I have been rereading Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (2005) by the late Sir Roger Scruton, who died in January this year. Many people have paid tribute to this great writer: a true polymath (when the word is too easily flung about to encompass transient pundits), Scruton wrote with knowledge and insight on subjects as varied as aesthetics, architecture, hunting, music, conservatism, and the Anglican Church. Even those who disagreed with his political outlook would concede that he wrote in beautiful prose. At his funeral in Malmesbury Abbey the congregation included Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister of Hungary and many writers, acknowledging their debt to his example of determined and courageous opposition to the pervasive cultural Marxism that dominates public debate in this country.
Gentle Regrets includes chapters on “How I discovered books” in which he amusingly describes how in youth he used “aesthetic” and “ascetic” interchangeably; “How I discovered my name” – the tension between the brash outer “Roger” and the shy, inner “Vernon”; and “How I became a Conservative”, after being an eye-witness to the Paris riots of 1968.
In his preface, Scruton writes that “Wisdom is truth that consoles”, adding that “There is consolation without truth as we know from the history of religion.” Throughout the book, he wrestles with candour and honesty about his reservations concerning Christianity, at first Catholicism during his first marriage to a French Catholic in the 1970s, and latterly Anglicanism, when he bought an old farmhouse in Wiltshire in the 1990s, began playing the organ in the village church, and remarried.
During the earlier period, Scruton underwent instruction at the Brompton Oratory, observing of the truths of the Faith that “I assented to them all; not one of them created the slightest intellectual difficulty, save the major premise of God’s existence.” As I read this I recalled Monsignor Alfred Gilbey’s classic text, We Believe, in which, if one assumes assent to this first premise, one is led gently yet ineluctably into the Catholic Church. Sure enough (a detail I had forgotten about my first reading of the book), it turns out that Scruton enjoyed a friendship with Gilbey and used to visit him at the Traveller’s Club where Gilbey had taken up permanent residence after resigning from the Catholic chaplaincy at Cambridge in 1965.
Indeed, Scruton says that his two touchstones of the authentic Christian life were Mgr Gilbey and a young Polish woman he met when lecturing in Eastern Europe in the 1880s. Nonetheless, they exemplified something to which he could not give his final assent. As he put it, of the Church, “The structure stands unshakeably, even though built on nothing.” As far as I know, he did not alter this conviction. Joining the Anglican Church in his Wiltshire village, he writes, “I was welcomed home at last by my tribal religion – the religion of the English, who don’t believe a word of it.”
Like other writers who lack ultimate belief but who have admitted the hold on their imagination of the sonorous and majestic cadences of the King James Bible, such as Clive James or Christopher Hitchens, Scruton could not fail to be affected by its fusion of the finest resources of the English language and religious conviction, as its verses strike the ear of the receptive listener.
In “Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged” (2007), he makes it clear that “Underlying all the works of Western art and thought has been the legacy of Judaeo-Christian monotheism” and raises the question: can culture really serve as a substitute for religion? Recognising in this book that religion meets a deep need in human nature, I suspect Sir Roger made a love of tradition, of high culture and of beauty in all its forms his own consolation and “religion”.
He understood the need for the sacred, for self-sacrifice, for forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation – even for those like himself (as he writes in his chapter on “Sacred Obligations” in On Human Nature (2017)), “who do not consider the dogmas of religion to be literally true”. Characteristically, he concludes this last book by referring to “two great works of art that have attempted to show what redemption means for us in the world of modern scepticism: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.”
When he learnt last summer that he had terminal cancer, Scruton asked his friends for their prayers as well as their good wishes – entirely in keeping with this fine thinker and unassuming man who had quested for the truth all his life.
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