Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life
by Roger Scruton
Pp 256. London: Continuum, 2005
The End of Time
by David Horowitz
Pp 168. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005
Who would be a conservative philosopher? The professional prospects - as evidenced by both these superb volumes – hardly seem rosy. David Horowitz and Roger Scruton have both suffered throughout their careers for refusing to kowtow to the wrong-headed presumptions of their times, winning no small number of enemies in the process. But enemies are bearable so long as you have friends, and that is why in Britain and in America (at least until their neoconservative ascendancy) conservative philosophers have been doubly disadvantaged - for identifiable friends of conservative thought, as opposed to instinctive conservatives, have remained scarce. Strange residual distrust leads the British Conservative Party to hire Australian pollsters and image-gurus of the shallowest ilk, yet rarely if ever utilise home-grown thinkers. But prophets and own lands need not be suggested, for in addition to writing books, David Horowitz now runs his own magazine (the indispensable Frontpage), while Roger Scruton publishes at a humblingly prolific rate (still scandalously under-utilised by the Conservative party and press, his writing nevertheless contains the best thinking being done on either side of the Atlantic).
But the feeling that not enough attention is being given, remains - and remains unsettling. Britain and America are both solidly conservative countries, with conservative-minded governments consistently triumphing at the polls, and conservative newspapers outselling their socialist rivals many times over. Yet in both countries, through some strange aberration in the miniscule class of media establishment, the impression abides that socialist principles are not only sensible, but popular. It is against just such insanity that both writers here have levelled their most powerful and elegant attacks. Both have devoted their lives to (as Scruton has it here):
shoring up ruins [with] the same passionate conviction that my contemporaries employed in creating them.
The generation Horowitz and Scruton were born into was almost uniquely destructive even whilst playing at peace-lovers, assaulting every pillar of society whilst failing to even reflect on the need for reconstruction. It was a generation in which (as is evidenced in a beautiful vignette from Gentle Regrets) Scruton could be boycotted by the cranks of Glasgow University even as they bestowed an honorary degree on Robert Mugabe - a generation which spent its sentient moments with its eyes fixed firmly on the wrong balls.
It may be small comfort when, like Horowitz, your books are pretty comprehensively ignored by the mainstream press, or when, like Scruton, you have been the target of serial character assassinations and libels in the left-wing press, but both men have fought a fight of colossal significance. And not least among their successes is that their fight has given encouragement and solace to the countless people who read their books, those who have only heard about their books, and to that extra class of people who merely intimate through the trickle-down process of ideas, that there are other people who think like them.
Writing against the grain is not the subject of either of these books, however, even if it gives both some of their dignified mournfulness (Scruton and Horowitz have more than adequately laid out their stalls in numerous, celebrated earlier works). What these two very different books do is give a privileging insight into the most private and often painful thoughts of their authors.
David Horowitz's short book constitutes a meditation on death and life in the wake not only of the national anguish caused by 9/11, but the private anguish of learning – during the same period - that he was suffering from cancer. In The End of Time David Horowitz, the assured and impassioned scourge of the "liberal" elites, reveals a David Horowitz who muses agonisingly over the lessons of Pascal, and a range of human lives. He does so with a simplicity and truthfulness which is not only moving but also disarming. One is so used to reading Horowitz on what Mohammed Atta did, that reading him on what Atta was seems revelatory. As - for those who know his work only a little - is the beautiful, restrained humour which rides through his thoughts, such as this description of his father:
When good fortune came knocking at his door, he received it more often than not as he would a visitor to the wrong address.
But the main struggle throughout this beautifully written and produced book is between Horowitz and his creator, a subject on which he is moving and frank, wanting to believe, but not quite seeing how to:
I do not have the faith of Pascal, but I know its feeling. While reason tells me the pictures will stop, I will be unafraid when death comes. I will feel my way toward the horizon in front of me, and my heart will take me home.Faith and its reclamation is also one of the most important aspects in Scruton's book - a work which really constitutes a set of sketches towards an autobiography. Scruton is an enigma here, for as readers of books like his short masterpiece On Hunting will know, he is someone who favours reserve, yet reveals occasional nuggets of quite amazingly personal and private detail. And so while this book contains (in beautifully structured chapters with titles like "How I Discovered Books" and "How I Discovered Culture") brilliant considerations on staging Wagner, and the architectural policies that have afflicted post-war Britain it also narrates the desperate and wrenching relationship between his young self and his parents. It is impossible in each and every case not to want more. Readers of the passage on Wagner will not be able to avoid wanting pages and pages more of this stuff, while readers of the pages on John Bayley and Iris Murdoch will not be able to help wishing that Scruton would perform such miraculous acts of resuscitation on countless other figures he has known.
In fact it is in the character-description and place-depiction in his writing that Scruton is an almost un-commented-upon genius. His writing on the former Eastern-block provokes observations that are novelistically acute as well as philosophically inspiring, leading up to his supreme summary of the communists who had given rein to that commonest fallacy of Scruton's generation:
In every place where they had achieved power they had released what was lowest in human nature, rejoicing in destruction and despising every loyalty that was not motivated by cynical calculation.
His description of his reaction to the immature and orgiastic philistinism of the soixante-huitards will be the passage which people will quote, but his narration of his parents' marriage constitutes an equally great insight into the human soul. One can only hope that before long Scruton will be persuaded to devote a book (like James Lees-Milne's Fourteen Friends) entirely to individuals who have meant something to him. It would certainly be among his - now embarrassingly lengthy – list of masterpieces.
Scruton, like Horowitz, has often been mis-characterised as a "hater", someone for whom hatred of things is an over-riding character trait. In Gentle Regrets and The End of Time, a truth which has long been smeared over gets re-affirmed. As Scruton reflects during a passage on the late Monsignor Gilby:
Conservatism is founded on love: love of what has been good to you, and forgiveness of what has not.It can't have been easy to have come from a generation and lived through a time in which conservatism – like so many good emotions – was subjected to ridicule, vandalism, and worse. But to have survived such a period and survived with soul intact seems - to this reader at least - to be some kind of miracle.
And of course such survival also constitutes a victory - a small, private triumph against the forces of nihilism and despair. Scruton writes:
Your ideals like your children, define you: between them, they are all that you have.To have kept such ideals is a mark of integrity and cause for admiration, but to have led the way with these ideals - and provided such humane and witty evocations of why those ideals remain supreme - is cause not just for attention and reflection, but profound gratitude.
Douglas Murray is a bestselling author and freelance journalist. His forthcoming book - Neoconservatism: Why We Need It - will be published this autumn by the Social Affairs Unit.