“I think we are losing beauty, and there’s a danger that with it, we will lose the meaning of life.” These were the introductory remarks of British philosopher and writer, Sir Roger Scruton, during the 2009 BBC program, “Why Beauty Matters.” Scruton, who died Sunday after a short battle with cancer, was certainly a defender of all things true, good, and beautiful. The intellectual world, as well as the broader society, has lost an intelligent, reasonable, and imaginative voice in philosophy, art, music, and literature.
Scruton’s long career encompassed many different aspects of intellectual life: a professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College in London, editor of The Salisbury Review, writer of over 50 books—on topics of moral and political philosophy, aesthetics, as well as fiction—regular contributor to magazines such as The Spectator, an activist who provided support for Czech dissidents during the brutality of the Communist regime, and a chairman of the British government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission—an effort at preserving beauty and order in England’s architecture.
Scruton was conservative but to call him a “conservative philosopher” or a “conservative writer” does not do his work justice. This kind of reductionism minimizes not only his achievements but also creates a caricature of a man who was an intelligent and open-minded thinker.
He was often criticized by the leftist intellectual establishment (especially in his native country) for nothing more than making much-needed observations they termed value judgments, which involved a defense of Western Civilization and the order of things.
“For better or worse I have been identified by the British establishment as the person who can be relied upon to defend the indefensible, and who might be allowed to defend the indefensible even on state television (that is, the BBC) provided the defense is sufficiently diluted by others defending the obvious,” Scruton wrote in The American Spectator in 2010.
He understood what was at stake: this battle was not about mere theorizing and academic navel-gazing. Rather, the battles that Scruton engaged in were cultural, and the lines between definitions of free thought and totalitarianism had to be drawn.
“Coming close to death,” Scruton wrote in December, “you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”
Given the amount of work that Scruton has left behind, it is impossible to mention all of it here, but at the core of his work are two essential aspects of the human condition: awe and gratitude. Without having a sense of wonder about our diverse world and its infinite variety, we will be unable to ask what indeed is the meaning of life. The experience of all that is beautiful around us, but also all that suffers will go unseen, and as a result, we will not feel connected to the past, present, and certainly not to the future.
Seeing the connecting strands not only of the darkness of the human condition but also of the light and hope was very important for Scruton. In many ways, this vision of beauty is also a vision of salvation for Scruton because our lives depend on an encounter with other people as well as everyday experiences. We have lost a sense of the sacred because we are unable to see the difference between what is sacred and what is profane. On top of it, we are unable or unwilling to recognize the vulgar in our contemporary society, with which we are constantly assaulted.
Why should this be important? Why should we concern ourselves with awe about anything in our world? Isn’t it all just a bunch of haphazard and chaotic happenings amounting to nothing more than nihilism, as we inevitably slouch toward the land of anhedonia and utter meaninglessness? For Scruton, the phenomenon of “the flight from beauty” which has taken a seemingly permanent hold in our society, must be recognized and understood for what it is: an ideological attack on the order of things.
Writing in his book, Beauty (2009), Scruton observes that in our society, “there is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration. For beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”
Of course, this means that what Scruton is asking us to do is to truly see that man is not the beginning and the end. And yet, Scruton reminds us that to deny the beauty of the human form is to engage in “willful desecration” of it, which not only “spoils the experience of freedom” but, ultimately, is a “denial of love.” Whether writing on eros and sexual desire, Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the meaning of citizenship, or the tyranny of ideology, Scruton continuously affirms the importance of perennial ideas and forms (as found in Plato and Aristotle) that elevate man as opposed to toss his humanity and the search for the divine into the dustbin.
Scruton doesn’t mention this explicitly, but he might as well have said that if one is able to stand in awe of the true, the good, and the beautiful, then it follows that one inevitably will feel gratitude. As the year 2019 came to an end, Scruton wrote a “diary” of all the months in the year and what the events brought to him. He is honest whether he writes about cancer, a very public smear by The New Statesman, or his birthday party surrounded by family and friends.
“During this year much was taken from me,” Scruton wrote in The Spectator just before Christmas. “Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”
As a new generation of thinkers arrives on the intellectual shores, perhaps, upon discovering Scruton’s immense philosophical contribution, they too will be awakened to beauty.