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Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life by Roger Scruton

Robert Cheeks praises an intellectual memoir by Roger Scruton, Britain’s best-known conservative philosopher.

“It is very dangerous to go into eternity with possibilities which one has oneself prevented from becoming realities. A possibility is a hint from God.”
Kierkegaard, Journal, 1848.

Aristotle’s argument that man “does not exist out of himself but out of the divine ground of all reality” is not one often considered by post-modern philosophers, and so it is of great interest to me when a philosopher writes a book predicated on this theme.

In his memoir Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life, British philosopher Roger Scruton gives a penetrating self-examination that is often remorseless and sometimes poignant, while presenting what may be the finest contemporary example of one man’s resistance to the “personal and social disorders of this age.”

Born into a household bordering on what we might now refer to as dysfunctional, Scruton took solace in books. A precocious youth, at thirteen he found Pilgrim’s Progress, devoured it, and discovered the author’s words to be “messages sent to the heart.” Two years later he was introduced to a librarian with the euphonious name George Ivor Deas, inherited his library, and began one of the twentieth century’s more interesting intellectual epiphanies. While those of us with more pedestrian minds and tastes were reading Conan Doyle, Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Scruton finished Mr Deas’ offerings in short order, including Dante, and proceeded to the local public library where he discovered Robert Graves, Kafka and Kierkegaard, and is soon “persuaded that it is not life that is the judge of literature, but the other way around.”

In praise of librarians, even those who can barely tolerate greasy-fingered children, Scruton writes, “Librarians like Ivor made fortresses of books, where taste and scholarship survived and could be obtained free of charge. For those born into bookless homes, but awoken by chance to literature, the public library was a refuge, a place where you could come to terms with your isolation. It was made so by people like Ivor.”

And so there you have it. Dr Roger Scruton’s journey – or rather his exploration of the tension of the ground of (his) existence – is launched in a quiet suburb of London. The question is, Will his journey lead him to the ground of all reality?

“I grew to immaturity in the sixties,” Scruton writes, “when disorder was the order of the day. Like most of my generation, I was a rebel – but a meta-rebel, so to speak, in rebellion against rebellion, who devoted to shoring up ruins the same passionate conviction that my contemporaries employed in creating them.” But upon describing this ‘anti-antinomian’ position, all of socialist England could ask “Why, Roger?” Dutifully he replies that he “was searching the world for that impossible thing: an original path to conformity.”

Scruton took his comfort in the Oakshottian concept of ‘presentness’, where “justification was no longer needed and where it was sufficient to just be,” dwelling among his books and classical music in retreat from a world consumed by progress, and a father’s implicit rejection. Here he conjured up modernity, with the assistance of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and Erich Heller’s Disinherited Mind – and discovered that modernity, in its lust for progress, technology, technique and consumption, has ravished culture and obliterated the ‘transcendent’ aspect of reality, though Dr Scruton had not yet inclined toward any religious feelings.

Roger has the good taste to describe T.S. Eliot as the “greatest poet of the twentieth century” whose influence on him, upon matriculating to Cambridge, was matched by Wittgenstein, Kant and Wagner. But it was during the Paris uprising of May 1968 that Scrutonian conservatism was born, amidst the chaos of rebellion and in its aftermath. He describes Foucault’s socialist ‘Bible’, Les mots et les choses as “the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies.”

His memoir eloquently details the personal implications of Edmund Burke’s salvific message; Scruton’s efforts to revitalize a moribund British conservatism, including his founding of the Salisbury Review; and his development of a consciousness of the expectation of death and dying – “without which the world cannot be loved for what it is.”

His failed marriage to Danielle is recounted as a sinner’s whispered confession. Burden by guilt, he does not seek excuse. Indeed, he tells his readers that “Marriage is surrounded by moral, legal, and religious prohibitions precisely because it is not a contract but a vow. Vows do not have terms, nor can they be legitimately broken. They are ‘forever,’ and in making a vow your are placing yourself outside time and change, in a state of spiritual union, which can be translated into actions in the here and now, but which always lies in some way above and beyond the world of decaying things.”

The reader is entertained with Scruton’s accounts of his trinity of Sams: his childhood dog, his horse, and his son; each of which had and have a decided impact on the man. The more interesting people in Scruton’s life have been those dedicated to faith in Christ the Logos: Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, a former chaplain at Cambridge during the author’s student days, and an unregenerate traditional Catholic who “petitioned to be allowed to celebrate the Tridentine Mass” following the modernistic pronouncements of Vatican II; and Barbara, who lived in the suburbs of Gdansk and taught Scruton the true meaning of forgiveness and salvation. From both of these the author is given the dictum that the purpose of faith is not to make a better world but rather to make a better person; and also that any knowledge of God, existence, reality and truth is personal, predicated on the spiritual illumination that forms the link between God and man. With vigor and panache, Scruton conflates the day-to-day rendering of his life with a probing examination of faith, immortality, and the truth. He confesses his own frailty and in so doing prompts the reader to examine his own soul.

His relationship with his mother as he grew older and wiser is seen juxtaposed against this maturity: “What I had reproached in my mother as timidity I remembered now as gentleness; what I had deplored as Puritanism I recalled as moral sense; what I had feared as anxiety I knew to be love – love baffled by my selfishness, love that would not intrude since it cherished my freedom and wanted only what was best for me.”

Scruton regales us with stories from his journeys through Eastern Europe during the 1980s as the West stood in trepidation preparing for Armageddon while the phlegmatic citizens of Prague and Budapest waited in long queues for scarce rations, cognizant that collapse was just around the corner. A chapter is devoted to his love of classical music and opera, including his own successful efforts, and another chapter to modern architecture and his father’s personal war on developers and “corrupt town councils.” Roger’s father, Jack Scruton, whose socialism is that of the provincialist who seeks the order of “the English country town,” rose up in defense of his settlement, High Wycombe, to thwart corporate greed and diabolical modernism in its efforts to deform man’s nature and pervert the structure of reality. Unfortunately Roger and his father have yet to reconcile, despite their mutual love of a built environment.

In the final chapter, ‘Regaining my Religion’, the philosopher takes the reader along as he travels the tension between the immanent and the transcendent worlds. This is a fascinating, revealing, and decidedly unusual pilgrimage given the qualifier “by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion, endorsing it – but with its own reflected light.”

With his usual lucidity, Scruton explains the West’s loss of religion via science (or perhaps, scientism) and the significant effect of this on Western man’s ability to perceive and understand, which has led to the breakdown in meaning and the deformation of human reality. With the decided profundity we have come to expect, Scruton writes, “This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness – only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.”

Roger Scruton, philosopher, man of the world, returned to the religion of his youth, the Anglican communion, not only because he now understands the meaning of the loss of piety and its deleterious impact on Western society; but also because his personal examination of the transcendent and the spiritual irruption into his soul that ensued indicated the necessity of “a quiet waiting on grace.” It also revealed to him the truth of the Biblical pronouncement, “Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.” Which is of course a formulation of the argument first posed by Aristotle: man, indeed, does not exist out of himself.

In the midst of a culture dominated by scientism, technology, progress and consumption, where human reality is both morally and environmentally structurally damaged, Dr Scruton calls for a ‘theophonic epiphany’ – a return, not to some utopian, Gnostic fantasy, but to a way of life which reaffirms the sublime righteousness of living on this planet in accordance with God’s order of things, which recognizes the concrete structure of human reality.

Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life transcends the concept of the memoir by Roger Scruton explicating his life within the framework of the disorder of modernity. Dr Scruton details the intellectual and spiritual elements of his character as he examines the tension of human existence. We watch enthralled by his honesty and objectivity as he advances from a brilliant student inching precariously close to the abyss of the 1960s, to the sublime philosopher who has rejected the “lust of being in time” in favor of the human struggle of the search for God and His order of things. His philosophical quest finally expanded to a search for a way of hearing God, and his “discovery of the divine nous as the mover” in his search has provided Dr Scruton with the joy and happiness that results when a being is in communion with God.

Gentle Regrets is both a philosophical and theological achievement, a literary triumph that signals a brilliant opposition to the revolt of the Enlightenment against God which reduced Western man to a robotic caricature of a human being, whose only objective is ‘fun’. Dr. Scruton has shown himself to be a first rate philosopher who has determined that the truth of human reality is found in the conflation of reason and revelation. Gentle Regrets is this century’s Confessions, and reveals Roger Scruton as the Platonic diamonios aner, the spiritual man.

© Robert c. Cheeks 2007

Bob Cheeks is the book review and literary editor for the website intellectualconservative.com, and a freelance writer.

Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life by Roger Scruton. Continuum, London & New York, 2005. pb, 248 pages. $21.95/£10.99.

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