[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 postmodernist vision of history through Baudelaire’s ‘Le Charogne’ (I)

Having recently read Gabrielle Spiegel’s The Past as text, I realised how important it is to reflect on the articulation of text and reality. The more recent poststructuralist views that everything is textuality may ultimately be a foolish experiment, but it has the potential to cast light on some of the problems arising from the attempt to recover a textual past, particularly relevant to historians working with written sources. As a medievalist, I am fully alert to the tension between, say, a medieval chronicle and the world that the text tries to signify and reflect. If we add the fact that the text is the sum total of the experiences, many of them textual, of the conscience (author) behind it, then we get a sense of the importance of considering different theories on the nature of reality, the relevance of causality, the extent of human agency, etc, in brief, the unresolved tensions contained in that piece of text. In what follows, I would like to reflect on the relationship between a postmodernist view of history and the metaphor of the carcass in Baudelaire’s poem ‘Le Charogne’ to see if one can place, aesthetically, postmodern textuality in the realm of silent putrefaction.

My favourite description of the postmodern world(view) is that offered by Ihab Hassan:

Postmodernism is ‘indeterminacy and immanence; ubiquitous simulacra, pseudo-events; a conscious lack of mastery, lightness and evanescence everywhere. a new temporality, or rather intemporality, a polychronic sense of history; a patchwork of ludic, transgressive or deconstructive approaches to knowledge and authority; an ironic parodic, reflexive, fantastic awareness of the moment; a linguistic turn, semiotic imperative in culture; and in society generally the violence of local desires diffused into a terminology of seduction and force.”

It may not be difficult to find most of these attributes predicated on the world around us. The displaced person, the hero of this age, is the alienated subject of his own objectivity, a silent hero condemned to forget about any notion of condemnation, locked in a nostalgic cage whose absent object of desire belongs to a world outside the cage that cannot exist and never truly existed. This figure generates a sense of history based on a past world that seems to be within reach but in fact never existed, or if it did, may never be recovered, or if recoverable, may never reach a stability of meaning capable of true signification. As Jacques Derrida put it, there is no outer text, no arbitrator, no system of value one can reach out to for a sense of this-is-true-while-that-is-false. Everything falls back on itself, history collapses into self-referentiality, the past becomes an impossibility, for the text, the only means of establishing a nostalgic relationship to the past, is itself constitutive of that nostalgia and seems, moreover, to push its object further into the past, the more we attempt to get closer to it. The only way to approach this tyrannical yet precarious text is to dismantle it, or, as it has become fashionable nowadays to say, to deconstruct it. Gabrielle Spiegel has warned against the dissolution of history under the torrid sun of deconstruction, and this is where Baudelaire’s metaphor of the carcass, set under the burning sun of our hypertrophic awareness, starts to become more or less commensurate with some postmodernist vision of history.

Rappelez-vous l’objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d’été si doux:
Au détour d’un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux,

Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique,
Brûlante et suant les poisons,
Ouvrait d’une façon nonchalante et cynique
Son ventre plein d’exhalaisons.

The text is poison, containing within it a tournament of rival interpretations, each competing for a piece of stable meaning. The relics of the historical past are sentenced to slow decay, unless the historian turns his attention to the mournful silence of the dying body. Turning the signifier upside down, ‘les jambes en l’air’, the observer-historian takes note of the multiplicity of signification that the relic of the past may present upon a closer examination, remembering that a poisonous contradiction (‘d’une façon nonchalante et cynique’) governs all attempts of revealing and understanding what the text may conceal. The dismantling of the text into an endless chain of interpretations, each pointing to complementary and conflicting possibilities, reveals the semblance of life that the historian bestows on his dead patient. In an act of resuscitation, we catch a glimpse of what-was-but-never-truly-was, because the deconstructionist historian produces a double effigy, one that preserves the seeming unity of the supposed expression of the past, and another which displays the multilayered-ness thereof:

Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride,
D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons
De larves, qui coulaient comme un épais liquide
Le long de ces vivants haillons.

Tout cela descendait, montait comme une vague
Ou s’élançait en pétillant;
On eût dit que le corps, enflé d’un souffle vague,
Vivait en se multipliant.

To be continued.