BOOKS: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
GENTLE REGRETS: Thoughts from a Life, by Roger Scruton
, May 13, 2006
Defying the barbariansGENTLE REGRETS:
Thoughts from a Life
by Roger Scruton
Paperback: 256 pages
RRP: $29.95 (available in June 2006)It was while he was staying in Paris, in May 1968, watching with dismay the student demonstrations and strikes which almost brought France to her knees, that a young English philosopher, Roger Scruton, discovered his vocation as a conservative intellectual.
Back then, the 24-year-old Scruton could see plainly that the radical left represented the culture of denigration and repudiation. Ever since, Scruton has been consistently out of step with fashionable orthodoxy.
His book Gentle Regrets
is a delightful and eminently readable collection of essays, some of them adapted from previously published articles in journals such as Books and Company
, City Journal
and New Criterion
A number of the essays are autobiographical. It is interesting, in light of what he later became, that he did not have a privileged upbringing, but grew up in a working-class home, with a socialist father.
Never an ivory-tower intellectual, Scruton has always passionately involved himself in the issues of the day, championing the free society against the totalitarian left; attacking the "peace" movement during the Cold War for urging military weakness on the West; denouncing some of the more hideous manifestations of modern architecture; and upholding a Christian ideal of what society should be.
In May 1968, while he was observing the Paris riots, he happened also to be reading the memoirs of the then French President Charles de Gaulle.
Scruton writes: "According to the Gaullist vision, a nation is defined not by institutions or borders but by language, religion and high culture; in times of turmoil and conquest it is those spiritual things that must be protected and reaffirmed."
The bible of the 1968 Paris rioters was Les Mots et les Choses
(translated into English in 1970 under the title The Order of Things
) by the French intellectual Michel Foucault who died in 1984 of AIDS.Satanic mendacity
Scruton describes this work as "an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity". Foucault's philosophy, according to Scruton, could essentially be summed up as: "Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy."
If you would seek Foucault's monument, just look around our universities today.
In combating the radical left, Scruton became what he describes as "a rebel - but a meta-rebel, so to speak, in rebellion against rebellion, who devoted to shoring up ruins the same passionate conviction that my contemporaries employed in creating them".
During the Cold War, he made several trips, often at great personal risk, to communist Czechoslovakia and Poland to establish contact with circles of dissident intellectuals and to conduct secret seminars on philosophy.
Back home, however, he was shunned by Britain's intelligentsia.
Scruton describes how, at a time when Poland was an occupied country with a censored press, he found comparatively greater freedom of thought and speech for conservatives at the Catholic University of Lublin than in the conformist and politically-correct British universities in which conservatives are routinely reviled.
In 1985, the University of Glasgow's Philosophy Department boycotted a paper that Scruton had been invited to present on campus. Scruton recalls how, that same day, academics elsewhere in the university were conferring an honorary degree on Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe.
In 1974, Scruton was a co-founder of the Conservative Philosophy Group. In 1982, he became the founding chief editor of the journal of conservative opinion, The Salisbury Review
(In an article, "My Life Beyond the Pale" [The Spectator
, September 21, 2002], he once wrote that the editorship, which he held for 18 years, "had cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour, a hideous character assassination in Private Eye
, three lawsuits, two interrogations, one expulsion, the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere. And it was worth it.")Gentle Regrets
is not solely about political matters. Scruton recalls his childhood, his sometimes difficult relationship with his parents, his love for his pet dog, and his discovery of the world of books.
He discusses art and literature. He devotes a chapter to opera, and particularly how modern producers cannot leave classics alone, but insist on reinterpreting them, usually to the detriment of the original opera - such as the time the opera producer Peter Sellars set Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
on Malibu Beach.
Scruton attacks the ugliness of modern architecture, particularly "its denial of the past, its vandalisation of the landscape and townscape, and its attempt to purge the world of history".
Scruton utters some unfashionable home-truths about human sexuality and the importance of marriage vows. He says that "sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between".
He warns about the danger of society discarding religion. "Losing religion," he writes, "has been a regular adventure of the Western mind, since the Enlightenment first announced the need for it."
But loss of religious faith, he observes, does not lead to emancipation and greater fulfilment of human aspirations. Instead, it results in "a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn".Trustees for the future
Scruton stresses humanity's hunger for fulfilment through community and religion. Paraphrasing Edmund Burke from more than 200 years ago, Scruton says that society should be seen "not as a contract ... but as a trust, with the living members as trustees of an inheritance that they must strive to enhance and pass on".
The most moving parts of Gentle Regrets
concern Scruton's struggles with religion, his failed first marriage and, ultimately, his regaining of religious faith (he is now a High Church Anglican).
The charm of Scruton's memoirs is that he doesn't boast about himself, but allows the reader to see him warts and all. He touchingly describes the impact the birth of his son had on him when he was 54 years old. He admits: "It was during the birth of Sam that, after decades of arrested development, I grew up."Gentle Regrets
is elegantly written, highly readable and a fascinating commentary on our times. This is a book, rich in hard-won wisdom, that one will often want to re-read.