Beauty

An anti-democratic populist and disseminator of elitism, Roger Scruton is the author of a number of introductory texts, many of them bearing admirably fearless titles (The Meaning of Conservatism, A Short History of Modern Philosophy).

He is a writer whose gift for clarification is underpinned by serene confidence in his abilities as both philosopher and communicator, but there is such a thing as misplaced confidence, as this book shows.

Like most of Scruton’s work, Beauty is a mixture of survey and polemic. In more than 70 short sections, Scruton presents his case for the value of beauty, elucidating a number of fine distinctions along the way: “In one sense ‘beauty’ means aesthetic success, in another sense it means only a kind of aesthetic success”; “To be interested in beauty is to set all interests aside, so as to attend to the thing itself”; “The judgement of taste is a genuine judgement, one that is supported by reasons. But these reasons can never amount to a deductive argument.”

Amiably terse yet exhaustingly dense, the book functions partly as a sprint through the history of aesthetics and partly as a compensation for its inadequacies, from Plato onwards.

It shows Scruton to be a trenchant practitioner of “pure” aesthetics but a shallow, and at times deranged, “applied” aesthetician.

In the chapter on artistic beauty, he offers as his main example not a piece of music or a work of art – though he briefly discusses Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Vincent van Gogh’s yellow Chair – but a film, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

In his notorious essay “Photography and Representation”, Scruton argued that a cinematic masterpiece – “if there is such a thing” – is nothing more than a photograph of a dramatic masterpiece.

Things have not improved much in the intervening quarter-century: “Since cinema and its offshoots are most at fault among the arts, in pursuing effect at the cost of meaning, it is fitting to give an example of cinematic art from which that fault is absent.”

Why is it fitting? Because that way, Scruton can issue his blithe dismissal and then move swiftly on. The subsequent analysis – in which Scruton claims that Bergman shot the 1957 film in black and white “to minimise distraction” – is less than persuasive.

For the past decade or so, Scruton’s central project has been the defence of western culture against its alleged assailants. Beauty is a doubly repetitive book, however, as it not only reprises these arguments, it also gives another airing to his well-documented views on ethics, aesthetics and the human mind.

The author argues that the human response to beauty is grounded in our rational nature, and that it is pointless to explain it with reference to social factors (the language of Marxism) or animal urges (the language of evolutionary psychology).

The ability to attend to an object in a spirit of disinterested contemplation is, for Scruton, the most significant advantage we have over non-rational beings. With a few modifications – the reduced role of Wittgenstein, for example – this has been his position since 1974, when his Cambridge thesis became his first book, Art and Imagination.

Scruton has been treading this territory for most of his adult life, so he knows it well – perhaps too well.

Although he quotes approvingly Cleanth Brooks’s line about “the heresy of paraphrase”, he does not heed it: the book contains very few significant quotations from its philosophical sources. Scruton is fine when he is paraphrasing ideas of which he broadly approves, but he hits trouble with those he considers “fanciful” or “exaggerated” or “flamboyant”.

For instance, he provides only a brisk caricature of the challenge that Marxism presents to aesthetics: “When the followers of Shaftesbury presented their theories of disinterested interest they were not, such thinkers suggest, describing a human universal but merely presenting, in philosophical idiom, a piece of bourgeois ideology.”

This sentence, with its telltale imprecision (“such thinkers”) and sarcasm (“merely”), is aimed at the kind of reader who knows nothing but believes everything, and is thus putty in the polemicist’s hands.

It should not be mistaken for the truth, however.

The only thinker who explicitly propounded this view was Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Distinction. And he was not strictly a Marxist; he based his argument – against Kant – on extensive empirical research into French tastes in the late 1960s; and nowhere did he use that easily mocked phrase “bourgeois ideology”.

Scruton knows that it is easier to dismiss an argument if you first burlesque it, to issue a grand claim if you don’t follow it up, to presuppose the validity of a position rather than argue it.

These short cuts must save him a great deal of energy and effort, but the author’s lightened load equals less enlightenment for the reader.

Beauty
Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press, 176pp, £10.99