British philosopher Roger Scruton (1944–2020) was a defender of beauty and traditional art throughout his long writing career. In his book “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction,” Scruton guides the reader through the world of the beautiful: from art to architecture to nature to even the simple pleasures of everyday acts, such as eating.
He writes that “we discern beauty in concrete objects and abstract ideas, in works of nature and works of art, in things, animals, and people, in objects, qualities and actions.” Scruton elegantly imparts that art has to contain the notion of goodness and harmony, as opposed to chaos, which turns art into politics. For Scruton, art is not subjective and, most certainly, not everything can be defined as art. This is why intellectual distinctions are necessary.
In order to truly see beauty, we must be willing to look beyond politics and other disordered impositions. Scruton draws from the philosophical well of Plato, who partly saw beauty as a human desire to move toward perfection. Beauty is not something that is separated from the human experience. In fact, when we acknowledge beauty, we also acknowledge the depth and breadth of human life. As Scruton writes, “the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring toward the highest unity with the transcendental.”
The idea of transcendental principles in both art and culture is what drives Scruton’s reflections in his book. Without knowing the sacred and the divine, we will have difficulty comprehending the earthly realities of life.
In particular, Scruton sees this is in Simone Martini’s painting “The Annunciation” (1333), in which “the experience of human beauty opens to our vision of another realm—divine but no less human—in which beauty lies above and beyond desire, a symbol of redemption.” Great art and beauty awaken us to the reality that the sphere of holiness is something far bigger than ourselves, and yet it affirms our humanity. Thus, viewing Martini’s painting also becomes a spiritual and religious experience, inviting us to reflect on our relationship to God.
Scruton is right to point out that beauty inevitably brings forth contemplation. It’s precisely in this moment, when we catch a glimpse of something beautiful, that we may experience pure delight. This contemplative joyfulness connects us to the past and grounds us firmly in gratitude for the present moment.
“Beauty: A Very Short Introduction” by Roger Scruton, Oxford University Press, 2011
Emina Melonic writes about books, films, and culture.