Roger and Me
Walking into the Reform Club in London’s ritzy Pall Mall, the aspirations of a 26-year-old American student had come true. Recently graduated from Yale but deciding against the pursuit of a doctorate, I had come to the United Kingdom on a note of personal desire: to meet and study with Sir Roger Scruton. Already having… The post Roger and Me appeared first on VoegelinView.




Walking into the Reform Club in London’s ritzy Pall Mall, the aspirations of a 26-year-old American student had come true. Recently graduated from Yale but deciding against the pursuit of a doctorate, I had come to the United Kingdom on a note of personal desire: to meet and study with Sir Roger Scruton. Already having spent time living and studying on other countries and continents, England offered the aura of civilization and sophistication so cruelly mocked and missing in the modern world. But the path to the Reform Club, Roger, and the University of Buckingham was a long and, frankly, unexpected road.
I grew up a son of the American Midwest. Ohio to be exact. Parma to be more precise. Parma is a suburb of Cleveland, one of Ohio’s most famous cities if not for its down-on-their-luck sports teams (though the Cavaliers would win the 2016 NBA Championship with the return of Lebron James). I played baseball growing up. Then football and wrestling. I was an all-conference wrestler, tournament champion, and an AP/Honors student during high school. I was marked out as an exceptional student, but there are always exceptional students.
Attending a quaint liberal arts university in a neighboring town not far from where I grew up (my father and older sister were both graduates), I was originally fixated on finance and entrepreneurship. It was 2011 and we were living through the digital and internet boom that had finally reached fruition along with the slow growth out of the Great Recession. I eventually dropped both majors and settled into the humanities (history and philosophy) with a leg in the social sciences (economics was a compromise from my financial study aspirations).
During my time at Baldwin Wallace University, I was met with more accolades and success as a top student, winning awards and making the Dean’s List every semester along being inducted into several honors societies. I spent a lot of time in the offices of my professors in all three of my major fields, and traveled to the Philippines, China, and other east Asian countries during my four years as a student. It was at Baldwin Wallace that I was introduced to Roger Scruton, a name hitherto unknown to me but known to a couple of my professors.
Growing up as a I did in the Blue-Collar Midwest, or, more precisely, the working middleclass, I was a political and cultural oddity by today’s standard. My grandmother was still the quintessential JFK-Democrat: white, Catholic, and generally conservative on social matters while being moderate to left-leaning on economic issues. My father was a “conservative” Democrat too, as were many of my family members on my father’s side (Polish-German immigrants). My first presidential vote was for Barack Obama. I identified as a Christian, having church shopped with my parents as a child, eventually settling with a social gospel oriented evangelical church before becoming Easter-Christmas only attendees. In my own private readings in theology, which I picked up in high school, I turned to Reformed luminaries: Calvin, Vermigli Spurgeon. I identified with the Covenant-Reformed strand of Protestantism, eventually becoming a member of a confessional Reformed congregation while a college student, all before the stereotypical existential crisis thanks to studying philosophy. From those ruins Roger emerged.
A number of things happened my junior year that brought me under Roger’s wings. The 2010 Midterm election and the economic malaise coming out of the Great Recession and my studies in economics turned me against my culturally assumed pro-union, pro-labor, economic mindset and toward a more “market” approach sympathetic to Austrian economics (my economics advisor was sympathetic to the Austrian school unlike the many New Keynesians who dominated the department). This caused me to begin reassessing my party loyalty in an emerging age of polarization. The excitement of the Arab Spring which was still ongoing brought renewed hope of democracy and “nation-building” in North Africa and the Middle East which culminated in my own defense of the democratic spirit of the Iraq War in my modern Islamic history class where I was one of only a handful of students who offered such an apologia of the war as a catalyst for democratic advancement in the region (this was a stark contrast to the perceived abandonment and apology ideology of the Obama Administration). Though the origins of both events occurred while I was still in high school, the legacy of the 2010 Midterm election and the Arab Spring was still playing itself out while I was in university and embracing the spirit of intellectual debate and exploration. I was also fostering an interest in the high arts, classical music, and deeper intellectual endeavors thanks to philosophy—culminating in my aforementioned existential crisis where I realized I was, in every functioning sense, a materialist in my personal life and intellectual life despite telling myself otherwise. Then I was finally confirmed into the Catholic Church, the church of my infant baptism, and asked one of my history professors (who I knew was Catholic and had a great relationship with) to stand as my sponsor.
In this maelstrom of change and exploration I began listening to lectures by Roger Scruton and reading some of his writings on art and music as I searched for something beyond the mere material contours of life that had so dominated my life since the mid-2000s but only reached a rupturing point in 2013 and 2014. I started to consider myself “a conservative,” but wanted to distinguish myself from the materialist (neo)conservatism that I had fallen under the sway of and the philistine Tea Party I had little intellectual sympathy for. I found that distinguishing spirit in Roger’s aesthetic and cultural conservatism that gelled well with my emerging intellectual and philosophical interests: aesthetics, mysticism, and high art. Generally perceived to be the domain of liberals, through Roger I realized this wasn’t at all the case. In fact, one might say liberals are never actually interested in aesthetics, mysticism, and high art.
When I studied at Yale Divinity School, I was still under the assumption I would pursue a doctorate. I wanted a master’s degree in religious and biblical studies to strengthen an application for a prospective doctorate in Late Antiquity. My bachelor’s work in history (having predominately concentrated in ancient and Islamic history) and philosophy (with the usual ethics and classical philosophy coursework pairing well with Late Antique intellectual forces: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus) would serve me well. Thus, it was necessary to bulk up on formal credentials dealing with early Christianity and the Bible which would be absolutely essential to any study in Late Antiquity. Although studying for future graduate school plans, I was still under the gaze of Roger’s allure that had formed as an undergraduate. I was reading The Soul of the World and The Face of God in the summer of 2016 when I arrived in New Haven and began walking the sacred streets of Yale University. Soon after the semester started, I met several students who were taking a course called Theological-Aesthetics where Roger was on their syllabus reading list. Even as I was walking toward Late Antiquity, not exactly the path one would expect Roger to be, his presence was still growing over me.
By the time I graduated in 2018, having found success in both academic and public writing for magazines, journals, and newspapers, I came to conclude I didn’t need a doctorate to be a successful writer. Further, my love of art had overwhelmed my interest in history. Having left the hallowed halls of Yale, I understood myself to be “a conservative” in the Scrutonian vein: I wanted to conserve the beautiful things of Western art and culture that I had come to love so dearly for their Transcendental value and power. And what was left for a young, impressionable, intellectual 26-year-old from the American Midwest to do than to study with the great sage of conservatism and a man so important in my intellectual maturation and formation during my existential crisis? So that’s what I did.
London was not like Shanghai, the other large metropolis I had experience with from my undergraduate days. In many ways, London was more pleasant than Shanghai. Though I still have fond memories of my time in China. Although Roger taught a master’s degree program with the University of Buckingham, its campus situated in the beautiful shire county of Buckinghamshire which inspired Tolkien’s imaginative conceptualization of The Shire in Lord of the Rings, the lectures he led took place in the heart of London: the Reform Club in the center of Pall Mall street in Westminster. There was a delicious irony in this: the sage of British conservatism was teaching in the heart of the Reform Club with its prominent bust of Charles Fox (who looked graciously over us during the lecture and dinner). I arrived planning to write a thesis on musical aesthetics, specifically on the aesthetic conceptualization of Liebestod in Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. I ended up writing on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke instead, falling back on my work I had previously done on Plato and the political theology of Saint Augustine (my Yale thesis).
When I first saw Roger, it was through an artificial medium: YouTube. On YouTube, Roger was a distant speaker, a small figure on my laptop screen, an avatar of intellectual insight and wisdom but someone who was very distant since he was nothing more than a collection of digital pixels on a computer screen. His hair, though, was exquisite. And he spoke with a genteel spirit mixed with an ironic and sometimes sardonic manner that appealed to my intellectual humor. When I finally met Roger in person, in the heart of London, an incarnate relationship had finally manifested. Here was the man I had read and watched, the man whom I looked up to, the man I wanted to study with having just passed through the cathedral of American, and global, liberalism. He looked and spoke the same as from the many YouTube videos I had watched. His eyes lit up and a passion in his voice suddenly arose when I spoke of wanting to write on Schubert. He was a man and not just a collection of digital pixels!
Among the students that had been accepted into the special program and matriculated to study with Roger as their teacher was a gay lapsed-Catholic musician who loved art and Wagner whom I quickly became friends with and had several vegetarian lunch and dinners with during Lent. Another was an Australian writer on wine. Another was a former diplomat and ambassador who planned to write on the philosophy of chess. There was also a private practice doctor and former Foreign, Commonwealth and Development officer getting an opportunity to attend philosophical matters at long last, not to mention half a dozen other students. It was an eclectic bunch, twelve in total from three continents, and we all were reflective of Roger’s own eccentric character and intellectual depth.
I had mentioned that I came for purely personal reasons: I just wanted to study with the man I had come to admire intellectually who had become important to my own intellectual sensibilities. I also wanted to leave behind my prior work in political philosophy and political theology and embrace the arts and music which had become my chief intellectual interest. Looking back on things, I would have liked to write on musical aesthetics but political aesthetics ended up being the compromise when I realized that I wouldn’t really be writing on the aesthetic conceptualization of Liebestod in a very specific musical cycle of Schubert’s. I’m satisfied with my work on Burke which received high praise from Anthony O’Hear, one of the readers of the thesis. But given Roger’s death and my continued love of the arts, I would have liked my thesis to have been on musical aesthetics as an act of fidelity to Roger’s love of musical aesthetics, especially Wagner.
Like many Americans, my first experience of listening to Wagner was through film. Apocalypse Now to be exact. Wagner came in and out through other means I was unaware of growing up: video game soundtracks influenced by him; other renditions of his songs in films; weddings; the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (though they at least informed you when it was Wagner). All who knew Roger knew he was a great connoisseur of Germany’s most notorious musical composer. Roger opened my eyes to the transcendental power of music. Looking back at some of my most memorable cinematic and video game experiences, it was the music that brought the experience into the realm of the eternal. Roger succinctly explained why this was.
The lectures that Roger led were a throwback to civilized education now missing in our age of mass education. In a dining hall in the Reform Club, with a multicourse dinner and wine, we conversed—more than lectured—about modern philosophy: Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Wittgenstein, and more. After the conversational lecture finished, we would break for wine as the dining hall was prepped for dinner and even more wine. Roger spoke with a gentle grace that was eminently understandable. He also began to pull punches at some of us for our other intellectual commitments, such as his occasional backhanding of my love and debt to Leo Strauss.
When Roger concluded his final lecture for the program in June of 2019, he seemed perfectly healthy. He had yet to be diagnosed with cancer, or at least didn’t inform any of us if he had. We gave him a standing ovation. Then the news hit us: our teacher was sick with cancer. It was devastating news. Between graduating from Yale and arriving in England to study with him, my grandmother (on my mother’s side) had died from cancer. It was something with which I was recently and intimately familiar.
Roger wasn’t getting younger. That was another reason why I chose to venture over the merry old England to study with him. None of us could have known we would be the last crop of students to get to learn directly from the maestro, but that was an experience we were all fortunate to have. But Roger’s love and teaching ability ensure that he will endure down through the ages, unlike his many deliberately obfuscate critics. While some see him as a political philosopher, I know him as an aesthete—for aesthetics, especially music, was his most passionate love which informed his political sensibilities and not the other way around. While some distaste the man for his cultural, intellectual, and political commitments in an age of enforced political correctness, I know him as a courageous soul who actively subverted the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union during the brutal heights of the Cold War (unlike most Democracy advocates today, many of whom actively supported the Soviet Union during the Cold War in their youth or otherwise speak fondly of the autocracy of bureaucracy masquerading as democracy) and as a heroic soul who had the audacity to speak out against the worst (soft totalitarian) excesses of groupthink emanating from the West’s halls of cultural and educational prestige that we are still struggling to free ourselves from in order to gain a new birth of freedom in the twenty-first century. Moreover, I know him as a friend, teacher, and mentor.
In our narrow and ever narrowing world, the arrogant presumption that an educated, erudite, cultured, sophisticated, cosmopolitan traveler and lover of the arts had to be some sort of leftwing rebel who embraced socialism and atheism was challenged by Roger. In Roger I found a friend, someone whom I aspired to be because I was now traversing that lonely road of becoming an educated, erudite, cultured, cosmopolitan traveler very distant from my provincial Midwestern roots while also reacting against the materialism I had been enslaved to since a teenager which is the defining characteristic of the limousine liberal. Surely there was an alternative than the nauseatingly unoriginal and pathetic homogenous educated and cultured cosmopolitan traveler that I met everywhere at Yale, people who looked different and diverse but otherwise all thought and spoke the same. Roger showed me there was an alternative. And in that alternative, true diversity could flourish.
During a time of intellectual confusion and chaos, Roger proved a stabilizing anchor in my life. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that. And as I’ve turned away from the sentiment of messianic politics that led to a youthful and fervent passion for Barack Obama toward the oasis of aesthetics, art, and music which is a much greater refuge from the deluge of despotism threatening to consume our world and offers a more truly diverse and cosmopolitan life than petty messianic politics enslaved to revisionary Marxism, I like to think my heart has bound itself with his and is now part of the everlasting communion that love for the Good, True, and Beautiful brings.

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