An Interview with Sir Roger Scruton

Recently, Sir Roger Scruton, one of the world’s most prominent philosophers and writers, flew into Washington, D.C., to deliver some talks. Even in his busy schedule, he carved out some time to sit down with Andrew Zwerneman and talk about education. What follows is a transcript of that interview. To listen to the interview, visit our podcast Sources and click on Episode 3.

AZ: Well, good afternoon Sir Roger, and thank you so much for receiving me.

RS: Thank you for inviting me.

AZ: Sure, and I hope you’ve had a good trip here in the United States. We are here in a lovely room, Powers Court banquet room here at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., and it’s just a real delight to be with you.

I’d like to explore the topic of education, and towards that let me begin with this. I recently revisited a book of yours from about a decade ago called Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. It’s a wonderful book and I highly recommend it for all of our listeners. “A culture,” you say, “is the collective practice which renews our visions and extends our sympathies into all the corners of the heart. It is the ongoing record of the life of feeling, which offers to every new generation the examples, images, and words that teach it what to feel.” Well, that quotation is full of wonderful terms, pregnant words. Let’s start with that phrase “the ongoing record of the life of feeling” : what do you mean by that?


RS: Well, by “feeling” there I principally mean of course the feelings that bind us to each other. Feelings like love, anger, and desire, which shape the human world and also shape the character of the people who participate in it; and these feelings can be merely crude, almost animal, reduced to spontaneous reactions without thought, or they can be elevated to a higher level so that they become a form of thought, a form of meditation. And I think it’s especially important for us in the world in which we live that we try to cultivate feeling in such a way that it really does involve understanding of the other and recognition of all the complexities that might ensue from whatever gestures we make. I see culture as a fundamental part of educating emotions in that way, not just from examples, although examples are very important in novels and stories and so on, but through providing the words for giving us a sense of how language should be used in difficult moments and so on.

AZ: Elsewhere you talk about sympathy, and am I correct in drawing this conclusion that sympathy would be something like the core, or the gathering feeling or response to the other, as you put it?

RS: Yes. I mean what it means literally in the Greek etymology is feeling, even suffering, with another. And yes, sympathy is a form, like so many of our emotions, it’s a form of judgement. You don’t feel sympathy for the villain in the story, you feel sympathy for his victim perhaps, and it’s one of the ways in which we explore the human world with a view to making judgements.

AZ: So, you would say, in fact, there are things we ought to feel and things we ought not to feel.

RS: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean that’s what moral education ultimately is, I think.

AZ: Well let’s say that we present to our students a poem or a painting, or maybe even a stage performance; would it be appropriate to ask the students, “How does that painting make you feel, or how did you respond with feeling towards that poem or that play?”

RS: That is a perfectly reasonable question, as long as you make clear that the poem is not about him, the student, the reader; it’s about whatever it’s about, and too much obsession with what you’re feeling can occlude your observation of the thing itself. And I think we live in a world in which there’s a constant pressure to sentimentalize everything and make it always look as though feeling is what everything is about.

AZ: Right, sometimes we would say to a student that “it’s more important for you to let the author or the painter pull you into his world rather than you his work into yours.”

RS: Absolutely. Yes, and you know you should approach works of art in a spirit of humility. This guy who has painted this picture or has written this poem, he did it for a purpose in order to draw attention to something other than you, something that caused him to respond in this vigorous way, and he wants you to understand its significance.

AZ: In that quotation I started with, there were other terms besides feeling. Feeling doesn’t stand alone as you understand it—as you explain it, right. There is thought, imagination, judgement, as you put it, vision; and so is this, in a sense, a cooperative effort between the mind and the passions, or the mind and the heart?

RS: Well, yes, inevitably all feeling involves a judgement, you know, a judgement of the world. What if I respond with anger to a certain remark? It’s not just that I’m arbitrarily responding with anger, I’ve judged that that remark is offensive, and that means I put it in a broader context in which I am able, or try at least, to distinguish the offensive from the inoffensive and have a conception of why the offensive is something that I should react to. So there’s a whole story of articulate thought which underpins the feeling.

AZ: So when you talk about the record of feeling, the images, the stories and so forth, is this a history of our culture, is it the gathering of all the great works, the classic works of art or literature?

RS: No, but we have a collection of paradigms, of you know—of emotions captured, and essential purity in words and images and situations that enable us to relate our own lives to them. You know simple things like when Nausicaa sees Odysseus in the corridor of the palace, and Homer, without describing her emotions, evokes them completely so that you have this wonderful picture of this virgin girl’s sexual interest which hasn’t taken any blatant form as it were, perceiving an imaginary future for herself, and then of course withdrawing from it as she had to. The way that Homer presents that is a complicated little episode which draws you in through sympathy to a state of mind which is very unfamiliar to us, because of the whole context, but nevertheless we recognize to be the state of mind of someone exactly like us.

AZ: So the record lies or consists exactly in the works themselves and how they engage us, and how the works illuminate our own experience.

RS: Yes, they give us paradigms and as Matthew Arnold says, touchstones—you know, the perfected expression of a state of mind to which one can add nothing and from which one can take nothing away, which tells you, enables you to situate your own emotional life in the context of these paradigms. And you know that, as it were, the world has been, the world of feeling has been explored, marked out, mapped, and its monuments declared and erected, and you’re not lost, you’re not just improvising because you can see the relation between your own, not necessarily very articulate efforts and these paradigms which help you to produce the articulation.

AZ: You gave an example there from classic literature, and you’ve said in several places I’ve read where each generation needs to re-engage, renew the culture, or for each generation the culture needs to be renewed, and in some ways that seems to be the content of education. You know, the examples, the images, the words that you stated in that earlier quotation—and someone might say, “Sympathy, yes,” “Emotional knowledge, yes,” but, “Now let’s get started with local culture, let’s get started with the latest art or the latest music.” You’ve already given one example from Homer’s Odyssey; can you make the broader case for why we actually ought to start with the classics, and the classics ought to be the mainstay for us as we, as we experience that kind of renewal that you pointed towards?

RS: Well, you can start in lots of different places, but one argument in favor of the classics is that they’ve survived the test of time and that, once people are acquainted with them, they recognize their value and they give you all the raw material from which to create new things. Let’s face it, Homer’s Odyssey is not just something that people visit out of curiosity; it lives through all the nineteenth-century literature and of course is resurrected by James Joyce in the form of Ulysses in the early twentieth century and goes on resounding through all the great works that we have. And there is a reason for that, you know, the classics that we have from the ancient world we have only because they were treasured and have been treasured; you know because everything else has been lost in all the catastrophes, the burnt down libraries and so on, but these things have survived because people treasured them so much that they were prepared to safeguard them from calamities. And looking back on it, we can see the reason why, but of course it’s a great fallacy to think that the classics were the highpoint of our culture and everything else is decline; on the contrary, but nevertheless everything else has been made possible by them.

AZ: Would you turn to works that might not be considered classics because they haven’t endured so much time but that seem to be just the kind of literature, the kind of art that we need; so for example would you consider the novels of Solzhenitsyn or the music of Gorecki or someone like that more recently as good starting points?

RS: Interesting question. I mean it’s better that students attend to those things than to Last Exit to Brooklyn or whatever, but you know I think students need a sense of permanence in what they read, and they need a sense that there is something that new works are contributing to other than themselves, you know they are contributing to an ongoing dialogue with predecessors. All this was laid out in that famous essay Tradition and the Individual Talent by T.S. Eliot—the idea that the originality that we appreciate in authors’ writing today is only appreciated because we can situate that author in a tradition larger than himself, and the great works, even the great modern works too especially, gain their significance in part because they are written in a conscious attempt to join that tradition. It doesn't mean that we can’t understand them without going back to all the predecessors, but they give us a sense that nevertheless they emerge from a deep foundation of things that have been, that have gone before.

AZ: That reminds me of another emphasis of yours, taken again from the book Culture Counts. You make a point about the purpose of education, and like so much of what you do, you link it to our communal existence and our responsibility for our predecessors and for future generations. And this is what you say: you say, “The goal of education is to preserve our communal store of knowledge and to keep open the channels through which we can call on it when we need to.” Now, that definition might rattle some of our friends who are practitioners of liberal or classical education, in the sense that they might place the emphasis on that term “liberal”—that education is meant for freedom. But I want to know, is your definition or your identification of the goal of education at odds with that or is it more of a complement to the notion of education for freedom?

RS: It’s a good question. I mean, there are two ideas of freedom at stake here, there is the liberationist idea you know, that you take away constraints and then the psyche is released in order to take possession of its space, and that liberationist picture of freedom is very different from the idea of freedom under law, you know the freedom which is a form of obedience because it’s a recognition of the rational possibilities available to you. That second view of freedom is the one that I would maintain, and I think a lot of damage is done to education, in particular by John Dewey, in espousing the first of those views that education is a liberation of the student. In my view it’s not; it is a disciplining of the student in order that real freedom can be enjoyed.

AZ: In another passage you encourage teachers, regarding the teaching of art and literature, and you say the following: “By inducing the love of art and literature, teachers perpetuate the knowledge of the human heart. Ideal visions of the human condition, not only of what we are, but of what we are capable of, are distilled in the works of our culture. From these visions we acquire a sense of what is intrinsically worthwhile in the human condition, a recognition that our lives are not consumed in the fire of means only, but devoted also to the pursuit of intrinsic values.” I would love to hear you elaborate on your use of the word “vision” there, and why is it so crucial that we have vision and that teachers impart vision to their students?

RS: Well, the world is very boring unless we make it interesting, and to make it interesting we should be constantly looking for the moments in which imagination can take over, in which you can compare what you have with what you might have, in which you set an imaginary world beside the present one, or in which you rethink the present one as though it were part of an imagined one, and that’s what a writer or a poet does. Even if it’s like William Carlos Williams describing a bowl of fruit on the table or whatever, he is reimagining it as though it were living in its own possibilities, and I think that’s what I mean: not getting lost in fantasy, pictures of things, but looking at the world in another way, so to understand that it is a sphere of possibilities incarnate in an actuality.

AZ: Looking at it another way, there would be other claimants to that that we would call ideologists, right? But they create a second reality; they’re not looking at the world and reimagining it with a clear connection to the world but rather apart from it right, at odds with it.

RS: Yes.

AZ: The emotional knowledge, emotional intelligence about which you speak, this is language sometimes you encounter this in business journals.

RS: Yes.

AZ: And all sorts of people have something to say about that. Can you kind of anchor that for us as a good way of thinking about what we’re doing when we’re teaching students?

RS: Yes, I mean as you rightly say there’s an element of psychobabble in the way that people use these terms, you know, it’s the invasion of ordinary life by therapy, and I don’t mean that. I mean the term just to refer to the education of the emotions from raw reactions to fully sympathetic responses, and this involves educating the character. I mean one of the best authorities on the education of the emotions is Aristotle in his theory of virtue, but the language he uses is not really accessible to young people today. But I think you can point out the difference between untutored reactions to things and considered responses, and show that the considered response is not a weaker form of feeling; it might be a more heartfelt form of feeling, but it involves understanding and sympathy at a higher level.

AZ: I’ve actually had some success teaching The Ethics to young people.

RS: Oh good.

AZ: But it’s interesting that sometimes a group of student will divide: there will be the students who love the dialogues and Plato and they don’t like the Ethics, and some students that say, “Oh I’m so glad we are reading the Ethics; I wasn’t really cooking with Plato and the dialogues.”

RS: Oh that’s interesting.

AZ: So, maybe partly a matter of taste. Might be my own teaching successes and failures too.

RS: Yes, right, I’ve been there.

AZ: I was very intrigued by something else that you said in your book, you had a comment to make about the role of culture at a time when religion has fallen off as normative for most people, and you’re relatively sanguine, maybe very sanguine about the role of culture reminding us of our worth, of our best feelings, of our best sympathy for the human condition, and I wanted to know if you would please elaborate on that.

RS: Yes, I think we all of us need that sense of our own worth, and without it we somehow don’t trust our own experience and don't feel that we are gaining any power over our own condition, and I think we all of us need to know that we fully belong in the world which is ours, that we have our sphere of influence where we can exercise our powers and that in turn does require the sense that somehow it’s right to be the thing that I am; there’s an endorsement that I can rely upon. We depend upon others of course to provide that endorsement, but there is a great question of how it comes to us from the surrounding world. We don’t live only expecting to be patted on the back by our wives and children and parents; we do live in the hope that we fit into a wider community with which we are in sympathetic contact, and that it’s that community that doesn’t just accept our existence but recognizes it as valuable. And I think culture, as I understand it, is the articulate voice of a community which is not a community of intimates; it’s a community of strangers, people you have never met, people who are dead, people like Homer, you know, but nevertheless they speak directly to you and say Here is how you might live, and then you think Yes that’s true, and living like that you feel supported.

AZ: And that seems to me a beautiful articulation of true moral and spiritual freedom, that articulation of a kind of health, even, and an antidote to the kind of vision that marks our time. People are divided from one another, they’re divided from their past.

RS: Yes.

AZ: And this seems that a culture that reminds us of our worth is a culture that is very hopeful.

RS: Well, of course, all true art in my view is an affirmation of the world of the person who’s appreciating it, even if it’s art made in another time, in another place, and we’re always searching for the way to affirm things, and we can only affirm things if we affirm them as home, as the place where we belong, and that is a communal idea.

AZ: How important is it do you think for students, for young people especially, to play music together?

RS: Oh, it’s absolutely vital; to play music together is a way of understanding the shared dynamic of the human body for a start and that your embodiment is your way of being. And, you know, we are rhythmic creatures, but merely tapping your foot to the rhythm in your ear is a completely different thing from working out the notes in your fingers and hearing and responding spontaneously to the person who’s playing with you, and that’s an extremely difficult thing to do. You can’t do it by measurement because all performance has an element of rubato, and you are spontaneously responding to another person’s variations by joining in with them. It’s not that different from a flock of birds. When you see a flock suddenly start up from the hedgerow and seep into the sky and then go round in a circle and come down again; this is, you know, some two thousand birds flying within just an inch apart of each other, but every movement of one bird is immediately mirrored by the next. You know, there are a lot of neurological explanations for this, but the fact is that that is a kind of miracle of nature which we need to replicate every now and then in ourselves, and music is the best way of doing it.

AZ: That’s an interesting emphasis, that physical dynamism. I think sometimes someone commenting on this might start with the “music is a common language,” something that helps us transcend ourselves. Think about the wonderful programs in Venezuela, El Sistema, where children of all backgrounds are playing classical music. We’re seeing this in our country. We work with a school in Colorado, the Thomas MacLaren School, about 400 students, all of them study stringed instruments.

RS: Yes, I’ve seen that and that’s fantastic, I think that’s how it should be done. And of course it raises the question of the different kinds of music that kids might be listening to or performing and inevitably I would have a prejudice for the classical, partly because it involves long term thinking and long term listening rather than repetition.

AZ: Yes, and do you think there’s something comparable in the experience of acting on stage with an ensemble of actors?

RS: Oh yeah, yes, acting is another way of coordinating with others spontaneously.

AZ: Do you place any value in the art form of film?

RS: Yes, yes I do. I mean the problem with film is that it’s very easily debased, in part because people’s interest in images can be easily awoken, and it can be awoken for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way as we know from the violence in the cinema and pornography and all the rest—that you can easily capture the attention of someone with images that degrade the human condition.

AZ: Are there directors or genres within film that you think are most successful in fostering sympathy for the human condition?

RS: Well yes, I mean, in my view truly artistic cinema has to fight against that abuse of images, the abuse that makes people interested in the image simply because it arouses in him some bodily reaction. If you show a film, however banal the action and the characters, in which they slice each other up in a bloody way, like in Tarantino's films, inevitably people come out of the cinema thinking they’ve had a great experience, but in fact they’ve had no experience at all; they’ve simply been—their innate fears have been encroached upon in a drama which has no intrinsic sense and no human characters. In the old days, old art cinema, there was an attempt to use the cinematic materials as a form of drama, as an extension of the theater; you see that in Bergman, of course, in something like Wild Strawberries, which is actually like an Ibsen play that has been set a bit in motion, and I think one needs to learn from those people because they were totally aware of the corrupting nature of images and wanted to discipline them.

AZ: Well, this was a great moment because I think everyone in podcast land was waiting for Sir Roger Scruton to endorse at least one great director, so we got it—Bergman!

RS: Yes, well and Renoir and all those people and really lots more, and of course a lot of the early American films. But, you know, it’s true that there are uses of the cinema which are, which we need to think about as though they are creating new realms of artistic expression, and that is possible I think.

AZ: Very good. Education of course is one of the central means by which we raise children; we raise children to become adults. Of course we say that education is for lifetime, we love lifetime learners, our mission in part is dedicated to helping adult learners in different programs. But it seems that educating the young is job number one, so how exactly are classic works of literature and art necessary for the specific process of growing up, becoming adults? You’ve spoken to some of the attributes of the classical literature and art, but can you take that one step further and say, “Aha, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for young people in particular, to become adults?”

RS: Well, I’m not sure I’d say it is exactly what is ordered, but I think we should recognize—this follows on from thinking about film—that there is a distinction between the use and the abuse of the imagination. And the imagination has an enormously important role in helping children to grow up, that is to say to give the a sense of possibilities and their own place within those possibilities. And one of the advantages of classical literature is that it takes them into a world where they have to imagine it, but they also have to find in it the people and the situations with which they can identify, and they do because real literature always creates those situations. This is a very important growing up moment when you recognize that the anger of Achilles is no different from the anger that you would feel in those circumstances, but it’s the anger of a different person in a completely different world, so you have some grasp of the fact that the human condition is much larger than the circumstances of your own life to date and therefore, generalizing, that there’s this huge world out there into which you’re being invited. And I think that that use of the imagination is amplified by the study of classical literature, and I think it’s one reason why it’s so popular among the young once you introduce them to it.

AZ: But you have some hesitation about its fittingness for young people? You wondered about my phrase “that’s just what the doctor ordered”?

RS: All I mean is that it’s not the only way to bring young people into an imaginative conception of the adult world.

AZ: You had an extraordinary experience as a young man in what we used to call the Eastern Bloc countries, during a time of Communist reign in Eastern Europe, and I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about what you learned from that time, how it formed especially your thoughts about education.

RS: Well, yes. One very important observation that I made at that time was that the hunger for knowledge as an end in itself is not extinguished just because all the educational networks around you are treating knowledge as a means to an end, you know as a form of indoctrination, inducing conformity to the surrounding political order, that in fact it’s in human nature to look at knowledge in a completely different way from that, as something of intrinsic value. Especially when you feel that you are being controlled by the educational system, then you do hunger for a completely opened, reasoned, and objective confrontation with the cultural inheritance. At least I felt that very much in the Czech lands and in Poland, so that young people in those countries had a great love for and hunger for their national culture as something which belonged to them and which was a realm of freedom, even though it was not taught in schools and so on. On the other hand their education system wasn't that bad either, but many of the best students were excluded from university at least.

AZ: And if I remember correctly, you helped facilitate—was it the founding of a university or the sustaining of an underground university?

RS: Yes, we did start up an underground university in Czech lands, and it carried on until the collapse of Communism.

AZ: And so you were there to help people who were suffering, and you also endured some suffering yourself, too, right?

RS: Well it was never that bad—I was arrested and interrogated and thrown out.

AZ: Well, that’ll do. Most of us would say that’ll do. Was it terribly difficult for you and your colleagues, your friends and allies to maintain hope in those dire situations?

RS: Yes, well it wasn’t difficult really because you know it’s natural for human beings to hope and when you’re living in a situation of total oppression, in which the elementary freedoms have been confiscated, you encourage each other to hope, even though you’re not quite sure what for. But there was always this sense that this cannot last, that this is so full of self-contradiction and mutual antagonism that it will collapse. And I never believed that: my view was that, “No, I’m afraid you’re going to be in this prison forever, but at least I’m going to bring you a few books to read,” but then it did collapse.

AZ: Do you have any advice for us today about good sources of hope? You pointed to two things in a sense that are very important: one is that you had friends and you know if some of them believed that Communism would collapse and you didn’t you still had one another and you still were willing to be generous with one another, so that seems to be a good starting point. Do you have any other advice for our listeners about working together and fostering hope amongst ourselves?

RS: Well yes, it’s not so different from making music together, making hope together, it’s a way of reverberating to each other’s instinctive feelings and becoming an entity, a first person plural which is greater than the sum of the individuals that compose it, and I think it can be done on a small scale in local community, and it can grow. I think that hope can’t be imposed from on top, it can only ever grow from below anyway, as it did of course in the early days of Christianity.

AZ: Very good. Well, we’re very grateful for all of your writing and for all of your speaking, it’s a great source of encouragement and it’s a wellspring of insight and wisdom. We’re so grateful for all that you do. Thanks so much for all that and thanks too again for joining me today, I know that you didn’t fly across the pond just to be with me, but I appreciate you carving out some time to spend with us, and on behalf of all our listeners and for everyone who works at Cana Academy, thank you very much.

RS: Well thank you, it was very interesting.

Andrew Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy. Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher who has published more than forty books in philosophy, aesthetics and politics. He is widely translated. He is a fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches in both England and America and is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington D.C. He is currently teaching an MA in Philosophy for the University of Buckingham.

Header image is by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman. Image of Sir Roger by Pete Helme.