Discover more from Poiema
The Philosopher's Stone: The Enduring Legacy of Sir Roger Scruton
Today marks two years since the passing of philosopher, author, and champion of conservatism, Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020). Scruton was a singular man of many parts, the epitome of the modern Renaissance Man. Known as much for his passion for fox hunting and Bordeaux wines as he was for his contributions in the arena of Kantian studies, or Wagnerian symbolism, or classic architecture; Roger Scruton was the incarnation of erudition. But he was that kind of public intellectual whose learning served the common good by enriching the mind of the common man.
This may seem a strange thing to say about one who was a conscientious elitist, yet it was just this insistence upon the inestimable value of a well-ordered world that renders his life a service to us all. Indeed, Scruton’s snobbery was not a disdain for the middle-class—for that was his own heritage; his contempt was directed towards mediocrity. He was persuaded that it was the duty of those for whom Providence had awakened an appreciation of ‘high culture’ to raise their fellows to the lofty standard of Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture, “the best that has been thought and said.” For Scruton, the cultural elite, those whose minds have been informed and whose lives have been formed by the arts, bear the burden of noblesse oblige.
For this reason, Roger Scruton can be thought of as a true humanitarian. He sought the betterment of humanity by defending the virtue of the humanities. Every rational person is endowed with the native faculty of judgment, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that such souls are immediately able to recognize the criteria required for sound estimates. In order for one to be able to rightly esteem one’s neighbor, one must be able to both ascertain and ascribe value to them. Hence, Scruton’s insistence that it is just the kind of knowledge gained through exposure to the humanities that enables us to regard the human, and thus humane.
...we all recognize the difference between means and ends. We know that we choose the means to our ends, but also that we choose our ends. We are active guardians of our own lives, aiming not just to hit the target that we have chosen, but also to choose the right target. How do we learn to do that? The answer is culture — both the culture of everyday life and the 'high' culture, as it is sometimes called, in which life becomes fully conscious of itself as an object of judgment. The arts form the core of high culture: it is why we teach them, and why we encourage people to take an interest in them. They are doors into the examined life and, as Socrates famously said, 'the unexamined life is not a life for a human being'.
Since men are not machines, it is important to know the why as well as the how. There is a sort of knowledge that is only mechanistic. While such learning provides a mastery of the means, it is ill-equipped to locate meaning. For instance, science may fit us with the requisite tools to reach a particular end, but it lacks the navigational apparatus to point us toward the proper end. Physics cannot tell us which goals are worthy of pursuit; Biology doesn’t have the wherewithal to wrestle with questions of teleology. Ah, but Dante can teach us of the satisfying dissatisfaction that springs from chasing the Beautiful which lies always just out of reach. And from someone like Michelangelo we may learn the secret of man’s earliest memory, and spend our lives stretching forth not just hands but hearts to touch the face of God.
It seems Scruton shared a common conviction with Shakespeare, that a man uninformed by the humanities is a malformed man.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
(from The Merchant of Venice)
Herein lies a felicitous reciprocity: the person who cultivates a sense of culture is cultivated by it, and as he is molded by it, he shapes the world around him so as to make it hospitable for the flourishing of both.
At the epicenter of his concept of culture was the bedrock belief in beauty. Roger Scruton was the archenemy of ugliness. His writings on aesthetics were as alarming as they were instructive. Like some strange dark prophet fresh from the wilderness, he pointed our attention to the desecration of the sacred and the trivialization of the transcendentals. Yet, like any true seer, he did not leave us without hope. A genuine conservative, he gave himself over to the task of preserving the integrity of the ‘permanent things.’ He was for a time in his last days the architect of a revitalization and beautification project in his beloved England. But long before that—and until his dying hour—he was about the business of restoring our humanity by restoring our sanity. At times we did not give him much to work with. But in Sir Roger Scruton we found a man who had discovered the fabled Philosophers’ Stone, a true alchemist who was able to turn that which was base into something beautiful.
Would You Like to Support My Work?
If you have found value in my work and writing, then this may be an opportunity for you to support my future endeavors. Given the time and resources it takes to research and write books, articles, lessons, and all the rest of it, I can’t do this work apart from your generosity.
If you would like to support our work on a monthly basis, consider doing so as one of our patrons here at Patreon.
If you would like to make a one time donation, you can do so by sending it directly to me through PayPal.
Thank you for considering to help us during these difficult days. May God bless your giving.