Published November 11, 2021
Ideas have consequences. Not all of them are good.
The more abstract and discarnate an idea, the purer it can seem. The purer it seems, the greater our temptation to turn it into an object of worship. But as the last century showed, false gods have a big appetite. They drink blood and eat lives.
Which means that the work of a relentlessly sane writer like Roger Scruton has a value beyond price. He was a brilliant scholar and a penetrating social critic. He was also a man of dry English wit skilled at decapitating intellectual blowhards and translating complex ideas into their human consequences – consequences understandable to ordinary, reasonably intelligent people. He died in January 2020. But he remains our era’s leading philosopher of common sense and the wisdom of lived experience.
A few – well, more than a few – of Scruton’s ideas are worth noting:
1. Religion, and especially (for Western civilization) Biblical religion, is a vital source of meaning.
2. Idolatry is a constant human temptation.Where we invest our lives, there also resides our real god. Humans instinctively need gods, but we prefer ones we think we can control, gods that seem to make manageable demands on our time and attention: money, career, sex, science, technology, health, boutique spiritualities. But all of these false gods are cheats and liars. They’re also cannibals. They lower the human horizon and finally devour their adherents.
3. We humans have an infinite ability to delude ourselves with obvious, but addictive and ultimately destructive fantasies such as the inevitability of progress or the withering away of the state.
4. Science, properly understood and employed, is good; scientism is bad: Materialism is a deficient explanation of the world, and it leads to nihilism.
5. Men and women are more than the sum of their biochemical processes.
6. Creation has a sacred quality. It demands stewardship, not rapacity. Its beauty and aliveness are sacramental: they point to higher things, and in recognizing those higher things, we lift our horizon and reinforce our human dignity. We’re made of clay, but we instinctively yearn for the stars.
7. Beauty is an expression of, and a path to, the transcendent. All great art, music, literature, and architecture has the resonance of fertility; a spirit of organic harmony, right order, and purpose. Beauty reminds us of our dignity and calls us to higher standards. It makes demands. Like memory and history, beauty comes with a mortgage on our behavior. Thus it is an affront to, helps to explain, the compulsive modern taste for ugliness and desecration.
8. “I” cannot be free until I first learn obedience to the needs of “we.” Law, institutions, custom, heritage: these things create real freedom. They provide the framework within which both a community of shared interests and responsibilities, as well as personal identity and liberty, can thrive. I’m free because I’m accountable to others, and they are accountable to me.
9. We are more than pure wills encased in, and mechanically operating, a piece of equipment called the body.The body is more than a tool and a toy. We are incarnate selves, and not fully “selves” without our bodies.
10. Pornography is the reduction of a free and conscious human subject to a manipulable, impersonal object. Thus pornography’s frequent exclusion, or emotional evacuation, of the human face, and especially the eyes. The eyes are the residence of the unique, unrepeatable, human subject; they communicate a personal sovereignty over the body that porn needs to erase and violate. Scruton saw pornography as a form of sacrilege. He wrote that “sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between . . . [thus] nothing matters more than the customs, ceremonies, and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as a soul.”
Scruton had a reverence for modesty, restraint, and humility in politics. He loathed what he called “the utopian fallacy;” the notion that humanity is perfectible if we just get rid of the obstacles . . . and the people who create them. He had an equal aversion to “the planning fallacy,” the idea that we can fix every problem with the right plan . . . and the coercive muscle to carry it out. In contrast, he treasured love, friendship, learning, home, family, nature, and nation. In other words, life on a human scale.
Scruton spent much of his time in this world as an atheist of the religion-friendly tribe. But in later years he did acknowledge his belief in God. In an essay of extraordinary beauty – “Regaining my Religion,” collected here – he wrote:
This is why we should say, even in the midst of suffering, that the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. After all, we might not have existed; precisely because we are finite, created beings, we endure from moment to moment by God’s grace. It is not through our own efforts that we attain peace, but through the great endowment of good will which lays down for us commands that only a free being can obey. . . .
However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom, since this is not the way of the flesh. Freedom, love, and duty come to us as a vision of eternity; and to know them is to know God. This knowledge breaks through the barrier of time and places us in contact with the eternal. Hence the psalmist [tells us] of God that “his truth endureth from generation to generation.”
November is a month for remembering the dead in prayer. Roger Scruton believed that we make a difference through the only things we really control: our own choices and actions. So I lit a candle for him this month. It seemed like an obligation of charity. And gratitude.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.