The last time I saw Sir Roger Scruton was on December 3 last year. Two dozen of his friends, family, colleagues and allies had been invited to the Hungarian Embassy in London to celebrate his being given the Order of Merit by the Hungarian nation, in the person of their Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. The atmosphere of jollity was tinged by the sadness keening in each of our hearts, for it was clear that Roger was a dying man.
Reduced in size and stripped of his russet mane, lately a whitish gold, by treatment for the cancer that had ravaged him with unremitting aggression since the summer, he was wheeled into the room by his wife, Sophie.
His physical stature was all that had been reduced, though. Still that openness and warmth in his smile, inviting conversation and questions. Still that unquenchable thirst to transmit the knowledge of a lifetime, to stoke the fires of curiosity and engagement in all around him. Still, best of all, that incomparably wry, quiet humour, untainted by any hint of malice, which was the treasure of all who knew him.
Mr Orban’s speech granting him the honour pointed out that, during the 1980s, Roger had been expelled from two things: Communist Czechoslovakia and Western academia. Both expulsions were to his great credit as a man and an intellectual.
In response, Roger resumed the theme of his political philosophy since, witnessing Parisian students ripping up cobblestones during les evenements of 1968 and receiving no coherent reply to his questioning of their motives, he had recognized his fundamental conservatism. It is by acknowledging our sense of place, our oikos, and the obligations which spring from that connexion, and by recognizing its value in other peoples and nations rather than attempting to homogenize and therefore make bland, that we forge the bonds of amity and cooperation. Our responsibility of acknowledgement allows us to draw together not in spite but because of our differences. One of Roger’s most frequently uttered apothegm echoes this: “Liberals seek freedom, socialists equality and conservatives responsibility.”
Roger was perhaps the greatest polymath of the past century. A philosopher, writer, teacher, novelist, composer, oenophile, linguist, rider to hounds, a man who offered succour and samizdat literature to Czech dissidents during the darkest days of the Cold War, a farmer and a Wagnerian of the highest order, there seemed to be nothing to which he could not turn his subtle and entirely original mind without profit.
All of this has been covered in great detail by obituaries, best among which is that in the Times. I want, therefore, to tell you about the man I had come to know over the past decade: a man whose kindness was matched only by his erudition; whose encouragement of the young and eager was boundless.
The first time I corresponded with Sir Roger Scruton was as an undergraduate, coming to the end of a Music degree. I had read and admired his work throughout my adolescence but only then, aged 21, did I have the courage to write.
With immense trepidation, I sent him a letter expressing my admiration and enclosing my recently completed dissertation on the composer Ferruccio Busoni.
I thought that there might perhaps be a polite letter of acknowledgement if I was lucky, but expected nothing. About a week later, I received a thick package. In it was a long letter from Roger, complimenting my work, suggesting further works of reference and inviting me to join a network of conservative thinkers he was then establishing.
Alongside the letter were the score of his own Three Lorca Songs, the libretti of his two operas and the invitation to perform any and all of his works if ever I had the opportunity. With that began a correspondence, later a friendship and gentle but consistent mentoring, which lasted until his death on Sunday.
Gentleness was at the heart of Roger Scruton. Not for him the fierce polemicizing of other political thinkers – though he was not without appreciation of some who engaged in ideological hand-to-hand combat. It was by careful, measured, considered argument that he sought to persuade. That isn’t to say he could not be trenchant when the occasion demanded: his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands contains some of the wittiest demolitions of Foucault, Derrida and other left-wing philosophers ever published and he could, in his cultural criticism, raise gales of laughter when describing the inadequacies of modernist music, for instance.
Yet as I wrote earlier, there was no malice in it; merely a desire to correct what he considered faulty reasoning and errant conclusions.
“The reason people on the left can’t be friends with people on the right is because they think we are evil, whereas I am perfectly able to be friends with them because I think they’re simply mistaken.” This Roger said to me the first time we met in person.
He echoed that sentiment in writing and lectures throughout his life. In this atmosphere of political polarization and mistrust of others’ motives, we all, left, right or centre, would do well to remember that simple message of good faith and goodwill.