Will Beauty Save the World? The Most Unlikely of Solutions

When asked by the BBC to create a film about Beauty, philosopher Roger Scruton began to imagine a parade of glorious artworks revealed in full splendor to the widest of audiences. But as he worked out his script, Scruton began to have doubts on whether Beauty alone had the power to communicate his message, and whether a simple glance at Boticelli’s Venus could ever cut through our passive acceptance of ugliness that surrounds us today: from tower-blocks to pop music, and from our social manners to our ever-declining sense of style. So he decided to dive right in the gutter, and the secret behind his documentary’s success, rightfully titled “Why Beauty Matters,” is the extreme contrast between classical images of Beauty and the latest exhibits of modern art galleries. Through the film’s ingenious editing, the audience catches a glimpse of Boticelli’s Venus only to be “cut through” by Duchamp’s Urinal. Michelangelo’s David transitions to Tracey Emin’s bed, accompanied by a score of sharp violin strokes straight out of a Hitchcock film.

And while the essence of Scruton’s message is effectively communicated, the result is a documentary that is as much about Beauty- as it is about ugliness. At its best, it can arouse an interest to investigate the “matter” of Beauty a little further, but at its worst, it can leave the viewer with only a tragic sense of what is lost, and irrecoverable. But how did we end up here? If Scruton, one of the best intellectuals of the conservative right, cannot lead us back to an original sense of Beauty, how are we ever expected to find this way on our own? Could there be some hidden resource that we could pull straight out of modernity itself, one that could offer us a glimpse of what is lost? This article claims to provide an original idea to the affirmative. But to begin by trying to answer the first of these questions, we need to think seriously about what the modern world really is. What are its hidden premises? Its unspoken metaphysics? According to the dominant view of modern-day academia, all values, Beauty included, are relative, as they are but a function of a particular time and place in history. This “historicism,” as this view is now called, will likely present the advent of modernity as inevitable: the end product of mostly random series of historical events. But that is not necessarily so. Because historicism itself has a history, and its ideas must, therefore, also be the product of a particular historical time, which is no other of course than the modern world they are trying to explain. To get out of this mental loop, therefore, and get a more unobstructed view of what is going on with modernity, we must step outside its historical horizon, and look at our unique moment in history from a vantage point beyond it, namely, the ancient world, where Beauty had the original power that Scruton tried to communicate.

Seen through this prism, the modern world is premised on a refutation of the ancient worldview. This definition can be narrowed to a simple yet curious fact: the denial of eternity. Religion, so dominant among the ancients, was nothing but an expression, a personification even, of a more foundational concept, that of eternity. Man, according to the Greeks, was a being that was unique among others because it strived for its own perfection, and could only be rightly understood in relation to that perfection. What Aristotle called “telos,” the natural end of Man, was seen as the only reference point that could explain man’s current and imperfect state. Man, therefore, was to be understood by what made him unique among the animals, his natural orientation towards perfection. Following this point, Beauty was identified by Plato as the natural instinct of the human soul that sought this perfection in the forms of time. The ancient world then was nothing if not a reference to eternity. And it’s precisely this reference that the modern world refuted, while the sciences that developed in its wake can be understood as an effort to find a new one.

And find it they did! But this “discovery” was premised on a total inversion of the ancient worldview. From this moment forward, Man was not to be explained as being “pulled” towards his ultimate goal, but “pushed” by his lowest and most basic needs: his instincts and fears, his sex drive and hunger for power. In the realm of biology, this view was incarnated most visibly by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, where for the first time in history Man was explained not by what is different, but what is common between him and other animals. And after Man’s outer form was explained successfully through Darwin’s evolution, Freud’s psychoanalysis continued with Man’s inner nature, and by following the same rules of thumb: explain the higher in terms of the lower, the drive for sex. This project of modernity came hand-in-hand with the radical egalitarianism of classical liberalism. Because if Man’s true nature is identified with those parts that all individuals share in common with each other, then Man’s true nature is one of absolute equality. Darwin and Freud later became the two ends of a pinch that squeezed out the ancient notion of Man as the transient being that strives towards eternity, explaining us… by explaining us away.  We can keep insisting that a white canvas exhibited as a work of art is absurd, but this is but the result of ideas that were set in motion centuries ago. We are the children of a revolution that we were never taught at school, which barely touched our universities. And so, we never really understood the hidden assumptions of that revolution. Because if all truth is historical, subject to the material conditions that create it, then, following this premise to its natural conclusion there must be at least one truth that escaped from this condition: the truth that states that “all truth is historical.” This truth, then, must be some kind of “final” reality, that will inevitably bring about a “final” culture… which is the much prophesied “end of history.”

So now, let’s accept modernity at face value and repeat its basic premises. If modernity is built on a refutation of the ancient world, a denial of eternity, of which Beauty was the royal road, and if modernity has arrived at last at some “final truth,” the truth that all values are subjective. Then at the end of its history, modernity must resemble a “perfect negative” of the ancient world. The shape that the modern world will take at the end of history will be a perfect “cast” of the statue that was the ancient world, and through it, we are going to get a true reference to what has been lost: the sublime experience of Beauty. And so, maybe Scruton was right all along. Having travelled so far into modernity, maybe the key to restoring a sense of Beauty has to pass through its opposite. In the years following the documentary’s release things have been moving fast towards an “end of history” that seems to follow through the modernist agenda on every conceivable level: cultural, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual. Many of us feel that a culture battle has already been lost. A campaign we were never summoned to. Some believe that what is truly needed is a complete return to a moment in time where the values and beliefs that we hold dear became the norm. But as impossible as it is, even if that were to happen, would it not recreate the conditions that brought these values down in the first place? Yet, we cannot remain passive. Whatever is approaching us (and things are now moving at increasing speed), we cannot reverse it, and we cannot avoid it somehow, we have to go through it. And just like in Dante’s Inferno, at the lowest point of Hell, we will begin to get a glimpse of Heaven, and once again see the stars.