Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton’s Columns, Commentaries, and Criticism
By Roger Scruton
(Bloomsbury Continuum, 256 pages, $28)
Nearly everything in this collection originally appeared in a newspaper or a magazine, among these the one you are holding in your hands. From 2006 to 2012, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton contributed a monthly column to The American Spectator. These essays represented a fraction of his total journalistic output, and even the prodigious volume of Scruton’s occasional writings seems unimpressive set beside the extraordinary number of books he wrote — by my count, fifty-six.
Of these, everyone will have his favorite. While I very much admire Scruton’s work on Wagner, especially the volume on Parsifal (with which it is easy to imagine the present pope finding himself very much in sympathy), I think the book most likely to find a wide and appreciative readership in the years to come is the monograph on beauty from 2010, of which I cherish my first edition (with an error on the back of the dust jacket dating the cover painting by Botticelli to circa 1840). On Beauty would later be reprinted in Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series, to which Scruton also contributed perhaps the only lucid thing on Kant ever written by a native English speaker. My copy of the latter, picked up some years ago from a second-hand bookstore in Washington, D.C., was the most thoroughly annotated volume I have ever owned, with entire pages colored in blue highlighter by some no doubt grateful undergraduate.
In addition to being rather more prolific than most philosophers, Scruton lived a somewhat more eventful life. Thousands of anti-communists inveighed against the Soviet menace from the pages of journals and well-remunerated think tank positions; Scruton, whose opposition to communism was philosophical and (as he would later come to understand) religious rather than pecuniary, actually went underground, risking his life to teach Czech dissidents in the 1980s. In the same decade, he sacrificed what he had expected to be a rather comfortable position as a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, to found the Salisbury Review, a magazine whose delightfully quixotic raison d’être was arguing that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments were not meaningfully conservative. He would continue to criticize politicians in both parties for the remainder of his life, even after finding himself advising prime ministers and receiving a knighthood.
Meanwhile, Scruton continued to scribble for the press, popular and highbrow, on any number of subjects, a stream that continued more or less unabated until his death in January 2020. Most of these pieces were one-offs solicited by editors. In Against the Tide, we see him arguing against teachers’ strikes and expressing his disappointment with the post–Cold War governments in Eastern Europe, where he found to his chagrin that everyone in power claimed to have been a dissident; predicting with almost terrifying accuracy both the policy and ultimate legacy of Anthony Blair’s government at a time when this charlatan was beloved by conservatives on this side of the Atlantic; and lamenting the fact that in the United States “conservative journals spring up constantly, find large and sympathetic readerships and frequently attract funding from foundations and business.”
This last theme, the nature and definition of “conservatism,” was one to which Scruton often returned — perhaps too frequently. But the basic premise of his writings on this subject — that conservatives could neither indulge themselves with “fantasies of a life outside civilization” nor gainsay the philistine populism of their own electoral base — remains as relevant now as it was in the 1980s. It was for this reason that he found himself thoroughly unimpressed by Donald Trump, whom he dismissed as “a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical heritage to oblivion.” For Scruton, our forty-fifth president was above all “a creation of social media” who had “lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgement.”
Scruton’s measured assessments of Trump, Thatcher, and others did not lead him to strike any of the tedious poses expected of so many other conservatives who abandon the party whip. Indeed, Scruton was a lifelong defender of many of the Right’s least fashionable causes long after they had been abandoned by politicians. Chief among these is tobacco. With the possible exceptions of Christopher Hitchens and Auberon Waugh (who once published a pamphlet on the dangers of second-hand “hamburger fumes”), the rights of smokers found no greater champion in my lifetime than Scruton.
One recurring (and, one gathers, both handsomely paid and enjoyable for its own sake) feature was his column on wine for the New Statesman, the venerable liberal English weekly, which he wrote from 2001 to 2009.
Probably no anecdote better illustrates the cultural decline that Scruton spent his life decrying than his own treatment by the snottish young editorial staff of that once-esteemed periodical. In 2019, George Eaton, then an assistant editor at the Statesman, published what were ostensibly unedited extracts from an interview with Scruton. This “series of outrageous remarks,” as they were described, were roundly criticized on social media, and within hours of their appearance it was announced that Scruton would be removed from his (naturally) unpaid position as an adviser to a government commission on public architecture. Eaton immediately took to Instagram, where he captioned a rather vulgar picture of himself enjoying a bottle of champagne with the following caption: “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.”
Not long afterward it came to light that Eaton’s seemingly faithful transcription of Scruton’s remarks had been at best dubious, and at worst libelous. Every ellipsis or reporter-supplied full stop concealed a qualification or even an outright dismissal of the bigoted position or conspiracy theory being imputed to Scruton.
I mention all of this not because it is especially remarkable as a piece of journalistic malfeasance or because anyone (least of all Scruton himself) would have placed it very highly among the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind, but rather because it illustrates just how steeply our literary culture has declined even in the last decade. The twenty- and thirty-somethings who have recently come into their own in journalism here and in Britain are not only totally unscrupulous; they find it incomprehensible that anyone who does not share their views could be interested in high culture or, indeed, anything else of value.
What a shame. For it was in these New Statesman columns (many of which were collected in 2009 as I Drink Therefore I Am) that we see what distinguished Scruton from his journalistic peers: the philosophic toughness beneath the surface of good humor and grace whose real antecedent is the essays of Hilaire Belloc and George Bernard Shaw in the golden age of Edwardian periodicals. It is difficult to think of any of Scruton’s contemporaries who could have pulled off anything like “Put a Cork In It,” his broadside against the screw-top bottle:
To the native observer, the cork is there to keep the wine in the bottle and the air out of it, with the result that 5 percent of vintage wines are ‘corked’—meaning spoiled by a defective stopper. To such an observer, the screwtop is the answer. I would respectfully retort that the risk of corking is essential to the ritual. The drinking of precious wine is preceded by an elaborate process of preparation, which has much in common with the ablutions that preceded ancient religious sacrifices. The bottle is retrieved from some secret place where the gods have kept it guarded; it is brought reveneratially to the table, dusted off and uncorked with a slow and graceful movement while the guests watch in awed silence.
In addition to journalism, Against the Tide contains a great deal of unpublished autobiographical material, apparently extracts from a diary. Here we are reminded that, among many other things, Scruton was a keen observer of American life. Long before it had occurred to me, he had zeroed in on what I expect will very soon become yet another terminal crisis: the disappearance of the baby boomers, who, whatever their faults, were at least public-spirited enough to give their time and money to unglamorous causes and activities such as municipal government and officiating in youth sports leagues. “The wealth and security of America are no more durable than the public spirit of its people,” he warned, and “if ever one day Americans ceased to volunteer for things, the show would be suddenly over.”
The present volume has been ably edited by Mark Dooley, who had a difficult task in choosing representative selections from a half century of material. (It was nice to be reminded that in 1971, when he was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, Michel Foucault was already being politely dismissed by Scruton in the Spectator.) If I were to venture a criticism, it would be that in 2022, many of the polemics directed at the so-called “New Atheists” now seem more dated than articles from decades earlier; so far from being the voice of the zeitgeist, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others increasingly find themselves uneasy allies of religious conservatives on questions related to gender ideology. Otherwise, my only other complaint is that for no stated reason the type in the index is nearly three times larger than in the main body of the text.
But it would be churlish to end upon such a note. Instead I will only say that about twelve years ago, I purchased my very first copy of The American Spectator from a newsstand. I enjoyed most of what I read, but far and away the best thing was an essay by Scruton from the same series I mentioned above, this one on Wagner’s Ring cycle. Some years later, as an employee of the magazine in question, I was invited to a dinner at which Scruton would be speaking and a subsequent private reception. I cannot recall what prevented me from attending, but whatever it was it cannot have been more valuable or life-enhancing than I now realize an evening spent in his company would have proven. The regret I feel knowing that I shall never have the chance to enjoy his conversation is as good a reminder as any that Scruton was right. Long before we imagine, those persons, places, and things that are good and to which we must hold fast will be gone, and we will find ourselves mourning the disappearance of something we never knew.
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