Sean Walsh explores the mind of philosopher and thinker Sir Roger Scruton, believing the Government’s decision to appoint him head of its new housing commission, ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ is prudent.
Recently the government announced that the philosopher and writer Sir Roger Scruton is to head a new housing commission, ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’. The appointment is both sensible and pleasing. So naturally, the Brothers and Sisters of Perpetual Grievance are outraged. An extraordinary general meeting has been convened, judgment has been handed down and the tricoteuses are readying themselves.
Scruton, they have announced, is anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and homophobic. It might seem that the charge sheet includes all things likely to offend the sensitive left-wing sensibility, but they don’t know the half of it. When Scruton took up foxhunting (of all things!) his first hunting jacket was a gift from Enoch Powell (of all people!!). When the “archaeologists of offence” dig that one up it will likely detonate an explosion of indignation of sufficient power to take out the whole of Dinner Party London.
The charge of anti-Semitism is your common or garden example of leftist disingenuousness and Sir Roger dispenses with it in a statement on his own website. The other two accusations are best addressed by looking at Scruton’s own philosophical system which is distilled into some 40 odd books. An article of this length can barely scratch the surface.
In his Sexual Desire Scruton argues that an account of the phenomenon of desire is logically prior to any analysis of sexual morality. Desire is ultimately a part not of biology but of the structure of thought. It requires that we think about the object of desire in certain ways. Scruton offers deep reasons for thinking that a consequent account of sexual ethics cannot be the liberal one which takes contract as its model. The relations involved in the sexual transaction are not contractual in nature and the language of “consent” is insufficient to capture their complexity: rape is not the violation of a contract, it is an existential violation of the victim’s soul.
Scruton’s developed metaphysics of the sexual encounter does imply a moral difference between the heterosexual and homosexual act. It does not imply an endorsement of homophobia. And the convenors of the liberal consensus notwithstanding, many of us agree with Scruton on this. If his accusers have a problem with our freedom to hold this opinion then they might want to evaluate Scruton’s argument, rather than posture against its conclusion.
Similarly, the claim that Scruton is Islamophobic needs to be contextualised. Scruton has written widely on the crisis in religion generally and in Islam specifically. Islam (he suggests) encounters a metaphysical difficulty which is this: how can the Koran be at one and the same time the word of a transcendental God and a specific text written at a particular in our world of finite space and time? What room can such an account make for a personal God? The same problem attaches to Christianity but not as firmly because most forms of Christianity embrace a principle of creative interpretation in respect of its relevant texts. And those fundamentalist Christian movements which resist this principle in favour of a version of biblical literalism also and inevitably become insensitive to the possibility that God is present with us here and now.
For our purposes, the point is this: Scruton’s engagement with the theology of Islam has always been both insightful and respectful.
Which brings us to the merits of his recent appointment. And bountiful they are.
Sir Roger has written widely on the subject of aesthetics in part because he sees that religion is in retreat and that the consolations of Beauty might be viable replacements for those of faith. For Scruton architecture, specifically, should be constrained by considerations of manners. The public space is by definition our space. Buildings, like people, have an obligation to desist from narcissism and vulgarity.
An analogy might be helpful. The modernist theories of education that hold that children have a right to unguided self-expression have produced children that no sane adult would ever want to spend time with. Likewise, the modernist architectural conceit that “form must follow function” has resulted in the construction of buildings that nobody wants to spend any time in. Architecture reveals what we intuitively know: that questions of Beauty and morality are deeply interconnected.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Scruton’s detractors are not engaging him in a philosophical debate. What irks them is not so much his views as the fact that a conservative is so much cleverer than they are. And the strategy in play here is the usual leftist one: to label the person rather than to address his arguments; to opt for confected indignation over considered refutation. Sir Roger is a reactionary, they say, an appalling relic of times best left behind.
Scruton is a reactionary but look at what he is reacting against. Modern culture prizes homogeneity of thought and merely pretends to value “diversity”. It is a culture of emotional kitsch: a drab inventory of imagined offence, endlessly repeated. Scruton addresses this culture as a subversive agent of the counterculture. Often the subversion is delightful. As a wine critic for the Left intelligentsia journal of choice the New Statesman he took some satisfaction in smuggling into his column micro-images of a worldview that would ordinarily appall its subscribers. That is just a small example, but a telling one.
The non-entities who have misrepresented his views have ipso facto impugned his character. So, let me end with this observation. In the 1980s (along with his friend, the late philosopher Kathy Wilkes) Scruton established an underground university in communist Czechoslovakia. He smuggled in samizdat editions of literary and philosophical texts which were not merely unavailable but forbidden in a state in which 1 in 6 citizens was a police informer. This was in service of the cultivation of freedoms that the current Labour leadership were helping to suppress.
If Scruton gives offence to our own thought police class, then more power to his elbow.