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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Spotify, Netflix and now shared driverless cars: why don’t we own anything anymore?

With shared self-driving cars on the horizon, companies are forcing us into a minimalism that is profitable for them, but questionable for us.

For decades, the answer to all our collective self-doubt, anxiety, and existential sadness has been to buy, buy, buy. This was particularly evident during the Nineties and Noughties, which, in terms of business, were all about mass production, mass consumption and, inevitably, mass accumulation.

Companies targeted the general public with the message that without owning their latest fad – no matter how trivial it appeared – we wouldn’t be as productive, as beautiful, and, perhaps most frightening of all, as happy. And although material objects took up physical space, they certainly didn’t fill the metaphorical void.

It didn’t take long for artists to respond to the socio-economic ennui. Movies, in particular – from The Truman Show to, more strangely and recently, Disney’s Wall-E – critiqued mass consumption and consequent possession-hoarding. Literature, too – perhaps most famously Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which was later adapted for film – studied the monstrous nature of hypercapitalism and the beasts it produces.

Despite being some of the most visually provocative commerce-related works to date (and despite anti-capitalist cinema becoming a genre in itself), they didn’t stop our needless purchase-making and endless consumption.

Aside from the self-proclaimed “minimalists”, that is. In a rally against the monopoly of McDonald’s, malls, and mass consumption, the reactionary lifestyle movement arose somewhat organically. A typical modern minimalist isn’t an artist with a penchant for sparse work, but instead somebody who, in an attempt to get back-to-basics, threw out unneeded wares and pared down to the absolute necessities. For their bodies: a few basic shirts and trousers, a basic pair of shoes. In their households: a dining table, some chairs, a fold-up bed. No excess. Minimalists professed that this alternative way of living made them feel happier, and by unshackling themselves and their homes of all the stuff they’d accumulated over the years, they consequently felt far freer. Maybe not free in the absolute sense of the word, but freer nonetheless.

Fast forward a few years to 2018 and minimalism has become something of an online trend, with people sharing tips on ways to declutter and downsize. It has become a lifestyle. We go on digital detoxes and follow the anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo. These changes go beyond the physical and into the digital world – old files, data, and the hundreds of undeleted emails you have are perceived to be just as burdensome as the unused blender stashed in the cupboard. It is mindfulness over matter.

Inevitably, commercial businesses are buying into the vogue of reduction, too: their message for consumers is to no longer to purchase and own wares, but to subscribe to and rent them instead. Ownership – of music, films, cars, and even office space – is, apparently, so last decade. And what you do own, you should “share”: put your flat on Airbnb, for example, or rent your car to Uber or Lyft.

“Flexibility”, “choice” and “ease” have become the tropes of modern marketing. The likes of Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Apple, and Amazon proclaim that our lives could be simpler, smoother, if we trade ownership for non-permanence. And it’s not just entertainment-orientated businesses, either: even the way we travel has begun to fundamentally change. With London’s Santander bike programme, Uber taxis, and, in future, shared self-driving cars, the rent-on-demand and subscription model has superseded outright buying.

It’s not like we’re paying any less for the inadequacy: we’re still handing over a sizeable chunk of money every month to a small handful of wealthy, unaccountable businesses. Whoever we’re subscribing to and renting from haven’t struck gold so much as a goldmine: they earn more while handing over less.

The culture has shifted, in a subtle and violent way, from one of accumulating too much to one approaching a forced minimalism, which is just as expensive, competitive and decadent as before. Perhaps even the minimalists who appear on Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (which is currently, and somewhat ironically, streaming on Netflix) wouldn’t agree with everybody being strong-armed into a way of life where we are progressively losing more and paying more for the privilege.

Thom James is a writer based in London.