I first encountered Sir Roger Scruton in 2015, when I was given his book The Soul of the World. Thus began my ongoing interaction with this posh, infuriating, and brilliant philosopher. I was saddened to read he had died on January 13th, 2020 after a six-month bout with cancer. And it is fitting, especially I think for Christians, to reflect on the intellectual legacy of Scruton, and why we should continue––or begin––reading him today.
Scruton is probably best known for his articulation and defense of political and cultural conservatism. But here are a few more details. He was ambiguously Christian. He lived on a farm nicknamed “Scrutopia,” the purpose of which Scruton said was aesthetic. He wrote novels, operas, arias, and pieces for solo piano. He created a documentary on the importance of beauty for the BBC. And in the last few years, he was head of a government commission, which aimed at building affordable and beautiful housing in Britain. I would suggest that, despite the strong associations with a particular political ideology, more fundamental to Scruton’s life was the beautiful.
And this is not insignificant. I have often found myself taking the opposite position on a matter from Scruton. Yet, his reasons for holding his position were never what I expected––and that often gave me pause to think again. They were not the politicians’ or pundits’ reasons; rather, they always came from the aesthetic sensibility that permeated his life and thought. I want to argue for the importance of this sensibility for Christians.
A World Bereft of Beauty
Does beauty matter? Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes:
“In a world without beauty––even if people dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it––in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil.”
If Balthasar is right, then beauty is indispensable because it is the light in which we can determine not what is good but why the good should be chosen over something else (and why the true is to be sought over the false). In the past, beauty was understood to dance along with her two brothers: truth, and goodness, all three of which were inseparable. But we have lost this sense of beauty as a transcendental, transcendent source. In the past, one could not make a career out of trying to answer the question: does beauty matter––this question would have left people befuddled. Today, though, in our ultra-pragmatic world, this has become a perennial question. And, again, if Balthasar is right, then the answers we give are far from trivial.
Retrieving Beauty’s Testimony
I read Scruton as arguing in favour of Balthasar’s contention. His work was a retrieval of beauty’s testimony to the good and the true. The last century has been especially unkind to beauty and art. It has been filled with those who continue to speak of beauty, but only to disparage it. One thinks of Marcel Duchamp who signed a urinal and displayed it at The Society of Independent Artists in New York. This, Duchamp said explicitly, was meant to mock art; to show its triviality.
Ironically this was taken up by those who found this new form of “art” ––“conceptual art” ––exhilarating and carried on into the present. What this new form emphasizes––I think––is the artist’s ego. The artist does not seek to overcome the ugliness of life; they resign themselves to it. They put the ugliness of life on display rather than seeking to get beyond it. This has been heralded as a great achievement in our time; but it is the greatest moral failure. It is no wonder that as the world was bereft of beauty, humankind descended to some of its darkest days––Duchamp’s century was one of total war, the holocaust, and totalitarianism.
In his dialogue The Symposium, Plato has the prophetess Diotima ask Socrates the following: “What is gained when someone obtains the beautiful?” Her answer is corrected vision––beauty itself: the illusions of the ego and our misdirected love are dissolved and what replaces the illusory is the real.
Iris Murdoch’s example of a person caught up in licking their wounds, who is confronted by a kestrel, and the beauty of the bird causes them to forget what made them so upset is an illustration of beauty’s power to shatter the illusion of the ego. When the person returns to what they were concerned with, it doesn’t seem so important anymore. Beauty lifts us up (it is an ascent) clears our vision to see the good and true as that which is inherently valuable. I think our defenses of goodness and truth have become disconnected from their intrinsic beauty, and thus sometimes come across as ugly ideology instead.
“The Love of the Actual”
I wrote above that Scruton’s reasons for the positions he held often surprised me. He defined conservatism as “love of the actual,” not in terms of economics. Elsewhere he defined it as oikophilia––love of home––not suspicion of change. We might recast all of this as love of the real. He was a conservative who wrote a book called Green Philosophy––a book that took the preservation of the natural world seriously because its beauty can and should cause us to recognize the value of the true and the good, and not as a political talking point in a battle between ideologies. Scruton could see clearly beyond these to what is good and true in the conservation debate.
In his book How to be a Conservative, there is a chapter titled The Good in Socialism, which he identifies as “an obligation of gratitude”––he could engage charitably because of his clarity of vision. I think that Scruton can aid Christians in developing this sensibility in order to be witnesses to a universe “charged with the grandeur of God,” that “flames out, like shining from shook foil.”