Roger Scruton Turns 70

on February 27, 2014

Roger Scruton turns seventy years-old today. I don’t think it a mistake to say he is the most important conservative philosopher alive in our time. He’s never been as widely known as some pop-philosophers, but his critiques cut right to the heart of what is wrong in modern society. Here are ten examples:

1. “To describe the new services as ‘alternatives’ to Cranmer is like describing Eastenders as an ‘alternative’ to Shakespeare, or Lady Gaga as an ‘alternative’ to Bach.”

2. “Formality does not freeze emotion but heightens it. And emotions that take ritual shape lead of their own accord to that supreme ritual, which is marriage. By amplifying the distance between you, courtship intensifies the magnetic force when finally you join. Indeed, in our tradition—not necessarily the only or the best one, but the only one we have—marriage ought to be seen as the culmination of a process that begins in bashfulness and proceeds by stages to an intimacy both resisted and desired.”

3. “What is marriage if not a vow taken before an altar, and what remains of the vow if no god turns up to enforce it? Of course, a man and a woman can stand in front of a table and exchange promises. But I think you will agree, that promises and vows are quite distinct? The difference between a vow and a promise is profound and metaphysical. For a promise is fulfilled in time. And when the promise is fulfilled it is also finished. But a vow is never fulfilled in time: it is endless and changeless, and there is no point at which the account is closed. Those bound together by vows are bound eternally; which is why the immortals must be present, to seal the vow and endow it with a more than earthly power.”

4. “In the presence of sacred things our lives are judged, and in order to escape that judgement we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.”

5. “Without religion, law and morality lose their authority.”

6. “Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. It was by reflecting on this psalm that I came to see how its pure and unsullied idiom contains the answer to the lamentations of Michael Stipe. The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. It is a notable fact of our modern civilization, in which duties to God are ignored or forgotten, that there is very little gladness and still less singing. ‘Losing my Religion’ is a moan, not a song, and the idiom of heavy metal expressly forbids its followers to ‘join in’ when the music starts.

Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature — these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.

The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology.”

7. “The problem for conservatism is to reconcile the many and often conflicting demands that these various forms of life impose on us. The free-market ideologues take one instance of spontaneous order, and erect it into a prescription for all the others. They ask us to believe that the free exchange of commodities is the model for all social interaction. But many of our most important forms of life involve withdrawing what we value from the market: sexual morality is an obvious instance, city planning another.”

8. “The need to sit quietly and be at peace with the dead is one of the greatest requirements of a civilised life.”

9. “The conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order, and set an example of orderly living.”

10. “In the world in which we live, Christians are a marginalized and persecuted sect. It is an offence against political correctness to speak out for the Christian faith, just as it is an offence to declare one’s love of England and its inherited ways. But Christians are better fitted to endure this than most religious believers. Their model is a man who was ‘despised and rejected’, and although they are commanded to love their neighbor, they also know the person who commanded this was crucified long ago.”

  1. Comment by Marco Bell on April 1, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    I like most of what Mr. Scruton has to say, however, it is not necessary to have a religion to be kind, compassionate, generous, etc..

    His second point deals heavily with the physical anticipation of meeting with one’s mate. That is both physical, psychological AND societal. Nothing there, that is not true for the traditional marriage, or a same-sex marriage. And point number three is covered too, as to address the entity of the Divine’s participation.

    Point five: Religion is not required to have morality. You would know this, if you only checked around with those people that claim no religious affiliation.

    I think your mention of REM’s song “Losing my religion” might be accurate, as a “moan”, but consider the Beatles’ song “Imagine”… where the suggestion that there be no Heaven? I believe that the message there isn’t about giving up on the traditional structure of societal norms, but to consider that we might be wrong?!

    Granted, we are only human, and that comes with a raft of shortcomings, so it would seem that we need Religion.

    I’m on record for saying that we could all use more love and compassion, and if religion fosters that, then I’ll support that!

    Interesting article Brian!

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