scruton-modern-culture

Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture could serve as an excellent entryway into Scruton’s body of work. It is frequently demanding on the reader, in regards to the insane amount of material (artistic, philosophical, political) that Scruton references. And in regards to this, he too often assumes a basic familiarity from the reader. But even with these hurdles, this is a superb primer on modern culture, answering the broad question, “Why do we behave and believe, in the way we do, today?” By the way, the British title, image above, is Modern Culture and published by Continuum.

I initially considered providing some excerpts from his discussion of fantasy versus imagination, which covers three chapters in a bewildering and exhilarating discussion (ch. 6, “Fantasy, Imagination and the Salesman”; ch. 7, “Modernism”; ch. 8, “Avant-garde and Kitsch”). The material on T. S. Eliot is alone worth the purchase of the book. But there is too much in these chapters for a blog post. So, I have elected instead to provide excerpts from chapter 11, “Idle Hands.”

In this chapter, Scruton aims to trace the origins of the “intellectual” and their preoccupation with “power.” Some of this presupposes material from the prior chapters, but I think you will find it interesting as it stands. We shall go from Russian Orthodoxy to Foucault.

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…The Romantic poet, the ‘man of feeling’, and the hermit had all been extolled and ridiculed, with Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock effectively putting the lid on their pretensions. Thereafter, thinking and feeling re-assumed their old functions in social life: they were useful, provided you did not notice them. The very idea that someone should draw attention to his intellect and emotions, and regard them as a qualification for overthrowing the established civil order, was anathema to the ordinary English person.

But it was at this very moment that the Russian concept of the ‘intelligentsia’ was first emerging: the concept of a class of people, distinguished by their habit of reflection, and entitled thereby to a greater say in human affairs than had been granted hitherto. …

The attitude led in Russia to a calamity the effects of which will be always with us. And it is worth raising the question why such a view of the intellectual life should have emerged in Russia, and why it should have had an impact there quite out of proportion to its impact in the West. Part of the answer is to be found in the nature of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the ‘exit’ from society which it has provided to men who are that way inclined. Those who turn their back on day-to-day life could acquire an enhanced social status as priest or monk, with an authority passed down to them from God himself. Every society needs those people — usually men — who wish to exchange the burden of reproduction for the grace of spiritual leadership; and one function of the priesthood is to impose upon them the discipline necessary to their task, and to ensure that, having made this choice, they contribute to social stability, rather than undermining it. The Russian Orthodox Church abounds in escape routes for men, and with honours and privileges which will reward their loyalty. Take away faith, however, and those privileges are no longer consoling. It is then that the dreamer becomes dangerous. Unable to enter society, and without the vision of another world that would prompt him to accept the imperfections of this one, he nurses an unstaunchable wound of resentment. His ‘right divine to govern wrong’ goes unrecognised, by a world that gives more credit to material than intellectual power. At the same time, he instinctively identifies with the poor, the oppressed, the misfits — those at the bottom of society, who are the living proof of its injustice. He turns against religion with the rage of a disappointed lover, and refuses to recognise the virtue of any earthly compromise. There arises the peculiar frame of mind of the exalted nihilist — a posture brilliantly described by Turgenev and Conrad, and exemplified in virtually all the characters who instigated the Bolshevik coup d’etat.

Nihilism is not peculiar to the Russian Orthodox tradition, nor did it occur for the first time in nineteenth-century Russia. The Jacobins were pioneers of nihilism, and in the person of Saint-Just is concentrated all the senseless venom of the modern revolutionary. Nevertheless, the Orthodox tradition paved the way for the intelligentsia, by offering ‘exit’ signs on the periphery of ordinary society, and inviting the thoughtful, the sad and the disaffected to pass through them to a higher social status. Once faith had vanished, this higher status could be achieved only by threatening the foundations of society, and seizing real temporal power from those who had supposedly usurped it.

The gurus of the sixties are of great intellectual and spiritual interest. But none more than Michel Foucault, who re-created the agenda of the intellectual, and up-dated the Marxist critique of the ‘bourgeois’ order so as to make it serviceable to the children of the bourgeoisie as they manned their toy barricades. Foucault’s philosophy is conceived as an assault on ‘power’, and a proof that power is monopolised by the bourgeoisie. All social ‘discourse’, for Foucault, is the voice of power. The discourse of the opponent of power, of the one who has glimpsed the secret ways of freedom, is therefore silenced or confined: it is the unspoken and unspeakable language of those incarcerated in the prison and the clinic. Bourgeois domination is inscribed in the tissue of society, like a genetic code; and this fact justifies every variety of rebellion, while defining a singular role for the intellectual, as the anatomist of power and the priest of liberation.

Kant’s description of Enlightenment, as the end of man’s minority, is true; not because man grew up, but because the distinction between the adolescent and the adult state began, with Enlightenment, to fade. For two hundred years, in the midst of unprecedented social and economic change, people tried to hold on to the idea of marriage, to the rites of passage that impress upon youth the knowledge of its imperfection, and to the sexual and social discipline that would guarantee moral and political order in the face of deepening scepticism and romantic transgression, or ought to mean, by ‘bourgeois’ society. Thanks to the bourgeoisie, the show went on. Marriage, the family and high culture preserved the ethical life, in the midst of a political emancipation which — by promising the impossible — threatened the normal forms of social order.

…The freedom extolled by Foucault is an unreal freedom, a fantasy which is at war with serious moral choice. Hence his need to desacralise bourgeois culture, and to dismiss as an illusion the real but tempered freedom which bourgeois society has achieved. Bourgeois freedom is the outcome of historical compromise. In place of this compromise Foucault invokes a ‘liberation’ which will be absolute, since the Other plays no part in offering and securing it.

Foucault said to one of his sycophants: ‘I believe that anything can be deduced from the general phenomenon of the domination of the bourgeois class.’ [Power/Knowledge, p. 100] It would be truer to say that he believed that the general thesis of the domination of the bourgeois class could be deduced from anything. For having decided, on the authority of the Communist Manifesto, that the bourgeois class has been dominant since the summer of 1789, Foucault deduced that all power subsequently embodied in the social order has been exercised by that class in its interests. Hence there is nothing sacred or inviolable in the existing order, nothing that justifies our veneration or stands beyond the reach of the ubiquitous salesman.

This ‘unmasking’ of power through critical analysis went hand in hand with a particular conception of power. Foucault’s ‘capillary’ form of power moves in mysterious ways, and almost emancipates itself, in Foucault’s more lyrical pages, from the pursuit of any goal. But the Nietzschean elegy to power did not appeal to Foucualt’s principal disciples, who saw the bourgeois polis as locked in the grip of a purely instrumental power: the domination of one thing over another, the power to achieve one’s goals by the use of another’s energy. Such power is linked to strength, strategy, cunning and calculation. Its principal instance is the power of the master to compel his slave — and there is working in the intellectual background that wonderful philosophical parable of Hegel’s, which shows instrumental power as necessary (though in time superseded) moment in every human relationship. [The ‘master and slave’ argument occurs in The Phenomenology of Spirit, IV.A.3. The direct influence on Foucault, however, is Sartre, specifically the Sartre of Saint Genetcomedien et martyr, Paris 1952]

The soixante-huitards believed that all power is of this kind. But that is not so. There are powers which cannot be used to further our goals, but which on the contrary provide our goals and limit them: such are the powers contained in a genuine culture — the redemptive powers of love and judgement. To be subject to these powers is not to be enslaved, but on the contrary to realise a part of human freedom. It is to rise above the realm of means, into the kingdom of ends — into the ideal world which is made actual by our aspiration. …If the only end is power, then ends becomes means: the Kantian ‘end-in-itself’ is nothing but a more subtle means to domination. Hence the attack on bourgeois society cannot stop short of an attack on aesthetic value, and on the high culture which, by giving aesthetic form to our anxieties, also reconciles us to them. [The principal debunkers of the aesthetic, as a part of ‘bourgeois ideology’ are two: Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction, and Terry Eagleton, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic.]

[pp. 123-32]

Alright, I will have to stop there. The bracketed information is the footnotes. The missing paragraphs, indicated by the ellipses, are important as well, but I tried to keep this as trim as possible. As you can see, Scruton is attempting to undermine the basic assumptions that inform the academy and provide the intelligentsia with its moral pretext. Even if you disagree, it is an important contribution.

Dorrien_Kant_Reason

Gary Dorrien’s Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology is a an extensive (nearly 600 page) history of German Idealism and its ramifications for modern theology, which is to say that ignorance of the former entails ignorance of the latter. As with so many other important works, I have not yet been able to read Dorrien’s book. In the meantime, I enjoyed Samuel Loncar’s overview and interpretation of the book in The Marginalia Review, an open-access journal. Loncar is a PhD student at Yale, specializing in the philosophy of religion and focusing on German Idealism. I have some disagreements with Loncar on Barth, but I respect his concerns.

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Is a truly modern religion possible? Can faith survive in the face of modern science and knowledge? These timely questions are central to a major new work by Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology. Answering these questions leads Dorrien back to Immanuel Kant, for it is to Kant and the world he created that we must turn if we want to understand the possibility and challenges of a distinctively modern religion.

“The Second Immanuel”

The long nineteenth century is said to begin in 1789 and end in 1914. Politics, and their continuation by other means, shape our historical categories. But it was the overthrow of ideas in Germany rather than the storming of the Bastille in France that marked the beginning of the nineteenth century. Despite its revolutionary character, the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 took time to have effect; it wasn’t until well into the 1780s that a serious discussion of the first Critique ensued. Once it was understood, philosophy and religion changed forever.

Kant saw himself as part of the German enlightenment, or Aufklärung, which, unlike its French counterpart, saw enlightenment as fully compatible with religion. The central idea of the Aufklärung was the supremacy of reason, the idea that reason was the arbiter before which all other authorities must be judged, including the venerable authorities of tradition and religion. Enlightened thinkers in late-eighteenth-century Germany thought reason’s supremacy and autonomy would not cause trouble for religion, whose rational tenets most of the Aufklärer defined as the existence of God, moral duty, and the immortality of the soul — these beliefs were held to be interconnected and necessary for the moral stability of society.

Kant was dismayed when he surveyed the state of metaphysics in 1781. He saw the profound disagreement and lack of progress in philosophy in marked contrast to the progress and consensus in the natural sciences, symbolized above all by Newton’s mathematical physics and the mechanistic worldview it implied. On Kant’s analysis, the disagreement on fundamental philosophical issues ultimately derived from Reason’s failure to understand herself. A critique of reason itself was therefore the essential prerequisite for progress in philosophy. To determine the nature and extent of human reason would unshackle it from its embarrassing lack of progress and lead it on to “the sure path of science.”

You can read the rest at Marginalia.

Here is a very fine reflection on Kant from John Baillie’s Our Knowledge of God (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939 / 1959). This dovetails nicely with my previous post (“Kant’s Protestant insight”).

Kant’s great rediscovery was that of the Primacy of the Practical Reason, as he called it. It is not in the realm of sense, he believed, that we are all really in touch with absolute objective reality, and certainly not in the realm of the supersensible objects of scientific and metaphysical speculation, but only in the realm of the practical claim that is made upon our wills by the Good. Ultimate reality meets us, not in the form of an object that invites speculation, but in the form of a demand that is made upon our obedience. We are confronted not with an absolute object of theoretical knowledge but with an absolute obligation. We reach the Unconditional only in an unconditional imperative that reaches us. There is here, as it seems to me, most precious and deeply Christian insight. But where Kant erred, and where his eighteenth-century education was too much for him, was in his analysis of this experience into mere respect for a law. The eighteenth century had its obvious limitations — limitations which could not, in fact, be better exemplified than in this proposal to make law at once the primary fact in the universe and the prime object of our respect. Something of this respect for law we can still conjure up as we stroll through the well-ordered palace and gardens of Versailles, or again as we wander at will through the equally well-ordered couplets of Alexander Pope’s poetry; yet between us and both of these experiences stands that Romantic Revival which, in spite of all its regrettable extravagances, has taught us a delight in fera natura of which we shall never again be able entirely to rid ourselves. The reduction of the spiritual life of mankind to the mere respectful acceptance of a formula was, in fact, the last absurdity of the eighteenth century. It is no mere formula with which the sons of men have ever found themselves faced as they approached life’s most solemn issues, but a Reality of an altogether more intimate and personal kind; and respect or Achtung is hardly an adequate name for all the fear and the holy dread, the love and the passionate self-surrender, with which they have responded to its presence. …Kant’s religion remained to the end a mere legalistic moralism plus a syllogism that allowed him to conceive of an eighteenth-century Legislator behind his eighteenth-century law. ‘Thus’, as — to take only one example — he himself most cogently concluded, ‘the purpose of prayer can only be to induce in us a moral disposition….To wish to converse with God is absurd: we cannot talk to one we cannot intuit; and as we cannot intuit God, but can only believe in him, we cannot converse with him.’ [Lectures on Ethics, trans. L. Infield, p. 99.]

Now it seems to me that it is precisely such a sense of converse with the Living God as Kant thus clearly saw to be excluded by his own system that lies at the root of all our spiritual life.

(pp. 157-159)

I’ve had a long-standing interest in Kant, though you wouldn’t know that judging from this blog. That’s because I’ve been trying to move beyond Kant, by way of dogmatics, for the last few years. But no philosopher, except maybe Plato or Simone Weil, impressed me more than Kant as an undergraduate. It was a real breakthrough, for me, to move beyond apologetics and proofs. It was freeing, strange as that may sound, and Kant played no small role in this new freedom. God is not a conclusion from our observations; he is always there, immediate to our moral framing of the universe, and needs no proof. He has a claim on our lives. To know God apart from this moral claim is to know, at best, a hypothesis — the probability of an object, x, at the beginning of empirical reality. This is not God; this is a theory. God is not a theory.

Kant’s philosophy can free our attention toward the God at our most profound expressions of worth — of responsibility. We know God because we know an “ought” that comes, not from within, but from without, even though it is only known within. The ultimate guarantee that there is a God outside of us can, thus, only come by faith, not by tangible proofs. God cannot be “demonstrated,” whether through sense-based proofs or through a succession of bishops. Kant, then, must turn to the subjective arbiter of truth — the will. This is his Protestant insight, namely, our inability to grasp God apart from the assent of faith, which depends upon the will.

Kant failed, however, to go one step further: the will depends upon God. Kant would not allow this, and thus we are left with a Law and a demand but no grace and no redemption. It was inevitable that Kant’s philosophy could not withstand the problem of sin and evil. Hegel did an even worse job of assimilating this problem, and, finally, Existentialism called a spade a spade.