‘There is no escape from metaphysics, that is, from the final implications of any proposition or set of propositions,” E. A. Burtt wrote in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science in 1924: “The only way to avoid becoming a metaphysician is to say nothing.” But reductive scientists (and philosophers) have been particularly keen to escape this truth, especially since the time of Darwin. The scientistic, Darwinian Harvard mathematician-philosopher Chauncey Wright wrote in the 1870s: “Behind the bare phenomenal facts there is nothing.” Here is the valley of dry bones that visionaries from Ezekiel and Socrates to Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot have warned about.
Jonathan Swift had an outraged and prophetic intuition about the perverse attractiveness of this kind of transgressive, reductive scientism and mocked it in Part III of Gulliver’s Travels (1726). John Hands, in his vast, brilliant recent survey of contemporary scientific thought, Cosmosapiens: Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe, also takes a satirical view: “If you decide to shoot your neighbor, . . . it would be somewhat less than convincing to argue in court that you had no choice because Francis Crick, Stephen Hawking, and other materialists maintain that free will is an illusion.”
The text of Roger Scruton’s Charles E. Test memorial lectures at Princeton in 2013, now published as On Human Nature, is a virtual miracle of concision, depth, verbal precision, and justice. He not only learnedly critiques contemporary reductionism but also provides a profound, original treatise that lucidly and movingly promotes a traditional yet inventive philosophical view of the great issues — of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Scruton has taught at Cambridge and Boston University and is the author of a distinguished body of philosophical work that puts him in the company of the greatest contemporary philosophers. Operating at the highest level of erudition and scholarship, he is recognizably in the tradition of Kant but has a lucidity rarely reached by the great German philosopher.
Despite his mandarin achievements, Scruton has lived a nobly combative life of the mind, with several dramatic chapters, including aiding Eastern European opponents of Communist regimes, thereby winning the post-Communist Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit, awarded to him by President Václav Havel in 1998; editing a conservative journal, The Salisbury Review, critiquing the dominant secular-Left academic establishment; writing explicitly against prominent Western thinkers whom he saw as treasonous to the central, civilizing, rational-ethical intellectual traditions of the West (Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, recently updated); defending aesthetic and especially architectural and musical beauty in a series of influential books (and a recent BBC documentary, Why Beauty Matters); writing on sexuality from a nuanced, traditional point of view; and generally serving the causes of “philosophy, teaching, and public education,” for which Queen Elizabeth knighted him in 2016. Often under attack from a powerful, tenured, left-wing intellectual establishment, Scruton has had a far from comfortable or serene odyssey.
Educated at Cambridge and oriented to the elaborate modern traditions of high intellectuality and culture emanating from France (e.g., Sartre), but more especially Germany (Kant, Hegel, Wagner), Scruton is nevertheless also in the lineage of Anglophone figures such as Burke, Matthew Arnold, F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot: From Burke, he has inherited an appreciation for piety and political prudence as against revolutionary rage; from Arnold, a generous advocacy of liberal education and high culture.
On Human Nature draws profoundly on Kant and on Martin Buber’s famous 1923 treatise I and Thou, to insist on the irreducible duality of human persons as simultaneously subjects and objects, ends and means, minds and bodies, conceivers and perceivers, rationalists and existentialists. Scruton’s discussions of aesthetic experience and of sexuality are particularly deft and profound. In contexts where one wrong word could cost the failure of a whole argument, he chooses all the right ones, vindicating Boileau’s assertion that “nothing is beautiful but the true,” a passage also beloved of the late Malcolm Muggeridge, another Cambridge intellectual and outsider who detested the positivist-Marxist mindset of our times. Ultimately, Scruton writes, with an eloquent but elegiac note, “the desacralized morality of our liberal consensus is inadequate.” His discussions of the ethical piety of both the classical Roman and the Confucian Chinese traditions are deeply moving, and reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Scruton takes to task contemporary intellectual icons such as the Princeton utilitarian Peter Singer, and movingly contrasts Dickens’s satirical portrait of the abstract “telescopic philanthropy” of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House with the actual, practical lovingkindness of the good Samaritan.
Scruton concludes his brilliant philosophical treatise by praising the intellectual, moral, and emotional nourishment that contemporary persons can get from great works of art. “Milton conjured the truth of our condition,” he writes, “from the raw materials of Genesis. Milton’s allegory is not just a portrait of our kind; it is an invitation to kindness.” And his final words, in a beautiful chapter titled “Sacred Obligations,” refer to “two great works of art that have attempted to show what redemption means for us, in the world of modern skepticism: Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal.” (One is reminded of W. H. Auden’s verse, “In the desert of his days, / Teach the free man how to praise.”) “In the wake of these two great aesthetic achievements, it seems to me, the perspective of philosophy is of no great significance.”
But read the book.
– Mr. Aeschliman is a professor emeritus of education at Boston University, a professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, and the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism.