A Joy For Ever

Beauty by Roger Scruton

Academia Books History Music Philosophy Politics

During their tour of Scotland in 1803, Coleridge and Wordsworth went for a walk along the banks of the Clyde, near the spectacular waterfall of Cora Linn. For days, the two poets had been arguing about the precise distinctions between the terms “beautiful”, “sublime”, “grand” and “majestic”. At a spot overlooking Cora Linn, Coleridge fell into conversation with another tourist, who said, “What a majestic waterfall!” Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of this judgment. “Yes,” he cried, “you are right, it is majestic.” The other man continued: “Majestic! Beautiful! Sublime!”

One thing this story tells us is that too much technical sophistication in matters of aesthetics may be a bad idea. When the theorists’ terminology runs far ahead of ordinary usage, they end up trying to make us see the world through their theories, instead of explaining how it is that we see the world.

For a little over two centuries, aesthetics has been a subject-matter of serious philosophical investigation. We have had Kantian aesthetics and Hegelian, formalist and Marxist, and innumerable attempts to sort out the whole messy subject using the precision tools of modern analytical philosophy. Often the result has been a doctrinal position which makes sense on its own terms, but fails to match experience. And all too often the philosophers have become absorbed in sterile debates about such things as the ontological status of works of art (asking whether the “real” symphony is the sound in the concert-hall, the marks on the page, or the idea in Beethoven’s head-and so on).

Roger Scruton has written about so many subjects, from politics to sex to hunting, that readers may need to be reminded that he is, above all, a philosopher of aesthetics. Indeed, he is the author of two of the most important books in the field: The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) and The Aesthetics of Music (1997). And one reason why they are so important is that while he has mastered all the specialisms and philosophical technicalities, he has never lost touch with the ordinary human experience of the viewer and the listener.

His new book is very much aimed at the general reader. But it is also his most ambitious work in this field, as it constructs a single, large-scale theory of the nature of beauty. Paintings and poems come in for close consideration; but so, too, do landscapes and flowers, beautiful faces and bodies and what he calls the “everyday beauty” of houses, gardens and clothes. Casting his net this wide means that he has set himself a problem more difficult than the one tackled by most modern writers on aesthetics (who confine themselves to “works of art”). Yet it also helps him to formulate his solution to the problem, which is that the experience of beauty is a specifically human experience that springs from, and enhances, our general nature as rational and moral beings.

Cautiously and persuasively, he builds up his case. As he shows, beauty is not merely “in the eye of the beholder”. Although a judgement of beauty is not an objective matter in the way that, say, a judgement of temperature is, it is something for which reasons can be given, and such reasons can and should have an effect on the judgements of other people. The obvious parallel case is moral judgement, where reasons matter, even if scientific demonstration is lacking.

At every step of the argument, the human dimension that gives meaning to our experience of beauty is deftly conjured up. A beautiful landscape, for example, moves us not because it is just a pleasing arrangement of shapes and colours, but because “it contains a reassurance that this world is a right and fitting place to be”. Sexual beauty works on our feelings not just in the way that the smell of food works on a hungry animal; it awakens desire, of course, but it does so most fully when we desire the person whom that beautiful body embodies, and our response to it involves whole ways of feeling about him or her.

In theoretical terms, Scruton is fighting a campaign on two different fronts. On the one hand, he is against reductionists of all kinds: evolutionary biologists who reduce our experience of beauty to a by-product of mating, for example, or Marxists who regard it as false consciousness propped up by bourgeois ideology. But on the other hand he is opposed to the idealists and formalists, who think that art exists for its own sake in an ethereal realm, or claim that each work of art is a unique expression of itself and nothing else.

For Scruton, art and beauty matter in the same way that moral virtues matter: they are ways of fulfilling our human nature and, as we extend and develop our experience of them, we deepen our capacity for thought and feeling. This may sound pious and preachy when summarised so abstractly; but the case he makes is built on concrete examples, and seldom veers away from genuine experience.

Except for one point. When he writes that great art tells us the “truth”, in words, images, or melodies, I stumble over that final claim. What “truth” is expressed by a beautiful tune? If it is a sad tune, it may indeed express a sadness that is deeply compelling; but that particular sad feeling is the feeling of that particular tune, and not of some more general sadness which the tune might be “stating”, truthfully or otherwise. Words can state things, and it is noticeable that when Scruton tries to make his case about music here, he always falls back on songs-music with words.

Perhaps the answer is that while the feelings expressed by music have some generic connection with our feelings in ordinary life, they are still significantly different: they are musical feelings, which we have gradually learned to feel, as we have learned to listen to music. And if this is true of music, it may also be true of the other arts. Yes, our experience of artistic beauty may be rooted, as Scruton says, in ordinary life. But there can surely be some difference in kind, and some distance, between the root and the flower.