Celebrating the Philosopher of Beauty

Princeton University honors Sir Roger Scruton
April 10, 2017 Updated: April 14, 2017

PRINCETON, N.J.—If you care about beauty in art, music, and architecture; if you are looking for consolation in the world; if you want to learn about human nature, sexuality, and desire; if you want to understand why tradition matters; or if you simply want to know how to better nurture friendships, perhaps you would enjoy works by Sir Roger Scruton.

There are plenty to choose from. In addition to countless essays and lectures, Scruton has written nearly 40 nonfiction books, four novels, and two operas. The English philosopher and writer also composes music and writes poetry.

“Roger has written pretty much about everything that matters; therefore, his work could justly be called an overall exploration of our human nature and human condition,” said Alicja Gescinska, a Polish-Belgian philosopher, novelist, and TV host. She was a panelist at a recent event honoring Scruton, which I had eagerly anticipated.

When the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University heard that the Prince of Wales had knighted Scruton for services to philosophy, teaching, and public education in November 2016, the program decided to honor Scruton by hosting a panel discussion. Scruton also gave a public lecture at the event, titled “The Achievements of Sir Roger Scruton,” at Princeton University on April 3.

Scruton is “a virtuoso in so many genres that it is almost impossible for any ordinary person to assess his accomplishments,” said panelist Daniel Cullen, professor of political science at Rhodes College.

While Scruton’s scope is undeniably broad, he expresses his particular philosophical stance coherently and consistently throughout his works. John Haldane, professor of philosophy at both Baylor University and at the University of St. Andrews, said Scruton’s work is striking because of its “systematicity.”

As Scruton’s prose style is robust, it may initially come across as dry. He presents his reasoning so clearly that there’s nothing obscure or hidden about it. Yet he threads questions, fine distinctions, and explanations so elegantly that his philosophizing unexpectedly becomes poetic, consoling, and sometimes amusing.

Sir Roger Scruton, Writer and Philosopher; Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, gives a public lecture at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions event, "The Achievements of Sir Roger Scruton," in Princeton University, on April 3, 2017. (Sameer A. Khan)
Sir Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher; Senior Fellow of Ethics and Public Policy Center, gives a public lecture at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions event, “The Achievements of Sir Roger Scruton,” at Princeton University, on April 3, 2017. (Sameer A. Khan)

“I’ve come to praise Roger, and it’s a delightfully easy task,” said panelist Mark Johnston, professor of philosophy at Princeton. Johnston highlighted Scruton’s gift for comedy, quoting from his essay “How I Discovered My Name.” It dispelled any association of stodginess one might associate with philosophers in general or with Scruton’s serious, chiseled facial features:

“[Many English names] are equally historic, but fatally distorted by their heathen roots. One such name is Scruton—Scrofa’s Tun —named from a Viking chieftain whose distinguishing feature was not red hair but dandruff. The sound can be rectified by no efforts of elocution. In whatever tone of voice, Scruton sounds mean and censorious. Scourge, Scrooge, Scrotum, and Scrutiny all tumble like black scarabs from the mouth that utters it. I am convinced that the hostile reception encountered by even my most forgiving works has been due, not to the conservative voice that speaks through them …, but to the scraping steel of this scalpel-like surname. … And I am sure that its subliminal effect is one cause of the enormous surprise that people feel, on meeting me, to discover that I am approximately human.”    

Why Beauty Matters

It was delightful and an honor to see Sir Roger Scruton in person—a most humane human—and to hear him move seamlessly from one subject to the next.

I first discovered Scruton in a BBC Two documentary titled “Why Beauty Matters,” in which he “defends the indefensible,” that is, traditions. He argues that beauty is not just a matter of subjective taste, but something that gives meaning to life.

“Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home. We also come to understanding our own nature as spiritual beings,” Scruton says in the documentary.

I found myself immensely relieved and yet rather surprised to realize that I was actually agreeing with the views of a conservative British gentleman who smokes cigars and is fond of fox hunting. Despite my former liberal, so-called “progressive” education in critical and post-modern theory—which generally emphasizes repudiation and desecration of art, instead of the aspirational and the sacred that Scruton upholds—deep down I knew that Scruton was revealing some positive truths that have been negated far too long.

At least 500 other people agreed, based on the number of emails Scruton said he had received from people saying, “Thank heavens someone is saying what needs to be said.”

Eight years have passed since the BBC aired “Why Beauty Matters,” for which Scruton is most popularly known. Before and after that documentary, in defending the indefensible, Scuton has overcome lawsuits, interrogations, a hideous character assassination, the loss of a university career in Britain, and a slew of hateful reviews. Yet it hasn’t stopped him from saying what needs to be said.

Every principled endeavor usually meets with an equally intense challenge to overcome.

In addition to his recent investiture as a knight, Scruton has also received numerous honors, including the Sappho Award from Denmark’s Free Speech Society in 2016, and in 1998 the Medal of Merit of the Czech Republic, in recognition for his role in the “underground university” he helped establish in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism.

Philosophy in the Public Culture

Scruton began his public lecture at Princeton talking about architecture, coming full circle, because it was at Princeton where he gave courses on the aesthetics of architecture in 1979. It was also at Princeton, he said, where he had recognized his vocation, that is, “to try to unite both forms of reflection, the artistic and the philosophical, in some kind of unity which enabled the two to cast light on each other.” That endeavor continues to animate his work. The book that he wrote, based on those courses, “The Aesthetics of Architecture” published by Princeton University Press in 1980, has remained in print ever since.

He called architecture “a most important realm of artistic practice” and criticized the modern architect, Le Corbusier, for destroying the artistry of architecture. The functional concrete and glass architecture that has overtaken cities around the world is a style that is familiar to everyone. “It’s horizontal layers of kitchen trays stacked until you’ve got to the limit of your budget,” he said, as the audience laughed.

Architects today are taught to design buildings that exploit the flexibility of new materials for their utility. “The result of that practice, which is now universal, is also universally deplored,” Scruton said.

It was just one example of how the “life-world” has been torn apart. By life-world (also known as “Lebenswelt,” introduced by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl), Scruton means “the world as it really seems, as understood through our reflective interaction with it.” It is our intentional understanding of things, which we share with others; it is intersubjective.

“Our states of mind all have this property of ‘aboutness.’ If I love, there is someone I love, if I fear there is something I fear, and so on. That thing, the object of love, fear, thought and so on … is a representation, a mental object of my state of mind,” Scruton said. “It is real in the sense that it contains a judgement about the world, which can be shared.”   

Scruton later mentioned totalitarianism as another example of “the tearing of the Lebenswelt, that is, the desire to assert total control over human relations and to perceive all actual relations between people as suspicious and threatening.”

It’s not surprising then that Scruton considers a most important focus of philosophy to be “a seamstress of the life-world.”

Sir Roger Scruton, Writer and Philosopher; Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, gives a public lecture at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions event, "The Achievements of Sir Roger Scruton," in Princeton University, on April 3, 2017. (Sameer A. Khan)
Sir Roger Scruton, writer, philosopher, and senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, gives a public lecture at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions event, “The Achievements of Sir Roger Scruton,” at Princeton University, on April 3, 2017. (Sameer A. Khan)

From the field of architecture, Scruton turned to talk about human nature, mentioning his recent book, titled “On Human Nature.” He explained the importance of understanding the distinction between the essence of things and the appearance of things. These complex ideas are best understood by reading Scruton’s books, but I roughly understood how the former could lead to totalitarianism while the latter could lead to a wholesome society.

He mentioned how his book on sexual desire emphasized “understanding the way in which the sexual bond touches on the metaphysical depths of the human person and not just on the outlying regions, so to speak.” He said he was convinced that “scientists have completely torn the lebenswelt apart. They have misrepresented the phenomenon,” he said.

“I explored the whole idea of the individual object of desire in the face of the surrounding culture of permissiveness and scientism. I came up with some heretical views, for instance, in favor of monogamous marriage.” The audience chuckled.

He continued to give a sketch of his works, then moved on to the aesthetics of music, to political correctness, and to freedom of speech.

Sir Roger Scruton (Photo by Pete Helme)
Sir Roger Scruton (Pete Helme)

“We live in a slightly torn Lebenswelt. We are torn, in my view, by political correctness, that there are many things that we fear to say for fear of offending the prevailing culture. We too often have to live within the lie. You see this happening with the great free speech problem arising all over the Western world, and in particular in universities,” he said.

“That new orthodoxies are coming into being, which are fragile orthodoxies, which feel threatened by any dispute. And a great question is: Should a philosopher remain silent here? Should a philosopher accept the truth to be sacrificed to conformity? And what is the new conformity anyway? How do we know if we are not allowed to discuss it?”

Scruton concluded by emphasizing the need to find consolation, which he also considers a main task of philosophy: “to try to explain why it is that we find consolation in beauty and the sacred and home. What happens when we lose them? Can we regain them? And if so, can we regain them by our own efforts?” Scruton said.

Scruton’s main task has been to ask important questions and to find a clear and beautiful way to explain the answers he discovers.

Gescinska probably best described Scruton’s impact on the readers who love him. His works “masterfully open us to ideas on human nature that are almost impossible to describe. … He pierces our hearts with his beautifully crafted sentences and reveals the mystery of life from the view of ordinary things,” she said.