The Emergence of the Freedom of the Subject in a World of Objects

Roger Scruton, in his Gifford Lectures entitled The Face of God, argues that human beings cannot be understood properly if they are not conceived as subjects in a world of objects. What I want to do here is to argue along those same lines, but flesh out what exactly is entailed in subjecthood. Subjecthood, I maintain, consists primarily in rational freedom. This defintion brings together the classical definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature together with the more modern definition of a person wherein the fundamental human property consists in the freedom of self-determination. Continue reading

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Scruton on Religious Differences

‘Fine differences are always more important in determining membership than large differences, precisely because they permit comparison. The person whose religion differs from mine by a tiny article, or a barely percievable gesture, is not a believer in other gods, but a blasphemer against my gods. Unlike the person with other deities, he is automatically an object of hostility, since he threatens the faith from a point within its spiritual territory.’ (Roger Scruton, ‘The West and the Rest’, p. 23)

The Eschatology of the Transcendentals

Thinking on the symposium on Roger Scruton, I found myself wanting to flesh out a bit the relation between the classical Transcendentals and his philosophy of beauty-as-belonging, so let’s see what can be done with that.

The classical Transcendentals are Beauty, Goodness and Truth – the most important universals or forms (the Christian way of looking at things has generally ascribed them to the divine life – perhaps as divine Ideas, or something else along that line). The will and mind are oriented towards these transcendentals by virtue of the desire evoked by our desire for particulars which instantiate one (often more) transcendental – our desire for a beautiful thing isn’t satisfied by the thing, because our desire for a beautiful thing is ultimately a desire for the beautiful as such. On this view, beauty is a rather abstract thing.

Scruton, in a nutshell, brings beauty down into day-to-day life. The beautiful for Scruton is something which, when pursued, gives meaning to the world and to our endeavors, and from this follows our sense of belonging. Hence, beauty-as-belonging (see the above symposium for more detail). Scruton grounds a lot of his meaning-talk and beauty in the actions of a community – generally, for Scruton, a religious community, where reconciliation and forgiveness can be had.

A possibly fruitful way to put these two themes together might be as follows: suppose we bring the notion of the eschatalogical into play here (which Scruton does, albeit in a somewhat vague manner) – specifically, Christian eschatology? What might that look like?

Perhaps we can think of the transcendentals as ‘orienting our sense of belonging’, that is, as conditioning how we achieve and even express belonging. On the Christian scheme of things, the transcendentals have ‘come down’ to us in the person of Jesus Christ – the embodiment of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty as such. They will, however, ‘come down’ further at the eschaton – this is the now/not yet tension of Christian theology. Thus, in this ‘coming down’, that which orients our mind and will towards action in pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness is seen to be not an abstract form but a concrete person doing concrete things.

Building of Scruton’s philosophy of belonging as being something we practice and ‘build for’, and bringing in the Christian idea of being ‘in Christ’, wherein we participate in both the suffering and vindication of Christ, we might say that we act ‘transcendentally’. Our acts of love, sacrifice and charity are ways in which, borrowing again from Scruton, we redeem the world and build our home in anticipation of when we truly come home at the eschaton. In short, by making the world beautiful, whether through art, or acts of love, acts of service, tending a garden or simple acts of kindness, we act the transcendental – instead of being ‘out there’, they have been shown to be right here in our communities and acts of faith. Our actions becomes practices of belonging in preparation for the final redemption. By ‘coming down’, the transcendentals orient us towards redemptive practices.

Here we need to take careful account of the role of grace – it is only by grace that any of this happens because it is only by a free movement of grace from above that any of our actions are in fact actions of grace and redemption, because it is only by grace that we are incorporated in Christ.

As a kind of summary: by way of Incarnation, Truth, Beauty and Goodness have been shown to be concrete acts done in community, and by practicing the transcendentals (which have been shown to be actions of redemption in preparation for the final redemption) we make the world our home, where we belong, while we wait for our true Home, where we Truly Belong.

An Unexpected Symposium on Roger Scruton

I found this great little set of essays on Roger Scruton’s idea of beauty today, and it’s worth a share:

An Unexpected Symposium on Roger Scruton

Here’s the talk to which the essays are replying:

Some highlights from the essays:

‘The overall thrust is that, yes, Beauty is not something that can be “neatly taped up in a definitive sentence or treatise.” It is not just being at home, nor is it in the eye of the beholder. It is experienced in more than one way, and it manifests less often as a memory of the past than an invitation to a great journey in the present.’

‘Man, distinct in creation, straddles the mundane and transcendent spheres. Given lordship over the world, it is man’s task to pattern the mundane after the transcendental. In the Christian tradition, man is placed in a garden to tend and keep it. That’s the role of art, as Scruton sees it. The three transcendentals are the sources of meaning; art, in its pursuit of beauty, brings meaning to life. This meaning brings a sense of belonging. Belonging is, therefore, a necessary consequence of beauty, but beauty is pursued for itself. The two are inseparable.

This understanding of art and beauty doesn’t lead to utopian attempts at perfect pockets of beauty. Appealing again to the Christian tradition, even before sin entered into the world man was a gardener – someone who brings order and meaning to nature. The search for beauty will never be complete because weeds and disorder threaten at every turn. Man will never build the Kingdom, but he must build for the Kingdom in patient expectation of the One who will make all things beautiful.’

‘The easiest analogy to be made here is with love. Love exists beyond all of us, but in order for us to love—and to be loved in return—we have to make sacrifices. We have to give ourselves over to someone else. In short, we have to belong to someone else. But this belonging is not about love belonging to us. It is about our belonging to love.

Our relationship with beauty works in much the same way. Why do we build beautiful cathedrals, or write and constantly rehearse haunting liturgies, or take the time to decorate and order our houses into places that feel like home?

Because we are practicing belonging.’

Anyway, give it a read, and bookmark Humane Pursuits.

Scruton and Nussbaum on Consolation, Individuality, Emotion and Music

Transcribed from Scruton’s and Nussbaum’s brilliant ‘Beauty and Consolation’ interviews:

‘All our unhappiness and alienation come from the attempt to be an individual above everything else, whereas consolation comes when one relaxes into a sense of something greater than oneself, and that is one’s species life and also the whole of history and eternity which that represents. And you do that in conjunction with animals because they already exists in that species life.

This horse for instance is immersed completely in his species being and that’s why he’s frightened of you lot [the interviewer/camera crew]. He’s not frightened of me, he knows me from hunting. We go side by side into these great animal adventures, and we lose our individuality together, and individuality which in fact he never fully had but I always have.’

– Roger Scruton

‘We form our deepest emotions at a time when our inner life is rather dreamlike, that is when we’re such small infants that we can’t speak and we aren’t part of society yet, and I think that music has some of the power it does because it’s able to tap some of those deeper layers of the personality and bring back to us some of the intense and extremely sharp but also archaic and unfocused emotions of childhood.

So in that way it is more able than is a lot of literature to jolt us out of our sense of normalcy, our sense that we’re just going about in the world using language in the usual and habitual way. So there’s a way in which music pierces like a beam straight to the most vulnerable parts of personality.

When Mahler was conducting his own work he described this experience saying, ‘a burning pain, crystallized’. And that’s the experience I think I often have with music, that there is a kind of pain in the personality somewhere buried to deep for words, and music doesn’t just reproduce it but in some way does crystallize it, it gives it a form, but a form that’s not the form of daily conversation, and it’s precisely for that reason that it has the power that it does.’

– Martha Nussbaum