Roger Scruton: The questions that have no answers

Our nature as questioning beings seems to have a huge cost. And maybe we are no longer prepared to pay it.

If I ask myself what makes us human, one answer jumps out at me straight away – it is not the only answer but it is the one suggested by the question. What makes us human is that we ask questions. All the animals have interests, instincts and conceptions. All the animals frame for themselves an idea of the world in which they live. But we alone question our surroundings. We alone refuse to be defined by the world in which we live but instead try to define our nature for ourselves.

The intellectual history of our species is to a great extent defined by this attempt. Are we animals like the others? Do we have souls as well as bodies? Are we related, in the order of things, to angels, to demons and to gods? All science, all art, all religion and all philosophy worth the name begins in a question. And it is because we have questions that human life is so deeply satisfying and so deeply troubling, too.

Not all questions have an answer. In mathematics and science we solve our problems as well as create them. But in art and philosophy things are not so simple. Hamlet’s great soliloquy starts with the line: “To be or not to be: that is the question.” The play revolves around that question. Would it be better not to exist? Is there anything in human life that makes it worthwhile? When, confronted by the extent of human treachery and scheming, we fall into complete contempt towards our species, is there some trick of thought, some perception, some argument or some appeal to higher authority that will restore the will to live?

When I look at the great artists of the past, I am often struck by the extent to which their work has evolved in response to a question. Milton asked himself how the flawed world in which he lived could be the work of a supremely good God and his answer was Paradise Lost. Bach asked himself how variants and permutations flow from the basic moves in music and his answer was The Art of Fugue. Rembrandt asked himself how the soul is revealed in the flesh and what the lights and textures of our bodies mean, and his answer was his extraordinary series of self-portraits. In art it is always as though the question is what the work of art is really about.

Milton’s poem implants the question of man’s relation to God in the centre of our consciousness. It does not answer the question but instead creates wonder and awe in response to it. Wonder and awe are the diet of the artist and without them the world would be far less meaningful to us than it is.

The same is true of philosophy. Although there are philosophers who give answers, it is usually their questions and not their answers that have survived. Plato asked how it is that we can think about the property of redness and not just about red things. How can finite human minds gain access to universal realities? Plato’s question is still with us, even though few people today would accept his answer to it. Aristotle asked how it is that there can be time and change in an ordered universe. Is there a prime mover who sets it all in motion? Few would accept Aristotle’s answer to this question: but the question remains. How can there be time, change, process and becoming, in a world that could as easily have been permanently at rest? Kant asked how it is that human beings, who are part of the natural order, can freely decide to do this rather than that, can take responsibility for their decisions and hold each other to account for the consequences of their actions.

Kant was honest in acknowledging that the question lies beyond our capacity to answer it; but until we have asked it, he implied, we have no real understanding of our condition.

In the monasteries, libraries and courts of medieval Europe the big questions were constantly debated. People would be burned at the stake for their questions, and others would cross land and sea to punish people for their answers. In the Renaissance and again at the Enlightenment the big questions were asked and answered, and again death and destruction were the result, as in the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the French Revolution. Communism and fascism both began in philosophy, both promised answers to the ultimate questions and both led to mass murder.

Our nature as questioning beings seems to have a huge cost. And maybe we are no longer prepared to pay it. Certainly if we look around ourselves today, we see a mass of ready-made answers and very few attempts to define the questions that would justify them. Should we then give up on the habit of asking questions? I think not. To cease to ask questions would be to cease to be fully human.

This article is part of our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

Enlightened man: throughout history the big, universal questions have been constantly debated. Photo: Gallerystock
Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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