[review] Roger Scruton’s ‘On Human Nature’: What makes us who we are

Roger Scruton’s latest book ‘On Human Nature’ is a delightful book. It is pithy, incisive, and written in a clear, flowing style. Although the title makes one think of ancient philosophical treatises (such as Aristotle’s or Cicero’s), it resists objectifications of what makes us human. The starting as well as the end point are not so much ‘what makes us human’ (a topic on which books are being produced now more than ever before), but what our experience of our own humanity is.

Indeed, the personal pronoun, with its three persons, is the protagonist of this book. Scruton starts with the “I” of personal experience and ends with the “us” of morality, faith and social intercourse. Thus, this book is the antithesis of any objective, scientific account of human nature.
Moving through four short chapters (the book itself is only 140 pages long), Scruton takes the reader on a tour de force of the world of intersubjectivity as it opens to the reflective self. On at least one reading, this is a journey of discovery. Human individuals are not subjects, but selves, irreducible to the idiom of science. The embodied person is not merely a cocktail of biological ingredients, but a centre of “I”-thoughts which can only thrive in the encounter with the “Other”. Human relations reveal themselves in dialogue, understood not so much as discursive communication but as recognition of our shared likeness.

The dialogue between two first-person perspectives creates obligations that are essentially neither contractual nor functionalist. The parable of the Good Samaritan, Scruton argues, is not so much about openness and religious tolerance, but about the demands that fellow human beings make on us. The Samaritan helps the traveller not by virtue of any religious commandment, but because of the sacred obligation toward his neighbour. (pp. 106-7). The deep structure of our moral life depends on a kind of mirroring of our self in others. It is not a response to the environment, as evolutionary biology would have it, but to the imperatives of our human predicament: that I am aware of myself only insofar as I am aware of you.

The first chapter (“Human kind”) is both a direct attack on materialist and biologist reductionism and a compelling introduction to the peculiarity of personhood. Readers familiar with Scruton’s other works, particularly The Soul of the World and The Face of God will recognize many oft-visited themes. The author argues that the deep grammar of our first-person perspective on the world creates a vocabulary that only art and philosophy can render an account of. As rational agents, we do not simply think, but think about things. When we laugh, we laugh at something. This aboutness is, for Scruton, the key to the mystery of self-consciousness.

In Chapter 2 (“Human Relation”), the focus is on how our first-person point of view shapes our understanding of other people. Scruton is here as faithful to the work of the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber as ever. Human relationships emerge from the encounter between two first-person perspectives, the “I” and the “You”: “hence the word you does not, as a rule, describe the other person; it summons him or her into your presence, and this summons is paid for by a reciprocal response” (p. 69). All human experience is relational and no isolated selves exist apart from relationship to another. Pleasure and sexual desire are two examples which illustrate that relationships between individuals cannot be reduced to either a social function or an evolutionary imperative, but that they obey a higher logic. I enjoy your presence in the body only when I acknowledge you as an end, never as a means only.

Even more telling is the case of the moral codes and configurations that humans have developed over time. In Chapters 3 (“The Moral Life”) and 4 (“Sacred obligations”), Scruton looks at our deepest moral cravings. The author’s attack on materialist reductionism rages on. Morality does not emerge out of our response to the natural environment. It is rather because our encounter with others creates duties and deserts that hold us accountable to one another. Scruton rejects the view that our acts are morally right only if their consequences are right. Instead, he says, we derive our sense of right and wrong from a recognition of the other person’s freedom which reminds us, as it were, of our own. The sovereignty of the human person is the underlying principle of all morality.

Scruton is at his finest when he discusses sexual morality and the notions of defilement and contamination. Persons are embodied selves, not floating heads with hanging bodies, as Descartes thought. This fundamental truth explains why rape is experienced as desecration, and not merely as denial of consent: “forced against her will to experience her sex as a bodily function rather than as a gift of herself, she feels assaulted and polluted in her very being. And how the victim perceived the act is internally connected to what the act is” (p. 119). I do not have a body, I am my body.

Virtue, purity, piety (understood as “posture of submission and obedience toward authorities that you have never chosen” (p. 125)) are all categories of the sacred, which Scruton discusses in some detail in the last chapter. This is a polemical and I might say apologetical book, but it is not in the service of a specifically Christian understanding of humanity. Yet, there is nothing in it that wouldn’t provide substance for a discussion of our God-made nature.

Take forgiveness, for instance, which Scruton explains that “cannot be offered arbitrarily and to all comers – so offered it becomes a kind of indifference, a refusal to recognize the distinction between right and wrong. Forgiveness is only sincerely offered by a person who is aware of having been wronged, to another who is aware of having committed a wrong.” (p. 85). God’s forgiveness in Christ has been fully and freely given, but it nevertheless requires the sinner’s repentance in order to be enjoyed personally: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

Roger Scruton has written a clear-eyed book on what makes us who we are. We may be thrown into the world, as Heidegger used to say, but we are thrown together, and we share the same experience of the downthrow. Materialists won’t enjoy the book for sure, but if you think, like Scruton, that the person emerges from the biological “in something like the way that the face emerges from the coloured patches on a canvas”, then you will appreciate it.

On Human Nature by Roger Scruton is published by Princeton University Press (2017).

This review first appeared at Theos on 30 March 2017. 


The Wicked Fairy at the Manger, a strategic mistake

Last night the church of All Souls Langham Place came alive with the students’ Christmas dinner. One highlight was Hugh Palmer, the rector, who dressed up as Father Christmas and told a poem – rather subversively, I should think, overturning the traditional roles of patron-client involved in dealings with the big fat man – outlining the true meaning of Christmas. The poem was published by U.A. Fanthorpe in 2002 and follows in the footsteps of C.S.Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and Shane Tharp’s Christmas in Hell, which I will reblog here as we come closer to Christmas Eve.

The Wicked Fairy at the Manger

My gift for the child:
No wife, kids, home;
No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes. But the wrong sort –
The workshy, women, wogs,
Petty infringers of the law, persons
With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;
The bottom rung.
His end?
I think we’ll make it
Public, prolonged, painful.
Right, said the baby. That was roughly
What we had in mind.

Tu, Doamne, însă ei…


Tu ai spus ‘Să nu- şi caute nimeni folosul lui, ci fiecare pe al altuia’
Ei au răspuns: ‘non attrahas tibi res aliorum‘ (“nu te ocupa cu treburile celorlalți”, De Imitatione

Tu ai spus că litera ucide, legea întunecă. Ei au inventat dreptul canonic

Tu i-ai cerut Tatălui să îi țină în lume. Ei au fugit în deșert și-n mânăstiri

Tu le-ai spus să slujească ca să se înalțe. Ei au născocit teocrația
monarhică (vest, papalitatea) sau oligarhică (est, sinodul episcopal)

Tu le-ai spus că ești unic mijlocitor. Ei au populat relicvarele cu moaște.

Tu ai rupt catapeteasma Templului de sus până jos. Ei au refăcut iconostasul.

Tu ai socotit derizoriu până și hainele preoților. Ei au inventat tiara si mânecuțele.

Tu ai sfințit toată alimentatia. Ei au creat mâncarea de post.

Tu ai recuperat tot anul. Ei au tăiat praznice.

Tu le-ai spus să bată din palme când te slăvesc. Ei au inventat cântul
bizantin melismatic.

Tu ai disprețuit tezaurizarea și înăvuțirea. Ei construiesc cupole
aurite și țes patrafire.

Tu ai atins prostituate și le-ai vorbit. Ei se închid în altare cu mâna la gură.

Tu ai vrut ca episcopul să fie monogam și familist. Ei au răspuns: să
fie călugar (est), să fie celibatar (vest)

Tu ai numit lucrurile pe nume. Ei afurisesc dictionare.

Tu le-ai spus să slujească. Ei au ales să conducă

Tu ai pus Scriptura în mâna eunucilor. Ei o ferecă cu cheie de argint.

Tu ai șocat poporul cu porniri xenofile. Ei au întemeiat o biserică națională.

Religious spambox: how one email can give you the boot

A recent news story on Christian Concern states:

“A Christian doctor who was sacked for emailing a prayer to his colleagues has lost his clam for unfair dismissal, after an Employment Tribunal ruled that there was “no need” for religious references to be made at work. Dr David Drew (aged 64) took legal action against Walsall Manor Hospital after he was dismissed for e-mailing a motivational prayer by St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, to his department, stating that his colleagues had made him feel like a “religious maniac” for circulating the message. “

Why is it that he lost his suit? It’s because he infringed some unwritten principles in the workplace. A few points will make it clear:

  • discussions about religion should be avoided if considered “inappropriate” in the workplace. It’s confusing and counterproductive.
  • religious references are always construed as an attempt to force religion on other members of staff. It’s an assault.
  • religious references impede communication. It’s antisocial.

Naturally, symbolic assault, incongruity and communication breakdown are truly to be avoided in the workplace. But let’s look closely at David Drew’s email initiative. Was that in itself the embodiment of all these hazards? If your judgment is not driven by the mere hatred of religion (which might turn you into a fundamentalist and risks upsetting many social groups, thus defeating your humanistic ambition), then common sense would suggest that one circulated email is unable to set those things in motion.

The problem is that Drew’s email was put in a larger perspective, adding to it some a priori assumptions about the allegedly insidious power of religion: an email might just be the beginning of a longer series of indoctrination attempts; a prayer email is totally unscientific and irrational so exposure to it might lead one into temptation as to its true, scientific, rational self; having a religious-minded colleague and employee is not good for the image of an institution that prides itself on secularity, reason and scientific method in going about its business.

All these points (and many more that could easily be imagined at work) attempt to regard as demonstrated something that awaits demonstration. It’s a petitio principii sort of fallacy and it cost a man his job. Surprisingly, no indication is made in the news story of a breached “hospital charter” where religion should be banned at the door. Moreover, it is not even suggested that David Drew was advised to cease circulating emails (he only dispatched one). If anything, the hospital staff showed inflexibility, intolerance and, given the significance of redundancy for an individual nowadays, resentment.

How many emails do you receive from your colleagues and boss the content of which your sensibility or conscience might find repugnant? How many scabrous, racist, sexist jokes and comments and how many irrelevant “social” initiatives (e.g helping stray dogs when humans are still suffering and dying in many places in the world) do you receive each month from all across your address-book range? I have actually experienced the undignified and damaging effects of a whole company team passionately discussing social change. People can take issue with many things and press for conscience-damage compensation but I think there is one point which we can all apply in our lives and in our workplace: forthright tolerance. It does not involve condoning antisocial and context-inappropriate behaviour but rather taking action only against that behaviour which truly proves to be offensive, damaging and disrupting communication.

Lead codices to shed light on the early church

They could be the earliest Christian writing in existence, surviving almost 2,000 years in a Jordanian cave. They could, just possibly, change our understanding of how Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and how Christianity was born.

A group of 70 or so “books”, each with between five and 15 lead leaves bound by lead rings, was apparently discovered in a remote arid valley in northern Jordan somewhere between 2005 and 2007.

A flash flood had exposed two niches inside the cave, one of them marked with a menorah or candlestick, the ancient Jewish religious symbol.

A Jordanian Bedouin opened these plugs, and what he found inside might constitute extremely rare relics of early Christianity.

That is certainly the view of the Jordanian government, which claims they were smuggled into Israel by another Bedouin.

The Israeli Bedouin who currently holds the books has denied smuggling them out of Jordan, and claims they have been in his family for 100 years.

Jordan says it will “exert all efforts at every level” to get the relics repatriated.

Incredible claims

The director of the Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, says the books might have been made by followers of Jesus in the few decades immediately following his crucifixion.

“They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” says Mr Saad.

“Maybe it will lead to further interpretation and authenticity checks of the material, but the initial information is very encouraging, and it seems that we are looking at a very important and significant discovery, maybe the most important discovery in the history of archaeology.”

They seem almost incredible claims – so what is the evidence?

The books, or “codices”, were apparently cast in lead, before being bound by lead rings.

Their leaves – which are mostly about the size of a credit card – contain text in Ancient Hebrew, most of which is in code.

If the relics are of early Christian origin rather than Jewish, then they are of huge significance.

One of the few people to see the collection is David Elkington, a scholar of ancient religious archaeology who is heading a British team trying to get the lead books safely into a Jordanian museum.

He says they could be “the major discovery of Christian history”, adding: “It’s a breathtaking thought that we have held these objects that might have been held by the early saints of the Church.”

He believes the most telling evidence for an early Christian origin lies in the images decorating the covers of the books and some of the pages of those which have so far been opened.

Mr Elkington says the relics feature signs that early Christians would have interpreted as indicating Jesus, shown side-by-side with others they would have regarded as representing the presence of God.

“It’s talking about the coming of the messiah,” he says.

“In the upper square [of one of the book covers] we have the seven-branch menorah, which Jews were utterly forbidden to represent because it resided in the holiest place in the Temple in the presence of God.

“So we have the coming of the messiah to approach the holy of holies, in other words to get legitimacy from God.”

Location clues

Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University, says the most powerful evidence for a Christian origin lies in plates cast into a picture map of the holy city of Jerusalem.

“As soon as I saw that, I was dumbstruck. That struck me as so obviously a Christian image,” he says.

“There is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is what has to be the tomb [of Jesus], a small building with an opening, and behind that the walls of the city. There are walls depicted on other pages of these books too and they almost certainly refer to Jerusalem.”

It is the cross that is the most telling feature, in the shape of a capital T, as the crosses used by Romans for crucifixion were.

“It is a Christian crucifixion taking place outside the city walls,” says Mr Davies.

Margaret Barker, an authority on New Testament history, points to the location of the reported discovery as evidence of Christian, rather than purely Jewish, origin.

“We do know that on two occasions groups of refugees from the troubles in Jerusalem fled east, they crossed the Jordan near Jericho and then they fled east to very approximately where these books were said to have been found,” she says.

“[Another] one of the things that is most likely pointing towards a Christian provenance, is that these are not scrolls but books. The Christians were particularly associated with writing in a book form rather than scroll form, and sealed books in particular as part of the secret tradition of early Christianity.”

The Book of Revelation refers to such sealed texts.

Another potential link with the Bible is contained in one of the few fragments of text from the collection to have been translated.

It appears with the image of the menorah and reads “I shall walk uprightly”, a sentence that also appears in the Book of Revelation.

While it could be simply a sentiment common in Judaism, it could here be designed to refer to the resurrection.

It is by no means certain that all of the artefacts in the collection are from the same period.

But tests by metallurgists on the badly corroded lead suggest that the books were not made recently.

The archaeology of early Christianity is particularly sparse.

Little is known of the movement after Jesus’ crucifixion until the letters of Paul several decades later, and they illuminate the westward spread of Christianity outside the Jewish world.

Never has there been a discovery of relics on this scale from the early Christian movement, in its homeland and so early in its history.

By Robert Pigott, BBC

Pastor calls Christian atheists to shed hypocrisy

Pastor Craig Groeschel is a recovering Christian atheist. He may have called himself a Christian all his life, but he didn’t always live as if God existed.

It’s a struggle he’s had both as a layman and as a pastor, of one of the fastest growing and largest churches in the country. And it’s a struggle he wants to help millions of so-called Christians to overcome.

Christian atheists are everywhere, Groeschel writes in his newly released book, The Christian Atheist. Continue reading Pastor calls Christian atheists to shed hypocrisy

C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: how it all began

The first of the Screwtape letters was published in The Guardian on 2 May 1941. Thirty more letters followed, one each week. Lewis was paid 2 per letter – but he would not accept the money. Instead, he sent the editor of The Guardian a list of widows and orphans to whom the 62 was to be paid. He did the same with the fees the BBC paid for the Mere Christianity broadcasts, and those The Guardian paid for the weekly instalments of the Great Divorce in 1944-5. Continue reading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters: how it all began