No one was more qualified to write a book on beauty than the late Sir Roger Scruton. He was a man of impeccable taste and cultivated manners who could charm an audience even when, after being invited to a symposium at Notre Dame to talk about beauty, he ended up talking about wine instead. He most probably could have come back in a year and talked about beer and charmed that audience just as much a second time, but death intervened.
He was especially qualified in the field of music, having not only the ability to play an instrument but the ability to compose musical pieces as well. Das Rheingold is a brilliant critique of the mythic origins of Capitalism in theft, but Scruton turns his review of it into an attack on the failed revolutionary socialism—Wagner took part in the revolution of 1848 with Bakunin—which motivated Wagner to take to the barricades in Dresden and write the opera in the first place. When Scruton turns Nibelheim into a “police state” which is “perhaps the first premonition in Western art of Orwell’s 1984,” instead of viewing it as the City of London and symbol of capitalism as state-sponsored usury, he misses the point in a way that defies explanation. His analysis of Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold is musically acute but philosophically and economically tone deaf because the same conservative world view which allowed Scruton to charm his audience at Notre Dame is based on an ethnocentrism which blinds him to the reality of what Wagner is saying here. Scruton can’t seem to get over the fact that Wagner had the misfortune of being born a German, and that he needs to turn him into a proper English conservative by dragooning him into the anti-Communist crusade to make up for that birth defect.
What is true of his book on music is a fortiori true of his book on beauty. Scruton aspires to universality when he defines beauty as “a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature.” Because of its firm foundation in Being, “the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.” Unfortunately, Scruton then loses his train of thought along the way of telling us what he means by those and other undefined terms. Scruton traces his understanding of beauty back to Plotinus, referring to beauty as a transcendental, a notion which still had not been universally recognized at the time of Aquinas, who dealt with it as an addendum to his thought on Being. According to Plato and Plotinus, “beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given.” Scruton then compares beauty to truth and goodness, making it “one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations.” Scholastics called those “ultimate values” transcendentals, which meant that they, along with “the One,” described the fundamental and ultimate aspects of Being, or as Scruton put it “Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful.”
Instead of accepting the ontological foundation of beauty as the platform upon which he erects his own aesthetics, Scruton begins to quibble with the Angelic Doctor, accusing Aquinas of making “theological claims” about beauty, when this is not the case. Scuton undermines his whole aesthetics by erecting a roadblock which divides its history between then and now when he says apodictically that the Angelic Doctor’s “subtle and comprehensive reasoning” is “not a vision that we can assume.” As a result, Scruton proposes “to set it to one side, considering the concept of beauty without making any theological claims.”
Throughout Scruton’s book we are subjected to the same self-defeating behavior. Scruton opens the door to what seems like a promising solution to “a deep difficulty in the philosophy of beauty” only to slam it shut again after we have been granted a tantalizing vision of our goal. In this regard, Scruton tells us that Aquinas’s understanding of beauty is “worth noting” because he “regarded truth, goodness and unity as ‘transcendentals’—features of reality possessed by all things, since they are aspects of Being, ways in which the supreme gift of Being is made manifest to the understanding.” Beauty is a manifestation of Being, and this fact provides the best response to those who claim “that beauty is a matter of appearance, not of being.” Then after affirming that beauty makes a reasonable claim about its object, Scruton takes it all back again by claiming that these “reasons do not compel the judgement, and can be rejected without contradiction,” forcing him to wonder “So are they reasons or aren’t they?” Whenever Scruton is on the verge of drawing definite conclusions, he has to run the idea first by his ethnic superego, an imaginary figure made up of the ghosts of people like John Locke and David Hume, who have the final say on everything, “creating a soothing and harmonious context, a continuous narrative as in a street or a square, where nothing stands out in particular, and good manners prevail.”
Pace, Sir Roger, but there is nothing theological about Scholastic aesthetics. Aquinas’s ontology has been influenced by Revelation, but the rudimentary aesthetic principles we can derive from that ontology do not determine his aesthetics, nor does it determine the aesthetic theories of those who paved the way for a deeper understanding of beauty.
Why then does Sir Roger feel that the Angelic Doctor’s “subtle and comprehensive reasoning” is “not a vision that we can assume.” In his autobiography Gentle Regrets, Scruton tells us that “there is consolation without truth, as we know from the history of religion.” The real question is, however, whether Scruton believes that there can be beauty without truth.
Sir Roger Scruton was born into a troubled lower middle-class family and grew up “in a nondescript corner of post-war England,” where “nothing could conceivably happen . . . except the things that happen anywhere: a bus passing, a dog barking, football on the wireless, shepherd’s pie for tea.” After discovering the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Scruton realized that art provided a way out of that dreary existence. Scruton associated art with the English upper class, who lived hidden behind a wall which he could see from the library that provided the Hermetic texts, which he “read like an alchemist, searching for the spell that would admit me to that secret world, where shadows fall on tonsured lawns, and the aesthetic (or was it ascetic?) way of life occurs in solemn rituals after tea.”
After serving his apprenticeship as “a barbarian let loose in a library” (a phrase he appropriated from Ezra Pound, Scruton ended up at Cambridge University, where he had the misfortune to study philosophy as “bequeathed by Russell, Wittgenstein and Moore.” Logical positivism convinced him that any philosophy with any connection to the Logos of human existence (or its rejection, as in the case of Nietzsche) was founded on “nothing more than megalomaniac fantasies, implausible analogies and false distinctions founded neither in logic nor in fact.” Realizing that “the new philosophy I studied proved no more satisfactory to me than the science it had replaced,” Scruton gravitated toward culture as a “more important way of seeing things,” and that eventually led him to aesthetics.