Scruton, “The Soul of the World”

From the noted philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton comes this new volume,Soul of the World The Soul of the World, published by Princeton University Press, in which Scruton offers a philosophy and a sociology of religion as situated within various worldly, personal, and aesthetic forms and experiences. The publisher’s description follows.

In The Soul of the World, renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism. He argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgments hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive–and to understand what we are–is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defense of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life–and what the final loss of the sacred would mean. In short, the book addresses the most important question of modernity: what is left of our aspirations after science has delivered its verdict about what we are?

Drawing on art, architecture, music, and literature, Scruton suggests that the highest forms of human experience and expression tell the story of our religious need, and of our quest for the being who might answer it, and that this search for the sacred endows the world with a soul. Evolution cannot explain our conception of the sacred; neuroscience is irrelevant to our interpersonal relationships, which provide a model for our posture toward God; and scientific understanding has nothing to say about the experience of beauty, which provides a God’s-eye perspective on reality.

Ultimately, a world without the sacred would be a completely different world–one in which we humans are not truly at home. Yet despite the shrinking place for the sacred in today’s world, Scruton says, the paths to transcendence remain open.

Jacques Barzun on Art, the State, and Religion

The eminent cultural critic Jacques Barzun passed away last week.  Here are two smart posts over at First Things about his writing: the first by Gerald Russello and the second by Rusty Reno about a book of Barzun’s on education that I didn’t know about.

And here is an elegant essay of Barzun’s on the nature of the state’s role in the promotion, and production, of art, written in the 1960s when these issues came to prominence in the aftermath of the Kennedy presidency and early in the Johnson Administration.  Spending, Barzun observed, also means direction, “for support cannot help being selective and guided by rules.”  After listing a handful of arguments in support of the association, Barzun considers the points against.  First, he wonders what the “central object of ‘aiding the arts’ is,” and which groups are to benefit, and in which ways.  But the larger problem, Barzun thinks, is the fundamental incompatibility of the state’s aims — most especially including the democratic state’s aims — and those of the artist:

Recognizing the confusions of fact and inadequacies of thought about the arts is a prerequisite to framing a government policy in their behalf. This would be true on general principles; it is true for us in particular because such a policy cannot be one that simply gives the people the food or medicine they need. It is not even like the support of scientific research at large. It resembles rather the chancy empirical policies devised to sustain national prosperity.  Culture is a whole like the economy. And the analogy extends to the multitude of interests at work and their irreconcilable conflicts.  John Sloan the painter favored government support of the arts because, he said, the true artist would then know who his enemy was.  Others foresee interference with taste and style because it is impossible to disburse money without implying standards and holding out rewards for conformity with them. Government aid cannot help generating a bureaucracy of critics and accountants, seekers and prize-winners. To say that the judges and dispensers of favors will be drawn “from the arts themselves” is no reassurance. Cliques and clans and dictatorships will arise. It is no use instancing the panels of scientific referees that now pass on projects for government sponsorship, and proving that they have on the whole been fair. Science can use more impersonal criteria for judgment and, fads apart, the effort of science has a common goal and no doctrinal implications.

The arts and the humanities on the contrary are always in the thick of the battle of ideas. They stir up the passions and are meant to. A piece of work need not have a Communist for its author in order to be subversive – and subversive in a way which a politician or his delegate in office will instinctively feel and properly resent.  For he is after all the custodian of the people’s money and welfare, and he has sworn to uphold the regime of which he is a part. Now the arts in the west have for over a hundred years been anti-social and irreligious; they have incited to immorality, revolution, and nihilism; they seethe with hatred of the bourgeoisie, business, normal appetites, and machine civilization. They war against everything that under the name of education the government already pays for: settled habits, decent thoughts, respect for the family, obedience to the law, and adherence to grammar, syntax, and democratic ideals.

It’s an interesting reflection, followed toward the end of the essay by some thoughtful policy proposals.  But it seems to me that the “irreligion” of art that Barzun mentions proceeds from a more European idea (an “Establishment art, into the bosom of which the ambitious seek to climb; for once inside, everything is assured,” as he says later) than an American concept of the nature and function of religion in its relationship to the state.  In America, perhaps it might be that at least some of what is contained in the paragraphs above, and in this essay generally, might be perceived by some to apply equally to religion and art.

Berger on The Aesthetics of Religious Freedom

Benjamin L Berger (York U. Osgoode Hall Law School) has posted The Aesthetics of Religious Freedom. The abstract follows.

What influence might legal aesthetics have on the shape of religious freedom? Focusing on time and space as foundational elements of the perception of phenomena, this paper argues that these aesthetic intuitions are an under-examined and yet elemental component of what conditions and shapes religious freedom in liberal constitutional orders. If one takes law to be a cultural form, attention to these basic facets of legal perception is essential to understanding law’s encounter with religion. Drawing from a range of examples in the Canadian jurisprudence, this paper shows that legal approaches to religious diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, and accommodation are all subject to and framed by these aesthetic intuitions. To wonder about the possibilities open to us for responding to religious diversity through the law requires recognizing and wrestling with the temporal and spatial aesthetics of religious freedom.

Kandinsky: Law Professor Turned Anti-Materialist Artist

If you happen to be in the New York City area and have the chance to stop in at the Guggenheim, there is a very small but charming exhibit on the work of Wassily Kandinsky from the 1911-13 period.  Kandinsky was a successful lawyer and law professor — he had even been offered a chair in Roman Law at the Universität Dorpat — when he suddenly abandoned the law and applied to art school in Munich.  Maybe legal academia is the second best job in the world.

Among the items in the exhibit are some really neat first editions of his work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art — and Painting in Particular, published in 1911.  When I got home yesterday afternoon, I found a translation here.  Kandinsky had ambitious ideas about the power of art to achieve spiritual illumination — and in some ways to replace traditional religion for future generations.  He had some very critical things to say about “materialism” in art, as well as the idea that art was to be enjoyed for its own sake.  Here is a selection which gives (I think) something characteristic of the flavor of the writing:

With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work.  Connoisseurs admire the ‘skill’ (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the ‘quality of the painting’ (as one enjoys a pasty).  But hungry souls go hungry away . . . . This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colors, this vain squandering of artistic power is called ‘art for art’s sake.’ . . . . The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but easily definable movement forwards and upwards.  This movement is the movement of experience.  It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.  Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears.  When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated.  But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision.  The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so. Scorned and hated, he drags after him over the stones the heavy chariot of a divided humanity, ever forwards and upwards.  Often, many years after his body has vanished from the earth, men try by every means to recreate this body in marble, iron, bronze, or stone, on an enormous scale. As if there were any intrinsic value in the bodily existence of such divine martyrs and servants of humanity, who despised the flesh and lived only for the spirit! But at least such setting up of marble is a proof that a great number of men have reached the point where once the being they would now honour, stood alone . . . .

When religion, science and morality are shaken . . . and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself.  Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent.  Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul. 

Clive Bell on Paganism and Impressionism

The New Republic will from time to time reprint old essays on various subjects.  Here is a 1923 piece by the formalist art critic Clive Bell, whose ideas about the nature of aesthetic experience have always seemed to me nearly universally wrong.  That notwithstanding, I found his discussion in this piece of the connection between impressionism and paganism to be illuminating — one of the most concise explanations for why I have always disliked impressionism with such great intensity.  A bit:

The cultivated rich seem at last to have discovered in the impressionists what the impressionists themselves rediscovered half by accident. They rediscovered paganism—real paganism I mean—something real enough to be the inspiration and content of supreme works of art. Paganism, I take it, is the acceptance of life as something good and satisfying in itself. To enjoy life the pagan need not make himself believe that it is a means to something else—to a better life in another world for instance, or a juster organization of society, or complete self-development: he does not regard it as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future. He takes the world as it is and enjoys to the utmost what he finds in it: also, he is no disconsolate archaeologist spending his own age thinking how much more happily he could have lived in another and what a pagan he would have been on the banks of the Ilissus. No, paganism does not consist in a proper respect for the pagan past, but in a passionate enjoyment of the present; and Poussin, though he painted bacchanals galore, would have been quite out of place in the world of Theocritus. Your true pagan neither regrets nor idealizes: and while Swinburne was yearning nostalgicly for “the breasts of the nymph in the brake,” Renoir was finding inspiration for a glorious work of art in the petticoats of the shop-girls at the Moulin de la Galette.

Robinson on the Bible and Literature

In connection with my earlier post about how anyone, let alone a federal judge, could believe that the Establishment Clause requires the elimination of religious texts in public school classrooms, here is a complex essay by Marilynne Robinson (of Gilead fame) about the relationship between the Bible and important works of literature.  A bit:

The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know . . . .

A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity. They answer to the same impulse to put flesh on Scripture and doctrine, to test them by means of dramatic imagination, that is visible in the old paintings of the Annunciation or the road to Damascus. How is the violence and corruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order? What would be the consequences for the story of the expulsion from Eden, if the fall were understood as divine providence? What if Job’s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation? How would a society within (always) notional Christendom respond to the presence of a truly innocent and guileless man? Dante created his great image of divine intent, justice and grace as the architecture of time and being. Milton explored the ancient, and Calvinist, teaching that the first sin was a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, and providential because it prepared the way for the world’s ultimate reconciliation to God. So his Satan is glorious, and the hell prepared for his minions is strikingly tolerable. What to say about Melville? He transferred the great poem at the end of Job into the world of experience, and set against it a man who can only maintain the pride of his humanity until this world overwhelms him. His God, rejoicing in his catalog of the splendidly fierce and untamable, might ask, “Hast thou seen my servant Ahab?” And then there is Dostoyevsky’s “idiot” Prince Myshkin, who disrupts and antagonizes by telling the truth and meaning no harm, the Christ who says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty.

Religious Music and Public Religion

Both sociologist Grace Davie and law professor Angela Carmella have described the ways in which cultural artifacts rooted in religious traditions can take on a public aspect.  That is what seems to be described in this piece by James Oestreich about a series of concerts featuring Bach’s music at Trinity Church with the unfortunately saccharine name, “Remember to Love.”

I say “seems” because Oestreich is obviously conflicted about describing either Bach or his music as religious.  And in the process I think that he misses what is special about Bach’s music — and the reason that its religious quality was perhaps a particularly apt choice as, to use Davie’s term, a “public utility” on the ten-year anniversary of September 11.

Bach’s interpretation of religious themes in his Masses, cantatas, and so much else moves from ineffably serpentine complication to clean, satisfying resolution.  When a piece of Bach’s concludes, there is the distinct sense that a very difficult affair has been worked on, labored through, and that one emerges into a place of light where all is, at long last, right with the world.  Bach is, for me, the greatest composer of all time, and it is because he perfected this suite of emotions in his music — the human struggle from spiritual darkness to the peace of illumination — that his music resonates so deeply across time.

But this is exactly a religious theme, interpreted by Bach in religious texts, and which inspired in him this music.  The source of his creation, just like the site in which it was experienced yesterday, is ineradicably religious.  This is difficult for some to acknowledge, because of the sense that the civic polity stands apart from religious experience, or that it does not need its ministrations, or even that to indulge in them somehow violates the Constitution.  But to deny the ways in which religious music can contribute to the public or civic landscape is to misdescribe profoundly the nature of the relationship between religion and the state.  — MOD

Scruton on Icons, Brands, the Sacred, and the Profane

Roger Scruton is one of my favorite writers on aesthetics.  In this piece, he discusses a new book on icons, “From Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon,” by Martin Kemp.  Perhaps channeling a little Mircea Eliade, Scruton writes that the difference between icons and brands is in the “sacredness” of the object.  A bit from the essay below.  — MOD (x-posted MOJ)

Things become sacred when sacrifices on behalf of the community have been distilled in them, as the sacrifices of generations of soldiers, sailors and airmen are distilled in the American flag. And sacred things are invitations to sacrifice, as is the flag in time of war. Sacred things create bridges across generations: they tell us that the dead and the unborn are present among us, and that their “real presence” lives in each of us, and each of us in it. The decline of religion has deprived us of sacred things. But it has not deprived us of the need for them. Nor has it deprived us of the acute sense of desecration we feel, when facetious images intrude at the places once occupied by these visitors from the transcendental.

Protestant Aesthetics

And speaking of aesthetics, Zoë Pollock at The Dish has a very nice post on the 16-17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals (whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October), and also linking to a very knowledgeable description of the painter’s work by Morgan Meis.