Roger Scruton talks to Jordan Peterson


…or Jordan Peterson talks to Roger Scruton. Depends on which you were more familiar with first, I guess.

I’ve admired Sir Roger Scruton for some time. He’s the most eloquent and thoughtful voice advocating a Burkean conservatism rooted in tradition, prudence, and pietas today, and I owe him a debt for the influence he’s exerted on my own philosophical and—only secondarily—political thinking as I’ve matured. Jordan Peterson I’ve only “discovered” in the last year (as I’ve joked about elsewhere, my first awareness of him was Amazon’s autocomplete while searching for my own books), but I respect him for his intellectual honesty and genuine concern for human flourishing and the truth. While in many ways different men—one an English philosopher of aesthetics devoted to Burke and Kant, one a Canadian clinical psychologist influenced by Jung and Nietzsche—their thinking has several important points of convergence.

Last month, the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism hosted this conversation—entitled “Apprehending the Transcendent”—between philosopher Scruton and Peterson, and it’s those points of convergence or overlap that provide their starting point. In a wide-ranging chat, Scruton and Peterson talk about what “the transcendent” is; the factual and the meaningful; the hermeneutics of suspicion pervading humanities programs; the obsession with power, privilege, and identity that undermines normality, tradition, and the ability of people to relate to and cooperate with one another; the transcendent power of art and especially music; cultural appropriation; and much more.

The latter half of the discussion touches on topics especially near to my heart, including teaching the humanities and the Western tradition as an act of love for one’s students, how to recover a shared understanding of ourselves as all commonly dependent on the transcendent, and the importance of gratitude to… everything. After all, to take it back to Cicero, as I am wont to do, gratitude “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all others.” Without mentioning Cicero, Scruton and Peterson both elaborate on that theme at some length.

It’s a really magnificent discussion with a lot of substance to it. While I hardly agree with them on everything, one of the reasons I respect both of these men is their facility in explanation. They are excellent communicators. (A striking contrast—Scruton tends to go for a quotation from an authority with a pithy summary that neatly encapsulates what he’s trying to say, while Peterson tends to tell stories from his clinical experience that concretely, and often stingingly, lay out any abstract ideas he’s discussing. Both valid, both interesting.) They also approach all of the topics of their talk from such specific and even idiosyncratic angles—see above—that it couldn’t fail to provoke a reexamination of some of what they were talking about. And it was a lot of fun: a winsome presentation of good ideas by two men who care about those ideas and their relation to the truth. I don’t think it’s widely enough appreciated how funny both Scruton and Peterson are despite—or perhaps because of—their earnestness, and both are in good form here. (Though Scruton’s deadpan burn of modern art in “Why Beauty Matters” is still my favorite one-liner of his.)

I plan to listen to it again sometime soon, but to quote one of the comments on YouTube: “I feel like my brain ran out of RAM.”

Check it out for yourself—it’ll be worth your while, particularly if this will be your introduction to one or both of them.