Roger Scruton is my favorite living philosopher. It’s not that I agree with him on everything—economics, for example, or his admiration for Hegel. But even points of disagreement are not exasperating as they are with some thinkers who seem more bent on personal pride or ideological idiosyncrasies than the quest for truth. That is the amazing thing about Scruton, his Socratic modesty.
Recently this English writer has published a thoughtful essay, “Forgiveness and Irony.” He acknowledges that while citizenship is a political concept that makes Western society unique, it is not enough for human happiness. Denizens of the secular state still yearn for a sense of the sacred. “People need freedom,” he notes paradoxically, “but they also need the goal for which they can renounce it.” Even in this respect the Western (Judeo-Christian) view of the sacred is itself set apart from other creeds, namely Islam, for its humility and charity.
Such observations encouraged me to read some of Scruton’s older essays in The Philosopher on Dover Beach. There are many excellent pieces, but one that piqued my interest was the essay on Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Scruton poignantly recalls the bittersweet experience of early intellectual discovery. There is, he remarks, the captivating fascination of the soi-disant prophetic writer. But there is also potential danger in a philosophy that tries to make permanent what is a mere mood of youth.
Every adolescent, feeling the imperious demands of life in his body, is prone to presentiments of death. The species erupts into his consciousness with all the terrifying forces of a barbarian army, sweeping the glass menagerie from the table of the self. Religion tames this species-feeling, so that when it appears at the threshold of the adolescent soul, it is not a savage force but a quietly beckoning presence, an invitation to community, and a promise of initiation. Shorn of religion, the adolescent experiences his awakening as a kind of doom. He dwells on the idea of devastation and is led either to join some millennarian search or else to dignify his emotions with an image of cosmic decline.
In a nutshell, Scruton has defined the narcissist errors of radicalism and reaction, both of which are at odds with real conservatism.
I get the impression that some traditionalist commentators oppose today’s societal rot not so much because it is bad as that it is in “bad taste.” Scruton is certainly urbane, but never smug. He has a healthy sense of moral indignation. Nevertheless, rather than lay all the blame on “modern society,” as if it were an excuse for personal apathy, he sees that the fight against vulgarity begins with individual spiritual growth and intellectual maturity.