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Roger Scruton: Philosopher of the “Small World”
In a discussion with the journalist Toby Young on the Quillette podcast earlier this year, the Conservative politician Daniel Hannan suggested that the influence of the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (1944–2020) “is only going to grow with each passing year.” Yet the sum of Scruton’s legacy may not only be that he affected the way we think. Rather, and perhaps more importantly, it may be that through his work and personal example he inspires a change in how we live. Indeed, Scruton was a philosopher of everyday life. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, his ideas might gain new ground.
It is difficult to give a comprehensive description of Scruton’s philosophy. He never published an all-encompassing manifesto. But that would hardly have been expected of someone who resisted Big Ideas, and who admired Friedrich Hayek’s insight that knowledge cannot be concentrated in a central authority. Instead, and much more in line with his own conservative convictions, Scruton produced a vast body of work with an eclectic and even eccentric range of themes. Nevertheless, there is a common thread running through many of Scruton’s books, and this is his occupation with questions about how we should find meaning in what the Swedish sociologist Hans Zetterberg called the “small world” divorced from the impersonal “large world” of politics and markets.
For exploring the Scrutonian view on these matters, the question of what to drink is a useful starting point. “In his embrace of the pleasures which life offers,” the Spectator columnist Bruce Anderson wrote in his tribute to Scruton, “Roger was, of course, an oenophile.” Yet there was philosophy behind his connoisseurship. Wine, properly drunk, as Scruton explained in his book I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine (2009), “is not simply a shot of alcohol”; it has important social functions, such as teaching people the virtue of temperance and making them recognize the inhibiting value of rituals. In fact, for Scruton, wine is not just a drink, but also a place—an expression of the soil in which the grapes were grown and of distinctly local cultural traditions. Wine allows us to “travel in the glass” and visit distant locales without having to leave our own.
This insight grows directly from the central term of Scruton’s philosophy of everyday life: “settlement.” Scruton was often critical of nomadic tourism. In his book Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2012), he argued that we should instead turn toward home and rediscover “the local, the rooted, and the characterful” as opposed to the “global, the uprooted, and the bland.” We should develop feelings of affection, responsibility, and stewardship for the place where we are, and thus contribute to a “local warming.” According to Scruton, such a rekindling of territorial loyalty would both save the planet from environmental degradation from the bottom up and accord with what he described as man’s “home-ish” nature.
The point is not to preserve our place as a kind of museum, but rather to renew it to pass it on as a living inheritance to future generations—to counter oikophobia. In practice, this means engaging in the local community, tending to social bonds, promoting those aesthetic values on which the establishment and endurance of a shared environment depend, and actively seeking out old and half-forgotten customs.
Scruton was hardly an armchair philosopher in this respect. On the contrary, his ideas seem to have evolved, at least in large part, from his own experience. After having led a somewhat unmoored urban existence for many years, he decided in the early 1990s to settle in rural Wiltshire. There, he took up fox hunting and in other ways immersed himself in local life. With his wife, Sophie, whom he met hunting one day, he began a small farming venture. Linking himself to his immediate surroundings, and helping keep rural traditions alive, appear to have brought him deep contentment. It was only half-jokingly that he referred to the farm where he lived with his family as “Scrutopia.”
Scruton shares the personal story of his own change in On Hunting (1998) and News from Somewhere: On Settling (2004), where he also offers his views about many specific features of the “small world,” such as child-rearing, food, and marriage. His thoughts on these subjects are interesting and worthy of consideration in themselves, but it is his concept of settlement that might help us shape how we live our everyday lives in the new world we may be entering.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, we may see long-lasting changes in travel and labor. Tourist flights to all corners of the globe, which are already widely criticized as environmentally hazardous, might come to be seen as unsafe and unnecessary. As more firms learn to use new communication technologies that allow employees to be dispersed, office work could also be abandoned in many professions. We could be moving, by necessity, in a more national and local direction.
Scruton’s ideas offer a way of making the best of this social transformation. They can help us to look at our own places with a renewed sense of appreciation, as sources of pride, identity, and cohesion. As work can be done ever more from home, people might be encouraged to leave dense megacities and find a new and more grounded way of living in neglected rural areas—helping to revitalize them by linking themselves to the local, as Scruton did himself. If we still feel a longing for the outside world, we can always open a bottle of wine and travel in the glass.Return to the Commons
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