Or is there some complaint,
Some little shred of “I” you meant
To leave with us as ours?
-Roger Scruton, “The Half-Loved Ones” (Be Attitudes, 1997)
In his poem “On Decency,” Sir Roger Vernon Scruton declares “That Life itself is not enough, / That Human hearts were never meant / To waste their love on mortal stuff.” The poet does not, however, recommend an other-worldly existence or an exit from the world. The work of belonging to being involves bricolage—becoming, as the title of another of Roger’s poems suggests, a “Bricoleur,” or one who puts whatever is at hand to good use so long as one can. One does this not by clinging to life—or to some part of it—but by attempting to help life participate in non-mortal stuff.
Roger called this process “re-enchanting the world.” In the spirit of re-enchantment, he called his home “Scrutopia”—both ironically and in earnest. Scrutopia became a work of this-worldly bricolage, a 100-acre parcel of pastoral harmony devoted to recovering practices of human excellence: from husbandry of the land and of bovines to training horses for work and play to turning the scattered moments of one’s leisure into scholé. Scrutopia was his attempt to carve out an arcadia in the world.
Sir Roger was my teacher, mentor, and friend. For a decade, beginning in 2010 and ending only when he became ill, I attended his gatherings of young philosophers: twice-termly symposia in his rooms in Oxford or his apartment in London. One of us would present a paper, and then Roger and the others would criticize it, assisted by bottles of vintage French wine. He called us his “Refugees”: a collection of misfits in modern philosophy departments; lovers of culture, place, history, beauty, and time; lost in late modernity.
The Refugees lived both in hope and in fear of his “complaints” about our ideas. His didactic style involved jibes. “You refer to interesting arguments,” he would say, meaning, you point at them like a child who neither understands nor can rehearse the arguments (and they are certainly not your own arguments). Or: “One thing we have learned for certain from your presentation is that this is a complicated topic.” To be weighed and found wanting was shameful, but he never publicly shamed us. After gentle “complaints” and his bibliographic clues and clarifications, it was your job to go away, read up, fill in the cleavage of ignorance in your mind with knowledge, and return ready to defend it.
Sir Roger’s intelligence is legendary, but his humor is less commented upon. It abounded—wry and typically English, yet friendly to American punning and continental playfulness. Once, a museum commissioned a bust of Roger from Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart. Upon delivery of the sculpture, Roger thanked the sculptor “for showing me that I am in need of a haircut.” The larger-than-life-sized bronze bust, looking like a Roman general and emblazoned with “Scrvton,” now sits in a staircase at Scrutopia. The museum that commissioned it apparently decided against taking it into its hall of philosophers because Roger was not “dead yet”—a problem, Roger noted, that would “certainly solve itself.”
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Price.
Stoddart gave a plaster version of the bust to the Refugees’ wine society, in exchange for two old bottles of port. He spent an evening in Oxford with Roger and the Refugees, listening to a recording of Roger’s opera, Violet (you can listen to the recording and read the libretto here). After receiving the bust, the Refugees asked Roger whether he would mind terribly its being used as a mascot for the wine society meetings. “Only if you dress it up as Dionysus, grapes, leaves and all,” he replied.
When he was installed as a Knight Bachelor, I asked him whether it was not due time to challenge less deserving knights, such as Elton, Mick, or Paul, to a joust. “No,” he said, and then smiled coyly. Did he smile at the knowledge that he would certainly be the best horseman among the lot? Or at the image of Sir Elton mounting a horse in those ridiculous sunglasses? “No, I don’t think that should happen,” he added.
At one of our Refugee meetings, someone mentioned a writer who had become a teetotaler, and then a writer who drank himself to death. “Wine and life,” Roger said. “Routinely, writers are made to choose between the two, and routinely, they make the wrong choice.” We laughed, but were puzzled about which side he was on—wine or life?
Although he was a man who knew what he was drinking and why—his book I Drink, Therefore I Am even contains an appendix pairing wine with philosophers—he always said he preferred “quantity over quality.” A small amount of excellent wine is remarkable, but lasting remarks on culture and art and beauty and God are much more likely when under the influence of a bit more wine, even of inferior quality.
Sir Roger Scruton’s remarks and his books will fill my life until—to borrow a phrase from one of his poems—“the end begins.” Roger, in my mind you live on as “Some little shred of ‘I’” you meant to leave with me as mine, making me more fully who I am supposed to be. The work of mourning has yet to begin. As you say in “Unforgotten,” “. . . my hands unlace / The present, find you there, still smiling.”
Jonathan Price is a junior research fellow at the University of Oxford and assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw. He is editor of the journal Politics & Poetics.