thanked with, “a job well done.” Roger should be seen as a masterful philosopher who loved wisdom and also as a faithful servant who demonstrated what so many seek and fail to find—a purposeful life. He combined faith and reason.

I was taken to see that in his last days Roger admitted that the meaning of life was simply “all about gratitude.” Roger himself embodied that very attitude. He took seriously the grace of God in all things.

My final episode to recall was at and after Roger’s well-attended and insightful lecture at the Legatum Institute in London, in May 2018, discussing “The Character of Loyalty.”

He reminded us that loyalty is a fundamental virtue on which we all depend for survival because it ties families, communities, and nations together. In defining loyalty, Roger distinguished between personal loyalty, which is a vow, such as a marriage vow or family ties and national loyalty, which is a contractual commitment. The motivation for loyalty may be practical where the commitment is rational and deliberate or sentimental where the commitment may remain despite a cost or disadvantage.

“Above all,” he concluded, “loyalty is a commitment to one’s duty which may include family, friendship, career, religion or country.” These were the things that mattered most to him: first principles.

We spoke and dined after the talk and lamented about the slow progress of Brexit about which he cared immensely as an Englishman, and anticipating the Trump impact on notions of national sovereignty, as opposed to globalism in world affairs. His conservative demeanor and good cheer made Roger, while a brilliantly critical mind, nonetheless an eternal optimist.

I talked to Roger a number of times in the last year after his atrocious debacle with the government and after he embraced his bout with cancer. Always the gentleman, Roger knew we were all terminal beings. Life had an origin and a destination. The journey he took us on while on this earth will be remembered forever and is contained not only in his spoken words and written sentences but in his loving embrace as a human being.

In the context of our grand pursuits, it was our joint belief that being generous may be the most important thing we can do not just for others, but for ourselves, for our societies, for our progeny, and even for the God or gods we choose to worship.

Well over 200 years ago, the same thing was said in the voice of the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith’s seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, for which he is rightly famous, was made possible by his earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith wrote: “It is the best head joined to the best heart.”

Roger Scruton was precisely that.

He experienced what it means to be generous and what can be gained when civilization makes a concerted effort to celebrate and practice virtue.