If I lived in a culture where paintings by Leonardo were thrown away to be replaced by pictures brushed up by a beginner, would this culture be equal to a culture that understood that the paintings of da Vinci were superior to the afterthoughts of a hobbyist? Would a culture where people lacked any capacity whatsoever to grasp that Beethoven was gifted be equally as cultured as a society where people could identify and discuss his uniqueness? In secular society today, you’re supposed to answer “all art is equal,” but deep down, even if we can’t put why into words, we know that’s not true. Unfortunately, one of the few great minds who stood up and declared the truth is no longer with us. Roger Scruton spent his life seeking to deepen the field of aesthetic philosophy and understood how important it was that we try to achieve words for why some art was better than other works. Scruton realized that there would be no point in studying culture and art if judgments about it weren’t rationally grounded. If we couldn’t articulate why we believed certain art was great, it would only be a matter of time before our conviction to defend the art waned, and then the distinction between great art and mediocre art would blur. When that happened, amidst the confusion and uncertainty, character and civilization would decline.
Roger Scruton fought against the death of art until his last breath, for he understood that the fate of beauty was the fate of humanity. Most philosophers gave up on aesthetic philosophy years ago, implying nothing important or challenging was occurring in the field. After I read Scruton’s Beauty though, I realized the abandonment of aesthetic philosophy occured because it was too important and too difficult: everyone fled the battlefield with their lives. Scruton kept fighting though, and thanks to him, I learned that the rise and fall of art is the rise and fall of civilization. Beauty attracts us, and if our sensibilities remain uncultivated so that we find the good beautiful, we will be attracted into traps.
We are what we love, to allude to James K.A. Smith’s invaluable phrase, for what we love is what forms our habits, and our habits form our character. Importantly, Scruton argued that we find beautiful what we love and love what we find beautiful, and if Smith is correct, that means what we find beautiful shapes our habits and character. Character informs culture, for our character shapes what we make and seek to experience, and what we create and seek will inform the formation of civilization at large. In response, civilization and the market provide us with the tools needed to create and obtain what we desire.
If I found opera beautiful, I would develop habits that would make me better at listening to and appreciating opera, which would in turn shape me. This would impact who I was and how I influenced those around me; in addition, there might be an opportunity for the market to generate a profit by providing more opera recordings. Buying these recordings, I would further cultivate my habit, creating further incentive for the market to provide recordings and for the civilization at large, at least in some small way, to provide opportunities for me to listen to opera. A symbiotic relationship would form.
On the other hand, if I found signed urinals beautiful, I would develop habits that would make me better at studying and appreciated signed urinals, which would in turn shape me. This would impact who I was and how I influenced those around me; in addition, there would be an opportunity for the market to generate a profit by providing more signed urinals. Buying these urinals, I would further cultivate my habit, creating further incentive for the market to provide urinals and for the civilization at large, at least in some small way, to provide opportunities for me to study signed urinals. A symbiotic relationship would form.
Expand that logic to a few million people, and ask yourself: is a civilization in which people find opera beautiful really no better than a civilization in which people find signed urinals equally beautiful? Will the people in these civilizations really be the same? The beauty we surround ourselves with — which is always contingent upon the aesthetic sensibilities we cultivate — is the image in which we will make ourselves. If we believe all art is equal, then we suggest that any habits we develop are equally good and productive. Additionally, we have no way to choose which art we should enjoy, and thus the art that provides instantaneous gratification is likely to prevail. By extension, we will develop habits that are shaped by an inclination toward immediate pleasure.
Scruton agrees with Hume that judgments of what constitutes “good art” reflect the character of the judger, and if Smith is correct and what we love is what we become, then what we judge as beautiful and good is profoundly tied to who we are as a people. Who we are impacts what we judge as good, and what we judge as good shapes who we are: when art and character develop positively, they feed their evolution, but problematically the logic holds in the other direction too. When social devolution begins, the devolution will perpetuate itself.
Scruton was deeply concerned that people had stopped thinking of art as objects that should be judged or indicators of moral life. Consequently, signed urinals or Disneyfied kitsch could get away with being treated with equal respect to Madam Butterfly or War and Peace. Scruton watched teachers around the world claim artistic taste was subjective and groundless. Inspiring the example above, Scruton asked us to wonder if a world in which people only showed interest in urinals and signed soup cans would honestly be equal to a world that cherished Dostoevsky and Cézanne. He would expect us to answer “yes,” aware of how much indoctrination eclipsed common sense.
I find both blueberries and blueberry pie delicious, but the two are not equally good for me. There’s nothing wrong with having some sugar sometimes, but I would die if it was all I ate. Worse yet, if I lost the capacity to tell the difference between blueberries and cake, I would be in danger. Likewise, if there was no rational basis to identify different qualities of beauty, if there was no way to discuss aesthetic and cultural differences meaningfully, etc. — what would happen to us? We would be helpless to fight external forces that sought to control us, for one.
Capitalism believes that a lack of competition results in inefficiency. Assuming this is true, it is best if there are internally cultivated desires to compete with externally created desires. The market through advertisements shows us things we could have, the sight of which may make us want those things, but this external force should be balanced with internal counterweights, such as my aesthetic, moral, philosophical, and theological sensibilities. My love of beauty, for example, can counter an advertisement for products that degrade beauty; my love of goodness can counter a campaign to convince me to support corruption; and so on. However, if I lack internal sensibilities, I will lack anything inside of myself to combat and refine market influences. For Scruton, the death of aesthetic sensibilities was also the death of moral and philosophical virtues, for if I did not find truth and goodness beautiful, I would not seek them, and they would not change my habits or me. Considering this, though I don’t think Scruton would say someone lacking artistic cultivation would be incapable of moral action, Scruton would warn that a loss of aesthetic sensibilities would soon lead to a collapse of the ethical life. And yet philosophy departments around the country have canceled studies in aesthetic philosophy to make room for more classes on ethics — a harsh irony.
The same logic applies to political influences: if I lack inward capacities to shape and direct my own desires and wills, I will have no resources with which to compete against external forces that seek to work on my desires. If my tastes are unrefined, then political forces that seek to control me can simply advertise or manipulate my base desires, and I will lack inward tools to resist their advances. In other words, a society that lacks aesthetic sensibilities is a society that will be susceptible to totalitarian control. It is not by chance that dictators hate great artists and love mediocre creators who are easily swayed into creating propaganda.
If you want democracy to survive and Capitalism to be its best form, then you should defend beauty and demand cultural cultivation. Giving up beauty to preference is to give up democracy to opinion.
Scruton fought to articulate a clear and rational basis for artistic judgment, which to fully grasp, I would encourage you to read his books: I could not articulate what he argues any better than what he explains himself. Scruton understood that without clear arguments for aesthetic hierarchies, signed urinals would inevitably blur with opera in artistic quality, and in this confusion, so too would be confused what people found beautiful. Consequently, what people loved would be confused, and so too would be confused who they should become and which virtues they should strive to emulate. People, and the larger civilization, would be a mess.
Scruton was adamant that beauty was rational and indispensable in shaping civilization, which seeing as beauty shapes habits through love, I find hard to deny. It really mattered to Scruton the art we pursued and allusions we gestured toward, and thanks to him, I’ve made a point to force myself to learn how to appreciate Faulkner, The Three Kingdoms, Rumi, and many others who require more work than Netflix. Kitsch, base, and cheap art treats humans like they are soulless dolls, but not becoming a doll and avoiding what dolls love requires work. Without Scruton and his arguments, I doubt I would have ever been confident that the work was worth it. His work to provide a rational basis for aesthetic cultivation provided me with confidence to ignore the temptations of secular society to treat art as indistinguishable from entertainment. Inspired by Scruton’s life, I know that it’s worth it to proliferate goodness and truth by seeking a beautiful end.
This is a short and casual version of “The Fate of Beauty” by O.G. Rose.
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