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10 quotes: Sir Roger Scruton

Sir Roger Scruton, whom Acton Institute co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico once described as “perhaps the world’s leading conservative philosopher,” passed away from cancer Sunday at the age of 75. His profound intelligence probed every subject from aesthetics and sexuality to religion and the minutiae of governing. Below are 10 quotations that encapsulate his view of conservatism, culture, and the meaning of life.

What is culture?

A civilization is a social entity that manifests religious, political, legal, and customary uniformity over an extended period, and which confers on its members the benefits of socially accumulated knowledge. … The culture of a civilization is the art and literature through which it rises to consciousness of itself and defines its vision of the world. … [C]ultures are the means through which civilizations become conscious of themselves, and are permeated by the strengths and weaknesses of their inherited form of life.

 (Culture Counts. Encounter Books, 2007. Reprinted 2018.)

A concise definition of conservatism:

Conservatism is more an instinct than an idea. But it’s the instinct that I think we all ultimately share, at least if we are happy in this world. It’s the instinct to hold on to what we love, to protect it from degradation and violence and to build our lives around it. … [F]or us, now in this country, it is at least the heritage of political order and our way of doing things the natural way of being in this country where we belong, and defending it as our home. And I think that is the ultimate root of the conservative position.

(Spectator magazine event on “The Future of Conservatism,” with Douglas Murray in London. May 2019.)

How capitalism and the free market build human relationships:

The most important lesson to take, both from Adam Smith’s original defence of the free economy, as the beneficent working of the ‘invisible hand,’ and from Hayek’s defence of spontaneous order as the vehicle of economic information, is that a free economy is an economy run by free beings. And free beings are responsible beings. Economic transactions in a regime of private property depend not only on distinguishing mine from yours, but also on relating me to you. … [O]nly trust, not ownership, holds things in place.

(How to be a Conservative. Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014.)

Relativism cloaks evil intentions:

“In argument about moral problems, relativism is the first refuge of the scoundrel.”

(Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. Bloomsbury Reader, 1996.)

Why intellectuals believe Marxism, part 1:

For Marx, the interests that are advanced by an ideology are those of a ruling class. We might similarly suggest that the interests advanced by totalitarian ideology are those of an aspiring elite. And we might confront totalitarian ideology in Marxian spirit, by explaining it in terms of its social function, and thereby exploding its epistemological claims. It is not the truth of Marixsm that explains the willingness of intellectuals to believe it, but the power it confers on intellectuals, in their attempts to control the world. And since, as Swift says, it is futile to reason someone out of a thing that he was not reasoned into, we can conclude that Marxism owes its remarkable power to survive every criticism to the fact that it is not a truth-directed but a power-directed system of thought. 

(A Political Philosophy. Continuum, 2006.)

Why intellectuals believe Marxism, part 2:

“Intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it.”

(Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. Bloomsbury Continuum, 2015.)

Original Sin and the value of every human person:

The doctrine of original sin, which is contained in the story of Genesis – one of the most beautiful concentrated metaphors in existence – is about the way we human beings fall from treating each other as subjects to treating each other as objects. Love, respect and forgiveness come from that. When we treat each other as objects, then we get the concentration camps.

(The Soul of the World. Princeton, 2014.)

On national sovereignty:

This law-governed society is made possible because we know who we are and define our identity – not by our religion, our tribe, or our race – but by our country, the place where our man-made law prevails, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life that we share.

 

This sovereign territory is our home, and it is in terms of it that our public duties are defined. We may have religious and family duties too, but they are private duties, not incumbent on the citizenry as a whole. Our public duties are defined by the secular law, and by the customs and institutions that have grown alongside it. … It seems to me that the national identity that I, as an Englishman, have inherited – the identity of a nation joined in a union of like-minded nations in a single sovereign territory – is far more robust than its detractors assume, and that it has, like the American identity, a remarkable capacity to absorb incomers and to integrate them by a process of mutual adaptation. But we can adapt to the effects of inward migration only if migration is controlled, and only if we are allowed to affirm our identity in the face of it, so as to renew our obedience to the institutions and customs that define us.

 

In other words, the global processes that challenge us now are reasons to affirm national sovereignty and not to repudiate it. For national sovereignty defines what we are.

(Acton Institute’s “Crisis of Liberty in the West” conference in London. December 1, 2016.)

One his controversial intellectual life:

“It’s been a great adventure for me to be so hated by people I hold in contempt.”

(Receiving the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom on October 11, 2018, at Encounter Bookstwentieth anniversary gala in Washington, D.C.)

On the meaning of life:

During this year much was taken from me – my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health. But much more was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defence, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.

(“Roger Scruton: My 2019.” The Spectator. December 21, 2019.)

Related:

The ‘great adventure’ of Sir Roger Scruton, RIP

How identity politics destroys freedom (Address at the Acton Institute’s first transatlantic conference on the “Crisis of Liberty in the West.”) December 1, 2016.

Scruton on populism: Politics needs a first-person plural

Sir Roger Scruton: How to preserve freedom in the West

Book Review: Roger Scruton’s ‘On Human Nature’

Scruton and McGilchrist on Bach, the ‘tyranny of pop,’ and the gullibility of our age

Brexit: national borders, democracy, jurisdiction

Oikophilia Will Save the World

Roger Scruton: No escaping morality in economics

(Photo credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.