Archive for the ‘Roger Scruton’ Category

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Beauty and Desecration 2  —  Roger Scruton

July 22, 2014

 

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness. Roger Scruton, a philosopher, is the author of many books, most recently Beauty.

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Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table.

This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home — the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right — through decorating, arranging, creating — are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.

This second example suggests that our human need for beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters — Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cézanne — and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. The art of landscape painting, as it arose in the seventeenth century and endured into our time, is devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things. It is not that landscape painters turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe of which we occupy so small a corner.

Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it?

These questions are of great urgency for us, since we live at a time when beauty is in eclipse: a dark shadow of mockery and alienation has crept across the once-shining surface of our world, like the shadow of the Earth across the moon. Where we look for beauty, we too often find darkness and desecration.

The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal. For the most part, transitory purposes organize our lives: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, the small-scale pursuit of power and comfort, the need for leisure and pleasure. Little of this is memorable or moving to us. Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires.

We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person but the “mortal remains” of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as, in some way, not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience, a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred, demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not just to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter — for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter — but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form.

The body is being reclaimed for this world by the rituals that acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it another way, consecrate the body, and so purify it of its miasma. By the same token, the body can be desecrated — and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles dragged Hector’s body in triumph around the walls of Troy.

The presence of a transcendental claim startles us out of our day-to-day preoccupations on other occasions, too. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This, too, is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the intensest life.

But in one crucial respect, they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante, from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture. It has fueled the sense of the sacred down the ages, reminding people as diverse as Plato and Calvino, Virgil and Baudelaire, that sexual desire is not the simple appetite that we witness in animals but the raw material of a longing that has no easy or worldly satisfaction, demanding of us nothing less than a change of life.

Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex — these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.

All of us have a desire to flee from the demands of responsible existence, in which we treat one another as worthy of reverence and respect. All of us are tempted by the idea of flesh and by the desire to remake the human being as pure flesh — an automaton, obedient to mechanical desires. To yield to this temptation, however, we must first remove the chief obstacle to it: the consecrated nature of the human form. We must sully the experiences — such as death and sex — that otherwise call us away from temptations, toward the higher life of sacrifice. This willful desecration is also a denial of love — an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture: it is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable. The modern stage director who ransacks the works of Mozart is trying to tear the love from the heart of them, so as to confirm his own vision of the world as a place where only pleasure and pain are real.

That suggests a simple remedy, which is to resist temptation. Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those — like Calixto Bieito — who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away.

It is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time — I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration — amplified now by the Internet — drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms — the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention — the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber — to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us — the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it.

 

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The  Choice 3 — Dan Jocobsen

July 16, 2014
The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

We continue with a final post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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An anthropologist may declare, as Edmund Leach does in Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, that the reason for the  choice  is  essentially  that  this  line  is  the  “purest”  in blood, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is Abraham’s half-sister, which  the  mother  of  Ishmael  is not;  but  from  our  point of view that merely puts the question back a stage further. We still have  to ask: Why this line?

The “purity” of  the line from Abraham  and his family matters,  after all, only because he has already been chosen. As for Jacob and Esau, who are not merely born of the same mother but are twins, the  one  is  preferred  above  the  other  when  they  are  still in the womb: “the elder shall serve the younger.” (A reversal of  the  primogenitive  order  is found  in many  biblical narratives;  the case of  David, which is mentioned  below, is one of the most striking of these.)

It cannot be said that the patriarchs are chosen for their special virtues; if anything, the case is exactly the other way around: whatever virtues are ascribed to them appear to spring from the fact that they have been specially favored or elected — and that they know it. 

Now, one might argue — as Thomas Mann does in Joseph and His Brothers, a series of ironic, avowedly fictional variations upon the legends of Genesis — that in this respect Yahweh’s actions are very much like those of life itself , which also “chooses” with apparent capriciousness those people whom it blesses (and curses) with gifts of any kind, and, which invariably lets them know that they have been so chosen. (In 1 Samuel 16, to take an example from much later in the story, David is described as a handsome youth, with particularly beautiful eyes; but the “Spirit of the Lord”  comes “mightily upon him” only after Samuel has anointed him as the king-to-be: in other words, once he knows that he has been chosen.)

Alternatively, it could simply be said that the biblical story, like any myth about the genesis of any people, has to begin somewhere, and with someone: why· not with Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees? Both these arguments are persuasive enough, and they are not incompatible with one another. 

But  they  are incompatible  with the claims that the Scriptures themselves make on Yahweh’s behalf: above all, with the design that is insistently imputed to him, from the beginning to the end of the biblical text. He is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision; no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices he makes. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of  morality.

“The Lord sees not as man sees.” In some of the biographical narratives, there is a hint that the favored of God might be those who are scorned or overlooked by others. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Even David falls into this category; no one thinks to send for him, the youngest son of Jesse, when Samuel comes to the house in search of Saul’s successor to the throne. A preference by Yahweh for the downtrodden is more than hinted at in the account of the liberation  of  the  entire people  from  their  bondage in Egypt; while in the codes of law and conduct that are promulgated in Yahweh’s name in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy,  the  weakest  members  of  society-the  poor,the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner or stranger­ — are spoken of with great moral generosity, even with tenderness, as being under his special guardianship. (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for  you  were  sojourners  in  the  land of Egypt.” Another form of reciprocity, that must be called.)

Eventually, in  a development already alluded to in discussing the fall of Jerusalem, the prophets who faced the catastrophes of national defeat and exile, and all the hardships of their own calling, were more and more to insist programmatically that God’s final election must fall upon the humiliated and the outcast. Yet in developing  out of  their  owntragic situation this systematization or moralization of the way in which Yahweh makes his choices, the prophets, inevitably enough invoked as precedent his (belated) recollection of  his promises  to the patriarchs during an earlier period  of  exile and servitude. And that brings us back, as they intended  it to, to the mystery  of  his initial  choice.

It is not surprising that later rabbinical commentators were also to attempt to rationalize the initial choice of Abraham and  (some of )  his descendants by inventing  a series of  what might  be  called  justificatory  legends about  it. It was said, for instance, that Yahweh  had offered the yoke of  his  Law  to  all  the  nations  of  the  earth  in turn;  only Israel had been willing to accept  it. It was also said that even  as a boy Abraham  had  distinguished  himself  by his contempt for idolatry, and by breaking the idols of his father. There is no warrant in the text itself  for these stories; in fact,  what  they  betray  is a  certain  unease  about  there being no warrant  for them. 

A  rather   more  sophisticated,   theological   justification for  the  apparent   arbitrariness — or   “scandal” — of   Yahweh’s  · choice of the people of Israel has been urged with particular insistence by some Christian interpreters: Paul, the ex-Jew, being the very first among them (Romans 9:10-11).  As I understand it, the argument goes that if we were to be given a reason for the choice, then the quality of grace it shows would inevitably be diminished or devalued; indeed, to seek for a reason is to attempt to do away with the very notion of God exercising his completely unconstrained will in the matter, which is the only true meaning the word “choice” should have. 

This is ingenious, and in some ways it actually seems to me closer to what we find in the text than are the rabbinical stories just cited; at least it confronts the fact that we are dealing with an act of unexplained and dangerous favoritism — and one that was at a profound level recognized as such by the biblical writers themselves.

 

The freedom which Yahweh enjoys is in any case constrained in one most important respect: the one thing he is  not free to  do  is  to refrain  from  choosing.  At  a  time when there are only four people on the entire earn — Adam, Eve, and their two sons — Yahweh is already engaged in the practice.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The conse­quences of this, supposedly God’s very first act of favoritism, are at once shown to be disastrous for both brothers. First it produces envy, then murder, then a man forever on the run. But does Yahweh learn from this experience? Not at all! 

Once he has begun in this way, he apparently cannot stop. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” he says, with more grimness than grace in Exodus 33:19-20, “and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (The passage is quoted in the Pauline Letter mentioned above.) Everything that follows can be understood as an illustration or elaboration of this ambiguous utterance.

Whole peoples are chosen and rejected; the land is chosen and later, in a  sense, rejected; so are particular groups and tribes within Israel itself; so are particular places within the land. The record of these events obviously reflects in each case some greater or lesser vicissitude in the history of the nation or in the history of the cult; but it also reveals just how “natural” to the  Israelites’ conceptions of God was the act of choosing and rejecting, in so many different contexts. 

This activity is strongly associated, especially in Leviticus, with that ritualistic preoccupation  with “holiness” and  “separation” with  “cleanness”  and  “uncleanness,”  in  terms of  which everything,  from the fish in the sea to the days of the calendar, was ultimately to be categorized. That preoccupation, I need hardly add, still looms large in rabbinic Judaism. “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast  and the unclean”  (Leviticus 20:24-25).

 What makes this God such an inveterate or compulsive chooser? What is it about the act of  choosing that reveals his very nature?  The answer I am going to suggest shows clearly that in the creation of  our fantasies,  and hence in the  development  of  our  moral  lives,  “weaknesses”  and “strengths” are as inextricably bound  up with one another as are “good” impulses and “bad.” Yahweh comes into being as a choosing  God because,  unlike  the gods· of  Egypt  or Assyria, say, or even those of Canaan, he is not autochthonous; that is, he is a God of a people whose primal historical memory appears to be one of enslavement and homelessness, of searching for a territory, of being without that which all other peoples apparently had. Like the people , he is a wanderer, a God looking for a land — therefore he has to “choose” the land from outside it, just as he had to originally to choose or form the people itself.

For  ask  now  of  the  days that  are past,  which  were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of . . . . Or has any god ever at­ tempted to go and take a nation for himself  from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and  by  war,  by  a  mighty  hand  and  an outstretched arm,  and  by  great  terrors,  according  to  all  that  the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
DEUTERONOMY 4:32, 34

In other words, if it had not been said of Yahweh that he had created heaven and earth, if he had not been given “extraterritorial” status from the very outset, he would not have been able to dispose of a land that was not “his ” and deal so effectively with the Egyptians, or choose as his own a nation which was still to become a nation.

Thus you shall say to  the  house  of  Jacob,  and  tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, be my own kingdom of priests and a holy   nation.
EXODUS 19:3-6

And if this was true for the Israelites when they began to keep the record of his deeds, during their time of national independence, it had to be no less true for the prophets when they contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of his Temple, and the renewed enslavement of his people.

Out of the people’s weakness had come his power, including his power to choose; the wider the scope of that power was seen to be, the greater was he glory of those upon whom his choice had fallen — and also the more exposed and vulnerable they felt their position to be. Yahweh had been free to choose Israel, or not, as he wished. Israel, it seemed had no choice but to be chosen.

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Modern Philosophy and Death 2 — Roger Scruton 

July 8, 2014
The anxiety towards death is 'ontological'; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the 'ground of being'. What can we do to  assuage it? Heidegger  makes  some pregnant  but  obscure suggestions. Dasein, Wittgenstein tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as 'being towards death': we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live.

The anxiety towards death is ‘ontological’; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the ‘ground of being’. What can we do to assuage it? Heidegger makes some pregnant but obscure suggestions. Dasein, he tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as ‘being towards death’: we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live.

Death, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, is not part of life but its limit. He means that there is no such thing as ‘living through death’, so as to emerge on the other side of it. Death is not an experience in life, and there is no such thing as looking back on death, and assessing it from a new perspective. 

Others have argued in a similar way for the conclusion that the fear death is irrational. (Thus Lucretius and various Roman Stoics.) If, after death, I am nothing, there is literally nothing to fear. This, however, seems like sophistry. Death is also the loss of life and of the of the good things that come with life. And is it not rational to fear such a loss? Yet that too seems to miss the point: I could be threatened with the loss of all good things, and still regard this threat with equanimity or at least, without that queasy feeling which comes from that thought that soon I shall not exist. Why is my non-existence  so terrible?

Why, indeed, is it terrible at all? It is peculiarly  difficult to get one’s mind around this question. Every attempt to describe the evil of death suggests either that we fear the loss of goods (including  the good of life),  and so misses  the distinctive feeling of ontological insecurity; or else concludes that we fear  non-existence per se  — and that seems irrational.  In another sense, however, it is plainly reasonable to fear death: for if we did not, we should fail to secure our own survival, and therefore threaten the success of all our projects. Hence a rational being needs the fear of death, just as he needs the capacity for nausea at foul smells, or the disposition to sleep from time to time. But does that make the fear into a rational fear? 

What is a rational fear? Presumably it is rational to fear what will pain you. It is rational to fear some condition, to the extent that you would wish to get out of it, when you are in it. But again the criterion does not apply to death. If death is the end, then no one fears to escape from it, once it has arrived. When Achilles complains to Odysseus that he.would rather be the meanest serf on earth, than the greatest prince in Hades, he speaks from a point beyond death  — he speaks as a ‘spirit’ who has survived his encounter with death. But he justifies the fear of death only by showing that it leads to an irreversible decline in one’s fortunes; not by showing that it brings one’s fortunes to an end.

In response to this unanswerable riddle, it is tempting to turn the argument on its head, arguing that it is rational to fear the absence of death. Drawing on a famous play by the brothers Capek, Bernard Williams  (The Makropoulos Case) has argued for the ‘tedium’ of immortality, pointing out that our joys are mortal joys, dependent upon death for their desirability. The central character of the play, who has lived through every love and joy only to rise to a frozen plateau of cynical disregard for others, displays the true character  of a  practical reason that has been shorn of  mortal limits. (A more comic version of immortal tedium is to be found in the brilliant last chapter of Julian Barnes’s  A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters).

Traditional defenders of immortality would scarcely be disturbed by Williams’s argument. They would argue, with Aquinas (and Dante of Paradiso), that our mortal desires are precisely what we lose in dying; so as to devote ourselves to those other and more my enterprises which never grow stale. The worship of God bears infinite repetition, precisely because its object too is infinite. Never does the Mass or the Sacred Service weary the true believer, or cause him to doubt the meaning of its inner message. If there is eternal life why should that not be it?   ·

Timely Death
Such thoughts do nothing to console the timorous pagan. Is he caught  between  the irrational  fear of death that  the capacity for success demands, and the rational fear of a joyless longevity? would be terrible indeed.

Looked at from the third-person perspective, death is not always evil. Sometimes, indeed, it is a good. First, death may be conceivably  a rightful punishment. A person’s crimes may be sufficient reason for killing him: in which case, how can it be said that his death is an evil? (Think  of Hitler  or  Stalin: not  only  were  their deaths good in themselves; more miserable deaths would have been even better.)

Secondly, death can be seen as a liberation from appalling torments whether  physical  or emotional.  Thirdly,  and  more  mysterious death  can  be  seen  as  the  fitting  conclusion  to  life  of  great undertakings. The tragic hero is vindicated in death, which reflects back  into  his  life  the  redeeming  order  of  finality.  We  do understand this; yet we feel it, and our feeling is every bit as real a queasiness with which we contemplate our own extinction. Why should  not  our  reflections come to  rest  in  this  more  satisfying perspective, rather than dwelling on the nameless fear that gets us nowhere?

For ancient thinkers death could be vindicated in another way. Return for a moment to Aristotle’s discussion of virtue. The courageous man acquires a disposition to pursue what is honorable in the face of danger. Honor is what he wants, more than he wants to flee and it is irrational to acquire this disposition, since it is ‘a part of happiness’ without courage one can have no guarantee of the ‘success in action’ which is the final end of practical reasoning. But now, consider the moment of battle. The enemy will shortly overpower me, what is it rational for me to do?

For the coward, who desires to live himself,  it is rational  to drop his  shield  and  run.  For  the courageous man, whose heart is wedded to the thought of honor, it is rational to stand, even if death is the consequence. Since the courageous man’s desire springs from a disposition that all of us have reason to acquire, he is doubly reasonable. It is therefore rational to prefer honorable death to an ignominious survival. (This matter is discussed by Xanthippe and Socrates in a notorious Xanthippic dialogue: See Phryne’s Symposium, 1158a-b.)

That is perfectly intelligible from a third-person viewpoint. We all warm to the hero, who lays down his life for his friend. Even pacifists feel this witness the glorious tribute to self-sacrifice in Britten’s War Requiem. And one can feel this, while deploring the ‘pity’ of war. But it is intelligible too from a first-person perspective. One can learn not to love death, but at least to accept it as the best outcome in a dire situation.  There  are  circumstances  in  which  survival  is  a  fatal compromise of one’s life, a shame from which one could not recover, a disparagement of all that one has wished for and all that one has done. Hence, according to Nietzsche, the thought of a ‘timely death’ may be the ground of the true (i.e. pagan) morality.

Do those thoughts justify suicide? Schopenhauer believed so; as did many of Plutarch’s heroes. But it is one thing to justify  acquiring those virtues which make you likely to die honorably; another thing to justify the death itself.  

The Mystery of Death
Even if true, such thoughts do not quiet our apprehensions. Maybe nothing can quiet them. Maybe we should accept that the fear of death. It is not really a fear, since it is founded in no coherent thought of how we are harmed by dying. It is an anxiety.

This anxiety, according to Heidegger, has deep foundations. For it marks the insurgence into consciousness of the thought of our contingency. Death shows us that we will not be, and therefore that we might not have been. Our existence has no ultimate foundation; it is a brute fact for which we can find no reason, since all our reasons are generated within life and not from the point of view outside life to which we can never attain. 

The anxiety towards death is ‘ontological’; it spreads over the existence itself, and undermines the ‘ground of being’. What can we do to  assuage it? Heidegger  makes  some pregnant  but  obscure suggestions. Dasein, he tells us, must assume responsibility for its own being; and this can be done only through an ontological posture which he describes as ‘being towards death’: we must act out the of our own mortality, and never flee into fantasy or despair. We see death as the other side of life: to look death clearly in the face we see the meaning of life. Only then do we truly live. 

Maybe this is what the tragedians tell us. It is certainly one of the themes of Rilke’s Elegies. But whether a philosopher can really convey such thoughts let alone a philosopher whose mastery of the written word advances no further than the stage reached by Heidegger — may reasonably be doubted.

 

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Modern Philosophy and Death 1 — Roger Scruton

July 7, 2014
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is an oil and tempera on limewood painting created by the German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger between 1520–22. The work shows a life-size, grotesque depiction of the stretched and unnaturally thin body of Jesus Christ lying in his tomb. Holbein shows the dead Son of God after he has suffered the fate of an ordinary human.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is an oil and tempera on limewood painting created by the German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger between 1520–22. The work shows a life-size, grotesque depiction of the stretched and unnaturally thin body of Jesus Christ lying in his tomb. Holbein shows the dead Son of God after he has suffered the fate of an ordinary human.

But here lies another problem: Things that live must also die. What survives thereafter, if the life and the person are one and the same?

Some ways of defining personal identity seem to justify the  belief of personal survival; others seem to deny it. If the person is character, memory, and reason, then there is no problem in supposing that these things (or this system of things) may continue, when the body dies.

Hence the view, defended by Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza, that the intellect may survive the body and even (in Plato’s thinking) precede it.

Against that, however, are the following powerful considerations:

  1. There is an intimate relation between our mental states and bodily conditions. It is difficult to see what we could  mean by as ascribing emotion, for example, to a subject who had no means of bodily expression. Likewise sensation, perception, even belief, seem to be tied up with the body,  with its sensitive organs, and with the behavior that springs from them.
  2. Much of our mentality is part of our animal life: this is certainly true of our sensations. And even those states of mind that lie above and beyond the repertoire of the lower animals – erotic love for example – are rooted in bodily conditions and primitive responses, that we share with them.
  3. Residual doubts about personal identity lead us to believe that human life, and the bodily condition implied by it are necessary to the survival of the person. If the ‘software’ that programs my mind may be realized after my body has died, there is no reason to think that the resulting hardware either is or could be me.
  4. Many things die, besides people: trees, dogs, fish, bacteria. In most  cases, however, the idea that these things continue to exist after death is absurd. If  people are tempted to believe that dogs survive in some ‘happy hunting ground,’ it is for the same reason that they believe these things of the people they love: namely, their inability to accept bereavement. (But Gerard Manley Hopkins. felt sincerely bereft of the Binsey poplars: are they immortal too?· (‘Binsey Poplars’)

Despite those considerations the feeling persists that my own death is not, and cannot be, the end of me; What is the source of this feeling? The following considerations seem to be involved:

  1. Our sense of personal survival is bound up with the first-person perspective. When my identity across time is a paramount consideration, the ‘I’ is at the centre of the stage. What shall I do? What shall I feel or think? But this ‘I’ can be projected beyond death. I can wonder what I should think or feel, But this in the circumstances where my body lies inert and lifeless? There is nothing incoherent in this thought.
  2. My own non-existence is inconceivable to me. I simply cannot think of a world without thinking also of my perspective upon it. And that means thinking of my own existence. This argument is very tricky, and is open to the retort, expressed in luminous verse by Lucretius, and in reported conversation by Hume, that there is no more difficulty in conceiving my non-existence after death, than in conceiving my non-existence before birth, and no reason to be distressed by either. Why does my entry into the world forbid my exit? There seem to be two quite different ideas of conceivability. I can conceive of a world in which I don’t exist: if so, maybe such a world is possible. But I cannot conceive of myself not existing, if you mean conceive of a world, viewed from this first-person perspective, in which  there  is  no  I.  But  from  that  nothing  follows  about real possibilities.
  3. My personal relations, like my rational intellect, are not time-bound, and remain in crucial respects unaffected by death.  My death extinguishes neither my obligation to you, nor your to me: My will is enshrined in obligations and rights, and projected into an indefinite future. Death seems not to threaten the will since it leaves the web of right and duty unaffected.Again the argument is difficult to assess. The best it can prove is that practical reason involves the belief in personal survival not that this belief is true. A peculiar variant is given by Kant, who believed that practical  reason  presupposes  immortality, since the weight of obligation, being infinite, requires an infinite time to which to be discharged. 
  4. Death is difficult to encompass intellectually; it is also difficult to encompass emotionally, and this difficulty is felt more vividly from the third- and second-person perspective. At the time of bereavement, it is almost impossible to believe that the other no longer exists; there is a ‘you-shaped’ whole in my emotions,  and I act and feel as if you were still existing, although far away and inaccessible.

These arguments provide a powerful motive to believe in a ‘life after death’, but no reason to do so. If, however, such a life after death were possible, maybe we ought to believe in it if we  can, out of respect for all that is most worthwhile in the human condition.
The arguments are not conclusive, and the discussion goes on. So let us pass to another and more urgent problem.

The Fear of Death
We all fear death; but is it rational to do so? What exactly are we afraid of? Nagel writes of a peculiar and disturbing feeling, quite unlike the fear of pain or suffering, which attends the thought that one day I will not exist:

There is something that can be called the expatiation of nothingness, and though the mind tends to veer away from it, it is an unmistakable  experience,  always  startling, often frightening, and very different from the familiar recognition that your life will go on for only a limited time.”
The View from Nowhere, p.225.

Is this anymore than a queasy feeling?·

 

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Modern Philosophy and God — Roger Scruton

June 20, 2014

 

The position of Zeus as 'father of the sods' was gradually granted to a new entity, 'the god' (ho theos), who, after allowing tantalizing glimpses of himself through the veils of Plato's Forms, finally steps into the centre of philosophy in Aristotle's Metaphysics, as the 'prime mover': the being in terms of which all that happens is to be explained. Such a being corresponds exactly to the increasingly remote and solitary God of Israel: the two ideas were made for each other, and duly fused. The impersonal 'prime mover' acquires a personality: that of the severe patriarch of The Old Testament, qualified, for the Christian, by the personality of God incarnate. Like every god, this one protects a community. But, having extinguished all competitors, he is left with an obligation to everyone. Maybe the Jews can claim a privileged relation to him; but they cannot claim sole rights of worship.

The position of Zeus as ‘father of the sods’ was gradually granted to a new entity, ‘the god’ (ho theos), who, after allowing tantalizing glimpses of himself through the veils of Plato’s Forms, finally steps into the centre of philosophy in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as the ‘prime mover’: the being in terms of which all that happens is to be explained. Such a being corresponds exactly to the increasingly remote and solitary God of Israel: the two ideas were made for each other, and duly fused. The impersonal ‘prime mover’ acquires a personality: that of the severe patriarch of The Old Testament, qualified, for the Christian, by the personality of God incarnate. Like every god, this one protects a community. But, having extinguished all competitors, he is left with an obligation to everyone. Maybe the Jews can claim a privileged relation to him; but they cannot claim sole rights of worship.

We have seen how the search for the really real has tempted many philosophers to look beyond this world, for a perspective that will be ‘absolute’ and error-free. But there is no point in aspiring to this perspective, unless one believes that there is something that resides there, and which has knowledge of the world as it really is. For it is only as a repository of knowledge (of the ultimate truth about the world) that this perspective can underpin our metaphysical convictions.

Traditional theology developed a conception of God that exactly suits him for the purpose. God is immanent within the world, but he also transcends it. His vision of reality is from no partial point of view: it is a vision of the whole world, as it is in itself, regardless of its appearance to this or that finite perception. God is all-knowing and infinite: thought is of his essence, and he is himself the object of his thinking . (God, for Aristotle, is ‘thought thinking itself.’) To establish God’s existence is to establish precisely that ‘view from nowhere’, as Thomas Nagel describes it, which provides us with absolute truth.

The subject of these posts is God, and the arguments for his existence. However, it is worth stepping down from metaphysics for  a moment, in order to discuss how such a concept could have arisen, and how it might fit into the ‘naturalized’ epistemology of the modern philosopher. One of the principal failings of the philosophy of religion has been its tendency to concentrate on the abstract conception of the Supreme Being (the ‘God of the Philosophers’) and to ignore the religious experience on which he depends (if ‘depends’ is the right word, which it isn’t) for his earthly credentials.

God and Gods
Modern people are frequently puzzled by the idea of God; and, for the modernist, this puzzlement becomes a god. (Hence the barely concealed passion of the modernist, when he addresses those questions which were once pre-empted by religion.) It is this crypto-religious passion that draws people to modernism: let us at least believe in our unbelief.

In fact, however, the concept of the divine is not puzzling at all. In every pre-modern society the conception has spontaneously arisen of a supernatural world, inhabited by powers which have the same form as human powers (i.e., which are expressions of will and desire) but which are vastly superior to ours, both in their ability to get things done, and in their ability to understand the what and why of doing it. Why is this?

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) gave an ingenious answer. Moral beings can exist only in communities. But a community depends upon loyalty and sacrifice, and these precious commodities do not exist simply because people associate by agreement, contracts with one another, or have habits and customs in common. They exist because of the experience of membership. I cannot lay my life for you, a stranger; but I can lay down my life for the greater thing of which we are both a part, and which forms our shared identity. The experience of membership is the core experience of society: the bond which guarantees social durability, and which gives a point to every moral injunction.

One who is a member sees the world in a new light. All about are events and demands whose meaning transcends their meaning for him.The destiny of something far greater — something, nevertheless to which he is intimately bound — is at stake in the world. This thing is something that he loves, and that lives in him.

But he is not alone in loving it: he has the support of his fellow members, and he shares with them the burden of a collective destiny. This, Durkheim suggests, is the core religious experience. And it translates at once into a conception of the sacred. Those objects, rituals and customs which provide the criterion of membership come to possess an authority that transcends the authority of any human power.

It cannot be I or you who decreed them. Nor can it be my will or your will that they enact. Yet they are eminently personal: they are the ‘real presence’  of the thing that we love, and they address us with a moral imperative you belong, they say, and owe the duties of belonging.

But to whom are these duties owed? The answer is dictated by the question: to another being who is like us but greater. The god steps from the experience of community, clothed already in the rights of worship. It him that we owe our sacrifice and our obedience. The awe that we feel in the rituals of the tribe has the god as its object. It is because he is present in these rituals that we must perform them correctly; and demand to reveal himself only to those who obey him, rises our vigilant exclusion of the heretic and the intruder.

Who docs not know this experience — if not in real life, then at least in imagination? And the anthropological evidence does nothing to qualify Durkheim’s view. It would not be absurd to suggest that the of membership is a function of religion in those communities fortunate enough to exist outside modernity.

Before examining the of the Philosophers, we should therefore describe the God of religion meaning by ‘religion’ what it means in Latin, namely a ‘binding’ of people to the collective that includes them. Some nice examples are contained in Homer: those lusty, irascible laughter-loving Olympians, with their inexplicable interest in the human world (though not inexplicable, if you accept Durkheim’s hypothesis that they are not merely part of the human world, but also produced by it. N.b. Durkheim was the son of a rabbi).

What is most remarkable to a modern reader is that the Homeric gods have no passion which is not also a human passion: from resentment to anger, from love to desire, they enjoy the full fruits of our common servitude. They are as much ‘overcome’ by natural forces as we are, and at times as little able to resist them as a cat is able to resist a mouse.

At the same time, the power of the gods is supernatural. It is a power that defies the laws of nature: nothing that we can derive from experience, about the way things proceed in the natural world, sets limits to the actions of a god. Although subject to the passions, a god might at any moment inexplicably master them. While actively engaged in the battles of mortals, he might use some hitherto unknown force to end them.

Most important of all, gods are Immortal — they may come into being (since they are themselves children of other and more ancient gods), but they do not pass away. For they represent the community itself- that which is unpolluted by decay. Such is their function, if Durkheim is right: to guarantee the survival of the tribe, through every mortal danger.

The Homeric gods share certain important features with other objects of worship: first, they make demands on us which are of  supreme importance. Disobey these demands, and you will be in a special kind of trouble — religious trouble, which lasts for ever. (This trouble comes from being ‘cast out’ from the community, which is the sole source of life and joy.)

Secondly, they act ‘supematurally’ however much they may choose to go along with natural laws, retain the power to overrule them. Thirdly, they are, as. Hardy says of the sun, ‘brimful of interest’ in the human world. Nothing escapes their attention, and everything engages their emotions. Finally, they are revealed in this world, in events which are by their very nature ‘magic’: an intrusion of the supernatural in natural.

From all this it follows that the places where the gods themselves are sacred, and governed by mysterious interdictictions. It follows, too, that we must strive to honor the gods through acts of piety, and also to win them to our mortal purposes, so far as we can. It goes without saying that God, as the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition has envisaged him, is not like that. On the other hand his triumph over his many rivals would not have been possible, had he not answered to the needs that they served. He is not the god of a tribe, but the god of a universal community. Anybody is entitled to worship him, and to claim the benefits of worship, just so long as he has a soul to be saved. (This implies that there is a revised conception of of society uderlying the view of God that we have inherited.)

Nevertheless, he started life, so to speak, as the God of a tribe (twelve tribes), and his original character was heavily marked by this fact, as was the character of those tribes, so bold and indeed foolhardy in their choice of such a deity. (Sec Dan Jacobson: The Story of Stories: the Chosen People and its God.) The God of the Philosophers was shaped (in conception, that is) by a long process of reflection on the God of Israel. Certain features seem to be essential to his divine status: notably, the possession of supernatural powers and more-than-human knowledge, together with that consuming interest in world which is best explained by the supposition that he created it. He must also retain, if he is to perform his social function, the feature of the object of worship: he must discriminate between members and non-members, the saved and the fallen, us and them.

Other attributes of the tribal deity are, however, demeaning notably, those attributes which seem to make God into a part of nature, and a subservient part, rather than the over-mastering sovereign. The war against ‘graven images’, which began with Moses, still rages today. And it goes hand in hand with a hostility to anthropomorphism: to the practice of attributing human characteristics (notably human passions) to God.

On the other hand, if God is to remain in communication with us, it seems impossible that our nature should be strange to him. Hence the belief that we are made in his image (rather than he in ours), and experience even our passions as pale reflections of some godly archetype. However, many philosophers would agree with Moses Maimonides and Spinoza that we cannot attribute passions of any kind to God: not even the passions of interest in our condition. To love God is precisely to cease one’s childish demand thaw he return our love; it is to know that divine love cannot be expended on such trivia as us. (God’s love is love of the whole of things, and of us only as subsumed into into, and in a sense annihilated by, that whole.)

Perhaps the most important development of all came through reflection on the singularity of God. The cheerful pagan picked up his gods as he went along, adding each day, as Gibbon puts it, to the store of his protectors. Sometimes the new gods could not be assimilated within the old social forms: like Bacchus, they portended a new kind of community, with new demands, and a new experience of the sacred. (See Euripides, The Bacchae.)

But, apart from the vague belief in Zeus or Jupiter as the ‘father of the gods’, there was no clear conception that any one of the immortals had absolute sovereignty  over creation: often the ruling god had himself acquired his powers by usurpation, and endured under the threat of losing them in the very same way. The generosity of the pagan towards the many contenders for a place in the pantheon was of a piece with his recognition that men live in many communities, according to ancient and incompatible customs, and so can retain peaceful relations only by respecting one another’s gods.

Side by side with the paganism of ancient Greece, there arose a philosophical monotheism. The position of Zeus as ‘father of the sods’ was gradually granted to a new entity, ‘the god’ (ho theos), who, after allowing tantalizing glimpses of himself through the veils of Plato’s Forms, finally steps into the centre of philosophy in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as the ‘prime mover’: the being in terms of which all that happens is to be explained.

Such a being corresponds exactly to the increasingly remote and solitary God of Israel: the two ideas were made for each other, and duly fused. The impersonal ‘prime mover’ acquires a personality: that of the severe patriarch of The Old Testament, qualified, for the Christian, by the personality of God incarnate. Like every god, this one protects a community. But, having extinguished all competitors, he is left with an obligation to everyone. Maybe the Jews can claim a privileged relation to him; but they cannot claim sole rights of worship.

Nevertheless, the core religious experience, of the local community and its sacred artifacts, remains. Worship of the one God combines with an idea of ‘heresy’, which condemns the person who worships him wrongly, or who fails to understand his nature, or who in some similar way shows himself to be one of ‘them’. There is pressure therefore, to develop an agreed doctrine concerning God’s nature and his relation to the world; and this conception must support two seemingly conflicting things: God’s sole title to divinity, and the community’s claim for Lebensraum among its competitors. It is­ dynamic relation between those two requirements that brought a the modem conception of God.

 

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T. S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor 3 — Roger Scruton

May 1, 2014
The Waste Land may be unfathomably complex but it is easy to love regardless of whether you understand it. The language is juicy and pungent, full of fire and rain, rivers and dust, birth and death – lots of death. I remember deriving a thrill of pleasurable dread from its sense of crisis and doom when I first read it as a teenager. Lines such as "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" or "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper" (from The Hollow Men) would be at home on the back of a goth's leather jacket. Eliot offers a vivid grown-up take on a teenager's sense that all is not right with the world. At a difficult age you get the impression he's on to something terribly important, even if you're not sure what it is.

The Waste Land may be unfathomably complex but it is easy to love regardless of whether you understand it. The language is juicy and pungent, full of fire and rain, rivers and dust, birth and death – lots of death. I remember deriving a thrill of pleasurable dread from its sense of crisis and doom when I first read it as a teenager. Lines such as “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper” (from The Hollow Men) would be at home on the back of a goth’s leather jacket. Eliot offers a vivid grown-up take on a teenager’s sense that all is not right with the world. At a difficult age you get the impression he’s on to something terribly important, even if you’re not sure what it is.

 The last in the series of three posts.

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Religion is the life-blood of a culture. It provides the store of symbols, stories, and doctrines that enable us to communicate about our destiny. It forms, through the sacred texts and liturgies, the constant point to which the poet and the critic can return — the language alike of ordinary believers and of the poets who must confront the ever-new conditions of life in the aftermath of knowledge, of life in a fallen world.

For Eliot, however, religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, should not be seen merely in Platonic terms as an attitude towards what is eternal and unchanging. The truth of our condition is that we are historical beings who find whatever consolation and knowledge is vouchsafed to us in time. The consolations of religion come to us in temporal costume, through institutions that are alive with the spirit of history.

To rediscover our religion is not to rise free from the temporal order; it is not to deny history and corruption, in order to contemplate the timeless truths. On the contrary, it is to enter more deeply into history, so as to find in the merely transitory the mark and the sign of that which never passes: it is to discover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time,” which is, according to Four Quartets, the occupation of the saint.

Thus there emerges the strangest and most compelling of parallels: that between the saint and martyr of Murder in the Cathedral and the meditating poet of Four Quartets. Just as the first brings, through his martyrdom, the light of eternity into the darkness of the people of Canterbury (represented as a chorus of women), so does the poet “redeem the time,” by finding in the stream of time those timeless moments which point beyond time. And the attempt by the poet to rediscover and belong to a tradition that will give sense and meaning to his language is one with the attempt to find a tradition of belief, of behavior, and of historical allegiance, that will give sense and meaning to the community. The real significance of a religion lies less in the abstract doctrine than in the institutions which cause it to endure. It lies also in the sacraments and ceremonies, in which the eternal becomes present and what might have been coincides with what is.

For Eliot, therefore, conversion was not a matter merely of acknowledging the truth of Christ. It involved a conscious gesture of belonging, whereby he united his poetical labors with the perpetual labor of the Anglican church. For the Anglican church is peculiar in this: that it has never defined itself as “protestant”; that it has always sought to accept rather than protest against its inheritance, while embracing the daring belief that the truths of Christianity have been offered in a local form to the people of England. It is a church which takes its historical nature seriously, acknowledging that its duty is less to spread the gospel among mankind than to sanctify a specific community.

And in order to fit itself for this role, the Anglican church has, through its divines and liturgists, shaped the English language according to the Christian message, while also bringing that message into the here and now of England. In “Little Gidding,” the last of the Four Quartets, the poet finds himself in the village retreat where an Anglican saint had retired to pray with his family. He conveys what to many is the eternal truth of the Anglican confession, in lines which are among the most famous that have ever been written in English:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
Four Quartets in T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), 192

Later, returning to this theme of communication with the dead — our dead — and referring to those brief moments of meaning which are the only sure gift of sensibility, Eliot completes the thought:

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Four Quartets in T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), 197.

Much has been written about “Little Gidding,” the atmosphere of which stays in the mind of every cultivated Englishman who reads it. What is important, however, is less the atmosphere of the poem than the thought which advances through it. For here Eliot achieves that for which he envies Dante — namely, a poetry of belief, in which belief and words are one, and in which the thought cannot be prized free from the controlled and beautiful language. Moreover, there is one influence throughout which is inescapable — the King James Bible, and the Anglican liturgy that grew alongside it. Without being consciously biblical, and while using only modern and colloquial English, Eliot endows his verse with the authority of liturgy, and with the resonance of faith.

These lines take us back to the core belief of modern conservatism, which Burke expressed in the following terms: Society, he wrote, is indeed a contract; but not a contract among the living only; rather, it is a partnership between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. And, he argued, only those who listen to the dead are fit custodians of future generations. Eliot’s complex theory of tradition gives sense and form to this idea. For he makes clear that the most important thing that future generations can inherit from us is our culture.

Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time. This we can pass on only if we too inherit it. Therefore, we must listen to the voices of the dead, and capture their meaning in those brief, elusive moments when “History is now and England.” In a religious community, such moments are a part of everyday life. For us, in the modern world, religion and culture are both to be gained through a work of sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice upon which everything depends. Hence, by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: and the stylistic achievement of the first is one with the spiritual achievement of the second.

To many people, Eliot’s theory of culture and tradition is too arduous, imposing an impossible duty upon the educated elite. To others, however, it has been a vital inspiration. For let us ask ourselves just what is required of “one who knows.” Should he, in the modern world, devote himself like Sartre or Foucault to undermining the “structures” of bourgeois society, to scoffing at manners and morals, and ruining the institutions upon which he depends for his exalted status? Should he play the part of a modern Socrates, questioning everything and affirming nothing? Should he go along with the mindless culture of play, the post-modernist fantasy world in which all is permitted since neither permission nor interdiction have any sense?

To answer yes to any of those questions is in effect to live by negation, to grant nothing to human life beyond the mockery of it. It is to inaugurate and endorse the new world of “transgression,” a world which will not reproduce itself, since it will undermine the very motive which causes a society to reproduce. The conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order and set an example of orderly living. The future of mankind, for the socialist, is simple: pull down the existing order, and allow the future to emerge. But it will not emerge, as we know. These philosophies of the “new world” are lies and delusions, products of a sentimentality which has veiled the facts of human nature.

We can do nothing unless we first amend ourselves. The task is to rediscover the world which made us, to see ourselves as part of something greater, which depends upon us for its survival — and which still can live in us, if we can achieve that “condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything),” to which Eliot directs us.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Such is the conservative message for our time. It is a message beyond politics, a message of liturgical weight and authority. But it is a message which must be received, if humane and moderate politics is to remain a possibility.

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T. S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor 2 — Roger Scruton

April 30, 2014

[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.

[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.

 We continue with part II of Roger Scruton’s analysis of Eliot’s attempt to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. Eliot assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise.

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Eliot’s life began with a question: the question of modern life and its meaning. His literary work was a long, studious, and sincere attempt to provide an answer. In the course of this enterprise, Eliot re-shaped the English language, changed the forms of English verse, and produced some of the most memorable utterances in our literature.

Although an impressive scholar, with a mastery of languages and literatures that he reveals but does not dwell upon in his writings, Eliot was also a man of the world. He worked first as a teacher, then in a London bank, and then in the publishing house of Faber and Faber, which he made into the foremost publisher of poetry and criticism in its day. His unhappy first marriage did not impede his active participation in the literary life of London, over which he exerted an influence every bit as great as André Breton over the literary life of Paris.

His refusal, through all this, to adopt the mantle of the bohemian, to claim the tinsel crown of artist, or to mock the “bourgeois” lifestyle, sets him apart from the continental tradition which he otherwise did so much to promote. He realized that the true task of the artist in the modern world is one not of repudiation but of reconciliation.

For Eliot, the artist inherits, in heightened and self-conscious form, the very same anxieties that are the stuff of ordinary experience. The poet who takes his words seriously is the voice of mankind, interceding for those who live around him, and gaining on their behalf the gift of consciousness with which to overcome the wretchedness of secular life. He too is an ordinary bourgeois, and his highest prize is to live unnoticed amidst those who know nothing of his art — as the saint may live unnoticed among those for whom he dies.

To find the roots of Eliot’s political thinking, we must go back to the modernism that found such striking expression in The Waste Land. English literature in the early part of the twentieth century was to a great extent captured by pre-modern imagery, by references to a form of life (such as we find in Thomas Hardy) that had vanished forever, and by verse forms which derived from the repertoire of romantic isolation.

It had not undergone that extraordinary education which Baudelaire and his successors had imposed upon the French — in which antiquated forms like the sonnet were wrenched free of their pastoral and religious connotations and fitted out with the language of the modern city, in order to convey the new and hallucinatory sense of an irreparable fault, whereby modern man is divided from all that has preceded him. Eliot’s admiration for Baudelaire arose from his desire to write verse that was as true to the experience of the modern city as Baudelaire’s had been to the experience of Paris. Eliot also recognized in Baudelaire the new character of the religious impulse under the conditions of modern life: “The important fact about Baudelaire,” he wrote, “is that he was essentially a Christian, born out of his due time, and a classicist, born out of his due time.”

Eliot’s indictment of the neo-romantic literature of his day was not merely a literary complaint. He believed that his contemporaries’ use of worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms betrayed a serious moral weakness: a failure to observe life as it really is, a failure to feel what must be felt towards the experience that is inescapably ours. And this failure is not confined, he believed, to literature, but runs through the whole of modern life. The search for a new literary idiom is therefore part of a larger search — for the reality of modern experience. Only then can we confront our situation and ask ourselves what should be done about it.

Eliot’s deep distrust of secular humanism — and of the socialist and democratic ideas of society which he believed to stem from it — reflected his critique of the neo-romantics. The humanist, with his myth of man’s goodness, is taking refuge in an easy falsehood. He is living in a world of make-believe, trying to avoid the real emotional cost of seeing things as they are. His vice is the vice of Edwardian and “Georgian” poetry — the vice of sentimentality, which causes us not merely to speak and write in clichés, but to feel in clichés too, lest we should be troubled by the truth of our condition.

The task of the artistic modernist, as Eliot later expressed it, borrowing a phrase from Mallarmé, is “to purify the dialect of the tribe”: that is, to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience — not my experience, or yours, but our experience, the experience that unites us as living here and now. And it is only because he had captured this experience — in particular, in the bleak vision of The Waste Land — that Eliot was able to find a path to its meaning.

He summarizes his attitude to the everyday language of modern life and politics in his essay on the Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and it is worth quoting the passage in full:

To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing — when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation [vocab: To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate] — Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbose. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it. . .
For Lancelot Andrewes (London: Faber, 1970 [1929]), 20

For Eliot, words had begun to lose their precision — not in spite of science, but because of it; not in spite of the loss of true religious belief, but because of it; not in spite of the proliferation of technical terms, but because of it. Our modern ways of speaking no longer enable us to “take a word and derive the world from it”: on the contrary, they veil the world, since they convey no lived response to it. They are mere counters in a game of cliché, designed to fill up the silence, to conceal the void which has come upon us as the old gods have departed from their haunts among us.

That is why modern ways of thinking are not, as a rule, orthodoxies, but heresies — a heresy being a truth that has been exaggerated into falsehood, a truth in which we have taken refuge, so to speak, investing in it all our unexamined anxieties and expecting from it answers to questions which we have not troubled ourselves to understand. In the philosophies that prevail in modern life — utilitarianism, pragmatism, behaviorism — we find that “words have a habit of changing their meaning. . .or else they are made, in a most ruthless and piratical manner, to walk the plank.” The same is true, Eliot implies, whenever the humanist heresy takes over: whenever we treat man as God, and so believe that our thoughts and our words need be measured by no other standard but themselves.

Eliot was brought up in a democracy. He inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world and the cause of so much ignorant hatred of America. But he was not a democrat in his sensibility. Eliot believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process precisely because of the carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he writes:

When the poet finds himself in an age in which there is no intellectual aristocracy, when power is in the hands of a class so democratized that while still a class it represents itself to be the whole nation; when the only alternatives seem to be to talk to a coterie or soliloquize, the difficulties of the poet and the necessity of criticism become greater.
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1961]), 22

Hence, the critic has, for Eliot, an enhanced significance in the modern, democratic world. It is he who must act to restore what the aristocratic ideal of taste would have spontaneously generated — a language in which words are used with their full meaning and in order to show the world as it is. Those nurtured on empty sentiment have no weapons with which to deal with the reality of a god-forsaken world. They fall at once from sentimentality into cynicism, and so lose the power either to experience life or to live with its imperfection.

Eliot therefore perceived an enormous danger in the liberal and “scientific” humanism which was offered by the prophets of his day. This liberalism seemed to him to be the avatar of moral chaos, since it would permit any sentiment to flourish and would deaden all critical judgment with the idea of a democratic right to speak — which becomes, insensibly, a democratic right to feel. Although “human kind cannot bear very much reality” — as he expresses the point, first in Murder in the Cathedral, and then in Four Quartetsthe purpose of a culture is to retain that elusive thing called “sensibility”: the habit of right feeling. Barbarism ensues, not because people have lost their skills and scientific knowledge, nor is it averted by retaining those things; rather, barbarism comes through a loss of culture, since it is only through culture that the important realities can be truly perceived.

Eliot’s thought here is difficult to state precisely. And it is worth drawing a parallel with a thinker whom he disliked: Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the crisis of modernity had come about because of the loss of the Christian faith. This loss of faith is the inevitable result of science and the growth of knowledge. At the same time, it is not possible for mankind really to live without faith; and for us, who have inherited all the habits and concepts of a Christian culture, that faith must be Christianity. Take away the faith, and you do not take away a body of doctrine only, nor do you leave a clear, uncluttered landscape in which man at last is visible for what he is. Rather, you take away the power to perceive other and more important truths, truths about our condition which cannot, without the benefit of faith, be properly confronted — such as the truth of our mortality.

The solution that Nietzsche impetuously embraced in this quandary was to deny the sovereignty of truth altogether — to say that “there are no truths,” and to build a philosophy of life on the ruins of both science and religion in the name of a purely aesthetic ideal. Eliot saw the absurdity of that response. Yet the paradox remains. The truths that mattered to Eliot are truths of feeling, truths about the weight of human life. Science does not make these truths more easily perceivable: on the contrary, it releases into the human psyche a flock of fantasies — liberalism, humanism, utilitarianism, and the rest — which distract it with the futile hope for a scientific morality.

The result is a corruption of the very language of feeling, a decline from sensibility to sentimentality, and a veiling of the human world. The paradox, then, is this: the falsehoods of religious faith enable us to perceive the truths that matter. The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make human reality imperceivable.

Eliot’s solution to the paradox was compelled by the path that he had taken to its discovery — the path of poetry, with the agonizing examples of poets whose precision, perception, and sincerity were the effects of Christian belief. The solution was to embrace the Christian faith — not, as Tertullian did, because of the paradox, but rather in spite of it.

This explains Eliot’s growing conviction that culture and religion are in the last analysis indissoluble. The disease of sentimentality could be overcome, he believed, only by a high culture in which the work of purification was constantly carried on. This is the task of the critic and the artist, and it is a hard task:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. . .
Four Quartets in T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), 182.

This work of purification is a dialogue across the generations with those who belong to the tradition: only the few can take part in it, while the mass of mankind stays below, assailed by those “undisciplined squads of emotion.” The high culture of the few is, however, a moral necessity for the many, for it permits human reality to show itself, and so to guide our conduct.

But why should the mass of mankind, lost as they are in bathos, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” be guided by “those who know” (to use Dante’s pregnant phrase)? The answer must lie in religion, and in particular in the common language which a traditional religion bestows, both on the high culture of art and on the common culture of a people.

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T. S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor 1 — Roger Scruton

April 29, 2014
T. S. Eliot has been one of the most daring innovators of twentieth-century poetry. Never compromising either with the public or indeed with language itself, he has followed his belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities of modern civilization in language and that such representation necessarily leads to difficult poetry. Despite this difficulty his influence on modern poetic diction has been immense. Eliot's poetry from Prufrock (1917) to the Four Quartets (1943) reflects the development of a Christian writer: the early work, especially The Waste Land (1922), is essentially negative, the expression of that horror from which the search for a higher world arises. In Ash Wednesday (1930) and the Four Quartets this higher world becomes more visible; nonetheless Eliot has always taken care not to become a «religious poet». and often belittled the power of poetry as a religious force. However, his dramas Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Family Reunion (1939) are more openly Christian apologies. In his essays, especially the later ones, Eliot advocates a traditionalism in religion, society, and literature that seems at odds with his pioneer activity as a poet. But although the Eliot of Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) is an older man than the poet of The Waste Land, it should not be forgotten that for Eliot tradition is a living organism comprising past and present in constant mutual interaction. Eliot's plays Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman(1959) were published in one volume in 1962; Collected Poems 1909-62 appeared in 1963.

T. S. Eliot has been one of the most daring innovators of twentieth-century poetry. Never compromising either with the public or indeed with language itself, he has followed his belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities of modern civilization in language and that such representation necessarily leads to difficult poetry. Despite this difficulty his influence on modern poetic diction has been immense. Eliot’s poetry from Prufrock (1917) to the Four Quartets (1943) reflects the development of a Christian writer: the early work, especially The Waste Land (1922), is essentially negative, the expression of that horror from which the search for a higher world arises. In Ash Wednesday (1930) and the Four Quartets this higher world becomes more visible; nonetheless Eliot has always taken care not to become a «religious poet». and often belittled the power of poetry as a religious force. However, his dramas Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Family Reunion (1939) are more openly Christian apologies. In his essays, especially the later ones, Eliot advocates a traditionalism in religion, society, and literature that seems at odds with his pioneer activity as a poet. But although the Eliot of Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) is an older man than the poet of The Waste Land, it should not be forgotten that for Eliot tradition is a living organism comprising past and present in constant mutual interaction. Eliot’s plays Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman(1959) were published in one volume in 1962; Collected Poems 1909-62 appeared in 1963.

This essay is all over the web, on various sites, wherever and I shamelessly reblog it here because I keep all manner of good stuff on payingattentiontothesky.com because it becomes searchable (as all websites are) by logging on the the google search engine, entering the site name followed by a colon and the search item. So if you are looking for Thomas Aquinas info on payingattentiontothesky, it would look something like this: www. payingattentiontothesky.com: Thomas Aquinas and waalaa any number of stuff and links suddenly appears. Ain’t that the cat’s ass? As long as you can remember that you read it here, you’re home free.

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Eliot attempted to shape a philosophy for our times that would be richer and more true to the complexity of human needs than the free-market panaceas that have so often dominated the thinking of conservatives in government. He assigned a central place in his social thinking to high culture. He was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding artistic modernism and social traditionalism to be different facets of a common enterprise.

Modernism in art was, for Eliot, an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture.T. S. Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. His social and political vision is contained in all his writings, and has been absorbed and reabsorbed by generations of English and American readers, upon whom it exerts an almost mystical fascination — even when they are moved, as many are, to reject it. Without Eliot, the philosophy of Toryism would have lost all substance during the last century. And while not explicitly intending it, Eliot set this philosophy on a higher plane, intellectually, spiritually, and stylistically, than has ever been reached by the adherents of the socialist idea. 

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888, and educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Merton College, Oxford, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, whose Hegelian vision of society exerted a profound influence over him. He came, as did so many educated Americans of his generation, from a profoundly religious and public-spirited background, although his early poems suggest a bleak and despairing agnosticism, which he only gradually and painfully overcame.

In 1914 he met Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to settle in England. He married during the following year, which also saw the publication of his first successful poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This work, together with the other short poems that were published along with it as Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, profoundly altered the course of English literature. They were the first truly modernist works in English, although the most visible influences on their imagery and diction were not English but French — specifically, the fin-de-siècle irony of Laforgue, and the symbolism of Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Verlaine. They were also social poems, concerned to express a prevailing collective mood, even when dressed in the words of a specific protagonist. The wartime generation found themselves in these poems, in a way that they had not found themselves in the pseudo-romantic literature of the Edwardian period.

Shortly afterwards Eliot published a book of essays, The Sacred Wood, which was to be as influential as the early poetry. In these essays, Eliot presented his new and exacting theory of the role of criticism, of the necessity for criticism if our literary culture is to survive. For Eliot, it is no accident that criticism and poetry so often come together in the same intelligence — as in his own case, and the case of Coleridge, whom he singled out as the finest of English critics.

For the critic, like the poet, is concerned to develop the “sensibility” of his reader — by which term Eliot meant a kind of intelligent observation of the human world. Critics do not abstract or generalize: they look, and record what they see. But in doing so, they also convey a sense of what matters in human experience, distinguishing the false from the genuine emotion. While Eliot was to spell out only gradually and obscurely over many years just what he meant by “sensibility,” his elevated conception of the critic’s role struck a chord in many of his readers. Furthermore, The Sacred Wood contained essays that were to revolutionize literary taste. The authoritative tone of these essays gave rise to the impression that the modern world was at last making itself heard in literature — and that its voice was T. S. Eliot’s.

The Sacred Wood turned the attention of the literary world to the “metaphysical poets” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to the Elizabethan dramatists — the lesser predecessors and the heirs of Shakespeare, whose raw language, rich with the sensation of the thing described, provided a telling contrast to the sentimental sweetness that Eliot condemned in his immediate contemporaries. There is also an essay on Dante, discussing a question that was frequently to trouble Eliot — that of the relationship between poetry and belief. To what extent could one appreciate the poetry of the Divine Comedy while rejecting the doctrine that had inspired it? This question was a real one for Eliot, for several reasons.

Eliot was — like his fellow modernists and contemporaries, Ezra Pound and James Joyce — profoundly influenced by Dante, whose limpid verse-form, colloquial style, and solemn philosophy created a vision of the ideal in poetry. At the same time, he rejected the theological vision of the Divine Comedy — rejected it with a deep sense of loss. Yet in his own poetry the voice of Dante would constantly return, offering him turns of phrase, lightning flashes of thought, and — most of all — a vision of the modern world from a point of view outside it, a point of view irradiated by an experience of holiness (albeit an experience that he did not then share). And when Eliot did finally come to share in this vision, he wrote, in the last of the Four Quartets, the most brilliant of all imitations of Dante in English — an imitation which is something far finer than an imitation, in which the religious vision of Dante is transported and translated into the world of modern England.

One other essay in The Sacred Wood deserves mention — ”Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which Eliot introduces the term which best summarizes his contribution to the political consciousness of the twentieth century: tradition. In this essay Eliot argues that true originality is possible only within a tradition — and further, that every tradition must be remade by the genuine artist, in the very act of creating something new. A tradition is a living thing, and just as each writer is judged in terms of those who went before, so does the meaning of the tradition change as new works are added to it. It was this literary idea of a living tradition that was gradually to permeate Eliot’s thinking, and to form the core of his social and political philosophy.

Prufrock and The Sacred Wood already help us to understand the paradox of T. S. Eliot — that our greatest literary modernist should also be our greatest modern conservative. The man who overthrew the nineteenth century in literature and inaugurated the age of free verse, alienation, and experiment was also the man who, in 1928, was to describe himself as “classical in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” This seeming paradox contains a clue to Eliot’s greatness as a social and political thinker.

For Eliot recognized that it is precisely in modern conditions — conditions of fragmentation, heresy, and unbelief — that the conservative project acquires its sense. Conservatism is itself a modernism, and in this fact lies the secret of its success. What distinguishes Burke from the French revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but rather his desire to live fully in the concrete present, to understand the present in all its imperfections, and to accept the present as the only reality that is offered to us. Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world.

IN 1922 Eliot founded the Criterion, a literary quarterly which he continued to edit until 1939, when he discontinued the journal under the pressure of “depression of spirits” induced by “the present state of public affairs.” As the title of the journal suggests, the project was animated by Eliot’s sense of the importance of criticism, and of the futility of modernist experiments when not informed by literary judgement and moral seriousness. The journal also contained social philosophy of a conservative persuasion — although Eliot preferred the word “classicism” as a description of its political outlook.

The Criterion was the forum in which much of our modernist literature was first published, including the poetry of Pound, Empson, Auden, and Spender. Its first issue contained the work which established Eliot himself as the greatest poet of his generation: The Waste Land. This poem seemed to its first readers to capture completely the disillusionment and emptiness that followed the hollow victory of the First World War — the conflict in which European civilization had committed suicide, just as Greek civilization had done in the Peloponnesian War. Yet the poem hardly mentioned the war, had none of the vivid imagery of battle that English readers knew from the works of Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and was choc-a-bloc with references to and quotations from a scholar’s library. Its ostensible subject-matter was drawn from works of armchair anthropology — in particular, from Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough, a work which had also provided the title of The Sacred Wood.

The Waste Land was later republished with notes in which Eliot explained some of his references and allusions, such as that contained in the title, which alludes to the Fisher King of the Parsifal legend, and the waste land over which he presides, awaiting the hero who will ask the questions that will destroy winter’s bleak enchantment and renew the world. The allegory of modern civilization contained in this reference to the medieval fertility cults, and their literary transformation in Arthurian romance, was not lost on Eliot’s readers. Nor was it the first time that these symbols and legends of medieval romance had been put to such a use — witness Wagner’s Parsifal, to which Eliot refers obliquely, by quoting from Verlaine’s poem.

Nevertheless, there was a peculiar poignancy in the very erudition of the poem, as though the whole of Western culture were being brought to bear on the desert landscape of the modern city in a last effort to encompass it, to internalize it, and to understand its meaning. The use of anthropological conceptions parallels Wagner’s use of the Teutonic myths. (In The Waste Land there are more quotations from Wagner than from any other poet.) Eliot is invoking the religious worldview — and in particular the sense that life’s renewal depends upon supernatural forces — but as a fact about human consciousness rather than an item of religious belief. In this way, he was able to avail himself of religious ideas and imagery without committing himself to any religious belief. As he was rapidly discovering, without religious ideas the true condition of the modern world cannot be described. Only by describing modernity from a point of view outside of history can we grasp the extent of our spiritual loss.

After The Waste Land Eliot continued to write poetry inspired by the agonizing dissociation, as he saw it, between the sensibility of our culture and the available experience of the modern world. This phase of his development culminated in a profound Christian statement — the poem Ash Wednesday, in which he abandoned his anthropological manner and announced his conversion to the Anglo-Catholic faith. By now Eliot was ready to take up his own peculiar cross: the cross of membership. No longer playing the part of spiritual and political exile, he threw in his lot with the tradition to which his favorite authors had belonged. He became a British citizen, joined the Anglican Church, and wrote his great verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral. In a series of essays, he praised the writings of sixteenth-century Anglican divines and attacked the secular heresies of his time.

This phase of Eliot’s development at length led to After Strange Gods, a “primer of modern heresy,” in which he expressed his conservative antipathy to secular doctrine. It was Eliot’s first of several attempts at social philosophy, of which the two most famous are The Idea of a Christian Society (1940) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948).

Both these works are marked by a tentativeness and anxiety about the new condition of Europe, which make them far less clear guides to Eliot’s vision than the great poem which he wrote at the same time, a poem which has been, for many of my generation, the essential account of our spiritual crisis — and the greatest message of hope that has been given to us. Four Quartets is a profound exploration of spiritual possibilities, in which the poet seeks and finds the vision outside time in which time and history are redeemed. It is a religious work, and at the same time a work of extraordinary lyric power, like the Cimetière marin of Valéry, but vastly more mature in its underlying philosophy.

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SEX 2 From Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy

April 10, 2014
Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings. The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.

Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings. The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.

The intentionality of desire is the topic for a book, and since I have written that book, I shall confine myself here to a few remarks. My hope is to put philosophy to its best use, which is that of shoring up the human world against the corrosive seas of pseudo-science. In true sexual desire, the aim is union with the other, where ‘the other’ denotes a particular person, with a particular perspective on my actions.

The reciprocity which is involved in this aim is achieved in a state of mutual arousal, and the interpersonal character of arousal determines the nature of the ‘union’ that is sought. All desire is compromising, and the choice to express it or to yield to it is an existential choice, in which the self is, or may be, in danger.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the sexual act is surrounded by prohibitions; it brings with it a weight of shame, guilt and jealousy, as well as the heights of joy and happiness. It is inconceivable that a morality of pure permission should issue from the right conception of such a compromising force, and, as I argue in Sexual Desire, the traditional morality, in which monogamous heterosexual union, enshrined in a vow rather than a contract, is the norm, shows far more sensitivity to what is at stake than any of the known alternatives.

If it is so difficult now to see the point of that morality, it is in part because human sexual conduct has been redescribed by the pseudo-science of sexology, and as a result not only robbed of its interpersonal intentionality, but also profoundly demoralized. In redescribing the human world in this way, we also change it. We introduce new forms of sexual feeling – shaped by the desire for an all-comprehending permission. The sexual sacrament gives way to a sexual market; and the result is a fetishism of the sexual commodity.

Richard Posner, for example, in his worthless but influential book entitled Sex and Reason (but which should have been called Sex and Instrumental Reason), opens his first chapter with the following sentence: There is sexual behavior, having to do mainly with excitation of the sexual organs.’ In reality, of course, sexual behaviour has to do with courtship, desire, love, jealousy, marriage, grief, joy and intrigue. Such excitement as occurs is excitement of the whole person. As for the sexual organs, they can be as ‘excited’ (if that is the word) by a bus journey as by the object of desire. Nevertheless, Posner’s description of desire is necessary, if he is to fulfil his aim of deriving a morality of sexual conduct from the analysis of cost and benefit (which, apparently, is what is meant by ‘reason’). So what are the ‘costs’ of sexual gratification?

One is the cost of search. It is zero for masturbation, considered as a solitary activity, which is why it is the cheapest of practices. (The qualification is important: ‘mutual masturbation’, heterosexual or homosexual, is a form of nonvaginal intercourse, and its search costs are positive.)

Posner proceeds to consider hypothetical cases: for example, the case where a man sets a ‘value’ of ‘twenty’ on ‘sex’ with a ‘woman of average attractiveness’, and a ‘value’ of ‘two’ on ‘sex’ with a ‘male substitute’. If you adopt such language, then you have made woman (and man too) into a sex object and sex into a commodity. You have redescribed the human world as a world of things; you have abolished the sacred, the prohibited and the protected, and presented sex as a relation between aliens: ‘Th’expence of spirit in a waste of shame’, in Shakespeare’s famous words. Posner’s language is opaque to what is wanted in sexual desire; it reduces the other person to an instrument of pleasure, a means of obtaining something that could have been provided equally by another person, by an animal, by a rubber doll or a piece of Kleenex.

Well, you might say, why not, if people are happier that way? In whose interest is it, to retain the old form of desire, with its individualizing intentionality, its hopeless yearnings, its furies and jealousies, its lifelong commitments and lifelong griefs?

Modern philosophers shy away from such questions, although they were much discussed in the ancient world. Rather than consider the long-term happiness and fulfillment of the individual, the modern philosopher tends to reduce the problem of sexual morality to one of rights — do we have a right to engage in, or to forbid, this or that sexual practice?

From such a question liberal conclusions follow as a matter of course; but it is a question that leaves the ground of sexual morality unexplored. This ground is not to be discovered in the calculus of rights and duties, but in the theory of virtue. What matters in sexual morality is the distinction between virtuous and vicious dispositions. I have already touched on this distinction in the last chapter, when considering the basis of our moral thinking. I there emphasized the role of virtue in creating the foundations of moral order. But it is also necessary, if we are to give objective grounds for the pursuit of virtue, to show how the happiness and fulfilment of the person are furthered by virtue and jeopardized by vice.

This, roughly speaking, is the task that Aristotle set himself in the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he tried to show that the deep questions of morality concern the education of the moral being, rather than the rules governing his adult conduct. Virtue belongs to character, rather than to the rules of social dialogue, and arises through an extended process of moral development. The virtuous person is disposed to choose those courses of action which contribute to his flourishing – his flourishing, not just as an animal, but as a rational being or person, as that which he essentially is. In educating a child I am educating his habits, and it is therefore clear that I shall always have a reason to inculcate virtuous habits, not only for my sake, but also for his own.

At the same time, we should not think of virtue as a means only. The virtuous person is the one who has the right choice of ends. Virtue is the disposition to want, and therefore to choose, certain things for their own sakes, despite the warring tendency of appetite. Courage, for example, is the disposition to choose the honorable course of action, in face of danger. It is the disposition to overcome fear, for the sake of that judged to be right. All rational beings have an interest in acquiring courage, since without it they can achieve what they really want only by luck, and only in the absence of adversity.

Sexual virtue is similar: the disposition to choose the course of action judged to be right, despite temptation. Education should be directed towards the special kind of temperance which shows itself, sometimes as chastity, sometimes as fidelity, sometimes as passionate desire, according to the ‘right judgement’ of the subject. The virtuous person desires the person whom he may also love, who can and will return his desire, and to whom he may commit himself. In the consummation of such a desire there is neither shame nor humiliation, and the ‘nuptuality’ of the erotic impulse finds the space that it needs in order to flourish.

The most important feature of traditional sexual education is summarized in anthropological language as the ‘ethic of pollution and taboo’. The child was taught to regard his body as sacred, and as subject to pollution by misperception or misuse. The sense of pollution is by no means a trivial side-effect of the ‘bad sexual encounter’: it may involve a penetrating disgust, at oneself, one’s body, one’s situation, such as is experienced by the victim of rape. Those sentiments express the tension contained within our experience of embodiment.

At any moment we can become ‘mere body’, the self driven from its incarnation, and its habitation ransacked. The most important root idea of sexual morality is that I am in my body, not as a ‘ghost in the machine’, but as an incarnate self. My body is identical with me: subject and object are merely two aspects of a single thing, and sexual purity is the guarantee of this.

Sexual virtue does not forbid desire: it simply ensures the status of desire as an interpersonal feeling. The child who learns ‘dirty habits’ detaches his sex from himself, sets it outside himself as something curious and alien in the world of objects. His fascinated enslavement to the body is also a withering of desire, a scattering of erotic energy and a loss of union with the other. Sexual virtue sustains the subject of desire, making him present as a self in the very act which overcomes him.

Traditional sexual education also involved a sustained war against fantasy. Fantasy plays an important part in our sexual doings, and even the most passionate and faithful lover may, in the act of love, rehearse to himself other scenes of sexual abandon than the one in which he is engaged. Nevertheless, there is truth in the Freudian contrast between fantasy and reality, and in the belief that the first is in some way destructive of the second. Fantasy replaces the real, resistant, objective world with a pliant substitute – and that, indeed, is its purpose.

Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings.

The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.

The sexual world of the fantasist is a world without subjects, in which others appear as objects only. And should the fantasy take possession of him so far as to require that another person submit to it, the result is invariably indecent, tending to rape. The words that I quoted from Richard Posner are indecent in just the way that one must expect, when people no longer see the object of desire as a subject, wanted as such.

Sexual morality returns us, then, to the great conundrum around which these chapters have revolved: the conundrum of the subject, and his relation to the world of space and time.

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SEX 1 From An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy — Roger Scruton

April 9, 2014
Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination. That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbors the victim's freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain - and it is only what might be called the 'charm of disenchantment' that leads people to receive these daft descriptions as the truth.

Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination. That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbors the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain – and it is only what might be called the ‘charm of disenchantment’ that leads people to receive these daft descriptions as the truth.

I read a lot of Roger Scruton, simply because he makes such great sense. Nowhere does the modern liberal philosophy tank  into meaninglessness is over sex related issues, from abortion to womens’ issues to gay marriage, you can’t spend more than 3 minutes with these masters of the universe that a well-reasoned piece by Peter Kreeft or Roger Scruton wouldn’t demolish easily. Read on.

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Sex is the sphere in which the animal and the personal meet, and where the clash between the scientific and the personal view of things is felt most keenly. It therefore provides the test of any serious moral philosophy, and of any viable theory of the human world.

Until the late nineteenth century it was almost impossible to discuss sex, except as part of erotic love, and even then convention required that the peculiarities of sexual desire remain unmentioned. When the interdiction was finally lifted – by such writers as Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis – it was through offering a ‘scientific’ approach to a widespread natural phenomenon. Such was the prestige of science that any investigation conducted in its name could call on powerful currents of social approval, which were sufficient to overcome the otherwise crippling reluctance to face the realities of sexual experience.

As a result, modern discussions of this experience have been conducted in a ‘scientized’ idiom which, by its very nature, removes sex from the sphere of interpersonal relations, and remodels it as a relation between objects. Freud’s shocking revelations, introduced as neutral, ‘scientific’ truths about the human condition, were phrased in the terms which are now more or less standard.

According to Freud, the aim of sexual desire is ‘union of the genitals in the act known as copulation, which leads to a release of the sexual tension and a temporary extinction of the sexual instinct – a satisfaction analogous to the sating of hunger’. This scientistic image of sexual desire gave rise, in due course, to the Kinsey report, and is now part of the standard merchandise of disenchantment. It seems to me that it is entirely false, and could become true only by so affecting our sexual emotions, as to change them into emotions of another kind.

What exactly is sexual pleasure? Is it like the pleasure of eating and drinking? Like that of lying in a hot bath? Like that of watching your child at play? Clearly it is both like and unlike all of these. It is unlike the pleasure of eating, in that its object is not consumed. It is unlike the pleasure of the bath, in that it involves taking pleasure in an activity, and in the other person who joins you. It is unlike that of watching your child at play, in involving bodily sensations and a surrender to physical desire.

Sexual pleasure resembles the pleasure of watching something, however, in a crucial respect: it has intentionality. It is not just a tingling sensation; it is a response to another person, and to the act in which you are engaged with him or her. The other person may be imaginary: but it is towards a person that your thoughts are directed, and pleasure depends on thought.

This dependency on thought means that sexual pleasure can be mistaken, and ceases when the mistake is known. Although I would be a fool not to jump out of the soothing bath after being told that what I took for water is really acid, this is not because I have ceased to feel pleasurable sensations in my skin. In the case of sexual pleasure, the discovery that it is an unwanted hand that touches me at once extinguishes my pleasure. The pleasure could not be taken as confirming the hitherto unacknowledged sexual virtues of some previously rejected person.

A woman who makes love to the man who has disguised himself as her husband is no less the victim of rape, and the discovery of her mistake can lead to suicide. It is not simply that consent obtained by fraud is not consent; it is that the woman has been violated, in the very act which caused her pleasure.

What makes a pleasure into a sexual pleasure is the context of arousal. And arousal is not the same as tumescence. It is a leaning towards’ the other, a movement in the direction of the sexual act, which cannot be separated, either from the thoughts on which it is founded, or from the desire to which it leads. Arousal is a response to the thought of the other as a self-conscious agent, who is alert to me, and who is able to have ‘designs’ on me. This is evident from the caress and the glance of desire.

A caress of affection is a gesture of reassurance – an attempt to place in the consciousness of the other an image of one’s own tender concern for him. Not so, however, the caress of desire, which outlines the body of the recipient; its gentleness is not that of reassurance only, but that of exploration. It aims to fill the surface of the other’s body with a consciousness of your interest – interest, not only in the body, but in the person as embodied. This consciousness is the focal point of the other’s pleasure. Sartre writes (Being and Nothingness) of the caress as ‘incarnating’ the other: as though, by your action, you bring the soul into the flesh (the subject into the object) and make it palpable.

The caress is given and received with the same awareness as the glance is given and received. They each have an epistemic component (a component of anticipation and discovery). It is hardly surprising, given this, that the face should have such supreme and overriding importance in the transactions of sexual desire. On the scientistic view of sex it is hard to explain why this should be so – why the face should have the power to determine whether we will, or will not, be drawn to seek pleasure in another part.

But of course, the face is the picture of the other’s subjectivity: it shines with the light of self, and it is as an embodied subject that the other is wanted. Perversion and obscenity involve the eclipse of the subject, as the body and its mechanism are placed in frontal view. In obscenity flesh becomes opaque to the self which lives in it: that is why there is an obscenity of violence as well as an obscenity of sex.

A caress may be either accepted or rejected: in either case, it is because it has been ‘read’ as conveying a message sent from you to me. I do not receive this message as an explicit act of meaning something, but as a process of mutual discovery, a growing to awareness in you which is also a coming to awareness in me. In the first impulse of arousal, therefore, there is the beginning of that chain of reciprocity which is fundamental to interpersonal attitudes. She conceives her lover conceiving her conceiving him … not ad infinitum, but to the point of mutual recognition of the other, as fully present in his body.

Sexual arousal has, then, an epistemic and interpersonal intentionality. It is a response to another individual, based in revelation and discovery, and involving a reciprocal and co-operative heightening of the common experience of embodiment. It is not directed beyond the other, to the world at large; nor is it transferable to a rival object who might ‘do just as well’. Of course, arousal may have its origin in highly generalized thoughts, which flit libidinously from object to object.

But when these thoughts have concentrated into the experience of arousal their generality is put aside; it is then the other who counts, and his particular embodiment. Not only the other, but I myself, and the sense of my bodily reality in the other’s perspective. Hence arousal, in the normal case, seeks seclusion in a private place, where only the other is relevant to my attention. Indeed, arousal attempts to abolish what is not private – in particular to abolish the perspective of the onlooker, of the ‘third person’ who is neither you nor I.

I explored some of the ways in which the subject is realized in the world of objects, and placed great emphasis on intention, and the distinction between predicting and deciding for the future. But it should not be supposed that the subject is revealed only through voluntary activity.

On the contrary, of equal importance are those reactions which cannot be willed but only predicted, but which are nevertheless peculiar to self-conscious beings. Blushing is a singular instance. Although an involuntary matter, and – from the physiological point of view – a mere rushing of blood to the head, blushing is the expression of a complex thought, and one that places the self on view. My blush is an involuntary recognition of my accountability before you for what I am and what I feel. It is an acknowledgement that I stand in the light of your perspective, and that I cannot hide in my body. A blush is attractive because it serves both to embody the perspective of the other, and also at the same time to display that perspective as responsive to me.

The same is true of unguarded glances and smiles, through which the other subject rises to the surface of his body and makes himself visible. In smiling, blushing, laughing and crying, it is precisely my loss of control over my body, and its gain of control over me, that create the immediate experience of an incarnate person. The body ceases at these moments to be an instrument, and reasserts its natural rights as a person. In such expressions the face does not function merely as a bodily part, but as the whole person: the self is spread across its surface, and there ‘made flesh’.

The concepts and categories that we use to describe the embodied person are far removed from the science of the human body. What place in such a science for smiles as opposed to grimaces, for blushes as opposed to flushes, for glances as opposed to looks? In describing your color as a blush, I am seeing you as a responsible agent, and situating you in the realm of embarrassment and self-knowledge. If we try to describe sexual desire with the categories of human biology, we miss precisely the intentionality of sexual emotion, its directedness towards the embodied subject.

The caricature that results describes not desire but perversion. Freud’s description of desire is the description of something that we know and shun – or ought to shun. An excitement which concentrates on the sexual organs, whether of man or of woman, which seeks, as it were, to bypass the complex negotiation of the face, hands, voice and posture, is perverted. It voids desire of its intentionality, and replaces it with a pursuit of the sexual commodity, which can always be had for a price.

It is part of the intentionality of desire that a particular person is conceived as its object. To someone agitated by his desire for Jane, it is ridiculous to say, ‘Take Henrietta, she will do just as well.’ Thus there arises the possibility of mistakes of identity. Jacob’s desire for Rachel seemed to be satisfied by his night with Leah, only to the extent that, and for as long as, Jacob imagined it was Rachel with whom he was lying. (Genesis 29, v. 22-25; and see the wonderful realization of this little drama in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers.)

Our sexual emotions are founded on individualizing thoughts: it is you whom I want and no other. This individualizing intentionality does not merely stem from the fact that it is persons (in other words, individuals) whom we desire. It stems from the fact that the other is desired as an embodied subject, and not just as a body. You can see the point by drawing a contrast between desire and hunger (a contrast that is expressly negated by Freud). Suppose that people were the only edible things; and suppose that they felt no pain on being eaten and were reconstituted at once.

How many formalities and apologies would now be required in the satisfaction of hunger! People would learn to conceal their appetite, and learn not to presume upon the consent of those whom they surveyed with famished glances. It would become a crime to partake of a meal without the meal’s consent. Maybe marriage would be the best solution.

Still, this predicament is nothing like the predicament in which we are placed by desire. It arises from the lack of anything impersonal to eat, but not from the nature of hunger. Hunger is directed towards the other only as object, and any similar object will serve just as well. It does not individualize the object, or propose any other union than that required by need.

When sexual attentions take such a form, they become deeply insulting. And in every form they compromise not only the person who addresses them, but also the person addressed. Precisely because desire proposes a relation between subjects, it forces both parties to account for themselves. Unwanted advances are therefore also forbidden by the one to whom they might be addressed, and any transgression is felt as a contamination.

That is why rape is so serious a crime: it is an invasion of the sanctuary which harbors the victim’s freedom, and a dragging of the subject into the world of things. If you describe desire in the scientistic terms used by Freud and his followers, the outrage and pollution of rape become impossible to explain. In fact, just about everything in human sexual behavior becomes impossible to explain – and it is only what might be called the ‘charm of disenchantment’ that leads people to receive these daft descriptions as the truth.

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