Most great men have a dip in their reputations after their deaths if they have been celebrated during their life. Although he was by no means celebrated throughout his life, Roger Scruton was, by the time of his death in January 2020, recognized around the world for his importance. He was honored in many countries, not least those in Eastern Europe in which he had operated the “Underground University” during the last years of international communism. His feeling of being a pariah in his own country was somewhat alleviated when he was knighted at Buckingham Palace in 2016. And around the world, as far from home as Brazil, he was widely viewed as the world’s most important conservative philosopher. After such an illustrious last few years, a lull of some kind might have been expected.

Thankfully no such posthumous plunge has occurred. The Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation is doing a sterling job in keeping his work alive and discussed. Last year the inaugural Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures took place in Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre, with hundreds of students queuing to hear a range of distinguished speakers including Niall Ferguson, Charles Moore, and Jonathan Sumption. And now Mark Dooley, Scruton’s literary executor, has come out with a new volume to help alleviate the ongoing hunger for the philosopher’s work.

It is not Dooley’s first book on Scruton. He has previously published a book-length analysis of Scruton’s thought (The Philosopher on Dover Beach, 2009), the excellent 2009 production TheRoger Scruton Reader (which includes some magnificent essays from The New Criterion), and Conversations with Roger Scruton, which appeared in 2016.

The present volume, Against the Tide, is a concise but rich selection of some of Scruton’s writings for various journals, magazines, and newspapers. Some of the pieces might be familiar to readers of Scruton. Others will not. Still others could not possibly be. The volume includes a number of previously unpublished diary-like entries, of the kind Scruton occasionally contributed to The Spectator in London.

As a collection, the book covers both the themes and the publications that defined Scruton’s life as a public intellectual. The book is divided into a number of perfectly Scrutonian sections: “Who Am I?,” “Who Are We?,” “Why the Left Is Never Right,” and “Intimations of Infinity,” as well as sections on education, fraudulent philosophers, the corruption of modern culture, animal rights, sex, and, finally, the moving last pieces that he wrote. These were diary pieces for The Spectator and a piece for The Telegraph in which he reflected on the annus horribilis that was his final year. For his friends they still make painful reading, ameliorated only by the extraordinary, indeed exemplary, way in which towards the end Roger focused his reflections not on bitterness but on gratitude.

By including his contributions to a wide range of periodicals and papers, the volume also serves to remind the reader of what a range Scruton necessarily had as he plied his precarious trade as a freelance intellectual. The years were precarious not merely because he was freelance, but because he was freelance in a country that has no special need of intellectuals and in which a “conservative intellectual” is still taken to be an oxymoron at best, an ogre at worst.

What a pleasure to see so many of these pieces back in print. Among them Dooley includes a number of the tightly packed weekly pipe bombs that Scruton contributed to The Times of London in the 1980s. The edition of selected Times columns (published as Untimely Tracts in 1987) is long out of print and fairly difficult to acquire. So it is a delight to find some of those pieces, such as “The Art of Motor-Cycle Maintenance,” included here. Elsewhere Dooley introduces a new readership to some of Scruton’s even-harder-to-acquire writings, not least some of his contributions for The Salisbury Review.

That journal was both a point of pride and a millstone for Scruton. As he himself later wrote, in a piece included here, his founding and editing of The Salisbury Review in 1982 cost him a considerable amount. With a board that included the Sixth Marquess of Salisbury, the Review had raised enough money to cover the printing of the first three issues. After that, to pay for itself, the Review would require six hundred subscribers. The publication spent much time scraping by, although its semi-regular scandals probably helped as much as harmed its editor. Those scandals included the notorious Ray Honeyford affair, when the headmaster of Drummond Middle School in Bradford wrote about the importance of pupils being able to speak English. The resulting outrage led to Honeyford’s firing and lingered over him, and his editor, for the rest of their lives, despite the fact that within about twenty years absolutely everybody in Britain agreed that it was best if pupils in Britain could speak the language of the country they were in.

After giving up the editorship of The Salisbury Review some eighteen years later, Scruton wrote in The Spectator that it “had cost me many thousands of 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.” Then a typical Scruton flourish: “And it was worth it.”

By Scruton’s own admission, it took him time and effort to land on his writing voice. But once it was settled it was instantly recognizable. It could be deep at any moment, lyrical—even poetic—while never being overwritten. Each piece was also generally loaded with at least one explosive that would go off before the reader had even noticed it.

Among the many pieces here that always make me laugh out loud is Scruton’s description of a typical discussion of the Open University, broadcast on bbc Radio 3 in the evenings. As Scruton described it in The Times (“The Open University and the Closed Mind,” 1984), the debate is between two academics, Dave Spart and Chris Toad. Spart introduces his argument by explaining that

Some people think that the exploitation of the worker in capitalist society is an economic phenomenon, due to the fact that the capitalist class as a class controls the means of production and so compels the workers as a class to work for less value than they produce.

Toad, meanwhile, introduces his argument by retorting,

I’d like to put forward the opposite view, that the exploitation of the worker in capitalist society is not primarily economic but political, caused by the fact that the bourgeoisie as a class controls the power structures from which the workers as a class are excluded.

As Scruton goes on to write,

I confess to finding such dialogue fascinating. By creating little disagreements, framed in a common language, and by incorporating into the language everything that is truly questionable, an aura of rational argument can be sustained almost indefinitely, even though not a single serious question is asked, nor a single serious thesis provided.

Dooley’s selection reminds us of the fact that Scruton’s eye for detail was perceptive wherever he chose to focus it. His pieces here on Lebanon (which he visited in the 1980s) and Iraq remind me of a dinner some years ago, a few years after The West and the Rest had come out. We were at the house of a mutual friend and the other guests included some pretty distinguished writers and philosophers. Had Roger thought of issuing an updated version of his 2002 book? one asked. “Oh no,” said Roger, mildly and entirely self-effacingly, “I don’t think my Arabic is up to it any longer.” At which point every other writer at the table visibly blanched. Some looked ill.

Elsewhere there are pieces on the issue of “fakes” and “kitsch,” which became an area of aesthetic philosophy that Scruton dominated. And there are good reminders of how gleefully Scruton could put out an argument at its strongest to see if he could provoke people into actually thinking about something they might have been reluctant to approach. “Eat Animals! It’s for Their Own Good” from the Los Angeles Times in 1991 is just one example here. One wonders if that paper would publish such a piece now.

If I have a complaint about Dooley’s selection, it is one I have long had. I wish he had taken the opportunity here to republish the ballistic missile of a piece that Scruton wrote attacking Isaiah Berlin. The piece accused Berlin, then the most beloved historian of ideas in Britain, of having spent his life being soft on communist totalitarianism. There were so many ramifications and reverberations from that column, and it made an argument of such sharpness and unpopularity, that it has always frustrated me that it is (so far as I know) in none of the volumes of Scruton’s writings either in or out of print. In Oxford and London Scruton found himself disinvited from even more events than he had already been. A mutual friend said Berlin once refused to step into his house when he realized that “the man Scruton” was there. As Roger once told me, “I did both the right thing and the wrong thing with that piece. The right thing, morally. But the wrong thing for my career.”

This continual gripe aside, it is hard to imagine a better introduction to Scruton’s work than this wonderful, endlessly readable volume. It is published by Bloomsbury, which brought out many of Scruton’s later books. But perhaps I could use this opportunity to put out a plea. Could Dooley, with Bloomsbury or anyone else who is willing, please reissue some of the other books in the considerable Scruton back catalogue? Bloomsbury has done a good job with reissues of some of the books Scruton wrote for them. But others of his books have become almost unobtainable.

For instance, On Hunting (first published in 1998) is, I think, one of Scruton’s shortest, deepest, and most moving works: a miniature masterpiece. I have recommended it to audiences for years. But students and others have often come back telling me that the book is so scarce as to be unaffordable. I just checked on Amazon and can confirm that the cheapest used copy available for sale costs $499. Can’t something be done to get works like this back into print? There is talk of various Eastern European publishers bringing out complete editions of Scruton’s work. Would it be too much to ask that some enterprising publishers in English return at least some of his best works to print before they are beaten to it by other tongues?

Those who do not know his work often see Scruton as a pessimist, a perception he did not always discourage. But even at his most pessimistic he found things to celebrate and shoots of new life and learning to encourage. This is one of many reasons why a new generation is discovering his work for itself and exploring the great richness in volumes such as this. As Scruton himself wrote in a 1994 piece for The Salisbury Review, included here:

It is good to have been born in this time of decay. Our generation was granted a privilege that future generations may never know—a view of Western civilization in its totality, and a knowledge of its inner meaning. We were given the pure truths of the Christian religion, and the morality of sacrifice which turns renunciation into triumph and suffering into a secret joy. We also had the chance to see what will happen should we lose these gifts. . . . Of course it is hard to feel the full confidence that those teachings require. But they are addressed to each of us individually, and their validity is not affected by what others think or do. We have within ourselves the source of our salvation: all that is needed is to summon it, and to go out into the world.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 85
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