This exclusive interview with esteemed writer, philosopher and public commentator Roger Scruton was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in London during May 2012
How did you find it possible, in an atmosphere where Philosophy and Artistic Beauty had been forcibly separated in academia, to re-establish this fundamental connection?
I have always regarded my work as an exercise in creative literature rather than academic scholarship. I have tried to retain the connection in all that I write with the world of culture – with poetry, literature and music, as well as architecture and art. This means that, at a certain stage, I moved away from the academy, in order to free my philosophical thinking from its too constricting embrace. The neglect of aesthetic and spiritual questions is one cause of the current sterility of academic philosophy.
What makes something beautiful? Religion and beauty are aspects of the same essential, emotionally-nutritive experiences. Is this aesthetics, or is it more, like food from nutrition, as beauty feeds us with some tangible quality that keeps our organism healthy?
To give a simple answer to the question ‘what makes something beautiful?’ is very difficult. If I were to venture an answer nevertheless, it would be this: that a thing becomes beautiful only if it can be fitted into the contours of a full life, fully lived, and lived for others. I think religion has a lot to do with it, since what appeals to us in beauty is the vision of a redeemed and rescued world, one that is lifted free from the tyranny of appetite and endowed with a sacred glow that somehow justifies it. This certainly helps us to remain healthy, since it reminds us that the emotional life is a disciplined affair, which requires constant spiritual exercise.
What is the connection with the recent work of Christopher Alexander, who finds the presence of God in traditional artifacts as well as natural phenomena of complex order?
Christopher Alexander and I have approached a shared view of architecture from different premises. He believes that there are fundamental principles that govern the emergence of forms, and he tries to anchor these principles in human nature. But, as he acknowledges, the result of following them is a kind of intimation of the divine order of the universe. I would put it somewhat differently. For me true architecture is an attempt to discover, in forms and materials, the outlines of the face of God – the face that looks on us from the whole of things, and which we try to represent in all our aesthetic endeavors.
What is the prime example of how Modernism failed us? You as a philosopher are in the best position to understand how this failure is not limited to the fine arts, or even to architecture, but pervades our worldview and civilization.
I think the root error of modernism was the belief that everything can be made anew, and that we change the world by dictating to it, rather than adapting to it. In architecture especially the modernists believed that you could begin again from principles that ignored all the patient discoveries of previous generations, and which simply flowed from the new materials as though nobody need have any part to play in amending them. Of course, similar errors have been witnessed in other areas of human life. Modernism in architecture was not different in principle to the Bolshevik program in politics. The desire of the Bolsheviks was to create and impose a new order of society from first principles, dictated by purely rational considerations. If people did not fit into the resulting scheme, then they too must be re-made. Thus we have the attempt to create the ‘New Socialist Man’, who would be at home in conditions that no actual human being could really tolerate.
I think modernism in architecture has launched itself on a similar enterprise. It is building cities that are in no way adapted to people as we know them, and is therefore committed to creating a new urban man, who will be able to fit like a machine-part into the blocks of glass that surround him. The correct response is to recognize the need for humility, and especially humility before the known facts of human nature and the real achievements of the past. In literature and music there were modernists who recognized this – T.S. Eliot, for example, and Benjamin Britten. We think of them as a fully integrated part of the tradition that they were trying to bend in new directions. In the case of architecture we find another kind of modernist altogether – typically a megalomaniac in the mould of Le Corbusier, promising some new departure that has no relation to what went before, and which is adopted for its ability to stand out from, rather than fit in to, the contours of a normal human life. This kind of modernist belligerence has disappeared from literature and music; but it survives in architecture partly because the rewards are so great – witness Tom Mayne of Morphosis, or Peter Eisenman.
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