Uncategorized

The Uses of Pessimism

In emergencies we must switch from consensus to command, from freedom to submission, and from the order of the market to the order of the plan.

Roger Scruton

If Roger Scruton was still alive today, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about this book, it would be:

“When, I wonder, does one know when it is right to adopt Fallacy in order to avoid the loss of Truth?”

And I suppose his answer might be something like this:

“When one no longer wonders.”

In this magnificent book—measured in tone, epic in scope, focussed in theme—Scruton makes his argument for civilization over tyranny. He’s in the kind of space that contemporary defenders of freedom of speech are in, whereby they are often told that this freedom does not correspond to a freedom from consequence. And there’s some truth to that … as long as it’s inconsequential consequence, like annoyance or unfriendliness; if the consequence is heavily consequential, such as loss of livelihood, assault, cancelation from society, imprisonment … right up to the Soviet bullet in the back of the neck, then, yes, it does imply a freedom from consequence, as without that, the freedom of speech becomes merely theoretical as opposed to practical.

But, even so, the onus of the argument has shifted to justifying freedom of speech—a self-evident good to those with a sense-of-common—as opposed to justifying not having freedom of speech. This involves on of Scruton’s identified fallacies, of which, more later…

The city is a community of neighbours who do not necessarily know each other, but whose obligations come from settlement.

Roger Scruton

But I came to this book (lovingly on the way to Scruton completion-ism) immediately after a book suggested to me by friends called “Bronze Age Mindset”: a book I lost patience with about a third of the way in. But it was an interesting thing to prelude Pessimism, because, while the authors of both books oppose what is now called ‘The Woke’ in contemporary society, they are also both poles apart in their response. Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) calls for a return to a mindset of the Axial Age that adopts the very fallacies that we crawled out from into the West; a zero-sum game life/death emergency mindset. While Scruton champions the development of agriculture as maybe the greatest achievement of mankind, BAP laments it as the descent into ‘bugmen’ status. While Scruton champions finally forgiveness and irony, BAP wishes for conflict and identifies irony as ‘faggotry’ (ironically, or otherwise). That such a thing as “Bronze Age Mindset” exists and is read if not widely but … AT ALL, is a testament to the degree at which the fallacies Scruton identifies have taken hold.

…we see the marks of the same transition – from wandering collectivities to free individuals, from clans and blood-brothers to law-abiding neighbours, from a life of emergencies to one of settled worship, in which the words and rituals are found to evoke the eternal, the reliable and the true.

Roger Scruton

The fallacies of Best Case Scenario, Zero Sum, Planning, Moving Spirit and Aggregation are mapped out beautifully, and for those who have heard Scruton speak, you can hear the timbre of his voice in your mind as you read… And he responds with a bottom up versus top down alternative, an ‘organic’ and ‘we’ approach (the ‘we’ First Person Plural) as opposed to the collective ‘I’. In this way, he contrasts the strawman argument of conservatism being essentially about individualism. The rights of the individual are important, of course, but only insofar as the individual is part of a group of other individuals who have shared interests in themselves as a group, past, present and future.

It’s ten years since this book was published, but it has matured like one of Scruton’s prized Burgundies. He admits at the beginning that his arguments are futile to those who live under the sign of one or more of the fallacies. In fact, to even point out any of these to the fallacious is to only, in general, further strengthen the hold it has on them. He is writing for those of us who do not, then. Are we perfect then? Are we so smart and the fallacious dumb? Does everything work out well for ‘we’ the holders of the great beacon of truth?

They accept the world and its imperfections, not because it cannot be improved, but because many of the improvements that matter are by-products of our cooperation rather than the goal of it.

Roger Scruton

Of course not. We have, in a sense, committed a terrible act, which Scruton compares to the first murder in the bible: we have killed our brother, we have turned our back on brotherhood and tribal alliances. Which of course makes us vulnerable to Believers outside of our agreed upon geography. ‘We’ have a land, a region, and an identification though this with others who we may not even know, but they are part of us within that agreement. And when disagreements occur, they are worked out on their individual merits and, in the future, reference is made to these solutions for further disagreement. There is not so much a top-down entity, God or god-like, but a grass roots negotiation process.

…when unreason triumphs, it does so in the name of reason.

Roger Scruton

Pessimism, as the title suggests, has its uses. And to be scrupulously pessimistic is one way to at least avoid falling into the destructive fallacies Scruton identifies. It is the unscrupulous optimist who is willing to destroy everything that social evolution has brought to us through tradition and careful community agreements etc. in the hope that by making everything crash down something so much better will emerge … despite the many lessons of history otherwise.

The fallacy here, of taking a retrospective view of something that has not yet happened, became an integral part of progressive thinking not only in politics but also in the arts.

Roger Scruton

Scruton also looks at art and architecture while considering the fallacy of the Moving Spirit. Reference to the Zeitgeist for persuasion. That you have to get-with-the-times-Daddio… This call comes up particularly during such things as referendums on gay marriage. Don’t be in the past. This is now. Think of how history will judge you. Etc. Zeitgeist literally means time-ghost, and it is as if the things is a ghost-like figure that can haunt all timeframes at once. It lives in the future, present and past.

The emphasis on originality is something that the bohemian could consider a good, but Scruton rightly points out the difference between an originality that still develops upon the grounding of human beauty, and the acts that are merely empty efforts at originality for its own sake. Because it is original it has value. The absurd recent situation with the banana taped to the wall of a gallery comes immediately to mind. Originality needs a framework, something to hang itself on, lest it be far worse than the derivative done well. Reaching for the original must be a concern for an artist, of course, but always within certain boundaries, just as humans live within their perceptive boundaries.

It involves an attitude of care – care towards institutions, customs and consensual solutions. It involves a recognition that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that we fulfill our task on earth if we look after the small corner that is ours, and take that ‘ours’ to heart.

Roger Scruton

Personal responsibility is a key theme in the face of the fallacies that surround us in the West. There is still much to hold on to. We sacrifice our regressive violent demands to master the world through forgiveness, in order to live with strangers as a ‘we’, and to live in the irony of being able to see what’s wrong with what’s wrong, just as much as what’s right.

From the culture of forgiveness springs the other habit that helps us to be at home in the society of strangers. This is irony, by which I mean the habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself.

Roger Scruton

Irony, in its full social form as alluded to here, n’est plus à la mode; it is something that we have lost touch with not because it was lost to us, far from it, but because it has become corrupted into a catabolic self-destructive urge; a cultural form of a death drive. I started writing this review before Chinese Flu really hit us here in Europe, but at the same time that Greece was fighting on its borders. The wondering time has finished, and this is a dark day for all of that. The correct form of Pessimism is breaking through in a strangely provocative way. There may be changes. They may last long.

Standard
Books

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

by Roger Scruton

The Necessity of Beauty: a book review


Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.

Roger Scruton

While the book is short, it is quite broad. Scruton has spent much more time on the notion of beauty than any other contemporary philosopher I know of. Beauty is not so admired, at least in the Academy. The study of aesthetics, beauty’s ugly sister, holds a little more attention, but not so much as it relates to beauty … more so as something to negate beauty, and to judge it an unnecessary extravagance of the privileged. And whereas it might be a privilege to be here, the state of being privileged is not a privilege to be anywhere; and part of the atonement probably has something to do with embracing ugliness.

Why is beauty so important to Scruton, in an age of opposition to it?

Partly because of the opposition, of course. But there’s certainly more to it than that. The burden of beauty is something essentially human, so to turn our back on it is to turn our back on humanity, what makes us human; and he doesn’t want this battle to be considered as simply a matter of taste, but he wants to fight this on the field of rational enquiry.

Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.

Roger Scruton

Getting something right, making something fit in—the fitting-ness of something—this is a cornerstone of Beauty for Scruton, as he drills down to some kind of objective essence, and also manages to highlight something from everyday lived experience, as opposed to the experience of what we might call High Art, for example.

When you pause to study the perfect form of a wildflower or the blended feathers of a bird, you experience an enhanced sense of belonging. A world that makes room for such things makes room for you.

Roger Scruton

Belonging-ness is a cornerstone of Scrutonian conservatism; wanting to position the things to conserve as the things that conserve us; and what conserves us has much to do with a sense of belonging. When articles of endeavour and observation become noticeable enough for our consideration to hold them up as singular and worthy of being held up, then we have a model for beauty.

…the look of something, when it becomes the object of intrinsic interest, accumulates meaning.

Roger Scruton

Naturally, Scruton’s two key concerns of architecture and music come into play, but he also covers such things as the silent experience of the novel. He moves through some historical models of how beauty has been appreciated, from the Platonic on, and he often returns to Kant’s lesser known works. Through this he contrasts natural beauty with presented beauty. There is beauty that appears to be un-learned, such as admiring a landscape, but this admiration still comes from a conscious human place. Just as there are degrees in beauty, there are degrees in our capacity to appreciate beauty in its varied forms.

Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favourite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot.

Roger Scruton

Beauty, when we encounter it, draws upon connections within us, and without us, with the others around us. That’s not to mean that everyone has the same taste, or that everyone maybe is capable of experiencing a particular article of beauty. Scruton uses the example of classical music and talks about the importance of aesthetic education in order to develop our senses in order to progress from the fitting-ness of a well-laid table setting to, maybe … eventually, someone like Bach. To be human is to be social, but, likewise, part of our becoming human is a socialisation process, a learning to be social, from birth.

But dissonance and conflict may also be fitting

Roger Scruton

Scruton wants to develop a fundamental difference between ugliness and beauty in terms of how beauty might be championed. As he points out, ugly is the new ‘beauty’—particularly in art, post-Duchamp. The problem for a Bohemian conservative, the tension, is that we want open expression and a lively avant-garde in the arts to live alongside the importance of examining and creatively preserving the canon of beauty in the field that has gone before: the après-garde.

Rules and precepts are there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty, whether the minimal beauty of everyday arrangements, or the higher beauties of art.

Roger Scruton

So a place must be made for challenging without repudiating. Dissonance and conflict can drive beauty, but it cannot overcome it. To overcome it is to become ugly; to under-come it is to fall into kitsch. And while 98% of the avant-garde might fall into these categories, we need it to happen so that the 2% that doesn’t can happen, which maybe wouldn’t otherwise. That is not to say that the 98% should be lauded … as they currently generally are.

Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity.

Roger Scruton

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people.

Roger Scruton

Finally, beauty is not just an add-on for Scruton, something for rich educated people to understand and experience. It’s communal. Which is part of the reason Scruton was so concerned with architecture, I imagine. I mean, I can avoid seeing the 98% by not going to modern art galleries, but I can’t avoid seeing the concrete and faded-green office block (and I mean ‘block’) on Komödienstraße after walking out mesmerised by the cathedral in Cologne.

Beauty gives us something to cling to among the general entropy of living. It does not have to be of the transcendental kind, but can equally be of the incidental kind. This is a rational and practical means by which to drive being inclusive (and actually using the word as a means of inclusion, as opposed to its more common antithetical meaning discursively). There is common ground in the truly beautiful. There is a ‘we’ in aesthetic delight.

Standard