Beauty

By Roger Scruton, 2009

In this short and elegant book, English philosopher Roger Scruton invites the reader to consider the main questions of aesthetics:  What does it mean for something to be beautiful?  How can one word describe such different things as landscapes, music, human beings, and stories?  Can beauty ever conflict with truth or morality?  Are there objective standards of beauty?  Can art be erotic without being pornographic?  Is there a connection between art and religion?  Can one extract “the message” from a work of art?  Although a work of philosophy, there is little in the way of rigorous argumentation in this book—and nor could there be.  Scruton rather proceeds by evocative descriptions, examples, and gestures towards the reasons his claims are true.  At each step, we are invited to see what he sees and have the insight for ourselves.  If it is true, as Scruton claims and I believe, that the meaning or message of a work of art is inseparable from its mode of presentation, then he could not have proceeded in any other way.  In a sense, this book is itself a work of art.

The book would be difficult to summarize, since it is itself a synopsis of Scruton’s lifelong work in aesthetics.  Instead, I’ll just mention a few things that struck me.

  1. Scruton makes good use of the Kantian idea that a key aspect of the appreciation of beauty is that it is disinterested.  This means that we experience a beautiful object not just as a means to our pleasure, but as something that deserves our attention for its own sake.  In this way, aesthetic judgment is like practical reason (morality), except that it is ordered to contemplation rather than dutiful action.  Scruton points out that this aspect of objective value also connects art to our experiences of other people and of the sacred.  Because it regards the object as an end in itself, appreciation for a beautiful object is always appreciation for that object as an individual, rather than as a member of a class.  Another object can overshadow our desire for a beautiful object (or person), but it could never satisfy it.
  2. The distinctive beauty of a human body comes not just from its physical shape and proportions but from its being the embodiment of a person.  When I look at your body, what I see is not your body, but you.  If I kiss your body, I kiss you.  We are particularly struck by those parts of the body—such as the eyes and the mouth—that we regard as windows to the soul.  When a piece of art shows us the body apart from the person, we have obscenity.
  3. Scruton draws a sharp contrast between imagination and fantasy.  The former maintains a certain intellectual distance from the object it contemplates.  In the latter, one imagines oneself in the action.  True art excites imagination; pornography and special effects invite us to fantasize, to vicariously fulfill forbidden desires.
  4. Art satisfies our desire for order, our desire for there to be a reason for things, or at least to find them “fitting”.  This can be seen even in the humble acts of “everyday beauty” such as when we arrange a garden or set the dinner table.  It is also found in art’s highest forms, and especially in the way they provide a sort of redemption to suffering and loss.  They do this by taking away the sense of chance and arbitrariness that accompanies suffering in the real world, and they present it as somehow meaningful.  The doom of characters in a tragedy has a logic to it, even if it’s only a dramatic logic.  As Scruton says, “Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity.”  I think Scruton has scratched the surface of a great and mysterious truth here.

There’s a lot more in this book that I haven’t touched on.  Roger Scruton certainly makes me wish I were a more cultivated man.

One Response

  1. […] Voegelin.  I’ve recently added reviews to his books on conservatism, modern culture, and beauty.  In them, I explain why Scruton is such an important, but in some ways problematic, […]

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