Politics & Policy

Polemics and Philosophy from a British Contrarian

Roger Scruton’s new works delve deeply into aesthetics, politics, and religion.

To judge by the output of most writers who fancy themselves deep thinkers, one could be forgiven for concluding that the word “intellectual” in “public intellectual” must operate like “gold” in “fool’s gold.” The works of British philosopher Roger Scruton are a useful corrective. They show that it’s possible to write for a wide audience without sacrificing nuance and insight.

Scruton is a unique figure on the right. After receiving his doctorate at the University of Cambridge, he earned the animus of the academic Left with the publication in 1979 of The Aesthetics of Architecture, which argued, contrary to received wisdom, that modern architectural styles disrupt the aesthetics needed to cultivate a sense of community. Now transplanted across the Atlantic to the American Enterprise Institute and other think tanks, Scruton has written more than 40 books on varied subjects such as music, sex, the environment, wine, and conservatism.

In the last month, two more books join the ever-expanding list of Scruton titles. The first, Notes from Underground, is a polemical novel released in March. The second is a work of philosophy: The Soul of the World, released in early April. Both deal with the dualities of beauty and ugliness, love and betrayal, freedom and tyranny, piety and sacrilege.

Notes from Underground is mainly set in 1985 in Communist-occupied Prague. Earlier in his career, Scruton covertly visited Prague behind the Iron Curtain, traveling as a lecturer, so the harsh descriptions have an authentic ring to them. Such descriptions allow Scruton to argue against leftist collectivism merely by describing its effects. Sometimes the storyline is coupled with searing polemics, which are most effective when they catch the reader off-guard. For instance, his protagonist observes, “Defenestration is a Czech tradition, the only one that the Communists had retained.”

The story is told in the first person by Jan Reichl, a Czech academic in the United States, who recounts his youth under Communism. Once valued for his past as a dissident writer, he now finds his worth diminishing in the eyes of the academy. Jan writes about his experiences from a meditative distance, full of references to the literature of Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Zweig, as well as to the music of Schubert and Mahler. The book’s title itself is a reference to Dostoyevsky, whose novella Notes from the Underground is considered one of the first works of existentialist literature. The narrator’s distance from events reduces the emotional immediacy of some scenes, but it also gives the whole story a thoughtful melancholy.

Jan’s father died in a work camp when he was young. His only inheritance is a small box of books, and these books fuel his literary aspirations. His mother finds a minor role in the resistance movement, copying by typewriter dissident texts that are left, sometimes anonymously, at the back door. One day Jan produces an original work, Rumors, for her to copy. His pen name is Soudruh Androš: “Comrade Underground” in Czech.

The opening scene describes the arrest of Jan’s mother. Still reeling from this traumatic event, he meets Betka, a mysterious and well-connected woman who knows his identity as Comrade Underground and wants to agitate for his mother’s release. She introduces him to a circle of fellow dissidents. The most important is Father Pavel, a priest in the underground church who becomes Jan’s unofficial spiritual adviser. The rest of the plot outlines Jan’s troubled romance with Betka, his gentle spiritual awakening, and his growing appreciation of Czech tradition, culture, and identity.

While the description, the polemics, and the prose of Scruton’s novel are all marvelous, it nonetheless comes across as didactic. Chapter 21, which details the visit of a liberal American philosophy professor, is fine polemic, but it is largely irrelevant to the plot, dropped in to advance the author’s point of view. Likewise, the characters remain on a short leash, too frequently voicing the attitudes and opinions of the author. Hence, given Scruton’s well-known revulsion for popular music, it is entirely unsurprising that we find Betka’s face “screwed up in distaste” as she hears a Pink Floyd record.

Ironically, Scruton has written a novel whose content makes the argument for spontaneous order and liberty, but the book overall suffers from authorial central planning. The result is a worthwhile read that doesn’t sustain its best moments.

In The Soul of the World, Scruton is on more familiar ground. The book is supposed to be an exploration of the sacred, but that description fails to convey the bewildering variety of topics covered in fewer than 200 pages. There is not much here that Scruton hasn’t said before, but in no previous work has he woven together so successfully his thoughts on aesthetics, personhood, politics, and religion. 

The book’s central question is: What is the place of humans in the natural world? Contemporary philosophers often resort to reductionism — very roughly the view that the world revealed by science is the whole of what there is. Hence, people are nothing but animals, minds are nothing but brains, and music is nothing but a collection of sounds. To understand the natures of persons, minds, and music, we must understand how these things “reduce” to scientifically understandable material things.

Some anti-reductionistic philosophers, taking a page from Descartes, have been impressed by the difficulty of scientifically explaining private sensations (so-called qualia). Here, Scruton demurs: Reductionism is not disproven in the private recesses of the self, because the self is fundamentally social. “I” is no more basic than “you.” The real challenge to reductionism comes from what Scruton calls “the overreaching intentionality of interpersonal attitudes,” interpersonal meanings through which rational beings construct works of art, rituals, and institutions.          

Scruton wants to avoid Descartes’s ontological dualism, the idea that there are two fundamentally different kinds of things in the universe, in favor of aspect dualism. The sounds and the music, like the person and the animal, turn out to be not different things, but irreconcilably different aspects of the same thing. He writes, “Personhood is an ‘emergent’ feature of the world the way music is an emergent feature of sounds: not something over and above the life and behavior in which we observe it, but not reducible to them, either.”

We might take issue here with Scruton for equivocating. If personhood turns out to be an “aspect” of the natural world, then it’s hard to see how Scruton’s view differs from that of the reductionists, who are all too happy to accommodate a plurality of aspects — so long as they are all only aspects of the natural world. But Scruton does reject reductionism, and in so doing, he seems to be committing himself to a stronger form of dualism than aspect dualism. Scruton, it seems, wants to have his cake and naturalize it, too.

Chapter 4, “The First Person Plural,” connects Scruton’s dualism to his conservatism. Rights are rooted in a sphere of personal sovereignty that can exist only if persons are more than scientifically understandable machines. This sovereignty is, however, communitarian rather than libertarian. It can be realized only in a community bound by ritual and non-contractual obligations. Of particular interest here is Scruton’s illumination of the differences between a promise and a vow. This chapter is perhaps the best 20-page overview of his conservatism he has written to date.

As the book advances, Scruton gradually discloses his belief that the true philosophical views about personhood are pregnant with religious significance. He writes:

The indispensable presence in our lives of this overreaching intentionality is at the root of philosophy, and is the real reason that people find evolutionary and reductive perspectives on the human condition so hard to accept. It also explains the oft-heard complaint that, while our secular societies make room for morality, knowledge, and the life of the mind, they suffer from a spiritual deficit.

Here, as in his works generally, Scruton is elusive about his own religious commitments. In certain places, the writing seems designed to conceal. Scruton is fond of saying that veils can reveal by concealing. Depending on the reader, such paradoxical answers will seem either profound or profoundly annoying. Scruton has great clarity on other matters, so perhaps readers shouldn’t dismiss his occasionally opaque prose as obscurantism. He seems to be gesturing beyond the horizon of reason, toward a truth that cannot be argued for. In the final chapter, he writes:

Many monotheistic thinkers, from Tertullian through al-Ghazālī to Kierkegaard and beyond, have suggested that faith flourishes on absurdity, since by embracing absurdity we silence the rational intellect. I say, rather, that faith asks that we learn to live with mysteries, and not to wipe them away — for in wiping them away we may wipe away the face of the world.

On this mystical note, Scruton concludes a book that — for its richness, scope, and beauty — may be remembered as among his best.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.


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