N MY third year of college seminary, I took an elective class that markedly shaped my worldview. The title of the course was “Aesthetics: Art & Beauty,” and it was taught by our seminary’s long-time, well respected, and deeply loved chair of philosophy, Dr. Atherton Lowry. The class opened my mind to the field of aesthetics, giving me a new vocabulary to describe the experience of beauty. The class challenged me, enlightened me, and convinced me that beauty matters. Beauty—in music, architecture, language, and so many other domains—matters immensely.
Among the many gifts I received from taking that course, one of the greatest was being introduced to the thought of Sir Roger Scruton. Articles and books by Scruton dotted the syllabus so generously that his voice formed the backbone of the course. My interest in his work was immediate. Reading him, I instinctively knew that I was sitting at the feet of someone who was—as his former student, Rabbi Sacks, put it—“bigger than the age.”
Nearly two decades after taking that college elective, I had the opportunity to hear Scruton speak in person on an evening that ranks among the highlights of my time at The Catholic University of America. Beauty has continued to be an interest of mine since my first encounters with Scruton’s work, as is evident from my article, Is Beauty Subjective?, and the many previous blog posts I have devoted to the topic.
Scruton had his share of critics, largely due to his championship of political conservatism. Conservatism, for Scruton, is “the instinct . . . we all ultimately share, at least if we’re happy in this world. It’s the instinct to hold on to what we love, to protect it from degradation and violence, and to build our lives around it” (excerpted from this interview). Even his detractors, though, regarded him as an intellectual giant who could speak substantively on a wide array of topics. In some disciplines, he was without a living peer.
There is a difference between music that is technically correct and music that is beautiful, between buildings that are functional and buildings that are noble, between language that is communicative and language that delights. This much even those who may never have read Scruton would likely accept.
But why does beauty matter? Sir Roger Scruton speaks for himself:
May the Lord grant Roger Scruton rest, and may He renew in us an appreciation for that visible form of the good which is beauty.