Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World

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The Soul of the World . Roger Scruton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.


These Stanton Lectures at the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge in 2011 are very much a companion series to Scruton’s Gifford Lectures of 2010, The Face of God (London: Continuum, 2012). Both books explore the themes of the Other, God, the natural world and politics – readers of Order and History will recognize at least three of Voegelin’s “quaternarian structure” of “God and man, world and society.” The companionate relationship between The Face of God and The Soul of the World means that anything insufficiently elaborated in one volume is generally more generously explained in the other. Taken together, they are an invariably stimulating and at times provocative recovery of these key sources of order in human existence.

Scruton announces his approach in the Preface: “My intention has been to draw on philosophical discussion of mind, art, music, politics and law in order to define what is at stake in the current disputes over the nature and ground of religious belief” (vii). Chapter 1, “Believing in God” disposes of evolutionary arguments as sufficient explanations of religious experience, invoking Thomas “Nagel’s view [that] it is a law of nature [all italics are Scruton’s] that our scientific thinking tends toward the truth.” Our reason for believing a scientific theory like that of evolution is “only because we trust that the directedness of our thinking is not an accidental by-product of the evolutionary process but an independent guide to the way things are . . .” (7).

Scruton suggests that atheists are required to deal with “the content of the belief, rather than arguments directed at its origins” (10). Voegelin referred to two approaches to the question of transcendence in classical Greek philosophy – the Ionians and Aristotle by questioning the cosmos, Parmenides and Plato by questioning human consciousness. Scruton’s “cosmological” and “psychological” approaches to transcendence seem equivalent to these, though he goes beyond them in arguing that the neglected content of religious experience is in its quest to be addressed from “the edge of things,” “the far horizon of our world” as “I to I” (26).

Chapter 2, “Looking for People” develops Scruton’s philosophical method regarding the human person in terms of what he calls “cognitive dualism” (34). He has already referred to Robert Spaemann’s On the Difference between Someone and Something (32n). So, while accepting the legitimacy of the (natural) scientific approach to the human, grasped by “explanation,” he advocates something like Dithey’s verstehen or “interpretation” for the specifically human level of existence he calls, following Husserl, the Lebenswelt (33). He speaks of “the explanatory priority of science” in its understanding of “the order of nature,” which is “ontologically prior” to the Lebenswelt.

However “the Lebenswelt is irreducible” to that order of nature (36). Voegelin would hardly have accepted “cognitive dualism” as an adequate category for his two modes of cognitive experience, “intentionality” and “luminosity” (In Search of Order, 1987, 15–16); however, taken loosely, they perhaps enrich Scruton’s two forms of cognition. In fact, throughout the book, I found myself wishing Scruton had cast his net wider to other philosophical traditions that have explored the issues that concern him most in both The Face of God and The Soul of the World, but particularly to the kind of thinking advanced by David Walsh (in Guarded by Mystery and his forthcoming Politics of the Person), which would require him to articulate more forcefully the transcendent-immanent reality of the person.

As a key example of this specifically human level of existence, Scruton focuses (43–47) on the “aboutness” of human intentionality (for Scruton, this is never confined to our perception of the material level of existence, so it does not correspond to Voegelin’s notion of intentional consciousness). He argues that Dennett’s notion of “the intentional stance . . . presupposes that the creature taking the intentional stance . . .can himself be explained nonintentionally . . . ”(44). The key issue in his inquiry is the centrality of the I-You relationship and how this is expressed in terms of ‘interpersonal dialogue’ within the context of our responsibility for one another (48).

In Chapter 3, “Looking at the Brain,” Scruton especially critiques the claims of philosophers like Patricia Churchland with her labelling of our normal experiences of self-awareness and the language by which we describe it as “folk psychology” (51). For Scruton, treating our subjective first person awareness as if it were an object(ive) reality that can adequately be explained in third-person terms overlooks what he calls “the deep grammar of self-reference” (63). In a recognizably Kantian way, the strongest instance of first person awareness is our freedom (69). And again, Scruton more or less paraphrases Kant for his key argument against the “nothing buttery” (39) of the claims of some neuro-philosophers: “The unity of the self-conscious subject is not the conclusion of any inquiry, but the presupposition of all inquiries. The unity of consciousness ‘transcends’ all argument since it is the premise without which argument makes no sense” (72).

Chapter 4, “The First-Person Plural” – which I feel goes to the heart of the book’s argument –continues the previous discussion, with Scruton writing: “First-person awareness and practical reason (the giving and taking of reasons for action) are the forces that shape the human person” (76). And he again underlines the centrality of interpersonal relationships in his thinking: “. . . the world of obligations and rights is not an artificial imposition designed to serve the purpose of some sovereign power, but rather the natural outgrowth of the I-You encounter” (80). If I may extend the comparison with Voegelin’s notion of luminosity, Scruton is carving out a notion of human moral action as essentially transcendent. In language that we will see echoes that of Gabriel Marcel, Scruton brings out what a promise implies: ‘In seeing myself as a you in your eyes, I am lifted outside myself . . . and I demand the same of you” (81). Marcel speaks of how:

“In swearing fidelity to a person, I do not know what future awaits or even, in a sense, what person he will be tomorrow; the very fact of my not knowing is what gives worth and weight to my promise . . . To make it a point of honour to fulfil a commitment – what else is this but putting the accent on the supra-temporal identity of the subject who contracts it and carries it out?” (Being and Having, London: Fontana, 1965, 53, 60)

Scruton goes on to discuss different kinds of rights, disagreeing with John Rawls’ approach to justice, “which sees justice as a property of distributions and outcomes” (89). Rather, under his heading of “Noncontractual Obligations” he writes:

“I want to explore the way in which the human world reaches beyond the boundaries of justice, towards obligations that are bequeathed and bestowed, rather than created.” He continues, in language that recalls what Voegelin has to say about “existential virtues” (Collected Works, vol. 12, 88).

“Thus many of the relations that are most important to us cannot be captured by the terms of a contract: affection, friendship, love all reach beyond the bounds of mere agreement, to involve a kind of unconditional giving to the other that might expect reciprocity but does not demand it.” (89)

Scruton gives as an example the “vow of marriage” which “creates an existential tie, not a set of specifiable obligations” (90). He points to the contemporary “triumph of the contractual view of marriage” involving “a retreat from the world of ‘substantial ties’ to a world of mere negotiated deals. And the world of vows is a world of sacred things” (90f.). In language recalling Adorno’s noting in Minima Moralia that the spouse in marriage is “unsubstitutable,” Scruton speaks of how in relationships which “invest the other with a unique value and distinguish him from all others in the universe,” “[p]eople find themselves bound by nontransferable attachments” (93).

In the final section of this chapter, “Beyond the Covenant” he lists “vows of marriage, obligations toward parents and children, sacred ties to home and country” as needing “to be rescued from the corrosions of the will, made inflexible and ‘eternal’” to secure society “against the forces of selfish desire.” That is, over against the secularizing effects of finite obligations “dependent on individual choice” (94). For Scruton, this reduction of vowed existence “comes about when we cease to relate [the world’s] meaning to its transcendental source” (95).

Chapter 5, “Facing Each Other” enriches what Scruton’s been saying in the previous chapter by discussing the “mystery of the ‘real presence’” – how persons are “on the edge of things,” objects in a world of objects yet addressed as subjects, each appearing to the other through our “face” (96). The face belongs with freedom and responsibility “as part of the interpersonal understanding of the world” (97). When confronting Mary face to face, “I am confronting her, the individual centre of consciousness, the free being who reveals herself in the face as another like me” (97).

Further on in the chapter Scruton explores our subjectivity and its fall under the heading of “The Myth of Origins.” As elsewhere, he tends to fuse a wide range of experiences, including myth and revelation in a way that I think was better differentiated by Voegelin, including his comment that the Genesis account of creation and the fall “is a fiction, although a fiction that illustrates a truth” (107). I would suggest Voegelin’s notion of “the true story” (In Search of Order, 1987, 23f) for a more adequate treatment of Genesis, both as an account of origins and of the fall. There is also an excursion on Hegel’s dialectic, self-consciousness and freedom that I felt would have gained from a more experiential account (109–14). However, his conclusion carries the discussion forward: “The face for us is the real presence of a person; it is the image of freedom, shaped by the demands of social life” (113).

“Facing the Earth” is the title of Chapter 6, which explores the social dimension of interpersonality, and begins by remarking that the human condition “emerged from the natural order, but is not a part of it” (116). For human political existence, the “evolutionary story” may describe “the machinery behind the backdrop that, even if revealed, would have no intelligible relation to the action on the stage” (117). Rather, a Fustel de Coulanges in 1864 will see the city as a sanctuary, a holy place bestowed on its inhabitants by the gods, and Scruton reminds us of the Jewish Temple, at the Holy City’s edge, and Augustine’s pointing towards the City of God as “the ideal of all our settlements” (119–22). There is a longish section drawn from an early fictional work by Scruton (124ff), where he is bringing out how towns and farmed landscape are analogous to the human face, enabling us to have a kind of I-You relationship with the world (see 136–38). With the corollary: “Environmental degradation comes in just the same way that moral degradation comes, through representing people and places in impersonal ways, as objects to be used rather than as subjects to be respected” (139).

Chapter 7, “The Sacred Space of Music” is the longest chapter in the book, and it can be seen as extending his approach to the natural world as a cipher of the sacred. Later on in the chapter, speaking of “the useless space of music” he applies to it Rilke’s phrase, “a godly home” and continues: “It therefore offers an icon of . . . religious experience . . .” (166). Just as our material surroundings can be degraded, under the heading of “Mass Culture and Addiction” he explains how a repetitive, uncreative style of music, “in which the I-You intentionality is no longer the focus of attention” (151) can take over. (He suggests checking out the video of Technohead’s “I Wanna Be a Hippy” as an example.) This loss of focus may express “a culture of idolatry, in which freedom and personality are obliterated by intrusive images, clamoring for an addictive response.” And such a culture is a “retreat from the order of the covenant to the order of nature” (174).

Scruton’s final Chapter 8, “Seeking God,” begins by clarifying why the book was written: “to introduce the reader to two fundamental thoughts: first, that the I-You intentionality projects itself beyond the boundary of the natural world, and second, that in doing so it uncovers our religious need” (175). There follows some movingly profound thoughts on death – paradoxically itself a cipher of transcendence for us. He quotes Philip Larkin’s Aubade:

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here.

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

To avoid this, Larkin continues, “Religion used to try, / That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die . . .” (179) However, Scruton is certainly not pretending we never die. He outlines how, rather than Girard’s sacrificial violence, “it is self-sacrifice that underpins the moral life, and for the Christian the most vivid of all occurrences of the sacred is the Eucharist, which commemorates God’s own supreme self-sacrifice for the sake of humankind” (182). While appreciating the work of those, like Plantinga, who argue for the God of the philosophers in terms such as the “necessary being,” (185) Scruton, in line with the direction of his inquiry up to now, writes that “our God-directed thoughts demand an encounter . . . with the ‘real presence’ since “he requires us to enter a covenant with him” (186).

He goes on to admit he cannot answer the question “how it is possible that one and the same being should be outside space and time, and yet encountered as a subject within space and time.” And continues: “But then I cannot answer the question asked of you and me, how one and the same being can be an organism, and also a free subject who is called to account in the space of reasons” (186). The Cloud of the Unknowing comes to Scruton’s aid, with its formulation of God’s transcendence: “he can be well loved, but he cannot be thought . . . ” (189)

Scruton rejects Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death (Princeton, 2011) “which argues that we cannot survive death as individuals” but through living Christian agape we achieve a kind of Buddhist “survival without the I” (196f). “And yet it is the I that projects its hopes beyond this world, and it is the overreaching intentionality of the I-to-You relation that makes it so difficult to accept that nothing awaits us save extinction” (197). This is where “cognitive dualism falls short,” since death occurs in the order of nature. Yet with a faith verging on hope, we can go beyond death as annihilation to “greet it as a transition” (197).

In language similar to Voegelin in his “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” Scruton rejects the notion of an “afterlife, conceived as a condition that succeeds death in time.” Rather, we can accept that in death “we are meeting our creator, the one bound to us by covenant, to whom we must account for our faults.” He has quoted Richard Crashaw’s “Come love! Come Lord! And that long day / For which I languish, come away. / . . . When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase, / And for thy veil give me thy Face” (197). And this is the hope underlying his magnificent concluding paragraph:

“To approach death in such a way is therefore to draw near to God; we become, through our works of love and sacrifice, a part of the eternal order; we ‘pass over’ into that other place, so that death is no longer a threat to us. The veil to which Crashaw refers, that hides the face of God, is the ‘fallen world,’ the world of objectified being. The life of prayer rescues us from the Fall, and prepares us for a death that we can meaningfully see as a redemption, since it unites us with the soul of the world.” (198)

For a vigorous, challenging, at times infuriating essay at recovering the order of human existence in its full dimensions from what can seem to be the overwhelmingly successful technological and scientistic culture we all live in, Scruton’s extended meditation can hardly be bettered.

Brendan Purcell

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Brendan Purcell is a Board Member of VoegelinView and an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University in Sydney. He is author of several books, including From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (New City, 2012).