Having a philosophy

I found out today that a philosopher who had an influence over my life has died. His name was Roger Scruton; he wrote on a range of topics from architecture and beauty, to sexual desire, environmental conservation, human nature, ‘the soul of the world’, and drinking wine. One of my favourite books of his is called ‘I Drink Therefore I Am’. It says on the book jacket: “This book offers an antidote to the pretentious clap-trap that is written about wine today and a profound apology for the drink on which civilisation was founded.” I read this first when I lived in Glebe, in Sydney, sitting with a flat white on cool, crisp mornings. I used to repeat that line about clap-trap and civilization to everyone I met and told about the book. I think I liked the combination of aggression (against pretentious clap-trap), assertion, and elegance. Assertion and elegance are linked: the right kind of self belief leads one to speak more fluently. I admired that ability to present oneself before the world, to know one’s own philosophy, and remain elegant.

Scruton introduced me to the idea that conservatism has some wisdom to offer. I am a progressive: I think capitalism should be transformed, that we are very far from many great ideals, which requires powerful collective action and commitment – to prevent climate change, build more multicultural societies, fight racism, and raise taxes to invest in collective goods. Roger Scruton introduced me to the thinking of Edmund Burke: the idea that most valuable institutions (for example, a kind and tolerant police force) grow up organically. They can’t be brought into being in one radical action. Rather they take a long time to develop, building up through many generations. And part of what we need to do is understand and preserve the good that has already been done. This sounds completely normal and it is something we naturally do (e.g. progressives want to preserve progressive achievements). The key point is that we need to take the time to appreciate the good things we are born into. And this attitude, of appreciation, is different from action. In action, we push forwards confidently based on our convictions. When we appreciate, we are learning, with humility, being open to valuable things we may not have recognized yet. In this attitude, we are finding things to be grateful for, not pushing against what needs to change. And this attitude of appreciation belongs in politics too.

This idea, of finding and appreciating what is worth conserving, is very different from modern right-wing conservatism. Scruton was against the reverence for the free market (often an excuse to destroy subtle but valuable things in the name of immediate profit). He also hated religion that was dogmatic in the sense of narrowly pushing a few explicit convictions – as opposed to an exploration of mystery and an attempt to cultivate love, supported through habits and rituals. I believe modern conservatism doesn’t even deserve the name ‘conservatism’ because in the economic sphere they let business bulldoze anything, and in the social sphere all they are doing is rabidly defending a few fantasies loosely related to ideas about what suburban life in the 1950s was like. This has little to do with a careful, humble appreciation of genuinely valuable things, and a pragmatic wish to work out how those valuable things can be conserved and flourish given the world today. This philosophy can sit alongside a philosophy can believes in progressive action.

Roger Scruton’s writing and speaking had a beautiful simplicity about it. He had put a lot of thought behind it, but he knew the goal of thinking is to try to share insights, not to impress others. One can never really avoid the desire to impress others, but I suppose he managed to put this desire on a lower rung, behind a commitment to sharing and discussing important ideas in as clear and beautiful a manner as possible. I met him twice, once at a conference in the English countryside in a beautiful old manor house, where I had a glass of wine next to him at the bar. And another time at a dinner at Rhodes House. I asked for a seat next to him, and I asked him if he had any tips on how to write well. He took my question seriously and thought about it for a while while I sat there. His answer was: “think what you want to say, say it as straightforwardly as possible, then look at what you wrote and see if it says what you want it to say”. Which is perhaps another way of saying, the skill is not so much in the writing. It is in the thinking: figuring out what you believe is important and why: your philosophy.

It is sad when someone passes away. The world feels emptier. I hope to be able to take the best of what he did and who he was (not the worst), and bring it alive in my life and in the next chapter of the world.

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