Roger Scruton on why beauty matters and the cult of utility

11 Nov '20 • Filed under posts • Tagged: Philosophy, Politics, Beauty

I first came across the name Roger Scruton through his books being recommended to me on Amazon. Make of that what you will. One book was entitled How to be a conservative, which I found unpalatable and so I avoided exploring further.

That is until I found a video of Sir Roger in conversation with Douglas Murray. Murray’s book—The Madness of Crowds—was one of the funniest and most incisive books I had read this year, so I thought I might be missing a trick.

Scruton’s definition of intellectual conservatism at the outset—as opposed to what we associate with the politics of “the Right” or the Conservative party in the UK—was something I had not heard before: if there are parts of life you enjoy then of course you instinctually move to protect and uphold them, because you see that they nourish you and those around you. This is driving force behind authentic conservatism: retaining that which you care for and working to pass on the inheritance that was once given to you.

After watching the whole talk, I became more interested in Scruton—not through any particular view he held but by going to the source and reading his writings. It was his prose itself that ensnared me; mischievous, clear and unafraid.

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.

Scruton is not that well known, despite being one of the most prolific British philosophers of this century. He is also somewhat reviled for his politics views, but his most interesting insights are in the the philosophical realm and especially in his primary interest: aesthetics.

With kudos to the Roger Scruton Quotes Twitter account, I came across a 2009 BBC Documentary presented by Scruton, entitled Why Beauty Matters. It is a profound and sometimes hilarious survey of modern art and its relation to beauty.

Scruton is a staunch defender of the original aim of art, music and poetry—the contemplation of beauty—and makes no attempt to hide his disdain for modern art, from signed urinals to “a can of shit.”

I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need, we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. I want to show you the path out of that desert. It is a path that leads to home.

Despite the Spanish subtitles—this seems to be the last online source for this video—I can’t recommend it enough. If you still harbour doubts about the meaning of modern art then this is a cathartic deconstruction of what it has become.

Scruton makes many salient points throughout the documentary but one in particular struck me—the cult of utility. Today, many things are considered to have value only if they have a use. In this sense, beauty and art have no “use.”

In this way, “the world of beauty has been replaced by the world of appetite.” But there is something else happening that undermines the whole enterprise:

That which is only built for utility eventually turns to ruin when people stop using it, and they do that because there is no beauty. It is merely a means to an end.

Put usefulness first, and you will lose it. Put beauty first, and what you get will be used forever… nothing is more useful than the useless

Scruton goes on to note that “beautiful details remind us that we have more than practical needs; we are not just animal appetites, but human beings with dignity, divinity and love of each other.”

The idea that “nothing is more useful than the useless” stayed with me and I found myself reconsidering the things around me that I enjoyed the most, and feeling less guilty about keeping hold of things “just” because they bring me joy in their beauty or elegance.

It also shows that the choice between beauty and utility is not binary. Invest the time in beauty, and you get both in return. Treat things merely as a means to an end and you up with something that no-one ends up caring about.

Unfortunately, Sir Roger Scruton passed away earlier this year. Douglas Murray wrote a brief reflection on his life, in a A man who seemed bigger than the age.

If you are interested in reading more, Scruton wrote over 50 books. One of my favourites—and a relatively short read—is On Human Nature. Scruton writes on many different topics and so it is sometimes harder to grasp his overall philosophy. Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Mark Dooley does a great job here, pulling together the many threads of his thought into a coherent overview.


Postscript

We live in a time of increasing polarisation between “left” and “right”, with ridiculous claims made on both sides about the nature of their opponents. As Ricky Gervais put it:

If you’re mildly left wing on Twitter you’re suddenly Trotsky. If you’re mildly conservative you’re Hitler, and if you’re centrist and you look at both arguments, you’re a coward and they both hate you.

If we care about the truth, we have to move beyond treating people as political abstractions and draw our own conclusions through wrestling with their ideas, directly. Even if we hate those ideas, that is even more reason to understand them thoroughly so that we can rebuke them. If we neglect this, we condemn ourselves to the echo chamber.

Progressive and conservative perspectives are two sides of the perennial dialogue on the nature of individuals and society. To learn more about the intellectual conservative tradition—stretching far beyond the political to the personal—there is no better place to start than Roger Scruton.

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