Posts Tagged ‘Roger Scruton’

Scruton: Culture Counts

May 23, 2017

Culture Counts
Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged
Roger Scruton
(Encounter, 2007)
118 p.

This book is a reflection on education, aesthetic and moral judgment, the value of a shared culture, and contemporary threats to each of them.

Scruton begins his discussion of education with a statement that brought me up short:

It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it.

On the contrary, he argues, the purpose of education is to perpetuate a culture. We educate so the next generation can inherit the knowledge and judgments by which our culture has been formed and in which it consists. No doubt this education will benefit the students, but this is not its purpose, or at least not its primary purpose. “Knowledge gained is a gain for all of us; knowledge lost, a loss that all must bear… This is what education does for us: it keeps knowledge alive…” On this view, core curricula and academic competition make good sense, for not only is there an essential body of knowledge to be learned, but those best able to receive and understand it should be preferred.

And knowledge means more than just facts of history, science, or civics. It includes knowledge, for instance, of “what to feel”: the education of the emotions and the aesthetic sensibility (cf. The Abolition of Man). We must learn what things are good and beautiful, and how we ought to respond to them.

Naturally, this kind of knowledge involves making judgments, both moral and aesthetic, and rather than avoid this point Scruton underlines it: having a culture means making judgments. Indeed, he argues that culture largely consists in a set of shared judgments. They are subjective in the sense of being held personally and based on personal experiences and tastes, but not subjective in the sense of being arbitrary or indefensible. They are rooted in real experience and shared reflection.

As a practical matter, Scruton advises that this understanding of education is well-served by the notion of a “classic” or “touchstone”: an artistic, literary, or religious artifact “whose significance endures across generations and provides a point of comparison for other and lesser creations”. Not only do such works provide an education in excellence, but they also emphasize the shared judgments by which cultures cohere. From the idea of a classic, the formation of a “canon” emerges naturally.

Of course, everything Scruton advocates is vigorously contested in our culture today. Aesthetic judgments (and, I would add, moral judgments, though with less consistency) are habitually relativized, so much so that the whole sphere of distinctively aesthetic experience has nearly disappeared from view; “desire alone remains”. Moreover, even the basic project of passing on culture from one generation to the next is attacked. Scruton writes, here and elsewhere, about the West’s “culture of repudiation”, which no longer aims at appreciation and appropriation of its own heritage but instead attacks the means by which and vessels in which culture is transmitted. Whether this is truly the objective, or whether it is merely the prelude to the reconstruction of culture on other grounds, embodying different values and judgments, is hard to tell, but that it has weakened both our educative institutions and our shared culture is evident.

In principle, the picture of education and culture Scruton paints appeals to me. The culture of which I am a part, which has been formed to a large extent by my religion, and which has in turn formed me, is one which I admire and labour to appropriate. I have a conservative temperament, am inclined to honour the great achievements of the past, and am a believer in the value of cultural continuity. However, the generally happy view of culture as a network of shared judgments darkens considerably at the prospect of that culture reconstructed along other, contrary lines. If education isn’t for students, but for society, then who should decide the curriculum? If not students, then parents? Surely not, for education is not for families, but for society. Who could be entrusted with this responsibility? One fears that in practice the power would fall into the hands of bureaucrats, and one needn’t consider that real-world prospect long to arrive at a dispiriting thought: we no longer have a culture left to preserve. I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.

Here and there

March 10, 2017

A few interesting, art-related things I’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • The Christian moral imagination of Cormac McCarthy.
  • Alex Ross writes, in one of his increasingly rare non-politically-inflected columns, about Bach’s religious music.
  • The wonders of digital signal processing recreate the acoustics of Hagia Sophia in a modern concert hall.
  • The cultured life is “an escape from the tyranny of the present”.
  • In a similar vein, Roger Scruton praises the virtue of irrelevance, with special attention to the art of music.
  • Finally, a group of mad animators have brought to life Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:


Odds and ends

February 26, 2015
  • Roger Scruton has had his ups and downs, but has learned something along the way, about love, about parenting, about education, and many other things that are part of becoming a family. This old essay is well worth reading:

What we have discovered through marriage is not the first love that induced it but the second love that follows, as the vow weaves life and life together. Western romanticism has fostered the illusion that first love is the truest love, and what need has first love of marriage? But an older and wiser tradition recognizes that the best of love comes after marriage, not before.

  • The Academy Awards came and went. I note that Ida, one of my favourite films from last year, won in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Well done, Academy.
  • That film about Alan Turing was nominated for Best Picture, and lost. In much the same spirit, Ed Feser took a close look at the Turing Test and gave it a failing grade.
  • I did not see any of the films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, but, just based on the trailer, I’m pretty sure I know which should have won. Check this out:

“Of all the noises known to man…”

August 22, 2014

My series of posts on “Great moments in opera” consistently garners widespread indifference. But I can’t resist drawing attention to an interesting article by Roger Scruton on the operatic art. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with his claim that opera is “the supreme art form” and that “the inner life is essentially operatic”, but there is nonetheless much of interest in what he writes. Scruton is himself an opera composer, and he has good insight into the allure of opera:

Opera is a crown to be won, a sign that the composer has finally stuck his head above the clouds on Mount Olympus. Beethoven wrote his single opera twice, and parts of it more than twice, in the determination to reach the summit where Handel and Mozart stood in triumph. Schubert tried and failed, again and again. Mendelssohn and Brahms shied away, but Schumann laboured for eight years over Genoveva, his only opera, in which the strain of writing is clearly audible. Janáček achieved his first real success, after several attempts, at the age of 50, with Jenůfa. Chausson put his entire life into his one opera, Le roi Arthus, as did George Enescu into his laboured retelling of the Oedipus story. Debussy spent ten years over Pelléas et Mélisande, and Stravinsky’s one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, was accomplished only by means of a complete change of style, from neo-classical Stravinsky to inverted comma “Mozart”.

Those examples testify to the determination with which composers have approached the operatic task. Their work might gain only a few performances, before disappearing into the void like Genoveva and Le roi Arthus, like Enescu’s Oedipe, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Pfitzner’s Palestrina — distinguished operas that are now all but forgotten. Not deterred by those corpses by the wayside, however, composers continue to tackle the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, knowing that, even if they reach the first plateau, holding a completed score in their hands, they may not get to the next one, with a live performance. And beyond that goal lies the distant summit of the operatic art, where stands the handful of composers with works in the permanent repertoire.

He also makes some probing remarks about the recent practice, all too common, of saturing opera stage productions in violence, sex, and a general ugliness (which Heather Mac Donald has also written about):

Sacred things are especially intolerable to those who no longer believe in them. An urge to desecrate is the inevitable successor to a lost habit of reverence. Hence Siegfried is dressed in schoolboy uniform, Mélisande is lying on a hospital bed in sheltered accommodation, Rusalka is taking a bath in a whorehouse, and — well you know how it goes. The best one can hope for in the state-subsidised opera houses of today is that the singers will all be dressed in Nazi uniform, but otherwise allowed to get on with the plot.

It’s a good article. Read the whole thing.

Scruton the Anglican

November 9, 2012

Today’s confirmation of a new Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded me that Roger Scruton has a forthcoming book entitled Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England. Knowing what I know of Scruton I’d be surprised to find him going to bat for even one of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and this interview seems to bear that expectation out. Scruton is a convert to Anglicanism, but he is also a Kantian, and so he believes that his attitude toward noumenal claims, including most religious claims, must be agnostic. His intention in the book is apparently instead to defend the historic place of the Anglican Church in English culture, to praise the beauty of its rituals and the quiet persistence of its wisdom, and to argue that nothing is likely to replace it.

It would be easy to satirize this kind of thing: stuffy Englishman likes his organ music and his beautiful churches, but doesn’t linger over all that business about sin and salvation. Such criticism has a place — though given that the aim of the criticism ought to be to encourage deeper engagement with the substantive claims of the faith, I doubt that satire is the most effective means. I will admit that I am myself sometimes tempted to cast a withering look upon this “cultural Christianity”, yet if I succomb to this temptation I lack charity. Why should I object when someone, especially someone as thoughtful as Scruton, though unable to assent to the Church’s doctrines nonetheless seeks shelter under her wings? Doctrine is important, unquestionably, but sometimes people connect with the faith through the chest rather than through the head.

It seems to me that Pope Benedict, by promoting certain liturgical traditions within the Church — I am thinking here of the special provisions he has made for the (so-called) Tridentine liturgy and the Anglican liturgy — is acknowledging that, quite apart from doctrinal questions, aesthetics carry real and legitimate weight, and that love for a particular liturgical tradition deserves respect, for it is largely by means of liturgy that we encounter the faith, and through the faith God. And so a man like Scruton, who loves to play the organ for his congregation, and who appreciates the eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer, and who seeks out, week after week, the restful poise of the Anglican liturgy, may in fact be more than a mere dabbler. In charity we should welcome him warmly, as good hosts.

At the end of the interview, when asked to play a favourite hymn on the organ, he chooses “Come Down, O Love Divine”, which I recall is someone else’s favourite hymn too. Let’s hear it again:

Scruton on Eliot

January 12, 2012

A few weeks ago, before Christmas, I came across an essay by Roger Scruton called “T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor”. It was published in 2008 in one of the journals of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Being an admirer of Eliot, Scruton, and ISI (in descending order) I thought it worth reading. Apparently I was not the only one: it was reprinted this week at Crisis Magazine (albeit with the ‘conservative’ bit, essential though it be, dropped from the title).

If it seems odd to describe a poet as revolutionary as Eliot as a conservative, we have only to remember that he famously described himself as “classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”. We know that he was deeply influenced by Dante, and understood his own poetry as being firmly rooted in our literary tradition, not — despite first impressions, perhaps — discontinuous with it. Interestingly, Scruton sees his artistic modernism as an aspect of his cultural conservatism:

Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise. Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.

Like Chesterton (for whom, I believe, he harboured a fairly withering scorn), Eliot understood that a tradition gives the thinker and the artist the chance, at least, of greatness, not least by laying down an incontrovertible challenge: here is a history of real achievement, real struggle, real glory, and real failure. It is by submitting to, learning from, and wrestling with such precedents that one becomes strong. An age that is forgetful or scornful of tradition looks, at best, to the future, but the future does not exist, and in practice wrestling with it devolves to wrestling only with one’s own imagination, which is a narrower and more paltry thing than history. Yet it is, paradoxically, precisely in such an age (such as ours) that the value of tradition becomes most evident:

Eliot recognized that it is precisely in modern conditions—conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief—that the conservative project acquires its sense. Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this fact lies the secret of its success… Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.

It is a long essay, and there is a great deal more to it than I can readily outline here. Scruton closes his reflections by citing a passage from “Little Gidding”:

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

and he summarizes, in a passage worth quoting in full, the connections between tradition and culture in Eliot’s work:

These lines take us back to the core belief of modern conservatism, which Burke expressed in the following terms: Society, he wrote, is indeed a contract; but not a contract among the living only; rather, it is a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. And, he argued, only those who listen to the dead are fit custodians of future generations. Eliot’s complex theory of tradition gives sense and form to this idea. For he makes clear that the most important thing that future generations can inherit from us is our culture. Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time. This we can pass on only if we too inherit it. Therefore, we must listen to the voices of the dead, and capture their meaning in those brief, elusive moments when “History is now and England.” In a religious community, such moments are a part of everyday life. For us, in the modern world, religion and culture are both to be gained through a work of sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice upon which everything depends. Hence, by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: and the stylistic achievement of the first is one with the spiritual achievement of the second.

It’s a fine essay, well worth the time it takes to read.

Gifford Lectures 2010

April 26, 2010

Roger Scruton has come up for approving comment here recently, so I was intrigued to learn that he is delivering the 2010 Gifford Lectures.  The Giffords, if you don’t know, are generally considered to be the most prestigious lectures on the general topic of the relationship of science and religion.  A list of past lecturers — William James, Karl Barth, Gabriel Marcel, Michael Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, Richard Swinburne, Freeman Dyson, Jaroslav Pelikan, Alfred North Whitehead, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christopher Dawson, Niels Bohr, Arnold Toynbee, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Polkinghorne, Charles Taylor, Carl Sagan, Werner Heisenberg, Antony Flew, Roger Penrose, and Stanley Hauerwas, just to name a few — gives a good idea of the high standards this lectureship has maintained in the past.  (Of course, the list also includes Richard Dawkins and Michael Ignatieff, so they don’t hit a home run every time.)

The topic for Scruton’s series of six lectures is “The Face of God”.  In the course of the first lecture, he puts his general purpose this way:

I will be considering some of the consequences of the atheist culture that is growing around us, and I will suggest that it is not only an intellectual phenomenon expressing disbelief in God, but also a moral phenomenon, and in its moral aspect the atheist culture involves a turning away from God. You might wonder how someone can deliberately turn away from a thing that he believes not to exist, but it is a peculiarity of God that we can do just this to him.  And we do this, I maintain, by acts of systematic aggression towards the face — not the human face only, but the face of the world.

I don’t deny that atheists can be thoroughly upright people — far better people than I am — but there is more than one motive underlying the atheist culture of our times, and the desire to escape from the eye of judgment is one of them.  You escape from the eye of judgment by blotting out the face.

That seems a worthy subject for extended discussion, and it will be interesting to hear what he does with it.

And we can hear: the lectures are being made available online.  To date only the first two have been delivered; the others will follow between now and May 6.

Music and morals

March 30, 2010

Some months ago I was talking with a friend about the section in the Republic in which Plato discusses the role of music in the formation of character.  Plato argues, remember, that certain kinds of music tend to promote good order in the soul and the community, while certain other kinds tend to promote the opposite, and that therefore we ought to take care to listen to the right kind of music and avoid the wrong kind.  My friend asked whether I agreed with the idea that some music is morally unhealthy, and, a little to my surprise, I answered immediately in the affirmative.  He was surprised too; he said that most people dismiss the idea.

There was a time when I too used to dismiss such concerns, or even bristle at them, mostly, I suppose, because at the time the music being criticized was music that I liked.  I am thinking of those who warned against the “evils of rock ‘n roll”, and not just against the words of the songs (which certainly often warrant a warning), but against the music itself.  As the years have passed, and I have become less attached to that style of music, I find myself more willing to entertain questions about its moral worthiness.

One of the things that raises doubts in my mind about rock ‘n roll, for instance, is consideration of the kind of words that “suit” the music.  Granted that one could, if one wanted to, fit any sort of words to any sort of music, it is nonetheless true, I think, that certain combinations will seem “unnatural”, with humorous effect, and certain combinations will seem “natural”.  For instance, when we hear AC/DC singing about fast machines with clean motors, the preening aggression of the music seems to fit with the juvenile double entendres of the words.  On the other hand, if the same music were applied to a song about summer moonlight and the beauty of daisies, the result would be comical, like something from Weird Al.  My moral concerns arise from the fact that rock ‘n roll seems very well suited to express anger, rebellion, vengeance, and aggression, and poorly suited to express repentance, joy, or tenderness.  There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general feeling of the music.

Another doubt is raised in my mind by the kind of dancing that the music encourages.  Think of the difference between a ballroom and a mosh pit.  Think of a “club”, where people crowd together on a sweaty dance floor, in the dark, and more or less dance by themselves, or at best dance at a partner.  And to describe “clubbing” as “dancing” is generous, for it is basically formless, beholden to the relentless mechanical beat that dominates the music.  That beat, so regular that it is almost devoid of rhythm, is the dominant feature of “clubbing” music, and to me it feels inhuman.  I am not at all surprised that it fosters such an uncivilized form of dance.

On reflection, then, I agree with my spontaneous self that music has a moral aspect.  Indeed, we are creatures for whom little, and nothing of significance, is without a moral aspect. Music, which engages us intellectually, emotionally, and physically, is certainly a matter of significance.  The moral evaluation of this or that song, or even this or that style of music, is not a simple matter, of course, for no style is without some merit (except rap), but those of us who care about music are, I think, obliged to think about its moral influence on our own minds and hearts.

Anyway, these thoughts were brought to mind again when I recently read an article by Roger Scruton on the relationship between music and morality.  (Scruton is one of those people about whom I do not know very much, but each time I read something from him I become more interested in him.  If anyone cares to recommend a book or two to me, I am all ears.)  He has written extensively about the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and is apparently also a minor composer in his own right.  In this article he takes a thoughtful look at the principal components of music — melody, harmony, and rhythm — and how they are treated, generally speaking, in contemporary popular music.  Like me, he also thinks that dance is an important correlate of music, able to teach us something about its moral value:

As I suggested earlier, musical movement addresses our sympathies: it asks us to move with it. External movement is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. When music organized by this kind of external movement is played at a dance, it automatically atomises the people on the dance floor. They may dance at each other, but only painfully with each other. And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended. . .

It is a fairly long article, enlivened by numerous musical clips to illustrate the argument.  Recommended.