By Roger Berkowitz
Roger Scruton died earlier this month. In obituaries, he was frequently called a conservative philosopher. The Guardian wrote that he “was a philosopher and a controversial public intellectual’ who “dedicated himself to nurturing beauty, “re-enchanting the world” and giving intellectual rigour to conservatism.” In a eulogy printed in the New York Times this week, Robert P. George admits that Scruton was both a conservative and a philosopher. But George writes that such a description tells us very little. “Many of his philosophical views can truthfully be labeled “conservative.” But to honor the truth in full, it is necessary to explain, with respect to any particular view Roger held, the sense in which it was conservative. To do so will show the important ways in which Roger defied stereotypes.” George begins with Scruton’s opposition to communism, but also his only tepid support of free-market capitalism.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Scruton’s brand of conservatism was his emphasis on the love of home, what he called “oikophilia.” Oikos, from which we take our word economy, means the household and names the order and guidance of a home. It is the private world of a family, but by extension also of a village, a people, or an ethnicity. In Scruton’s use, oikophilia is a principle of value for the small, the local, and the private that stands against universalism. It was in his defense of localism and decentralist politics that Scruton most closely intersected with the work of Hannah Arendt. Here is George’s description of Scruton’s oikophilia.
Indeed, Roger [Scruton] was the leading philosophical defender of love of home and one’s own, what he called “oikophilia.” Of course, as a humanist and Christian he recognized duties to all of humanity — even duties of love (understood as being less about feeling than about willing): All are brothers and sisters under the fatherhood of God, who made us all in his own image. But Roger also held that one naturally and rightly has a special love for, and duties toward, members of one’s family, tradition of faith, local community and region, and fellow citizens.
Roger’s oikophilia, and his rejection of “multiculturalism” (which he considered anti-cultural in that it melted the different cultures into a monoculture of contemporary upscale progressive ideology), provoked ignorant and excitable people to accuse him of xenophobia and racism. In fact, Roger respected other cultures a great deal more than most progressives of my acquaintance do. He learned Arabic in order to read the Quran, and he admired the tradition-transcending contributions of the great medieval Islamic philosophers. He made careful, in-depth studies of Hindu and other Eastern traditions of faith precisely in search of the wisdom he regarded them as possessing.
Roger often explained his conservatism with a sound bite, which, naturally, oversimplified matters. He told the story of watching protesters in the streets from the window of his apartment in Paris in May 1968, and realizing that building things of value (communities, societies, nations, legal and economic systems, institutions of civil society) is hard and takes time, while destroying them is easy and often accomplished in a flash. It was then, he said, that he became, or realized that he was, a conservative.
Moreover, he recognized that the most important things people build, even more important than the cathedrals and great works of art and music he so loved, are not primarily the result of planning. They develop organically over time, with trial and error, as the work of many hands (an example is the common law of England). Recognizing this, conservatives should, he argued, seek to protect these things against those who would tear them down out of a misguided zeal for what they saw as the demands of liberty, equality, social justice or even the free market.