A recent article criticized Roger Scruton’s lecture titled “Beauty and Desecration” at the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s “The Power of Beauty” conference. Having heard of the conference but being unable to attend, I was delighted to see people writing about it. I have read and enjoyed many of Scruton’s books and essays, and I suspected that this criticism might have missed Scruton’s point, especially as it accused him of turning beauty into a commodity. Fortunately, a video of the lecture has been shared.
My main criticism of aforementioned article is that the author, Joseph Cunningham, misunderstands what Scruton means when he talks about “belonging.” Cunningham writes,
“It worries me that Scruton (and many others at the conference) assumes beauty is synonymous with ‘belonging’. Life, while it is indeed beautiful, is also full of darkness, deserts, and suffering. And those things are beautiful, though maybe not in the way we would think.”
The primary point of the lecture, it seemed to me, was that Art incorporates and redeems suffering. True art does this as a byproduct of its pursuit of Beauty; modernist art, in rejecting beauty, presents us merely with the debris of life and leads to disenchantment and desolation.
“Belonging” as Scruton uses it in the lecture, is not merely a feeling of comfort. As Cunningham also writes,
“The moment beauty becomes a matter of “belonging”, then she becomes a gallon of paint for the living room walls, or style of dress; her purpose is to facilitate a feeling or perception of “belonging”, of comfort. I can put her on like a warm coat and take her off when mood or temperature changes. She’s convenient. She’s polite. And I’m inclined to believe I own her in some way.”
But Scruton means something deeper, something more fundamental. Scruton understands beauty as one of the three transcendentals (with truth and goodness) existing in the divine (Christians would say God). 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.
Unlike animals who endure freezing cold temperatures, dog bites, mosquitoes, sharks as mere experiences of existence, man seeks to understand the mystery of being. This leads him to see that all is not right in the world. The taming of dogs teaches him that dogs need not bite and to imagine a world where wolves and sharks need not be feared – the world where the lion lays down with the lamb and the child plays with the snake.
The pursuit of beauty, as Scruton understands it, doesn’t blind you to the realities and dangers of life, but attempts to make sense of them. This is where beauty becomes crucial. C.S. Lewis wrote, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Beauty shows us the meaning behind the broken and harsh debris of life.
Cunningham also seemed to miss Scruton’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime as well as between the strikingly beautiful and the everyday beautiful. The first distinction was discussed at length by Edmund Burke. The beautiful invokes pleasure while the sublime invokes a sort of fear. Mountains and massive waterfalls belong to the sublime; Westminster Abbey perhaps straddles the distinction.
The second distinction is perhaps more important. If you were to try to surround yourself with strikingly beautiful things, you would experience a sort of aesthetic overload. Connected to these distinctions is the principle of harmony, of “fitting in.” Understanding and properly applying this harmony is another way that man, in his pursuit of the transcendental, brings order to earth. As Scruton notes, the pursuit of beauty allows man to realize himself as a subject in a world of objects and teaches man that his inner life can be made meaningful as he makes it an outward reality.
These ideas are, of course, explained in greater detail in Scruton’s other work, particularly his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, and a documentary for BBC Scotland entitled Why Beauty Matters.
Matthew, an alumni of The John Jay Institute and Patrick Henry College’s Political Theory program, lives in Miamisburg, Ohio. He reads theology and philosophy, and cooks Italian food from scratch. He grew up in the unspoiled Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and consequently enjoys hunting, hiking, and reading all winter long.