I recently re-watched a brilliant BBC doco, a sort of visual essay, by prominent British conservative (in both the small ‘c’ and big ‘C’ senses) philosopher Roger Scruton, called ‘Why Beauty Matters‘ (has Spanish subtitles for some reason). Scruton is well-known for his Old Right political philosophy, his advocacy of a truly conservative environmentalism, and as an eminent neo-classicist aesthetic philosopher.
I’d seen this BBC doco a few times before and I seem to appreciate it more with each viewing. While certainly I find it hard to thoroughly endorse many of Scruton’s political positions, him occupying a rather distant space on the political spectrum from me, his aesthetic philosophy, which he outlines in ‘Why Beauty Matters’, is something I can wholeheartedly agree with. I used to be rather concerned when, after hearing him speak and finding myself agreeing with him far too often, that this was unearthing some sort of previously unrealised latent rightist tendencies, or dormant rabid conservatism.
But it is in examining his aesthetic philosophy that I find a deep, and broad area of agreement with the unashamedly rightist and conservative Scruton; a fundamental ontology that transcends a rather superficial, consequential political metric that applies labels of Left and Right based solely on degrees of shared policy positions. It is an ontology shared by those on the left who are in tune with, and take seriously the moral commitments that one must necessarily accept to realise truly the goals of the left. And it is an ontology that was never abandoned by those unabashedly conservative thinkers, who, in their deep respect for philosophical tradition and the immutability of truth, never wavered in the face of the unstoppable march of reductive post-modern liberalism, wise to the nihilist conclusion of its utilitarian mission, as advocated by its acolytes on both the New Left and New Right.
It was in large part thanks to Scruton, with huge debts of gratitude to an English posse including some of his conservative forebears like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as well as those far less comfortably identified as being on the right, like the thinker John Milbank, and the intellectual giant, G.K. Chesterton, along with a greater understanding of Māoritanga’s collective communitarian worldview, that helped me get a handle on my innate discomfit with liberals, and brought me to the realisation that liberalism was incompatible with the left and its truly democratic aims.
So even though I share more than a few instances of agreement with the policy positions of those identified as social liberals, it comes from a radically different rationale, philosophical tradition, and a radically different acceptance of facts about reality, and as the liberal dream blindly stumbles closer to its absurd nihilist conclusion, those areas of shared agreement will doubtlessly wither and disappear. All this has brought me to the realisation that I can no longer accurately describe myself as a ‘moderate social liberal’, but fundamentally as an anti-liberal, and as belonging to, certainly the anti-Marxist left (with the Marxists’ materialism collapsing inescapably into the same nihilist abyss, although I admit to a continuing sentimental sympathy towards Marxism), and if not the Old Left, then the pre-modern left. This article/obituary to the leftist bard, Pete Seeger (absent his Stalinist apologism) describes a similar vision to my own [Pete Seeger’s Conservative Socialism], one that has seen the failures of a rigorously scientific socialism, leaving us no place to go but to its seemingly utopian roots.
The ontology laid out by Scruton in ‘Why Beauty Matters’ [that link again – it’s an hour or so, but it’s more than worth the effort] is one primarily platonic, one that sees the fundamental inherent value in beauty. Beauty that is a transcendent and non-natural property, that exists without time, and without space. Beauty that is a visitor to our world from another realm, that is exultant, that elevates us from the vicious inescapability of our causal world and allows us to commune with the unchanging, timeless bliss of eternity. And it is through art that this transcendent quality is physicalised. It is art that brings into communion the material nature of our world, in it’s mundanity and drudgery, and the celestial unreachability of beauty. Scruton wages war on those vandals, committed to what he calls ‘the cult of ugliness’ determined to destroy art, and thus prohibit our access to this inherent good; beauty. Those nihilist post-modernists, who in their materialism reject such a ‘childish’ concept as beauty (or who in asserting its subjectivity, indadvertedly commit themselves to such nihilism by rendering it meaningless in the light of such arbitrariness) and set out to mock it, miring us inescapably in the ugliness and cynicism of physical reality. For them the purpose is no longer transcendence, but originality attained through shock, who in their goal to say something, end up saying nothing at all.
Listen to the timeless otherworldliness of Di Stefano’s high C petering into a gentle pianissimo near the end of Gounod’s aria in Faust (listen from 4:50 if not the whole thing):
And compare this to the obscene profanity of Nicky Minaj’s ‘I Shitted On ‘Em’:
Or consider the unearthly despair in the eyes of Mary in Bouguereau’s Pieta, simultaneously resigned and accusatory (towards whom? God? The world? You?), and the ethereal softness of Corradini’s Puritas where he has managed to make gentle and subtle, that hardest and most brash of materials; stone. Compare this to the depravity of Serrano Andres’s Piss Christ, or the casual capitulation to the commodification of culture in Stephanie Key’s work where the person is transformed to commercialised kitsch.
Scruton sees this intentional ugliness as a type of immorality, and truly it is. When we consider that platonic trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, where each of these individual transcendent properties are truly what define the ideal, where each of these qualities possesses the other and is affirmed and made valuable by the other, then of course what is ugly is immoral, as it is neither true, nor good. Of course post-modernist critics reject such a view as overly-innocent and naive. This idealistic ontology was a necessary casualty of the painful and troubled birth of the modern world, sent up in smoke in the chimneys of Auschwitz. The world has grown up and put away such childish things as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which have no place in today’s empiricist and materialist reality. Truth is not a transcendent quality communed with through the use of pure reason, but merely yet-to-be-disproved worldly hypotheses that have not yet fallen to the rigours of the scientific method. Goodness is none other than a stifling social norm, to be replaced by utilitarian policies that will produce most widely the psychological chemical reaction associated with ‘happiness’. Beauty is merely an evolutionarily-produced reaction that arouses sexual desire directed at those forms associated with reproductive fitness – good for the continuation of the species.
But it is this materialist ontology that is flawed, and acceptance of it is capitulation to those thoroughly modern and coldly scientific political ideologies of Nazism and Soviet Marxism, that leaves, despite the price of 100 million lives (80 million from World War II, and 20 million murdered in the USSR), the Nazis as the victors. For, if as the liberal does, we accept that same materialist ontology, and the nihilism it results in, then the political realisation of the scientific ideology, of which both Nazism and Soviet Marxism were manifestations, have won. And it is in the acceptance of this materialist reductionism that the liberal descends into a vicious spiral of fallacious equivocation. Value is equated with use, meaning is equated with physical composition, him and he and, her and she, are equated with hir and ze, freedom is equated with choice, progress is equated with time, morality with some sort of emotive empathy, humans with animals, love with lust, and all this ultimately ends in everything being equated with nothing. It is this ideology of nothing that results in a society where culture is commercialised, reduced to advertising, where ideas are reduced to some sort of Dawkinsite meme-theory, and even the apotheosised self of the liberal is undone, reduced to some sort of biological machine, enslaved to its programming.
And it was precisely this immoral, liberal reductionism that I was reminded of when I read Nicky Hager’s chapter in the Hollow Men [Nicky Hager, ‘Chapter 12: IWI/KIWI’ in The Hollow Men: A study in the politics of deception, 2006, 180-91] about the development of National’s political advertising for the 2005 election campaign, specifically the John Ansell Iwi/Kiwi billboards. Ansell used all the tricks of art’s ultimate corruption, marketing, to spread meaningless messages in the best tradition of meme theory. He talks, sure enough, not of using the beauty and truth of ideas to appeal to the minds of equal human subjects, but of using shock as a vehicle for originality (in the footsteps of the post-modern anti-artists), to spread messages, like memes, to the brains of voters whom he seems to regard as little more than just receptacles for his messaging.
” I truly believe you can win in 2005, but only if you package your policies in ways that shock the soft centre voters into reassessing their prejudices.” [p. 181, emphasis mine]
The chapter emphasises that these billboards represented very little in the way of policy, philosophy, or ideas, but were merely exercises in messaging, and dishonest ones at that. It was contrast advertising at its finest, machiavellian, and manipulative, and with almost no basis in reality. The chapter never speaks of Truth, but perception, it never speaks of appeals to reason, but of the way these advertisements were psychologically engineered, cleverly making use of distraction, shock, and ‘striking’ reductive simplicity, to “…bypass our intellects and get inside out heads…” . All of this painted a picture that seemed to hold people in very little regard, typical of the liberal’s inability to relate to anyone or anything except through self-relation, and of a politics that was not about principle, or the realisation of a just society, but of power.
It would seem overly-dramatic to assert that these men surrounding Brash’s campaign, Ansell, Maurice Williamson, Steven Joyce, Gerry Brownlie, Brash himself were actively trying to realise a reductive, materialist nihilism of the sort that would destroy the transcendental human being, but surely in utilising the methods of such an ideology, they are committing themselves to its ontology.
And this is an ontology that is destructive and that no person who sees value in the ‘childish’ concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty, faith, hope, and charity, kindness, love, and justice, of a politics of people, and not power, can stand for. We must reject the methods of this ontology which see meaningful political discourse replaced with reductive, obfuscatory messaging and advertising. And we must reject the people who utilise these methods, for in revealing themselves as acolytes of the nihilist abyss, they have shown themselves to be devoid of those ‘childish’ virtues, and to be truly the hollow men.
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”