Roger Scruton for Catholics

At the heart of Roger Scruton’s philosophy was a Catholic understanding of the world: we are not alone.

Sir Roger Scruton was a spirited man who could have been lifted straight out of the pages of a classic nineteenth-century novel. He was lively, cheerful, quixotic, and highly educated; a man of the world and thoughtful contemplation. He was not a Catholic, though he had flirtations with the Catholic Church before settling into a heterodox relationship with the Church of England. I studied with him before his death, and among all the accomplishments he could be remembered by, he wanted to be remembered as the organist for his small parish.

There are two common understandings of Roger Scruton. One is that he was the world’s leading expositor of “conservatism,” whatever that might mean now, and that his gravitas as a philosopher and Oxford professor gave intellectual credibility to conservatives seeking an intellectual defender. The other is that he was the premier philosopher of beauty, arguing forcefully for the need of a high aesthetic in the world and in our lives.

There is another Roger Scruton, a Roger Scruton that serves as the bridge between the two public understandings of the great English gentleman. The Roger Scruton I knew, and the Roger Scruton that is so important for Catholics to engage with, is the Roger of love.

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If I had to describe Roger, it would be that he was a philosopher of love. Love grounded his understanding of conservatism. In Gentle Regrets he writes of this belief, “Conservatism is founded on love: love of what has been good to you, and forgiveness of what has not.” Love, you see, is what causes attachment and from that attachment found in love the desire to preserve, to conserve. Precisely because conservatism is rooted in human nature, Roger argues, it is not systematic, it is not “rational” (per Michael Oakeshott), and it is not positivistic (it doesn’t offer people a political program to check boxes).

Concerning beauty, love also informed his understanding of beauty and its importance in the world. Roger was often an invitee to Catholic conferences and seminars dealing with beauty. It made sense. Catholics have a long tradition of aesthetic grandeur and arguments that beauty serve as a means to experience God. Augustine, Pseudo-Denys, and Bonaventure are among the most illustrious names in that tradition. Growing up in a post-Vatican II suburban milieu, many Catholics are starved for beauty and have turned to the foremost philosopher of beauty to be enriched by his reflections.

That love was integral to beauty was Roger’s main point: without beauty there cannot be love and without love there cannot be beauty. Love and beauty coexist with each other and enhance one another in their unity. Love becomes something beautiful when experienced. Beauty reflects the reality of love and its transcendent truth. Because love and beauty are integral to each other, this leads to a desire to encounter beauty, to preserve beauty, to come into a relationship with beauty: “The love of beauty is really a signal to free ourselves from that sensory attachment, and to begin the ascent of the soul towards the world of ideas, there to participate in the divine version of reproduction, which is the understanding and the passing on of eternal truths.”

From love also comes the ethos of forgiveness. To return to Roger’s definition of conservatism being founded in love, the gentle reader may have also noticed he tied forgiveness to the nature of conservatism. Forgiveness as an expression of love was drawn from Roger’s complicated relationship to Christianity. He found in the Gospel of Love the beauty of forgiveness and how in and through forgiveness people can be reconciled to each other: and reconciliation is beautiful because it is a manifestation of love.

This, then, moves us to his later life reflections on the human condition. The Face of God and The Soul of the World contain Roger’s philosophy of the lebenswelt, the life spirit of the world. It shouldn’t be surprising that love is so essential in both accounts.

The essence of Roger’s notion of the lebenswelt is that we desire love in the form of human relationship. This love of human-to-human encounters, human-to-human relationships, the “face-to-face” embrace rather than body-to-body embrace, is the instantiation of the sacred in daily human life and existence. Ours is a world and existence of subjectivity rather than objectification; the redemption of our personalities comes with the experience of love that humans uniquely come to know. Love, then, is more than mere sentimentality or feeling. It is rooted in an objective order we can have access to. But that access to love is not independent of experience. Love is a lived reality.

Music, perhaps the great love of Roger’s life, is therefore only understandable from his philosophy of love (and beauty). The beauty of music is in its manifestation of the reality of love: the relational aspect of love, how love unites rather than divides, how love turns our gaze to faces and the heavens rather than bodies and the netherworld. 

While we “listen to music” as he points out, the listening to music when it becomes that encounter with beauty turns us into creatures of love: we love the music and begin a “dance” that implies a togetherness “with” music. “This movement,” Roger writes, as we turn from disinterested listening to a relational unity with music “involves…sympathy.” To “move with” music means we have grown to love the beauty of music and we engage in a sort of metaphysical and spiritual dance with it rather than remain aloof or detached from it. This is what the “love” of music brings to our lives: we become one with music—we enter a relationship with music.

When studying with Roger in England, many of us would discuss our views about Roger and what he meant to us and what we thought grounded his outlook on life. One student remarked that Roger was a mystic. I confess that I didn’t necessarily agree at the time, but now I do agree with the notion that he was.

At the heart of Roger’s philosophy is the Catholic understanding of the world. We are not alone. Love unites. Love directs us to the Good. Our cosmos is one in which a mysterious and relational love and beauty pervade it and call us to face-to-face encounters with others, the world, and ultimately God. Roger wrote that our experiences and encounters with love are a path to the Transcendent. Whenever we encounter Roger, we should know that he was a soul of love and defender of the reality of love in our increasingly loveless world. Perhaps there is a divine irony in a rambunctious, heterodox Anglican helping Catholics become better Catholics.

[Photo: Sir Roger Scruton gives a lecture in Budapest, September 19, 2016. Credit: Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences]

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