Monday, 28 November 2011

Wisdom from Roger Scruton - another leading GLE contender


I know the above clip won't appeal to everyone, but I found it  moving and wise. Here's a transcript I made of a section towards the end:
"We achieve understanding [of the human condition] anew in every epoch, and it takes the greatest of intellectual and cultural effort to do it. This is what civilisation is for, to achieve this self-understanding.  
But it does seem to be the case that no sooner has it been achieved than it’s lost again, and that the knowledge that really matters is more easily lost than gained. We can gain, easily, piecemeal knowledge of this and that, and build up whole libraries of piecemeal knowledge, but the conception of the why and what of human existence dawns on people only at the apex of human endeavour.  
And once it had dawned, it is usually then eclipsed straight away by ignorance. And we’re going through a period of eclipse, that’s quite obvious, a Dark Age, in which people know an awful lot of information – but little coherent, holistic truth. 
This has happened before many times. But the wonderful thing is that it’s still possible to gain a vision, to stand on a little peak - perhaps not the peak on which Spinoza stood, or Plato, but a peak of one’s own -  and look across at all this sea of ignorance and confusion and hysteria… and smile at it."

What made Roger Scruton such stimulating company during the three years when he had the unenviable task of being my philosophy tutor at university is, I think, fully evident in this Dutch TV interview: he was perfectly capable of playing all the  little semantic games which seemed to characterise the study of philosophy at our great universities at that time (the Continental equivalent consisted of spouting unbelievably pretentious, vaporous balderdash at enormous length), but Scruton was always eager to apply Philosophy to the areas which fascinated him -  art, architecture, music, painting, literature, religion, sex etc. These, for him, weren't simply pleasing diversions -  they're the areas of human activity that allow us some understanding of what it means to be human.

Without resorting to the plodding banalities of politically-motivated, liberal pseudo-philosophers - without, in fact, ever raising his voice - Scruton somehow managed to make philosophy seem urgent. I had no idea how or why - I'm not sure he'd sorted his thinking out by that stage, so there was little bloody hope for the likes of me.

I'd forgotten just how extraordinarily well Scruton expressed the most complex thoughts in conversation until I watched this interview clip - when he was my tutor, I was too busy lumbering along several miles behind, desperately trying to keep up, to be able fully appreciate just how ridiculously articulate he was. (Not his fault, by the way - he was extraordinarily patient: it was just a matter of a decidedly mediocre brain trying to grasp problems that had successfully flummoxed many a first class intellect over the previous two and a half thousand years). Initially, I assumed that all Cambridge lecturers/supervisors were this brilliant. After I'd attended a few lectures, I began to realise that Scruton was pretty much in a class of his own. 

I have many memories of my time with the Great Man (who would have been in his mid-twenties when I first met him). First, there was a drinks party at the friend's house he used for his tutorials (he had to come up from London one day a week - he was far too conservative and original a thinker to be offered a Fellowship at Cambridge), where I was spouting on about Alfred Hitchock being a great artist. "But Hitchcock was a craftsman, not an artist," Scruton said quietly. "Just like Eisenstein. They're not telling you anything about the human condition. They're just manipulating the audience." 

I've been pondering that remark for nearly forty years. He came up with a lot of seemingly inconsequential zingers like that, which turn out to have burrowed their way into my head. He was never boring.

Then, one day, during a supervision (about Free Will and Determinism or the Mind/Brain identity theory or somesuch) he paused and, staring out the window in his habitual manner, said "The geese are flying." I nodded carefully, wandering what the hell this had to do with the topic under discussion. He looked straight at me. "Where do the geese fly in winter?" 

I struggled with that for a bit. But I just couldn't see what it had to do with Free Will or whatever the hell we were discussing. "Er... I'm not sure I follow your thinking, to be honest."

He looked equally puzzled. "What thinking?" He nodded at the window. "I was just wandering where the geese go in winter?"

One felt such a fool.

Roger Scruton is one of the three candidates for Greatest Living Englishman I have identified so far. Christopher Booker and Theodore Dalrymple are the other two. Without them, England would be an even stupider country that it is (the fact that Scruton has never held a senior position at any of our leading universities should be a source of national shame - liberals really are a pack of cowardly, intolerant  shits). But Scruton is probably the person who, through the hundred or so hours I spent being taught by him, and subsequently through his books, journalism and television appearances, has provided me with more intellectual stimulation than any other living thinker.

(I'm certain the only intellectual stimulation I provided for Scruton was to force him to read Hegel for the first time, by insisting on choosing him as an option one year - "Oh God, do you really have to?" I remember him groaning. Now, whenever he refers to the great German droner, I feel a little thrill of pride!)

I try to smile gently as I stand on my tiny little "peak" and survey the stupidity and ignorance of what passes for modern civisation - but I'm afraid I too often let my old tutor down by spitting with rage instead. I will stop doing so the day  Roger Scruton is awarded a knighthood for his unique contribution to the intellectual life of this country.


  1. If you haven't already done so, please peruse my new website,, which Roger Scruton sponsored. It will not surprise you to hear that it took me nearly 40 years not only to complete the book on Wagner's "Ring" which is posted there, but 40 years to find a single soul in the intellectual world with sufficient sensitivity and smarts to grasp the importance of what I'd been working on in obscurity: that single soul is Roger Scruton, more power to him!

    Your new friend from Wagnerheim,

    Paul Brian Heise

  2. Welcome, Paul! Wagner is my favourite composer, and has been since I bought my first LP of classical music - a selection of orchestral pieces from The Ring - at the age of 17. I haven't ever written about him on this blog, simply because I'm absolutely sure I would have nothing original to say about his music - unlike you! I've only had time to glance at Wagnerheim briefly since reading your comment - but it looks fascinating (I particularly appreciate being able to click on the motifs when you mention them - I've never been able to get them fixed in my head, even using Deryck Cooke's LP guide). What an incredible achievement. I'm looking forward to spending many happy hours on your website, which I've added to the Blogs/Websites list on the right.

  3. Lapsed Wagnerian4 December 2011 at 16:56

    Paul Heise. I have just started browsing through "Wagnerheim". It is a fascinating website. I lapsed back in the 1980s, but will now return to the fold. Thank you and congratulations.

  4. I will stop doing so the day Roger Scruton is awarded a knighthood for his unique contribution to the intellectual life of this country.

    Congratulations, Sir Roger Scruton