Roger Scruton, acknowledged as Britain’s foremost philosopher when Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 2016, is no longer ours. When asked how he wished to be remembered, Sir Roger offered different answers on separate occasions. “As the last Englishman,” he told one interviewer. “As myself,” he said to another. It was really the same answer.
Sir Roger embodied the ideal of the English gentleman. As much at home abroad as on his own soil, he carried the confidence of a T.E. Lawrence past the Iron Curtain into countries scorched of free society. In between stunts of intimidation by secret police, he gave lectures to minds desperate for knowledge. Thrown down flights of stairs, arrested, and placed on the “undesired persons” list of communist tyrannies, harassment did not break Roger’s courage—a courage born of an unwavering commitment to goodness, beauty, and truth.
That pursuit cut through the rising tide of “woke culture” birthed in the universities of the 1960s and ’70s. His Czech friends, whom he had aided in their fight against totalitarianism, warned him that he must turn and fight the same suffocating darkness on his own shores. Thrown out of universities (a precursor to “no-platforming”) and eventually stifled out of academia altogether, Roger carried the fight in print, authoring over 40 books and founding the conservative magazine Salisbury Review.
Age 55, Roger began a farm and became a yeoman. When I visited what he tongue-in-cheek named “Scrutopia,” I met dozens of neighbors who viewed him as a newcomer (at that point he had been a resident there for 20 years) as well as a Godsend. They clearly bore genuine affection for him. To conserve the English country life he cherished, he subsidized rent on his land, and on the annual occasion of Apple Day, neighbors gathered to sell homemade goods and crafts. I asked if he needed any help running the event. “Definitely,” he answered, “by spending your American money!”
Roger loved England because he saw England as lovely. Most of all he cherished the English common law. Trained as a barrister in the Inner Temple after his doctorate at Cambridge, he said his legal studies profoundly influenced his philosophical outlook, showing him that our knowledge of the moral law arises over time from the successive conclusions of moral judgments across generations. Moral law is not invented, but discovered. Positive law is not the dictate of the sovereign from the top-down, but the consensus of the common rising from the bottom-up. This conception of law, even more than democracy or the separation of powers, is the ballast of ordered freedom.
America shares this tradition. As Virginia’s common law reception statute of 1776, still in force today, puts it, “The common law of England…shall be considered as in full force, until the same shall be altered.” Roger fled England for a time and found refuge in the state where farming, foxhunting, and rural living complemented his sensibilities. Virginia gave him a home, and he in turn gave Virginia his literary attention. “Sitting on the porch after sundown, listening to the tree frogs trilling and the land frogs squeaking, I remind God to ensure that a cask or two of our local rye is on tap when He meets the neighbours. They’re sure gonna need it.”
Anglo-American culture is precious, and this prompted Roger into the conservatism for which he became so notorious. “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” Yet politics were not Roger’s passion. In our seminars and tutorials, Roger evinced a love for and mastery of philosophy few can rival. He made profound contributions to the phenomenology of sex, aesthetics, religion, consciousness, and music. He was intensely interested in philosophical questions of the mind and of language. One got the sense that, had he lived during a time when culture was not under attack, he would not have raised its defense in the realm of politics.
Against the zeitgeist, Roger defended objective morality, the inherent dignity of human persons, and their consequent natural rights. Yet he knew that human rights had become severed from their foundation in the old idea of natural law. “Hence if you ask what rights are human or fundamental you get a different answer depending whom you ask, and nobody seems to agree with anyone else regarding the procedure for resolving conflicts.” He was writing a book on human rights before his passing. I do not know whether we will see its contents, but his writing on the importance of nations should be required reading for all those seeking to navigate the rival claims of deracinated globalism on the one hand, and ersatz nationalism, on the other.
More than any other question about Roger I receive from those whom I meet is, Was Roger a believing Christian? We know he was a practicing one; he played the organ at his parish church every Sunday. I attempted to elicit an answer from him once on a walk in Oxford. We had shared whiskey, and I hoped his mood would be open. But he demurred. “Religion is complicated; my Christian friends always ask me this. Reason only sees to the edge of things,” he said without resentment but with indisposition.
Before he allowed me to use Thomistic new natural law methodology in my master’s thesis, Roger insisted I read Kant for three months first. “I’m not having you leave without studying something true!” he half-jested. In the end, we may understand Roger as a sophisticated Kantian with an appreciation for the truths in Christianity. He acknowledged what he called the “real presence of Christ” in his life and knew he could not live without it. His Gifford lectures and book The Soul of the World, I suggest, are among the finest protoevangelium in a century, to be ranked and used among the works of C.S. Lewis, Iris Murdoch, and Martin Buber.
Paul the Apostle taught, “God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” Sir Roger Scruton pursued goodness with the heart of a child, beauty with the innocence of an angel, and truth with the mind of a sage. He belongs to the greats. He belongs to God.