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.
But not before a long detour through the sexual revolution of the 1960s, during which he played keyboards for a band which emerged at the same time and in roughly the same place as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Suffering from the multiple personality disorder that resulted from simultaneous submergence in the high culture of T. S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis as well as the already-mentioned rock bands, Scruton adopted a bifurcated personality based on “Vernon,” the sissy name his mother wanted to give him, and “Roger,” the masculine name he adopted from his father:
Although Vernon’s evenings were devoted to string quartets, Roger’s involved rock, R&B and sexual intercourse, which began in 1961, two years before the date allotted by Philip Larkin, though with an unhappiness of which he would surely have approved. Our school contingent arrived in Cambridge in the shape of a pop group, with Dave as lead guitar, myself on piano and Pete, the rhythm guitarist, relaying to us the interesting innovations of a group he knew in Liverpool.
Swept up in the revolutionary fervor of his age, Scruton found himself in Paris in May of 1968, where Jewish revolutionaries like Daniel Cohn-Bendit bombarded the riot police with copies of Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism. Scruton observed the revolutionary mayhem from his garret window, not sure he agreed with what was going on. Unlike the English poet William Wordsworth, who felt it was “bliss to be alive” during the French Revolution of 1789, Scruton felt a “surge of political anger” while watching its 1968 sequel from “the other other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.” Demanding some justification from the ’60s version of Annette Vallon, the woman who bore Wordsworth’s revolutionary love child, Scruton had a copy of Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses thrust into his face, as “the bible of the soixante-huitards.” Foucault’s book turned Scruton into a conservative, because it justified:
every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the ‘discourses’ of power.”
Foucault’s ultimate act of transgression was his subversion of truth. Like William of Ockham and his mentor Satan, Foucault maintained “the old nominalist sleight of hand” that:
“truth” requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula.
Foucault died in 1984 after spreading AIDS, which he:
contracted during well-funded tours as an intellectual celebrity. However, his books are on university reading lists all over Europe and America. His vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it. Only in France is he widely regarded as a charlatan.
Scruton went on to become the conservative scourge of Foucauldians, but in doing that did he really challenge the claim that truth “changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation?” Or did he simply come up with a more ethnocentric version of the same idea in his aesthetics? By 1971, Scruton had become a conservative, largely because of the influence of English culture in general and English common law in particular, in which he found:
proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. English law, I discovered, is the answer to Foucault. Inspired by my new studies I began to search for a conservative philosophy.
Unsurprisingly, Scruton found that conservative philosophy in the writings of Edmund Burke. Like Burke, Scruton’s first work was in aesthetics. Burke’s political thought was persuasive because Scruton had learned “as a teenager” that “aesthetic judgement” was “not merely a subjective opinion, unargued because unarguable, and of no significance to anyone besides oneself.” Rather, “aesthetic judgement lays a claim upon the world, that it issues from a deep social imperative, and that it matters to us in just the way that other people matter to us, when we strive to live with them in a community.” Burke allowed Scruton to make “the passage from aesthetics to conservative politics with no sense of intellectual incongruity, believing that, in each case, I was in search of a lost experience of home.” Burke convinced Scruton “that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.”
Scruton found Burke’s defense of prejudice even more persuasive than his aesthetics. Scruton felt that prejudice was the antithesis of logos, and that “the real justification for a prejudice is the one that justifies it as a prejudice, rather than as a rational conclusion of an argument.” Scruton goes on to claim that sexual relations are “guided by deep and immovable prejudice, in which outrage, shame and honour are the ultimate grounds.” Sexual revolutionaries “have no difficulty in showing that those motives are irrational” because they are, in fact, irrational. The result is “a faltering in the reproductive process” which were “shored up and fulfilled by the traditional prejudices,” but are now “left exposed and unprotected by the skeletal structures of rationality.” This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the logos of human sexuality, and it shows why conservatism, far from opposing the Foucauldian attack on sexual morality, actually enables it by demonstrating its source in ethnic prejudice:
This is an example of what happens when prejudice is wiped away in the name of reason, without regard for the real social function that prejudice alone can fulfil. Indeed, it was partly by reflecting on the disaster of sexual liberation, and the joyless world that it seems to have produced around us, that I came to see the truth of Burke’s otherwise somewhat paradoxical idea.
If Benjamin Franklin was right when he said that experience keeps an expensive school but fools will learn in no other, Scruton arrived at this conclusion in the expensive school of experience, and once again a French woman was his guide. After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in philosophy, Scruton was appointed lecturer at the Collège Universitaire at Pau. Living “for a year on the Côteaux de Jurançon, the incomparably beautiful foothills of the Pyrenees” exposed him to Catholicism in situ, which precipitated an overpowering aesthetic experience that drew him to the religion that religious art was designed to portray:
Within minutes I would lose all interest in the building and its aesthetic powers, and join the mumbling widows in their pew. And if – as sometimes happened – a priest entered from the sacristy, obedient to a calendar that mysteriously sanctified the hours, I would listen to the Latin words, and join in the Credo, whose plainsong opening phrase – “Credo in unum Deum” – is surely one of the most succinct affirmations of faith in music. I was not a believer, but not a mocker either. Standing, kneeling, sitting and singing in obedience to imperatives that for me were options, I was for a moment a believer in belief, a fellow-traveller of pilgrims who would soon pass out of view.
Eventually, Scruton moved in with a woman who “had been brought up in the Catholic Church not far from Jurançon,” and after “shadows had fallen across our life,” he decided to marry her “less as a final decision than as a remedy for all our mistakes.” In order to have that mistake blessed by the Church, Scruton took instruction in the truths of the Catholic faith, all of which Scruton readily accepted except one:
“I assented to them all: not one of them created the slightest intellectual difficulty, save the major premise of God’s existence. But this too could be held in place, I surmised, by the structure that had been built on it, and whose angles and junctures I knew from St Thomas Aquinas.”
Scruton’s problems were both moral—trouble being faithful to his vows—and, more importantly, metaphysical. As a true student of Wittgenstein and Russell, Scruton felt that the structure of the Catholic Church stood “unshakably, even though built upon nothing.”
Bad metaphysics led to bad aesthetics, leading Scruton to believe that religion was nothing more than a “work of art,” confected by men who obeyed the commands of a non-existent god. How is this any different than what Feuerbach and Foucault preached? Scruton’s answer is that we should revere the Church for lying to us because “its values are aesthetic values: beauty, wholeness, symmetry, harmony.” Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are transcendentals because of their intimate relationship with Being. Metaphysics is the science of Being. Deprived of its foundation in Being, aesthetics would wither away into pointless subjectivity of the sort which Scruton found repugnant but ultimately unrefutable.
Or are we putting the cart before the horse here? A more probable thesis is that Scruton found the historical foundation of the Church in Christ implausible because he could not follow its moral teaching:
My attitude to the Church whose rituals I was prepared to borrow was still not the attitude of a believer. I too was a thief, and the marriage that I stole one morning from the Oratory faced me thereafter with an immovable accusing stare. At last, I disposed of it, and was duly punished. My years of guilt were clear proof of the Church’s view of matrimony as an eternal and indissoluble tie. Subsequent attempts to obtain an annulment were rightly rebuffed and for two penitential decades I wandered among jeunes filles en fleurs, spoiling their bouquets.
Scruton never got over his failed sacramental marriage and his inability to keep the vows he made. He knew that his divorce could not end his marriage, because “divorce does not end a real marriage, which will remain sacred even to those who have drifted away from it, or who have tried to set its vows aside.” Unable to undo his violation of the vows he made had alienated Scruton from any firm foothold on Being. As a result, he ended up not returning to his wife, but solemnizing an arrangement with a new wife via a faux vow sworn in a faux church:
many years following my divorce I was conscious of floating in a world of chimerical affections, swept along by a mutable tide, and knowing that I was desecrating what had once been consecrated to a higher purpose. I was constantly aware of that other person, whom I no longer saw, but whose thoughts, feelings and reproaches were addressed to me in my own inner voice. I embarked on a kind of penitential routine, in the attempt to heal the part of me that had been torn free from the marriage and which continually bled. And when, to my surprise, I began to live and feel like a whole person once again, it was because I wanted at last to make an unbreakable vow – not to confirm an arrangement that already existed, but in order to begin life again. This vow was solemnized, however, not by the Roman Catholic, but by the Anglican Church. I was welcomed home at last by my tribal religion – the religion of the English, who don’t believe a word of it.
[…] This is just an excerpt from the February 2021 Issue of Culture Wars magazine. To read the full article, please purchase a digital download of the magazine, or become a subscriber!