Remembering Roger Scruton
Since Roger Scruton’s death last month after a six-month struggle with cancer, mourners and admirers have tried capturing something of the capaciousness of the renowned British philosopher’s mind.
Of course, to do justice to this pious task of remembrance and praise, one would have to be a polymath of Sir Roger’s incomparable proportions. I’d like instead to share two encounters I was privileged to have with this rare individual, reflective more of the character of the man than his scholarship.
Five years ago, I approached Sir Roger via a mutual friend with an unusual assignment: would he agree to teach a group of extremely bright but largely non-college educated Orthodox Jewish men for a seminar on the role of religion in the modern state? He couldn’t possibly know what to expect from this audience — the cohort was only the second cycle of the Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men, a still-experimental encounter between 20 gifted young Talmudic minds and leading scholars of Western political philosophy.
Sir Roger wasn’t acquainted with the thick yeshiva worlds of Lakewood, Mir, and Ner Israel, but he sounded intrigued and agreed to join us. I was elated, imagining this would be a boon for the intellectual climate of the seminar, stretching talented, if somewhat raw, young minds. But I secretly harbored concerns that this might be more of a match on paper than in the seminar room, given the cultural divide. But we pushed ahead with plans for his visit in August.
From the first hour with Sir Roger, a deep mutual admiration developed between teacher and students. For the yeshiva men, it was hard not to be impressed by Sir Roger’s sweeping intellect, his masterful reign over fields as disparate as aesthetics, sociology, political philosophy, philosophy of science, oenology (the study of wine and winemaking, not a word I knew until I met Sir Roger), and theology. For Sir Roger, these nimble young rabbinic scholars could parry and thrust with the best of his university students. He seemed at once bemused and impressed by the students’ energy and fierce, no holds-barred intelligence.
During the seminar, special attention was paid to the singular contributions of Judaism to Western culture, not as a form of flattery to his audience, but as a sober recognition that the Jewish people have always been the canary in the coal mine of Western culture, the intellectual dissidents in a sometimes decadent or barren intellectual world.
Sir Roger’s insights on the difference between halakha (Jewish law) and sharia (Muslim law), the former creating a public space conducive to the operations of a non-coercive state, something the latter hasn’t yet achieved, made him feel — for a fleeting instant, at least — like an insider to the rabbinic worlds of Lomdus and Pesak, of conceptual and practical law and scholarship. What the yeshiva students intuitively grasped with their years of study and apprenticeship at the feet of great masters of the Oral Law, Sir Roger was able to articulate with nuance and crispness, giving language to the young scholars’ inchoate thoughts. Perhaps this was a match, after all.
As the day of intense study of wound down, the group, including Sir Roger, repaired to one of the smaller dining rooms on this stately manor in Long Island, now a converted conference center. Sir Roger looked at home in the setting, somewhat reminiscent of his beloved Sunday Hill Farm in Wiltshire, South West England.
At about 10pm that Thursday, when yeshiva students study late into the night, sometimes with tasty Eastern European treats of cholent (a mix of beans, barley, potatoes, and flanken meat) and kugel accompanying Talmudic tomes, Sir Roger tried the dishes with curiosity and delight. “It’s a bit like an Irish Stew,” he demurred, downing between portions the more familiar beer and ale (the 18-year-old Glenfiddich came later).
Sitting together with these young Talmudic scholars, enjoying the more exotic — for this Jesus College, Cambridge-educated intellectual colossus — gastronomic fare, Sir Roger looked at ease, deep in conversation among his fellow dissidents, counter-cultural forces of nature in a world gone mad.
Madness struck again in the spring of last year. A young writer from The New Statesmen went to Twitter with quotes, badly decontextualized, from his interview with Sir Roger. The tweets suggested more than a whiff of antisemitism and hate. In short order, his appointment to a British government commission was revoked.
When a full transcript of the interview was finally released weeks later it was obvious the publication had, as Douglas Murray put it, done a “hit job,” distorting Sir Roger’s comments. His commission was quickly restored and the magazine issued a formal apology, but the damage was done.
During the fiasco, I wrote him to extend my moral support and offer my own modest take on the craven accusations. The New Statesman had dangled as red meat to their readers — and the Twitterverse — conspiratorial nonsense so distant from the measured and empathetic man I had spent many hours with four years earlier. Even before reading the transcript, I was confident there was a real conspiracy at play. His reply:
Thank you so much for your support and offer of help. It has been a terrible time, and of course in these days of social media there is very little to be done by way of legal action. …
That said, I do believe that these trials come to us also from God, and that we are schooled by them to re-examine our life, and to acknowledge the ways in which, and the extent to which, we have misused our love. I have been greatly encouraged to discover the extent of the friendship that has been offered to me as a result of this trial, and it has taught me to look with gratitude on the gifts that I have received. All the best, Roger.
Sir Roger, amid a scandalous abuse of his reputation, recommended the practice known to Jews as cheshbon ha-nefesh, self-reflection and scrutiny in hopes of identifying one’s personal virtues and vices, and articulating hakarat ha-tov, gratitude for all the good — the gifts, talents, and dispositions — God has given us.
Sage, almost rabbinic, counsel from a man with a working-class English background and an aristocratic cast of mind we are like not likely to see again in our lifetime.
Rabbi Mark Gottlieb is Senior Director of the Tikvah Fund and a Trustee of the Hildebrand Project.