Now that the truth is just a rule that you can bend… On Roger Scuton

Roger Scruton passed away after a several-month battle with cancer. In the context of our highly polarised media environment, it was almost predictable that the discussion about his life would split so sharply between those who thought him some kind of unparalleled genius and those who thought he was a deplorable monster.  He was neither.

Scruton demonstrated that it was still possible — despite the ubiquity of trollumnist versions of conservatism — to advocate an intellectually serious version of conservatism.  Although it was intellectually serious, Scruton was prone to vanity and some level of dishonesty in his presentation of the arguments of others.  That’s not a fatal criticism: the same has been said about countless many prominent academics.

I have a shelf dedicated to Scruton’s works. He is highly readable and — provided you engage the text with a critical lens — his vibrant style can be enjoyable for short dips.

Academia is predominately conservative. It is a guardian of tradition and culture, and its structures are designed to preserve established modes of thought. Individual academics tend not to be conservative. It is a weird function that a mass of people who are overwhelmingly left wing would result in organisations that are predominately right wing. Robert Menzies’ 1939 speech, The Place of a University in the Modern Community, on the role of universities in society speaks entirely to this point.

Scruton found a niche being an outspoken conservative individual within academia.  He attributed the obstacles in his career to being an outspoken conservative among progressives.  Perhaps a better explanation for his obstacles was repeated demonstration of poor judgement, publishing oddly racist and homophobic articles, sometimes pseudononymously.

His arguments about the nature of authority and society, and their role in creating a context in which people can thrive, are worth engaging. Scruton articulates these arguments especially well, even if they’re presented somewhat romantically.

Scruton found it too easy to slide from those good quality arguments to complete and utter junk about homosexuality and multiculturalism. What perhaps worked as an argument in aesthetics completely fails when Scruton talks about sexual or ethnic minorities. Scruton believes homosexuality is unnatural because there are too many of the same kind of body.  It’s absolutely banal.  When I first encountered his arguments on marriage, I thought I had missed a bit of the argument. He sets up the start of an argument, then a terrible miracle happens, and he jumps straight to the conclusion that he wants.  It’s riddled with non sequiturs.

Scruton was also a shameless sell-out, playing whatever tune his payer calls.  His Australian Essays are an extremely good example of this; they are depressingly awful.  After some four decades of warning about the dangers of letting markets ravage culture (even writing in opposition to Thatcherism), he let the Centre for Independent Studies buy his pen for a series of essays about the importance of not regulating markets at all. His argument about the Sokal Hoax are juvenile, but would have greatly pleased the Centre. While revisiting the book for this blog post, I came across my notes in the book.  Following a very strange argument about what he sees as the intellectual poverty of postmodernism, Scruton writes:

If you still feel that the matter is not closed, and haven’t visited Andrew Bulhak’s Postmodern Generator, on the web, and had the joy of generating your own contribution to this pile of bullshit, then that is certainly what you should do.

On a small piece of notepaper from a Sydney hotel, I scribbled: ‘Does Scruton not know that there is a Kant generator online as well?’  So keen was he to denounce those he dislikes that he happily produced any old nonsense argument against them, regardless of their intellectual quality.

The essays are Scruton at his worst. Fortunately, the essays were so disastrous that they were barely noticed by anybody.

Scruton is at his best when he is read in conjunction with others.  It is particularly enjoyable to read essays by his PhD supervisor, GEM Anscombe on virtue ethics and then look at the way that Scruton conceives virtue in his writings.  Mind!  I think his approach is flawed, but those flaws are illuminating and helpful.  When Scruton sets the terms of his best debates, there is value in trying to refute them.

Finally, there is A Short History of Modern Philosophy.  When Scruton writes in praise of some philosopher or other, he is insightful and canny in his ability to summarise the key arguments.  When Scruton does not hold the philosopher or the philosophical tradition in high regard, it is sludge.  Fortunately, its promise to be short is honoured and you can belt through it in a few hours.  Scruton returned to this ‘History of Ideas as Invective’ approach for Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (in which he recycled material from his earlier Thinkers of the New Left), demonstrating that he couldn’t honestly present the arguments of those whom he opposed, believing them to be mere sophists and charlatans with nothing to contribute to human knowledge.

Scruton was valuable.  He was treated very poorly by some in academia, and his confrontational style provoked similar treatment from those in the Left who wanted to misrepresent his arguments as worse than they were.  Those who celebrate him as a genius are unlikely to have read his works and, if they have read his works, definitely didn’t have the education to engage them critically.  Those who dismiss him as little more than a petty racist and homophobe definitely haven’t engaged his better materials.  Both sides of the Scruton debate would benefit from speaking less and listening more.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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