Monday, December 26, 2005

Modern Culture

Roger Scruton is not a man of the people. In fact, he is John Carey's worst nightmare, someone who believes that "the high culture of our civilization contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed from the channels of popular communication": "not facts or theories but states of mind and moral virtues"; "high culture [is] a 'rite of passage' into the kingdom of ends."

The positive doctrine of Scruton's Modern Culture is not as clear as these phrases suggest. When he says the arts preserve "the ethical vision of man", he cannot mean that moral virtue is impossible without them (which is false). Nor is it plausible to claim that they are a source of "moral and emotional knowledge" that operates apart from how the arts are used. (Carey is right to criticize that. See, also, the extraordinary study by George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle.)

At times, he suggests that art is valuable as an instance of "the unconsumable thing, wanted not as a means but for its own sake, as an end", or, more strongly, that it is final without qualification (in Aristotle's sense): "the mark of rational beings" is that they are "satisfied only by supremely useless things." I am partly sympathetic to this, but I cannot see why art (and in particular, Wagner) should be the only unconsumable good.

What Scruton really believes is not that art is uniquely final, or that it supports the everyday virtues, but that it is a secular religion.
We know that we are animals, parts of the natural order, bound by laws which tie us to the material forces which govern everything. We believe that the gods are our invention, and that death is exactly what it seems. Our world has been disenchanted and our illusions destroyed. At the same time we cannot live as though that were the whole truth of our condition. [...] The artistic goal is to make us recognize that we can live as if that higher life – the ethical life in extremis – were ours.
The problem is how to square this pretence with the idea that high culture contains significant knowledge. We cannot discard the cognitive aspiration of religion, and still retain its power to give meaning to life. If we hold that aspiration in place, what Scruton recommends can only appear as self-deception: an invitation to fake being profound: "to live as if it matters eternally what we do". This would explain the desperate rhetoric of Modern Culture; but it would not make it more persuasive.


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