Opposites meet in the land of Scrugletopia

The debate between Sir Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton enhances our national discourse

Robert O'Brien

Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton, moderated by Hannah Kaye, at an Intelligence Squared debate in 2012 (©Intelligence Squared/Tim Bowditch)

It’s odd to realise that our two most powerful and prolific rivals in Kulturkritik were fellow-students of Jesus together, and seem now to be, in a philosophical way, cousins in Christ. Sir Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton knew each other at Jesus College, Cambridge, have pursued parallel intellectual careers, and have adopted the engaging roles of lion and unicorn fighting for the Kulturkritiker’s crown. Neither has won it outright, partly because they have both been politically controversial, but readers could always enjoy and learn much from a unique double act, especially after Eagleton had begun to emerge from heavy Marxist ideology, reject mere materialism, and come out to skirmish with Scruton more on his own rather well-clipped turf, rather than launching all his salvoes from the muddied Marxist trenches. 

The German term is right because the tradition in which they have both worked originates in the Aufklarung, and means thinkers and theorists rather than critic-essayists. Their work is as much a question of serious aesthetics as of politics, but if one doubts the intimate connection between these, a journey through Scrugletopia, now mapped out in about a hundred books, should clarify matters. Scruton built deep foundations as a philosopher of aesthetics, so let’s start there.

He reissued his second book, The Aesthetics of Architecture, in 2013. This, “the most important contribution to its subject since Ruskin” according to David Watkin, starts with the “first philosopher to suggest that the sense of beauty is a distinct . . . employment of the mind comparable to moral and scientific understanding” (Kant); but Scruton went further, to “demonstrate that the division between practical reason and aesthetic understanding is in fact untenable, and that until the relation between the two is re-established they must both remain impoverished”. He rejects merely utilitarian, empiricist or individualistic concepts, deriving a fuller concept of self-realisation from Hegel, which is achievable only within a web of social relations: this concept remains vital to him.

His illuminating arguments help readers to rationalise views held reasonably but not philosophically. He believes that “ugliness kills, and we should plan to avoid it”; that “aesthetic values are all-important: they are advocates of our long-term interests in the court of our present desires”; and, crucially, that there is “some core of aesthetic constants to which human nature is attuned”, and that “aesthetic judgement is closely related to moral judgement” — that no matter how hard it might be to gain agreement on how it is so, there are objective standards (Many agree, but neither he nor anyone else, to my limited knowledge, has been able to argue a definitive case, let alone prove it).

Such themes predominate: in The Aesthetics of Music (1997), one of the most ambitious studies of its type, he says, “We encounter works of art as perfected icons of our felt potential, and appropriate them in order to bring form, lucidity and self-knowledge to our inner life.” His approach is rationally subjective at times, almost in the manner of Montaigne, for he argues that we can find true freedom in music — the “transcendental unity” of our selves — a characteristic phrase; and that we enter thereby a “dance of sympathy” with others. Like Plato, he sees music as a maker and yardstick of a culture’s moral character. Later on, he convincingly attacks atonality (“the mere existence of a serial order . . . does nothing to prove that it is a musical order, or that it is the order that we hear, when we hear the music”). Here, and in Understanding Music (2009), he achieves elements of the impossible task of explaining how great music creates its mysterious meanings.

In the same period he produced political writings in which he derived his frankly nostalgic conservatism from Burke, as distinct from materialistic market liberalism. Thinkers of the New Left (1985, revised as Fools, Firebrands and Frauds, 2015) was a blistering attack on and guide to the fashionable continental and American Marxists (and, less fiercely, on Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams). He saves us, if we need saving, from wading through Althusser, Habermas and Foucault. In a brilliant chapter he explains how Lacan & Co developed in Paris the “nonsense machine” that

could eliminate the possibility of rational argument, and could rephrase every question, however scholarly, as a question of politics . . . No need to ask what revolution means or what you might achieve by means of it. Nothing means anything and that is the revolution, namely the machine to annihilate meaning. [It] was put together . . . from discarded fragments of Freudian psychology and Saussurian linguistics, and attached to Kojeve’s Hegelian wind-bag . . . But it survived its inventors, and a version of it can be found in virtually every humanities department today.

Quoting “dense blocks of Newspeak thrown over the battlements”, he pulls off the remarkable feat of making his survey entertaining.

Meanwhile, Eagleton was busy establishing himself as our leading Marxist English critic: he, too, controversially attacked Raymond Williams (from the Left!), and scored a big hit with Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). This lively, knowledgeable book is not about literature or creative writers, but about the schools of thought (phenomenology, structuralism, etc) that were putting literature through their grinding mills. Several figures in Scruton’s critique are prominent — the befuddling Lacan dominates one part. Ironically, considering its Marxist inspiration, it proved to be a popular commodity of left-wing capitalist enterprise, and has sold in huge numbers thanks to university reading lists. Eagleton himself, who, rather endearingly, cannot resist irony, admitted that in postmodernist times “theory has been one symptom . . . of the commodifying of the intellectual life itself, as one conceptual fashion usurps another as shortwindedly as changes in hairstyle”. 

Eagleton’s major contribution to Marxist aesthetics was The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), a weighty survey of the subject from Hume, Hegel and Burke to the postmodernist chaos. For all its learning, there are at least three major faults: the obvious one is that, although rarely uncritical, it really is Marxist; the second is that Eagleton tends to launch into long expositions with astonishingly infrequent quotation, so we don’t have the evidence before us; and the third is that he can be unclear, in the Marxist style — undedicated readers won’t enjoy some of the passages in which he explains how Marx’s aesthetics apply to revolution, or takes us through the tortuous thinking of Walter Benjamin and Adorno. Later he claims that culture “can offer a prefigurative image of a social condition in which such pleasurable [i.e. cultural] activity might become available in principle to all”, but that only comes after “political struggle”, since a conflict sets in “between two opposing notions of the aesthetic, one figuring as an image of emancipation, the other as ratifying domination”. Nonetheless, repelled by postmodernism, at the end Eagleton calls for a new aesthetic, and from here on he becomes less predictable, more interesting.

Scruton’s Modern Culture (1998) includes this book in his bibliography, labelling it “neo-Marxist debunking of the aesthetic — the last gasp of the Sixties”. Scruton’s incisive survey of “strata in the modern consciousness”, which concludes that we are in a “spiritual limbo” where public life is “moronised”, also calls urgently for a new departure, and (almost in desperation) commends the secular-minded Confucius to us. Writing Beauty though (2009), he finds a new direction — declaring that “God is beautiful”, he claims that “as Plato and Kant both saw, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental”. This profound and delightfully idiosyncratic little book is one of his responses to Eagleton’s Ideology, and if one were to search all Eagleton’s writing looking for evidence of an equal love of artistic beauty, one would probably search in vain.
In 2011, as if to hammer home the fact that he is no mere aesthete, Eagleton published Why Marx Was Right, a refreshingly brisk treatise which declares that, amongst other virtues, Marx was “even more hostile to the state than right-wing conservatives”, that “his model of the good life was based on the idea of artistic self-expression”, he “lavished praise on the middle class”, and that “there has been no more staunch champion of women’s emancipation and world peace”. He is determined to distance Marx from the Soviet nightmare. The reader, wondering if this splendidly enlightened figure was merely naive, might well feel prompted to go and read some of the mighty prophet for himself.

In 2012, the debating forum Intelligence Squared arranged for the two to discuss their favourite topic. They agreed, in impeccably civilised tones, on some important things — that culture has become regrettably commodified; that universities succumbed to the market in setting up too many courses in business studies, etc; that high culture was not necessarily elitist; and that such things as the literary canon were not fixed entities. Eagleton did not respond to Scruton’s point that Marxists should grasp basic truths of human nature; but then Scruton was disingenuous when, asked if there could be a conservative ideology of culture, he said that it would not involve any Marx-like analysis of economic power — which left his opponent the easy retort that while conservatives certainly have an ideology, they often preferred not to articulate it. Overall, a draw in terms of performance, though Scruton was the wittier.

Now, each produces a book a year, trying as honestly and searchingly as they can to get to the bottom, or the edge, of things.  Each has a publisher in the United States — Princeton for Scruton, Yale for Eagleton. And their relationship has become more complex: both have changed without being false to their past; and for both this has meant a turn towards religious thought. In 2009, Eagleton (who describes his Irish Catholic education amusingly in The Gatekeeper), produced Reason, Faith and Revolution — Reflections on the God Debate, in which he attacked the hard atheism personified in “Ditchkens” (Dawkins and Hitchens), and was hailed by James Wood as “its most vigorous critic”. Though “God does not ‘exist’ as an entity in the world”, he said, there is a less definite kind of faith which is “not primarily a belief that someone or something exists, but a commitment and allegiance — faith in something”.

In what, though, when the Marxist vision is weakening? On Evil (2010) strikes a paradoxical balance between Marxism and Christianity; Culture and the Death of God (2015) argues that religion has left a gaping hole in our culture that neither politics, culture nor sport can fill, but (in the last paragraphs) suggests that Christianity might play its part — for it offers “not supernatural support” but the “inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution . . . the sign of [which] is solidarity with the poor and powerless”. Hope without Optimism (2015) doesn’t build on this, nor does it place much hope in radicalism — indeed Eagleton criticises the Marxist Ernst Bloch for being “hospitable to the whole wealth of human culture — but only . . . in order to appropriate it”, something of which he has perhaps been guilty himself. He then analyses how King Lear and Mann’s Doctor Faustus deal with tragic despair, finding that both bleak masterpieces offer a thread of hope which seems connected to neither God nor Marx. Eagleton remains a lapsed Catholic who won’t let go.

Because of their reciprocity, Scrugletopia is a kind of dialectic, which has been good for Eagleton’s approach and style. He has not in the end sunk into Gallic pretentiousness or German exhaustiveness. Thus in Culture (2016), he takes us on a lucid tour of the Kulturkritiker just as Scruton had done, referring to many of the same writers from Kant through Arnold to Eliot; he doesn’t mention Derrida or Foucault once, but instead devotes pages to the eccentric socialist credo of Oscar Wilde.

Scruton’s religious commitment is deeper: he seems to be an Anglican Deist — a faithful churchgoer who rejects the Resurrection and afterlife. In The Soul of the World he advocates “cognitive dualism”, a willingness to understand what things mean, at the same time as scientifically exploring what they are made of. This approach aims “not, as Kant argued, to destroy the claims of reason in order to make room for those of faith, but rather to create the space at the edge of reason where faith can take root and grow”.

Taking this further in On Human Nature (see Adam Zeman in Standpoint, March), Scruton rejects consequentialist and contractarian justifications for morality; he doesn’t defend theism as such, but says that our sense of the power of relationships, of the moral and social structures that arise from them, is not captured by the “moral arithmetic” of Parfit and Singer, and argues “that we can only do justice to some of our moral emotions by invoking a concept of the sacred”.

Influenced by T.S. Eliot (“worth 20 volumes of Hegel”, he has said), his sense of self is utterly opposed to that outlined in Adam Zeman’s more recent piece on cognitive science: “That to which we reach, because it promises redemption, must be understood in personal terms. It is the soul of the world . . . that spoke to Moses from the burning bush.” Thus Scruton tries, in his elegantly subjective way, to do what he says art does — to “realise what is otherwise inchoate, unformed and incommunicable”. He is, after all, an artist-philosopher (and a better creative writer than Eagleton: see, for example, his atmospheric romance set in Communist Prague, Notes from Underground).

All the same, some non-believers who admire his aesthetics and his search for spiritual meaning look forward to an account of the spirit which understands the transcendence of religion and high culture as part of a reworked, more subtly materialist model of the mind and its representation of the world. There is an emerging cognitive science of culture informing some philosophy, which neither Eagleton nor Scruton has time for, partly because they are both wary of the scientific.

Scrugletopia is a thought-provoking place: it finds our culture in a mess; it is not satisfied with our politics; it rejects atheism but also the after-life; it needs faith; it looks for salvation in art, in the humanist and idealist tradition, and in the Christian religious heritage; Scruton is all for personal transcendence while Eagleton, though now less entrenched in leftist “repudiation”, searches for the civilised egalitarian vision.

Each continues to modify and embellish his castle — Scruton with his rich heritage of proudly high culture, his love of beauty and Wagner, and his faith in the Christian tradition (not to mention fine living); Eagleton to ponder yet again how he can resolve the tensions between his dislike of postmodernist-capitalist-atheist culture, his admiration for humanist and Christian literature, and the dreamily enchanting Marxian hills. They have always been able to rely on each other — as have we on them.

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