One of the most under-considered features of reality is the nature and ontological status of beauty. Modern societies tend to dismiss aesthetic judgments as either a matter of personal taste or a formal pronouncement. This subjective understanding of aesthetics—particularly when it comes to beauty—leaves open the question of its ultimate significance and proper foundation in reality. Does beauty really “lie in the eye of the beholder,” or is there some transcendent reality imposing itself on those who come in contact with it. These questions are what Roger Scruton attempts to address in his book, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.
Roger Scruton is an English philosopher who specializes in the field of aesthetics. His published works have sought to develop and articulate a mature understanding of aesthetic judgments, knowledge, and reasoning—as found in his titles, The Aesthetic Understanding, The Aesthetics of Music, and The Aesthetics of Architecture. Scruton’s assessment of modern art and perceptions of beauty is one of disapproval and hollowness. He maintains that beauty offers a genuine experience grounded in rationality and cultivates a unified insight when effectively explored.
In Beauty: A Short Introduction, Scruton aims to justify two main concepts: beauty as a “real and universal value” and the appropriateness of pursuing such a value. (p.xii). Instead of defining beauty outright (which he admits is a difficult task), Scruton spends the first portion of his book exploring several distinct categories of beauty: human, natural, everyday, and artistic. This exploration attempts to demonstrate the rational nature of beauty and acknowledge its categorical difference from something akin to one’s preference for chocolate over vanilla. Scruton then spends the remainder of the book attempting to link those categories of beauty to an individual’s innate desire to discover its standard—a standard which, as he argues, all rational people can (and ought to) pursue.
The primary mode of argument for Scruton seems to be appealing to intuition. Without demanding agreement, he presents example after example of (what often feels like strictly anecdotal) experiential exercises to demonstrate the search for beauty’s objectivity. Scruton’s course of persuasion relies heavily on one’s ability to acknowledge innate yearnings as a path to reality. And while he admits this to be an easier task for something like morality or truth, the relativity of beauty seems more difficult to avoid—his thought experiments often lacking the force of more intuitive notions about the good or the true. Still, his argument’s power comes in the explication of humanity’s occasional, universal recognition of beauty (his exploration of natural beauty carrying significant weight).
Scruton also advocates for a meaningful distinction between what one identifies as beautiful and what one ought to identify as beautiful. He laments the age of modern art as a consequence of the complete subjectivity of beauty and a rejection of “peace, love, and contentment.” (p. 140). Scruton’s distaste for parodical “art” forms seems almost a moral judgment. His remedy is a bridge (or analogy) from beauty to the sacred. Scruton motivates a serious pursuit of beauty by contrasting its sacrilege to that of defaming life, the universe, and God. Not just a comparison, though, Scruton ties the two together by showing how a violation of beauty can lead to a violation of the sacred (e.g., pornography). This linking serves not only as a point of similarity for Scruton but as an attempt to emphasize the ontological significance of beauty itself.
The target that Scruton aims for is that of the transcendent—rationality dictates an apprehension of the beautiful in a way that meets the intrinsic needs of human beings. According to Scruton, this transcendence seems to overlap with other, already recognized, transcendent realities. The beautiful and the good, and the beautiful and the true interweave in a web of transcendence. Scruton relates and connects these realities in an attempt to clarify the reader’s view of beauty.
Scruton seems intentional about not claiming too much throughout the book. Though much of his argumentation is thought-provoking, it lacks a particular philosophical force. It may seem somewhat lackluster, then, that his conclusion is equally as soft. He makes no hard claims about the objectivity or universality of beauty but instead says that “everything [I have] said about the experience of beauty implies that it is rationally founded.” (p. 163) This resolve may seem anticlimactic, but its modesty lends more weight to Scruton’s arguments. While there may be easy ways to ignore or shake off much of his experiential support, the volume and depth of his considerations make dismissing the cumulative case irresponsible.
Overall, Scruton’s evaluations of beauty are convincing. It may be difficult to wholly conclude that there is an objective or universal standard of beauty, but it is equally challenging to determine that beauty is merely subjective. Scruton’s modesty fosters an openness that allows his readers to seriously consider beauty’s nature and rationality, successfully directing attention to beauty’s ontological significance. Although his evaluation of beauty is not conclusive, Scruton’s thorough and rationally intuitive approach makes his presentation unexpectedly persuasive.