The Daily Bread of Tradition

Review: Mark Dooley & Roger Scruton, 'Conversations With Roger Scruton'

A scene from Brinkworth, England, the village where Roger Scruton resides / Brian Robert Marshall
July 31, 2016

We live in an age of skepticism, and there is nothing more vulnerable to the skeptic than everyday human experience. Tradition and cultural inheritance, which shape human experience, are especially subject to doubt. One need only observe the decline in church attendance and in the number of married women under thirty in Britain, France, and the United States to understand that doubting tradition and custom is more fashionable than embracing them.

Doubt closes us to the fullness of human experience by rendering us aloof or apart, like a child who wants to go swimming but hovers, afraid, at the water’s edge. This doubt is regrettable because on the other side of some seemingly mundane, instrumental activities lies transcendent meaning. Rather than doubting everyday human experience, embracing that experience allows for deeper immersion into it.

Take eating. The skeptic will scrutinize the ceremonies surrounding the meal and wonder whether the fare is actually good for the diner. By focusing on such questions, he misses the pleasure of conversation, the tasty morsels in front of him, the fact that passing food from one diner to another is a form of intimacy that facilitates friendship, and the peace of soul contained in thanking God or gods at the beginning of the meal.

Everyday human experience, its depth, and its connection with the sacred has been a major theme of Sir Roger Scruton’s work. The philosopher has written many works on features of human experience—architecture and music, sexual desire, community and country, custom and land, whiskey and wine. Through experience of these things, human beings approach what is highest and best. And since the principles of each of these things are passed down from generation to generation, doubting the cultural inheritance we receive in traditional institutions such as the family, the town, and the school is a mistake. The seed of doubt closes young people off from both their cultural inheritance and what is highest and best in human experience.

Scruton’s conservatism comes from an extensive philosophical background. But it is also, perhaps more importantly, the product of an eye that sees the subtle but deep meaning in human experience. This is nowhere more evident than in Conversations With Roger Scruton, co-authored by Scruton and Irish philosopher Mark Dooley. Dooley, who has written two books about Scruton’s work, is "in pursuit of the man behind the work. I wanted Scruton to tell the story of how he became the person that he is." To do so, he traveled to Scruton’s home, Sunday Hill Farm in England, to speak with him about his life.

Conversation between the two progresses leisurely. The reader is treated to Scruton’s reminisces about his childhood and bohemian early adulthood; to reflections on music, philosophy, and architecture; and to a few trips to the local chicken salesman and country parish church, where Scruton plays the organ. Dooley describes these trips, as well as Sunday Hill Farm, vividly, so that the reader can understand the experiences that shape Scruton’s daily life and have contributed to his philosophical defense of cultural inheritance against generational rebellion.

The arc of Scruton’s life follows his defense of cultural inheritance. As a young man, Scruton lived in France and Italy. There, he met many his own age who advocated rebellion against the established social, cultural, and political orders. While his experience in Paris during the riots in May 1968 made a great impression, he came to understand "the difference between self-indulgent disorder and carefully maintained order" while he was in Italy. Wryly, he reflects that, "without knowing much about it, I was on the side of order."

Scruton did know, however, that he "was a rebel against rebellion without knowing exactly what to put in its place." Thus began Scruton’s long journey of discovery. That he had the good sense to reject the indulgent disorder of continental Europe during the late 1960’s, and that he has since worked to articulate what might fill the souls of those who seek solace in rebellion, is the good fortune of well-meaning people throughout the Anglosphere.

While Scruton has used his mind through a long career to make the case for respecting cultural inheritance, Conversations makes clear that he is only secondarily an intellectual. He is primarily a man rooted in rich everyday human experiences, one who has figured out how to think about them so he can discover their fullness rather than doubting their validity. Readers can rely on Scruton’s philosophical works for principles; they should consult Conversations for a model of a life well lived.

Published under: Book reviews