Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Sacred Roger Scruton

The philosopher who lived on the edge of eternity

Whatever you are doing right now, please stop and read Mark Dooley’s remembrance of his friend Roger Scruton at his life’s end. Excerpt:

As we spoke that weekend, neither Roger nor I had any sense that he was so close to death.  Indeed, he was convinced that he was edging closer to remission, and that we ought to plan books and interviews for his YouTube channel.  And yet, I was struck by how he repeatedly insisted that his life’s work had been a spiritual endeavour.  In all the time I had known him, he had rarely used that word.  Was he saying that his copious writings were somehow quasi-religious, or that they offered a mystical vision of the world?  In hindsight, I think he was using it synonymously with another term he regularly employed: the sacred.  In my books on Scruton, I consistently emphasised this theme of the sacred which has featured, either directly or implicitly, since his earliest works on aesthetics and architecture.  But what does he mean by it?  The best insight is offered in an essay from 1986, entitled ‘The Philosopher on Dover Beach’: ‘[T]he free being is incarnate, and to see human life as a vehicle for freedom – to see a face where the scientist sees flesh and bone – is to recognise that this, at least, is sacred, that this small piece of earthly matter is not to be treated as a means to our purposes, but as an end in itself’.

When we lovingly behold another person, or when we contemplate an artwork, listen to music or marvel at a beautiful building, we experience something that transcends its material constraints.  That ‘something’ is not separable from the material or biological order which contains it.  But every time we gaze into the eyes of a loved one, or whenever we savour our favourite symphony or pray at a beautiful shrine, we encounter ‘personality and freedom’ shining forth from what is ‘contingent, dependent and commonplace’.  We see the fabric of the world perforated by light from another sphere.  In this point of intersection of the timeless with time, we catch glimpses of the transcendental and receive intimations of the infinite.

Scruton spent his life denouncing attempts in philosophy, politics and culture, to ‘desacralize’ or ‘depersonalize’ the world.  If you really wish to understand his trenchant opposition to left-wing politics, or radical philosophy, or modernist art, you must see it as a prophetic call to oppose those who would ‘dismiss the sacred from our view of things’, and put in its place ‘a presumptuous ignorance fortified by science’.  In everything he wrote, his principal aim was to show that through love and art, religion, music, hunting and wine, we see and experience something which science can’t explain, but which is no less real for all of that.  Think, for example, of a smiling child.  Science explains the smile in a purely mechanical sense, whereas we understand it as something quite different.  It is a revelation of innocence, beauty and love – a revelation of the free person that is mingled with her flesh.  In short, when you look at people as mere objects, you see that Darwin was right.  But when ‘you look on them as free beings, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory’.

Scruton’s idea of the sacred, or the transcendental, did not amount to a religious philosophy.  But it did suggest that there is a deep mystery at the core of human experience.  We love the person that is revealed through the flesh, but which cannot be reduced to it.  We kneel before the statue the Pieta, recognising that it is only stone, but still seeing in it a sublime response to a pivotal feature of the human predicament.  Likewise, our homes, temples and institutions, and even the physical environment itself, are, from the scientific perspective, nothing more than the materials of which they are comprised.  And yet, from the perspective of those living on the surface of the world, they are endowed with ‘freedom, translucency and moral presence’.  They offer security, consolation and reassurance.  They invoke feelings of awe, respect and, on occasion, even worship.  That is because ‘the meaning we find in the human person exists also, in heightened and more awesome form, outside us, in places times and artefacts, in a shrine, gathering, a place of pilgrimage or prayer’.

Please read the whole thing. And read Roger’s book. Pray for the peace of his soul. Cherish the gift to us all that was this great man’s life.