I saw Roger Scruton speak at Penn on Wednesday where he delivered the Collegium Institute‘s 4th Annual Elizabeth Anscombe Lecture on the topic of “Art and Morality: on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Ethics.”

Scruton has been a hero of mine for many years, since I discovered his book The Meaning of Conservatism and his humane and philosophical (rather than political) approach to answering who we are and what the uses of things are. Great introductions to his life on Sunday Hill Farm can be found on YouTube, along with his one-hour BBC special answering Why Beaty Matters. Collegium Institute filmed his talk at Penn’s Claudia Cohen Hall, and that’s available too.

Scattered/paraphrased notes from his talk:

  • Can aesthetics point to the transcendent without their creators having an animating belief in the sacred and the God that art has traditionally invoked for its vital power?
  • Can aesthetics do more without invoking God? Can it replace God-directed conclusions?
  • What are the consequences, morally or otherwise? Can we fill the God-shaped hole in our lives and our world with a new moral way of life?
  • If once there was a naive confidence among some in the literalism of religious belief, there is today naive confidence in reality’s nothingness.
  • Morality and religion are separate but complimentary things, and religious theology provides a foundation that shores up the moral life when it comes under question.
  • According to Kant, the judgement of beauty is an unavoidable consequence of our reasoning power.
  • But where does reasoning stop, and engagement with the transcend things of longing for harmony start?
  • Suppose you build a door in your home. You might say that the purpose of the door is to let people through from one part of the home to another. That’s a reason for building it. But there are infinitely many ways to fulfill the “letting through” function. The question “Why am I building the door this way?” is one that no rational being can avoid but which is so difficult to answer. We might talk about matching the moldings of the surrounding rooms, or fixing a particular type of knob, or selecting a cut of wood with particular grain. Why? We might say it “looks harmonious” or seems to “fit.” We immediately find ourselves in the realm of aesthetics, yet we’re also giving rational answers.
  • In thinking of such examples, we realize that almost all of our lives are filled with situations like this—where our reasoning marries itself with an indefinite but present sense of rightness about the way a thing should be.
  • In this, we don’t merely reason about the ends, but about the means themselves. Does an effort in its wholeness fulfill its duty to seem right?
  • The aesthetic part of our psyche is a way of training about endeavors and about things as ends in themselves. Aesthetics help train us in the “oughts” of life.
  • Kant was wrong to focus on natural beauty at exclusion of man-created art, because it’s in what we do that there are consequences: make the bed, make the place. “Look right and wrong”- getting things to fit together in such a way as we can be home with them.
  • But can “fitting in” or together be enough? Can aesthetics by themselves speak to the meaning (morality) of the world?
  • An artist is discovering and imposing order, which is why there’s such importance in what sort of things an artist brings forth and in the basic desires of the heart.
  • The thing about desire is that you don’t necessarily have to ascertain the moral qualities of the person or thing you desire. We often try to disentangle these naturally related things, or are simply unconscious to them. (We unfortunately sometimes find out about the moral qualities of a person too late.) An obviously erotic feeling can be transfigured into a moral relationship with another, and this is really one of the tasks of every relationship—to ensure harmony and whole feeling there.
  • Aesthetics (even when created by a good and godly person) cannot guarantee a moral outcome among the observer, listener, etc.—even when a feeling of the sublime, etc is experienced. In this way, aesthetics are like religious faith in providing a guide, a context for striving, without themselves being capable of replacing interior moral sense or a pedagogy for being human.
  • The moral questions are the most difficult, because it seems as if the God-shaped hole belongs there and does not resolve, because we’ve discovered that we’re determined (embodied) creatures, but also free.